Are You Just Going Through the Motions?

Lesson Focus:  This lesson exposes people’s apathy toward God, expressed especially in their worship. The Israelites doubted God’s love, considered their leftovers good enough for Him, and felt wearied with serving God. Through Malachi, God reminds us that He is God and is worthy of all honor and glory.

Doubting God’s Love:  Malachi 1:1-5.

[1]  The oracle of the word of the LORD to Israel by Malachi. [2]  "I have loved you," says the LORD. But you say, "How have you loved us?" "Is not Esau Jacob’s brother?" declares the LORD. "Yet I have loved Jacob [3]  but Esau I have hated. I have laid waste his hill country and left his heritage to jackals of the desert." [4]  If Edom says, "We are shattered but we will rebuild the ruins," the LORD of hosts says, "They may build, but I will tear down, and they will be called ‘the wicked country,’ and ‘the people with whom the LORD is angry forever.’" [5]  Your own eyes shall see this, and you shall say, "Great is the LORD beyond the border of Israel!"  [ESV]

Positive Motivation: The Lord’s Love. These verses contain the first exchange between the Lord and Judah. Judah responds to God’s affirmation of His love for them with an insolent question expressing doubt. Such an opening to the book suggests that Judah’s questioning of God’s love will be a major theme. Unlike pre-exilic Israel, whose abundance had enticed them to forget God, the people of Judah had allowed their difficulties to steal their sense of God’s loving presence. In both cases the underlying problem was one of ingratitude which resulted in moral decay. If Judah truly recognized and understood the Lord’s sovereign covenant love, not only would they come before Him with the worship He deserves [1:6-2:9], they also would be faithful in their relationships [2:10-3:6] and would live in dependence on Him, recognizing that all they had came from Him and ultimately belonged to Him [3:7-4:6]. As important as God’s love is to motivate His people to respond to Him with worship and obedience, however, it is also a revelation of the manner of that worship and obedience. Just as the Lord’s love for Israel is exclusive [2-5], so our worship of Him must be exclusive. Since He is not only faithful but diligent and persistent in His relationships [2:4; 3:6,17], He expects that same behavior of us in our relationships [2:10,14]. Because His love is equitable and impartial toward all His people, He expects us to be impartial in our treatment of others [2:9; 3:5].

[2]  Love for Israel. Malachi begins by affirming God’s love for the benefit of those who were questioning it, either by their words or their actions. Terms for love were common in ancient Near Eastern treaties as synonyms for covenant loyalty. Likewise in the Old Testament, especially in Deuteronomy, love is often found in texts dealing with choosing and with faithfulness. Here in Malachi it refers to the Lord’s election of Israel for a special and exclusive relationship, redeeming them from bondage in Egypt and from exile in Babylon, and continually acting in faithfulness to that relationship. Although God certainly had affection for Israel, the focus here is on His repeated actions in accordance with a continuing covenant relationship. All that has happened in and to Israel has not overturned the Lord’s love for His people. The reminder here at the end of the prophets serves as a summary of God’s faithfulness that would be preeminently demonstrated by His provision of a messianic deliverer in Jesus Christ. Like a Pauline epistle, the Book of Malachi begins in the indicative mood before moving to the imperative. Biblical faith includes both, but obedience is always a response to what God has already done. The knowledge that one has been chosen by God for an intimate relationship and that God will always act in accordance with that relationship should make a profound difference in the way we handle obstacles, failure, disappointment, strife, and human antagonism. To a large extent spiritual health and growth consist in a growing appreciation for God’s love. The people of Israel who returned from exile in Babylon had been awestruck by God’s faithfulness to His covenant with Abraham. Even when Israel had rebelled against Him, God had demonstrated His forgiveness, grace, compassion, patience, and love in not deserting them. In the presence of continuing hardship, the restoration community had confessed their sins, praised God for His grace, and reaffirmed their commitment to Him [Neh. 9:32-38]. But the community’s appreciation for God’s love, faithfulness, and justice in the face of their sin had not lasted. The prophet introduces this first insight into the people’s changed attitude with the first of eight uses of But you say. God’s love is what spans the chasm between the beauty of His holiness and the ugliness of human sin, but Judah had lost sight either of God’s holiness or of their wickedness, or more likely both. Like self-centered children who had begun taking love for granted, Judah became blind to it and responded to the Lord’s discipline with, How have you loved us? They had allowed a skewed perception of their experience to divert their attention from the clear declaration of Scripture that God hates evil, idolatry, and hypocritical worship and rejects the wicked; on the other hand, He loves righteousness and welcomes the upright. Yet God graciously condescended to prove His love to Judah by pointing to the nation of Edom, which had descended from Jacob’s twin brother Esau. The question Is not Esau Jacob’s brother furnishes the basis for the rest of the Lord’s remarks in this section [2-5].

[3-4]  End of Edom. God had given Judah a demonstration of His hatred of evil in the way He had dealt with Edom, a pagan nation noted in the Bible for its pride, treachery, greed ,and violence. Malachi connects God’s treatment of the Edomites to the divine rejection of Esau that occurred before he and his twin brother Jacob were born. The point is that God in the sovereignty of His will had chosen to enter into a covenant relationship with Jacob and his descendants rather than with Esau and his descendants. This did not mean that all Jacob’s descendants would be spiritually and eternally saved or that all Esau’s descendants necessarily would be lost. The finality of Edom’s judgment does not mean that individual Edomites were forbidden from entering a covenant relationship with Israel’s God by faith. But Esau’s descendants would be excluded as a nation from that special electing love that would belong to Israel. God’s choosing Jacob and his descendants meant that He established a permanent relationship with Israel as a whole, in which He would instruct them with truth, train them with righteousness, care for them with compassion, bless them with goodness, and discipline them with severity, regardless of how often they strayed from Him. God’s choice of Israel also meant that they would be His primary instruments for bringing salvation to the sinful world and glory to Himself. God’s purpose in Malachi is to make the riches of His glory known among the restored community of Israel by demonstrating the sovereignty of His electing love. They deserved nothing from Him and would wind up in the same state as Edom for their wickedness, were it not for His changeless and sovereign love [3:6-7]. God had demonstrated that love upon Jacob and his descendants by His faithfulness and mercy in preserving them thus far.

[5]  Future of Israel. The point of verse 5 is that someday a repentant Israel will see God’s judgment on all His enemies and will praise God for the greatness of His covenant faithfulness and sovereign power. He is not just ‘our God’; He is the God of all creation, the God with whom all must reckon. The history of every culture, society, people, nation, community, clan, family, and individual who has ever lived or will ever live leads inevitably to an encounter with the sovereign God. There is a theme of universality in the Book of Malachi, but it is not a theme of God’s acceptance of all peoples. It is rather that of His universal lordship, His sovereign intention to subdue the earth to the praise of His glory, removing the wicked and exalting those who fear Him. God will turn Israel’s doubt into praise. Whereas Judah was doubting God’s love, someday all Israel will see the evidence of it and submit to the Lord with words of praise.

Offering Our Second Best:  Malachi 1:6-10.

[6]  "A son honors his father, and a servant his master. If then I am a father, where is my honor? And if I am a master, where is my fear? says the LORD of hosts to you, O priests, who despise my name. But you say, ‘How have we despised your name?’  [7]  By offering polluted food upon my altar. But you say, ‘How have we polluted you?’ By saying that the LORD’s table may be despised. [8]  When you offer blind animals in sacrifice, is that not evil? And when you offer those that are lame or sick, is that not evil? Present that to your governor; will he accept you or show you favor? says the LORD of hosts. [9]  And now entreat the favor of God, that he may be gracious to us. With such a gift from your hand, will he show favor to any of you? says the LORD of hosts. [10]  Oh that there were one among you who would shut the doors, that you might not kindle fire on my altar in vain! I have no pleasure in you, says the LORD of hosts, and I will not accept an offering from your hand.  [ESV]

[6]  Indictment against the Priests. If Judah was blind to God’s love, they should at least have recognized that God as their father and Lord deserved their honor. The Lord’s worth deserves praise and worship. This is what the priests and people were not doing. Many times in Scripture fear is said to be the appropriate response to God, before whom everyone’s thoughts as well as actions are exposed. The practical result of the fear of God is covenant loyalty and restraint from sin. Thus the fear of God can be equated with wisdom, which should be the guiding principle of one’s life. The object of the priests’ contempt was God’s name which was understood to be a manifestation, expression, or representation of one’s nature or character. Thus God’s name here refers to His nature or character as revealed in His words and acts. By despising God’s name, the priests were saying that what they knew of God did not impress them. Israel continued to offer sacrifices in His name and to call upon His name to bless Israel, but they honored Him with their lips rather than their hearts. The priests reacted to this charge with shock and unbelief, How have we despised your name?

[7-9]  Evidence against the Priests. The priests showed their contempt for the Lord’s name by offering Him food that desecrated the very sanctuary whose holiness they were responsible to maintain. The second question by the priests, How have we polluted you?, shows their lack of understanding how their improper offerings would affect the Lord. This is a call for the Lord to explain His initial answer, as He proceeds to do in verses 7b-8. The Lord’s explanation relies on an implied comparison between the altar and a ruler’s table at which guests were served. In these verses in Malachi the Lord is pictured as the host, the altar is the table, the offerings are the food, and the priests are the servants who bring the food. The people of Judah are perhaps the guests who are to enjoy God’s fellowship at His table and also those who furnish the food that was prepared for the king. The table is a symbol of hospitality and relationship, and the attitude toward someone’s table would betray the attitude toward the person and the relationship. Although the priests would not likely have used the term despised for the Lord’s table, their actions spoke for them. Judging an offering’s acceptability was the priest’s responsibility. The kinds of sacrifices that the people were bringing to the temple and that the priests were declaring acceptable and offering to the Lord were in clear violation of the Mosaic law [see Lev. 22:18-25; Deut. 15:21]. God’s love for His people should have stirred up their love for Him, especially in His priests, but their disobedience demonstrated their lack of love. It even demonstrated that they placed no value upon Him – they despised His name. Those bringing food to a ruler’s table would bring only the best available. If they did not, it would be because they despised him and cared nothing for his favor. But God’s people had greater respect for their earthly rulers than for the Lord. A primary function of the sacrificial system was as a testimony to the glory and grace of God. But the priests of Judah were conducting so-called worship that not only obscured God’s character but misrepresented it. It was a false testimony, full of lies and unrighteousness, that profaned God’s name.

[10]  Command: Stop the Pointless Offerings. Here occurs the first true directive in the book. It is based on the grounds presented in verses 6-9 and elaborated in verses 11-14, that the priests demonstrated by their improper offerings an attitude of contempt for the Lord. Although the exhortation is given to shut down the temple, this is tragic irony. What the Lord actually desired can be inferred from 1:6-14: fear and honor manifested in proper sacrifices from pure hearts. But He preferred no ritual to the empty ritual they were orchestrating. Because the priests despised the Lord, He despised them and rejected their hypocritical expressions of devotion. The Lord is not dependent upon human offerings or service. They are a means of testifying to His greatness and exalting His name, and He is pleased with sincere praise and worship. Worship also benefits the worshipers, serving to nourish their relationship with God individually and to encourage one another in the faith. But religious activity performed without genuine love and gratitude to God is not only useless but repulsive to Him because it slanders His character.

Forgetting Whom We Serve:  Malachi 1:11-14.

[11]  For from the rising of the sun to its setting my name will be great among the nations, and in every place incense will be offered to my name, and a pure offering. For my name will be great among the nations, says the LORD of hosts. [12]  But you profane it when you say that the Lord’s table is polluted, and its fruit, that is, its food may be despised. [13]  But you say, ‘What a weariness this is,’ and you snort at it, says the LORD of hosts. You bring what has been taken by violence or is lame or sick, and this you bring as your offering! Shall I accept that from your hand? says the LORD. [14]  Cursed be the cheat who has a male in his flock, and vows it, and yet sacrifices to the Lord what is blemished. For I am a great King, says the LORD of hosts, and my name will be feared among the nations.  [ESV]

[11]  Prophecy of Gentile Worship. Whereas among the priests of Judah the Lord’s name was despised, that is, considered of little value, among the nations, God’s name someday would be great. The prophecy of future Gentile worship is stated in two clauses in this verse with the repetition of great among the nations for emphasis. This repetition stresses the antithesis of the paragraph, that the Gentiles, who had not had the biblical covenants and the long history of God’s faithfulness to them, who had not been the recipients of God’s special love since the time of Abraham, and of God’s instruction since the time of Moses, would nevertheless one day lift up the name of the Lord in praise and honor. This verse reminds us of God’s promise to make Abraham’s name great among the nations, who would be blessed through him [Gen. 12:2-3]. God had purposed that Israel in return should be a kingdom of priests to glorify Him among the nations. Although God’s purpose to make Himself known and worshiped among the nations would not be thwarted, He would do it differently from the way Moses may have expected. The Hebrew Scriptures continue to declare what Israel was supposed to be and how they failed. Furthermore, through Israel would come the Messiah, who would Himself be a light to the nations and through whom Israel will finally become the light they were intended to be. A universal and all-inclusive worship of the Lord awaits the return of Christ.

[12]  Indictment against the Priests. Profane is a participle, here describing a present activity. The word is also used in 2:10 of profaning the covenant of our fathers and in 2:11 of profaning the sanctuary of the Lord. To profane means to desanctify, to make or treat something as unholy, that is, as common, insignificant, or worthless. Someone’s name is what makes them unique, special, or significant. To lose that quality is the ultimate humiliation. So besides the concept of rendering something ritually impure, unacceptable, or useless, the word profane could convey the idea of bringing dishonor or disgrace to someone by associating their name with something shameful. Scripture repeatedly declares God’s purpose of making known, protecting, or redeeming the glory of His great name, acting for His name’s sake, whether in judgment or deliverance. God’s name is holy because He is holy – utterly unique and perfect in every way. This quality of holiness is also acquired in a limited and derivative sense by those persons or things that belong to Him, including Israel and its priesthood, the temple and its furnishings, and the sacrifices and worship events. Such things acquired holiness from God’s presence and the association of His name, but acquired or derivative holiness had to be maintained by personal holiness.

[13-14]  Evidence against the Priests. Two lines of evidence support the charge that the priests were profaning the Lord’s name, defiling the altar, and despising the offerings and fellowship with the Lord. The first line of evidence is found in verse 13. The first statement expresses the words the priests would utter, silently or under their breath or perhaps in secret to one another, What a weariness this is. Another way the priests were profaning the Lord’s name is expressed in the statement you snort at it. The pronoun antecedent is probably God’s name from verse 11 and thus is parallel to you profane it in verse 12. The priests’ worship was nothing but insincere religious activity that insulted the Lord. The priests’ disdain for their sacrificial duties was reflected in the carelessness with which they conducted them. The rest of verse 13 continues to echo phrases from verses 6-10. The priests were disregarding sacrificial regulations in bringing lame or sick animals to the altar. That it was not the priests alone who were guilty of treating the Lord with contempt is implicit in verses 6-13, since the priests were only offering the Lord what the people were bringing them. The fault was primarily with the priests because they were responsible for temple worship and also for teaching the people about the Lord and His Law. But the offerers who were defrauding the Lord with their sacrifices are also said to be cursed. These people would vow to give the male animal to the Lord if their prayer was answered. But when the Lord answers the prayer, the offerer breaks his vow, reneges on his promise, and offers a blemished animal instead.

Questions for Discussion:

1.         Why did the Israelites’ love for God grow cold? Why did they question God’s love for them? What is the relationship between our assurance of God’s love for us and our faithful obedience to Him? What can we do to prevent our love for God from growing cold?

2.         Why did God reject the worship of the Israelites? How did their worship profane the name of Yahweh?

3.         Religious activity performed without genuine love and gratitude to God is not only useless but repulsive to Him because it slanders His character. What can we do to prevent our worship and service from becoming repulsive to God?


Malachi, E. Ray Clendenen, NAC, B & H Publishers.

Malachi, Peter A. Verhoef, NICOT, Eerdmans.

Malachi, Douglas Stuart, Baker.

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