Excerpt from the book:
The Wealth of the Wicked
By Don Enevoldsen
I never set out to memorize Malachi 3:8-11. But somehow, along the way, it has become ingrained in my mind. It’s probably because I’ve heard it read about once a week for the past twenty years. If it wasn’t referenced as part of taking the offering, it came up in a sermon. I have heard it quoted many hundreds of times.
For most people, Malachi is the book that talks about tithing, and all that many have read of Malachi is those four verses. It has become the classic “take an offering” scripture.
“Will a man rob God? Yet you rob me.
“But you ask, ‘How do we rob you?’
“In tithes and offerings. You are under a curse—the whole nation of you—because you are robbing me. Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the Lord Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it. I will prevent pests from devouring your crops, and the vines in your fields will not cast their fruit,” says the Lord Almighty. (Malachi 3:8-11)
On the surface, this looks pretty straight forward. God expects you to tithe. You don’t tithe. You are under a curse. The source of the curse, then, would be a failure to tithe.
One day, however, almost by accident, I stumbled across something that identified the actual source of the curse. And it was only incidentally connected to tithing. I was reading at the time in Nehemiah. A little bit of explanation is probably necessary to convey just how I arrived at this conclusion.
First of all, you have to know that Nehemiah and Malachi were written about the same time. This is generally accepted by nearly all scholars. The only debate is whether Malachi came before Nehemiah or after. Either way, they were certainly from the same general era. They both cover essentially the same issues. The parallels, which we will outline in a moment, are too detailed to assume anything else. (For a more complete discussion, see Pieter Verhoff, The Books of Haggai and Malachi, pp. 156-160.)
Malachi discussed three key areas in which Israel had transgressed. Nehemiah discussed exactly the same three areas, along with a fourth.
Nehemiah’s criticisms of Israel’s behavior come toward the end of the book. To understand the situation, we have to look at what led up to that moment.
Nehemiah came from Persia with an expedition to restore Israel by rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem and returning the city to a defensible state. He spent quite a bit of time getting the rebuilding started. Then, when everything seemed to be moving along nicely, he had to return to Persia for a while—twelve years, to be exact. (Nehemiah 13) When he returned, he found several things that were out of order and he immediately set about correcting them.
Corrupt Priests, Foreign Wives and Tithes in Nehemiah
There were four things that were particularly egregious. And the response of Nehemiah was passionate, to say the least. Notice the implications of some form of curse or wrath that would fall upon Israel because of these transgressions.
1. First was the attitude of the priesthood toward their ministry. Nehemiah describes how Tobiah, an Ammonite who had no business even visiting the Temple, was given a large room to live in. In fact, he moved into the “storehouse” that Malachi 3 talks about. (Nehemiah 13:4-5)
When Nehemiah learned what had happened, he was “greatly displeased.” He threw Tobiah and his household goods out of the room and gave orders to purify it. (Nehemiah 13:8-9) He referred later in the chapter to God’s view of this corrupt behavior.
Remember them, O my God, because they defiled the priestly office and the covenant of the priesthood and of the Levites. (Nehemiah 13:29)
2. A second issue was that the Jewish men had divorced their Jewish wives and married pagan women from Ashdod, Ammon and Moab. (Nehemiah 13:23-28) Half the children being born did not even speak the language of Israel.
Nehemiah’s reaction was violent. He rebuked them, beat some of the men and pulled out their hair.
Was it not because of marriages like these that Solomon king of Israel sinned? Among the many nations there was no king like him. He was loved by his God, and God made him king over all Israel, but even he was led into sin by foreign women. Must we hear now that you too are doing all this terrible wickedness and are being unfaithful to our God by marrying foreign women? (Nehemiah 13:26-27)
3. A third thing was that all the tithes had stopped and the priests and Levites were unable to continue with the sacrifices in the Temple. They had to go to work in the fields to support themselves. Consequently, everything in the Temple came to a stop. (Nehemiah 13:10-13)
So I rebuked the officials and asked them, “Why is the house of God neglected?” Then I called them together and stationed them at their posts. (Nehemiah 13:11)
4. Fourth, the people no longer recognized or celebrated the Sabbath. They harvested on the Sabbath. The markets of Jerusalem were open on the Sabbath.
I rebuked the nobles of Judah and said to them, “What is this wicked thing you are doing—desecrating the Sabbath day? Didn’t your forefathers do the same things, so that our God brought all this calamity upon us and upon this city? Now you are stirring up more wrath against Israel by desecrating the Sabbath.” (Nehemiah 13:17-18)
Corrupt Priests, Foreign Wives and Tithes in Malachi
Malachi parallels the first three of these issues, with an even more direct statement of a curse or a judgment against Israel because of their behavior.
1. Malachi 1 deals with the corruption of the priesthood. The priests are accused of defiling the Lord’s table by bringing diseased and crippled animals for sacrifice. (verses 7-8) They considered their ministry to be a burden (verse 13), and they “sniffed at it contemptuously.”
“When you bring injured, crippled or diseased animals and offer them as sacrifices, should I accept them from your hands?” says the Lord. “Cursed is the cheat who has an acceptable male in his flock and vows to give it, but then sacrifices a blemished animal to the Lord.” (Malachi 1:13-14)
At the beginning of chapter 2, Malachi further says that God would send a curse on the blessing of the priests because they have not set their hearts to honor him. (verse 2)
2. Malachi 2:10-17 identifies a curse on Israel because of marriages to foreign women. Israel had broken faith by “marrying the daughter of a foreign god. (verse 11) They had divorced their Jewish wives in order to marry foreign women. The curse is described in the form of unanswered prayer.
Another thing you do: You flood the Lord’s altar with tears. You weep and wail because he no longer pays attention to your offerings or accepts them with pleasure from your hand. (Malachi 2:13)
3. Malachi 3 identifies the loss of tithes necessary to maintain the priesthood. The tithes had stopped and there was no food in the Temple. In this regard, the curse is distinctly stated.
You are under a curse—the whole nation of you—because you are robbing me. (Malachi 3:9)
The Source of the Curse
It wasn’t just the tithes that brought a curse. It was all the things that Israel was doing. They had divorced their wives and married younger foreign women. The priesthood had desecrated their responsibilities. The people had violated the Sabbath. Israel was under a curse for several reasons.
I started by mentioning that I found in Nehemiah the origin of this curse. We’ve seen the specific activities related to the curse, but there is an even more direct cause. To put it simply, the people had spoken it over themselves.
Before Nehemiah left for that twelve-year hiatus in Persia, he brought all the people together. They agreed to what they were going to do and even put it in writing.
In view of all this, we are making a binding agreement, putting it in writing, and our leaders, our Levites and our priests are affixing their seals to it. (Nehemiah 9:38)
The beginning of Nehemiah 10 lists the names of the elders and the Levites who drafted this document of commitment. The rest of the chapter is a statement from the people, affirming their agreement with what their leaders declared. It gives their oath. Verses 28 and 29 specify the origin of the curse in Malachi.
The rest of the people—priests, Levites, gatekeepers, singers, temple servants and all who separated themselves from the neighboring peoples for the sake of the Law of God, together with their wives and all their sons and daughters who are able to understand—all these now join their brothers the nobles, and bind themselves with a curse and an oath…
In other words, they said, “If we don’t do these things, may we be cursed.” The things that they swore they would do included all of the things that Nehemiah and Malachi railed against.
1. They made a promise that involved the responsibilities of the priests. (verse 34)
2. They made a promise “not to give our daughters in marriage to the peoples around us or take their daughters for our sons.” (verse 30)
3. They made a promise to “bring to the storerooms of the house of our God, to the priests, the first of our ground meal, of our grain offerings, of the fruit of all our trees and of our new wine and oil,” as well as a commitment to “bring a tithe of our crops to the Levites,” (verse 37) specifically to “the house of our God, to the storerooms of the treasury.” (verse 38)
4. They made a promise that “when the neighboring peoples bring merchandise or grain to sell on the Sabbath, we will not buy from them on the Sabbath or on any holy day.” (verse 31)
Israel swore an oath to do a bunch of things. Then they reneged on all of them. As a result, the curse that they intentionally bound themselves with came upon them.
Malachi isn’t about tithing. It is about keeping your word.
This leads me to suggest that we should rephrase Malachi 3 so that we hear clearly what it actually says. Currently, when we hear it, it comes out something like:
This is God. You have robbed me and now you are under a curse. Bring the money you owe me into the church and I will give you back more money than you have room for.
I think it would be more accurate to paraphrase it like this:
You are under a curse because you have vowed something and not done it. Do what you said you would do and see how fast I turn things around.
That is a very different thing than we usually hear. This makes the curse an integrity issue, not a money issue.
However you read it, using Malachi 3 to scare people into giving is inappropriate for the context of Malachi. That wasn’t Malachi’s intention. If we wanted to, I think we could make a case that most offering sermons, because of the coercion involved, fit into the category of the first curse Malachi describes. Pastors are misusing their position and dishonoring the sanctity of the ministry.
The final statement of the book declares that God’s judgment is designed to “turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers.” It is significant that those who feared the Lord talked to each other, and when God heard them interacting in community, he took notice and began the process of restoration. (Malachi 3:16-18)
Once again we see that tithing cannot be separated from mercy and justice, or from healthy relationships.