An Obedient Response to a Gracious God
Week of July 15, 2018
The Point: Respond to God’s goodness through a tithe of your income.
Return to God: Malachi 3:7-12.
 From the days of your fathers you have turned aside from my statutes and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you, says the LORD of hosts. But you say, ‘How shall we return?’  Will man rob God? Yet you are robbing me. But you say, ‘How have we robbed you?’ In your tithes and contributions.  You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing me, the whole nation of you.  Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. And thereby put me to the test, says the LORD of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need.  I will rebuke the devourer for you, so that it will not destroy the fruits of your soil, and your vine in the field shall not fail to bear, says the LORD of hosts.  Then all nations will call you blessed, for you will be a land of delight, says the LORD of hosts. [ESV]
“Return to the Lord with Tithes [3:7-10a]. (1) Call for Repentance [3:7]. The occurrence of the divine quotation formula, says the Lord of hosts, marks this speech by the Lord as the most prominent part of the paragraph [7-10a]. The prophet’s opening expression, from the days of your fathers, covers considerable time, about a thousand years. Although your fathers is first used in Scripture of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob [Gen. 48:21; Ex. 3:13-16], the first time it is used in a negative way is in Numbers 32:14, referring to the refusal of the exodus generation to trust God and conquer the promised land. It is used later of Israel during the time of the Judges when they abandoned Yahweh for the Canaanite gods [1 Sam. 12:15]. The Lord condemned Israel through the prophet Jeremiah [Jer. 7:25-26] in terms similar to those of Malachi. Israel, like the human race in general, has had a long history of disobedience. The verbs turned aside and have not kept, occur together several times in the so-called Deuteronomic History [Deuteronomy – Kings]. There the life of faithfulness and success is described as a path marked by God’s laws and statutes on the one hand [cf. Mal. 4:4] and by His own footsteps on the other hand (i.e., His presence). The path is the same in either case, and failing to follow either sign means abandonment of God’s path. Here too, by turning from the Lord’s decrees the people have turned from the Lord Himself. We cannot follow God without the guidance of His Word, which must be carefully heeded to avoid stumbling of turning from the path [Deut. 5:32; 11:16; Josh 1:7; 23:6; 2 Kings 18:6; Hos. 7:14]. The first figurative use of the Hebrew verb, return, is in Solomon’s prayer in 1 Kings 8:33: if they turn again to you and acknowledge your name and pray and plead with you in this house. Such “turning back” in repentance involves a renewal of loyalty to the Lord expressed in confession and prayer. Similar to Malachi 3:7 with its two occurrences of the verb return is Jeremiah 15:19: If you return, I will restore you. The closest parallel to Malachi, however, is found in Zechariah 1:3: Return to me, says the Lord of hosts, and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts. The result of sincerely returning to the Lord is clarified in Jeremiah 24:7: they shall be my people and I will be their God, for they shall return to me with their whole heart. Wholehearted repentance would result in such divine blessing that any doubt of God’s favor and compassion would be removed. The problem was that Judah failed to recognize that they had strayed from the divine path. Although they had noticed the absence of God’s blessings [1:2; 2:13-14,17; 3:14-15], they had not noticed the absence of their God. The interrogative word how is used six times in Malachi. These obtuse and obstreperous people ask, How have you loved us? [1:2], How have we despised your name? [1:6], How have we polluted you? [1:7], How have we wearied him? [2:17], and now, How shall we return? [3:7], and How have we robbed you? [3:8]. Their other questions are similar: Why does he not (accept our offerings) [2:14], and, How have we spoken against you? [3:13]. In each case Judah’s question is not just for information but contains an element of complaint and disputation. Here they arrogantly question why they should need to repent. The Lord’s patience with His people is indeed amazing. (2) Call for Tithes [3:8-10a]. The Lord might have responded to Israel’s question by pointing again to their insulting so-called worship [1:4]; their treachery against one another [2:10], especially their wives [2:14]; their profaning the Lord’s sanctuary by intermarriage with pagan idolators [2:11]; or their toleration or practice of sorcery, adultery, perjury, and economic exploitation of the defenseless [3:5]. Instead, He brought to their attention another area in which their rebellion against God was manifesting itself – the withholding of tithes. Israel’s attitude toward and use of their possessions was one indication of the health of their relationship with God. We should understand God’s material blessings as intended to glorify Him and to enrich not individuals but the entirety of God’s people. The term for tithe means “tenth part.” Moses had instructed Israel that every tithe of the land, whether of the seed of the land or of the fruit of the trees, is the Lord’s; it is holy to the Lord [Lev. 27:30]. Also every tithe of herds and flocks, every tenth animal of all that pass under the herdsman’s staff, shall be holy to the Lord [Lev. 27:32]. After Israel settled in the land they were to bring the tithe annually to the sanctuary and consume a portion of it, leaving the remainder with the Levites, who were to share a tithe with the priests [Num. 18:21-32; Deut. 12:5-19; 14:22-27]. Every third year, however, the tithe was to be dispensed in the person’s hometown to be consumed by local landless inhabitants – Levites, foreign residents, the fatherless, and widows [Deut. 14:28-29; 26:12]. The tithe, like the Sabbath year, was to benefit the poor and the landless, thereby showing love to both God and neighbor. The term contributions (or “offerings”) is a broader term then tithes. The tithes were considered a particular type of contributions or “offerings.” So the meaning here is that the people were holding back the offerings that belonged to God, especially the tithes that were supposed to be given to the temple personnel as their livelihood. If the land and its produce belonged to God as Leviticus 25:23 declares, then all the more so did the tithe. Therefore to withhold it amounted to robbing not only the poor but also God. The charge is initiated with a question whose sense seems to be, “Is it right for a man to rob God?” As the priests in 1:6-7 had not considered their carelessness with the sacrifices to be a personal insult to God, so the people here claim unawareness that in withholding from the temple and its priesthood they were robbing God. Verse 9 amplifies the charge that Judah was robbing God by pointing out two additional facts. First, their failure to give what they owed to God was resulting in His withholding from them what they thought He owed them. Second, the entire nation was guilty. Verse 10 includes both a command (bring the full tithe into the storehouse) and a result (that there may be food in my house). Specifying the full tithe suggests that many were either withholding part of the tithe or were bringing nothing. Caring for landless inhabitants, especially the Levites, involved more than a lesson in compassion. The Levites were to be a constant reminder that Israel was to be dependent on the Lord. If the Levites are neglected, it is not simply a sign of disobedience, but of a falling away from the relationship with God which the Levites themselves model.
Positive Motivation: Future Blessing [3:10b-12]. This section looks at first like part of the preceding command section because of the imperative in verse 10b: put me to the test. This is only a rhetorical device, however, whose purpose is to introduce what the Lord would do for Judah if they would return to Him, and so it furnished motivation. If they would bring their tithes in faithfulness to the Lord, He would demonstrate His faithfulness to them with abundant blessings. The second half of verse 10 begins with the Lord’s command to test or prove Him and discover that He is faithful. The divine response to the people’s faithful obedience would be the opening of the floodgates of heaven and His pouring on them a blessing until there is no more need. This promise is expressed in terms often used in oaths or emphatic declarations: if I will not open. The promise to open the windows of heaven in response to Judah’s obedience is amplified in two ways. The rest of verse 10 comprises the first amplification. It refers emphatically to the flood of blessings that would answer Israel’s obedience of faith. Whenever the people had a need, the Lord’s supply would be there waiting for them. Verse 11 contains the second amplification of the divine promise to open the windows of heaven. Not only did that mean God would pour out abundant blessings; it also meant that He would rebuke the infestation of their crops. As God had been against them for their wickedness in the past, so the Lord promised that He would be for them in opening the floodgates of heaven, in pouring out blessing, in rebuking whatever was destroying their crops, in protecting their produce from ruin and their vines from barrenness. Two results of God’s rebuking the devourer are specified in two subsequent clauses: so that it will not destroy the fruits of your soil, and your vine in the field shall not fail to bear. The final verse of the motivation section ends with the third divine quotation formula in this section, marking its conclusion and underlining its significance. This verse contains the result of God’s opening the floodgates of heaven in verse 10b. Here the Lord’s blessing of His chosen and promised land would cause it to become a source of delight to its inhabitants but also to the God who had created, bestowed, and beautified it. The reason all nations will recognize the Lord’s greatness and worship Him as the great King [1:11,14] will be because of His mighty acts of redemption on behalf of Israel. The issue in Malachi 3:7-12 is not tithing but apostasy. Judah is charged here with abandoning the God who had chosen and blessed them and turning away from the statues He had given them to test their loyalty and to mark the path of life He would bless. By retaining for themselves the tithes and other offerings they owed to God, the people showed their idolatrous hearts in placing themselves before God, and they showed their callous hearts in leaving the Levites and landless poor to fend for themselves. These verses point the way to a national repentance that will precede the earthly kingdom of Christ [Rom. 11:26] and will be characterized by the Lord’s protection, provision, prosperity, and His very presence [Joel 2:18-32].
Excursus: Tithing in the Church? How do these verses apply to the Christian today? That the Old Testament law continues to instruct the church is indicated by the apostles’ continued delight in it and use of it to reveal sin [Rom. 7:7,22; 1 Tim. 1:5-11; 2 Tim. 3:16-17]. A continuity between new covenant and old covenant instructions is shown both explicitly [Rom. 13:8-10; Gal. 5:14] and implicitly in citing old covenant law to confirm instructions under the new covenant [1 Cor. 9:8-10; Eph. 6:1-3; 1 Tim. 5:18; 1 Peter 1:15-16]. The New Testament writers taught, however, that the believer’s relationship to the old covenant law is different since the coming of Christ. This is shown, for example, by the instruction Peter received from God to kill and eat and what God has made clean, do not call common [Acts 10:13-15]; and by the apostolic church’s rejection of the proposal that the Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses [Acts 15:5]. Furthermore, Paul asserted that the Christian is not under the law but under grace [Rom. 6:14; also Gal. 5:18; 1 Cor. 9:20], that he has died to the law and been released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code [Rom. 7:4,6; also Gal. 2:19]. He declared that the law was added to the promises because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made [Gal. 3:19; also 1 Tim. 1:9]. He also declared that Christ has made peace and has made us both one … by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man [Eph. 2:14-16]. Furthermore, the church believed they were under a new covenant [1 Cor. 11:25; 2 Cor. 3:6-11] and worshiped on the first rather than the last day of the week [1 Cor. 16:2]. And finally, the author of Hebrews declared that Christ’s death on the cross instituted a new priestly order and that when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well [Heb. 7:12]. He also described the new covenant as much more excellent than the old and pointed out from Jeremiah 31:31-34 that by speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away [Heb. 8:6,13]. More specifically, the gifts and sacrifices under the old covenant deal only with food and drink and various washings, regulations for the body imposed until the time of reformation [Heb. 9:9-10]. In this context we may understand Jesus’ teaching (see Matthew 5) as a new law that fulfills and surpasses the law of Moses, a law that Paul would call the law of Christ [1 Cor. 9:21; Gal. 6:2]. How to reconcile the New Testament teaching on the continuity and discontinuity between new covenant and old covenant instructions has been debated for centuries, and the literature is voluminous. The evidence is clear enough, however, that one cannot simply apply directly to new covenant believers the laws, directives, warnings, and incentives given to Israel under the old covenant. The difficulty with trying to apply part of the Old Testament law to Christians is the lack of any biblical substantiation for such a division on the one hand and the biblical teaching regarding the unity of the law on the other hand. Paul in Galatians 5:3, for example, declares to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. God’s moral absolutes are eternal because they arise from His own character. But how those absolutes are manifest and administered in the different economies of old and new covenants will likely differ. An obvious example is that under the old covenant adultery was not only wrong but was punishable by execution [Lev. 20:10]. Under the new covenant the absolute prohibition remains, but the penalty apparently does not [Heb. 13:4]. What can be learned from the Old Testament prohibition is the seriousness and destructiveness of the sin. On the positive side, the Old Testament included instruction to care for the landless poor, especially those whose responsibility was to minister in teaching the law and in maintaining the temple and its worship. This is matched by New Testament instructions regarding God’s ownership of all we have [Matt. 6:25-32; Acts 17:24-25; Col. 1:16; James 1:17] and the Christian’s responsibility for acts of mercy, kindness, care for the needy and for respect, love, and care for church leaders [1 Tim. 5:17-18; 1 Thess. 5:12]. The basic principle of caring for the poor is repeatedly taught in the New Testament [Acts 4:34-35; Rom. 12:13; Gal. 2:10; Eph. 4:28; James 2:16; 1 John 3:17]. And similar to the Old Testament law of the tithe, one’s gifts are to be in accordance with his financial resources. Paul’s instruction to the Corinthians as well as others was that each of you is to put something aside and store it up, as he may prosper [1 Cor. 16:1-2; also according to what a person has in 2 Corinthians 8:11-12]. Nevertheless, even though in Romans 15 Paul described these collections as spiritual obligations, he spoke of them in 1 Corinthians 16:3 as a gift (rendered act of grace [2 Cor. 8:6,7]), and in the major New Testament passage on giving, in 2 Corinthians 8:2, he described it in terms of generosity (willing gift [2 Cor. 9:5]). He praised the Macedonians for giving according to their means … and beyond their means [2 Cor. 8:3]. Paul offers a clue in 2 Corinthians 8:8 that giving under the new covenant follows different principles than under the old covenant when he says, I say this not as a command, but to prove by the earnestness of others that your love also is genuine. Whereas the law of the tithe was an external obligation commanded of every member of the covenant community of Israel, giving under the new covenant is to be an expression of joy [2 Cor. 8:2] and love [8:24; 9:7] produced by God’s Spirit and giving evidence of the presence of the One who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure [Phil. 2:13]. In 2 Corinthians 8:1 Paul had said that the Macedonians’ giving was the result of the grace that God had given them [also 2 Cor. 9:14-15]. So the acceptability of one’s offering was determined by it being proportional to one’s means and the product of a willing and even cheerful heart [2 Cor. 8:12; 9:7]. The question remains whether under the new covenant obedience to biblical principles of kindness and generosity carried motivations of material blessing (or deprivation) as under the old covenant. One must recognize that the assurances of material blessing found in Malachi 3:7-12 are based on the blessings and curses attached to the Mosaic covenant in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28. If the new covenant has replaced the Mosaic covenant in some sense, these blessings and curses are no longer in effect, at least not in a direct and literal sense. Yet one must ask if a similar motivation might be attached to New Testament guidelines for giving. At first glance 2 Corinthians 9:6-11 seems to echo Malachi 3:7-12. Closer examination, however, shows that the principles at work here are very different. Paul is not advocating giving that will result in blessing but rather blessing that will result in giving. The purpose of having all sufficiency in all things at all times, he says, is that you may abound in every good work [9:8], not vice versa. The abundance of God’s supply of seed and bread that makes enriched in every way is for the purpose of being generous in every way [9:11]. What then is the harvest one reaps from the generosity that is sown, the harvest of your righteousness [9:10]? It is not material blessings one may enjoy as the reward for righteousness and obedience. The harvest of generosity is rather thanksgiving to God [9:11]. Paul elaborates what this means in the following two verses [9:12-13]: overflowing in many thanksgivings to God … they will glorify God. The motivation of material blessing in the New Testament, therefore, has a different emphasis from that found in Malachi and the Old Testament. God blesses the Christian for giving not because of giving. Also different is the apparent lack of guidance about the amount to be given. Nowhere in the New Testament, even in these two chapters of 2 Corinthians dedicated to the issue, is the Christian instructed to give a tithe or tenth. Since the giving requirement is no longer an external obligation required as “dues” from every member of the covenant community but rather is to be the expression of love from a regenerated and redeemed heart, the amount is also not specified.” [Clendenen, pp. 409-433].
Questions for Discussion:
- How can the Israelites be blessed again by God? What is involved in returning to the Lord? How is this command to return to God related to repentance? What does it mean for God to return to His people?
- Clendenen writes: “The issue in Malachi 3:7-12 is not tithing but apostasy.” Why does he say that? Do you agree? How is our giving to God an indication of either our worship of Him or our denial of His glory?
- Clendenen asks the question: “How do these verses apply to the Christian today?” The question of how tithing applies to the Christian today falls under a broader question: What is the degree of continuity and discontinuity between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant? I have included Clendenen’s Excursus to introduce you to the issues involved in case you are not aware of them. (For further reading on this question see the recent book, Progressive Covenantalism, edited by Stephen Wellum, a Southern Seminary professor. The chapters are written by various Baptist professors.) It is clear that your Lifeway Study Guide believes that there is continuity between the Old Covenant command to tithe and New Testament instructions on giving. What is the position of your church on tithing? Is a tithe of your income the standard of giving that is expected of your church’s members? How do you reconcile the Old Testament command to tithe with Paul’s instructions on giving found in 2 Corinthians 8 and 9 where there is no mention of a tithe? If you do not follow the Old Covenant command to tithe how do you determine how much money to give to your church? What guidelines does Paul give in 2 Corinthians 8 and 9 to help guide you in your decision?
Malachi, E. Ray Clendenen, NAC, B & H Publishing.
The Minor Prophets: Malachi, vol. 3, Douglas Stuart, Baker.
Malachi, Pieter Verhoef, Eerdmans.