Some seventy years, more or less, after the rebuilding of the temple, Malachi directs his attention to the priests of the Second Temple. Twice, in Malachi 1:6-2:9, addresses them directly which the NRSV translates as a vocative, that is, “O Priests” (1:6; 2:1). This divides Malachi’s oracle for the priests into two obvious sections (1:6-14 and 2:1-9).
In the first section (1:6-14), Malachi rebukes the priests for their complicity in offering unacceptable sacrifices at the temple. In the second section (2:1-9), he reminds them of their covenantal responsibility to guide the people. In effect, because they have failed in their responsibility to appropriately guide worshippers, they offer sacrifices on the altar that are beneath the dignity and honor due God.
Why do priests, leaders of God’s people, sacrifice animals—lead the people in worship—they know are unacceptable? What motivates these priests? Why do they not assert their status as God’s covenantal leaders and instruct the people about godly sacrifices? I think that is a critical question, but first we need to understand how Malachi addresses the problem before we can discern his judgment about their motivation.
At bottom, the priests dishonor God. The priests “despise” the “name” of God. This is the central point. It is where Malachi begins his address to the priests and the point that the priests dispute or question (1:6). Further, Malachi uses the term five times in his brief book and only when speaking to the priests (1:6 [2x], 7, 12; 2:9). The word “despise” bookends his addresses to the priests (1:6 and 2:9). Just as the priests have despised God, so he made Judah a despised people. The term means to treat with contempt or dishonor.
Joined with “despise” is the “name” of God. The priests despise God’s name. “Name” is used eight times in this section (1:6 [2x], 11 [3x], 14, 2:2, 5). When we see the word “name” we should recall God’s identity as well as reputation. The name of God is God’s person and the frequent use of the term in this section is probably tied to the covenantal and relational nature of the topic itself.
The core value, then, is how does one honor God’s name, or, to put it another way, how do we worship God in a covenantal relationship? How does one show their allegiance, respect and loyalty to God? This is the heart of worship itself. To worship God is to “honor” God, or more literally, to give God glory or ascribe to God “weight” (1:6 [2x]; kabed).
Malachi’s dialogue with the priests sets up the point:
Malachi: “You, O priests, have despised my name.”
Priests: “How have we despised your name?”
Malachi: “By offering polluted food on my altar.”
Priests: “How have we polluted it?”
Malachi: “By thinking that the Lord’s table may be despised.”
Instead of honoring God, they despise the name of God. Instead of eating sacrifices (“food” and “table”) that honor God, they prepare meals that dishonor God.
The effect of this dishonor is that their sacrifices are neither pleasing nor accepted (1:10). Moreover, these “gifts” do not bring us before God’s face. The Hebrew idiom here is quite interesting. Literally, the text claims that those who so seek God’s “face” (favor of God), God will not “lift up” their “faces” (favor). When we dishonor God as we seek God’s pleasure—as we seek his face in worship—we lose God’s favor, that is, he does not lift up our faces before him. In other words, when we so worship God, we do not experience God’s presence but rather his absence. God is not “gracious” in such circumstances (cf. Psalm 50).
God’s response, of course, to such “seeking” (worshipping) is nausea. Instead of a pleasing odor, these sacrifices turn God’s stomach. Yahweh would rather they shut the doors of the temple than continue these kinds of sacrifices. This is “vain” worship (1:10). There is no communion; there is no fellowship. The whole event is profaned (1:12) or polluted (1:7); it is made an unholy thing.
But what exactly were they doing? They offered lame, blind or sick animals for sacrifice. Malachi uses a play on words here—when the priests “implore” (from the Hebrew verb halah) God’s face, they do so with sick (holeh from the same root as the verb) animals. They seek God with sick animals.
But is that the full extent of their problem? Is it merely what they offer? Perhaps it is a formal (positivistic) legal point: Yahweh said offer X (an unblemished animal) and you offered Y (a blemished one). But there appears to be more here than that. The positivistic point is the surface symptom; the real problem lies underneath.
Malachi indicates that there are at least two other problems that compound the situation: (1) attitude and (2) morality. Climatically, Malachi hits at the heart of the problem in Malachi 1:13-14. The priests are “weary” and they offer on the altar what has been taken by “violence.” These are very cryptic references but they are telling.
The term “weariness” in 1:13 literally means “what wearies one” (or, what creates a hardship). It points to exhaustion, hopelessness and impatience. The priests are, in effect, “going through the motions” rather than investing in the presence of God. They see their situation as analogous to wandering in a wilderness (this word is used of the hardship of the wilderness in Exodus 18:8; Numbers 20:14). The priests had lost hope and saw what they were doing as meaningless.
But that is not all. Some promise one thing but deliver another. They break their vows. They cheat; they are dishonest. But the word is more harsh than a “cheater.” They are deceivers who lie and scheme. Isaiah 32:7 applies this description to the term: “his devices are evil; he plans wicked schemes to ruin the poor with lying words, even when the plea of the needy is right.”
But this is not all. Judah offered to God what was taken by “violence” (1:13). This is an important word in the prophets. It is used by Isaiah (10:2; 61:8), Jeremiah (21:12; 22:3), Ezekiel (18:7, 12, 16, 18; 22:29), and Micah (2:2; 3:2). It is synonymous with economic oppression. For example, Micah 2:2 describes the wicked as those who “covet fields and seize [rob] them…they oppress a man and his house.” Or Ezekiel 22:29 describes people who have “practiced extortion and committed robbery. They have oppressed the poor and the needy.” The term has a ring of institutional economic oppression in the prophets. Malachi, it seems, envisions something similar here. Indeed, later in the book, Malachi will highlight economic injustice as one of the great sins of his day (Malachi 3:5).
So, the problem with the priests and the worshippers is not simply that they violated some legal prescription. Rather, it goes deeper than that. It goes to their heart. They do not offer their best; they offer what is of little to no use for them (e.g., lame animals). They scheme and lie and make promises they do not intend to keep. They are tired of religion and the rituals have lost their meaning. They are not committed to righteousness; instead, they oppress the poor through violence. They offer sacrifices but the sacrifices they offer are not their own.
Judah, through its priestly representatives, brings sacrifices to the altar for slaughter that they might take their animals to the “table of the Lord” to eat them (“food” in Malachi 1:7, 12 but two different words in Hebrew). They intend to sit down at the table of the Lord; they intend to commune with their God. But God despises their pretense, their hearts, their violence. God does not show up at this table and the odor is nauseating. God does not accept their worship; their sacrifices and their eating is “in vain.”
God, however, is not dependent upon the praises of Israel or worship in the Second Temple. God is honored even when Israel fails to honor Yahweh. Malachi 1:11 proclaims the greatness of God’s name “among the nations” and “in every place” because God’s name is “great among the nations.” The God of Israel is not limited to Israel because “Great is Yahweh beyond the borders of Israel!” (Malachi 1:5).
To what, however, does this refer? Actually, in Hebrew, this sentence does not have a main verb. Some translations (NRSV) supply “is” while others (ESV) supply “will be.” In other words, is Malachi 1:11 a statement about the present or the future? Or, is it deliberately ambiguous so that it might include both? Either way, the point is that God’s honor is not dependent upon Israel’s worship.
Yet, is there some sense in which it is both. Early Christians understood this text in the light of their own context. They were worshippers scattered among the nations so that “in every place” they offered themselves to the Lord (cf. 1 Timothy 2:8 which uses the same phrase that appears in the LXX of Malachi 1:11; cf. Didache 14). This is consistent with other prophetic expectations that one day the nations would honor the name of Yahweh (cf. Isaiah 2:2; 56:7; 60:3; 66:19).
And yet we might question whether this is wholly future. The final line of Malachi 1:14 also lacks the verb and is variously translated “will be” or “is”: “my name will be (or, is) feared among the nations.” But this sentence is joined to a previous one which asserts: “I am (or, will be) a great King” (again, no verb in Hebrew). Yet the meaning here is surely not “I will be a great King.” The Lord already reigns and it seems best to read the present tense in the final phrase as well, that is, “my name is feared among the nations.”
If that is the case, then it is also quite likely that Malachi 1:11 has the present in view as well. This does not exclude the future, and so it might be best to include both the present and the future ideas. In some form and in some way, Yahweh’s honor and greatness is already acknowledged among the nations. They fear the Lord, but we also await a day when people, scattered among the nations, will continuously offer sacrifices to Yahweh in a way that honors him. We await a day when the nations themselves–all the nations–will honor Yahweh.
In our present Christian assemblies, when we sit at the table of the Lord, we honor God, are received into his presence, and his grace flows over us. We offer ourselves as sacrifices at that time as we also receive God’s sacrificial gift. We commune at the table of the Lord, just like Israel.
We live, however, with the same danger that rendered the worship of Malachi’s priests vain. We, too, can sit at the table with insincerity, deceit, violence and injustice (cf. 1 Corinthians 10). When we do so, we, too, offer God a nauseating odor.