Twice, in Malachi 1:6-2:9, the prophet addresses the priests of the Second Temple directly which the NRSV translates as a vocative, that is, “O Priests” (1:6; 2:1). This divides Malachi’s oracle into two obvious sections (1:6-14 and 2:1-9). In a previous post, we noted that Malachi rebukes the priests for their complicity in offering unacceptable sacrifices at the temple (1:6-14). In this 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.
The sacrifices themselves were unacceptable to God not only because they violated Torah prescriptions but, more importantly and more deeply, they were given to God from immoral resources. The people vowed one thing and gave another, and what they gave was not even truly theirs. The priests, due to social pressure perhaps or simply because of their own need for food, offered the sacrifices and the whole thing became wearisome or meaningless to the priests. Judah’s religious leaders, in effect, were not only complicit in this unjust system but they went through the motions for the sake of their own gain. To them the temple had become a matter of economics rather than faith. In this system, the priests showed “partiality” for the sake of their own self-interest (2:9).
So, what is Malachi’s remedy for this situation? In this second address to the priests, he calls them back to their responsibility and their proper role in the community of faith. He calls priests to lead.
The paragraph may be read with the following structure in mind.
The Decree (2:2)
The Judgment (2:3)
The Standard of Judgment (2:4-7)
The Reason for Judgment (2:8)
The Judgment (2:9)
The heading of this paragraph is 2:1 — “And now, O priests, this decree is for you.” This is a specific address to the priests but it involves a “decree” or “command.” Since there is no command in the text, it is best to render the term here “decree” or a declaration. Yahweh issues a verdict about his priests. It is a judgment.
His verdict is a curse due to their choices. Latent in the “decree,” however, is an option or a choice. If the priests act differently, the continuation of the curse may be avoided. The priests must “take [this decree] to heart” so as to “give honor” (glory) to Yahweh’s name. This summarizes the problem addressed in Malachi 1:6-14. It takes the reader back to Yahweh’s initial question: “where is my honor?” (1:6). The priests had “despised” the “name” of God (1:6). If Yahweh’s decree is to be reversed, then the priests must “take it to heart” to honor God’s name.
“To take it to heart” is used three times in Isaiah (42:25; 57:1, 11). In particular, to “take it to heart” parallels remembering or understanding. The priests must discern and remember who they are; they must reclaim their identity as representatives of Yahweh. Malachi’s call here is for the priests to renew their vocation and mission.
“Behold” sets off the particulars of the judgment and ties 2:3-9 together in a chiastic structure. The judgment is quite harsh. It is Yahweh’s response to priestly behavior. Just as they have despised the name of God before all the nations (1:6), so the priests are “despised and abased before all the people” (2:9). Just as the priests “snorted” at their mission before Yahweh (1:13), so God will spread dung on their faces and their offerings as well as remove them from their offices, including their children (2:3). They will be shoveled out of the temple like the dung of the animals. Yahweh will not tolerate this priestly misconduct.
Significantly, God will, as has already happened, curse the priest’s blessings. Part of the priestly function was to bless the congregation, as in “May the Lord bless you and keep you” (Numbers 6:24-26). However, because of their conduct, the decree is that their blessings will become curses; their blessing has now become ineffectual.
With the verdict (“decree”) rendered, Yahweh verifies (“so shall you know”) it by reminding them of his “covenant with Levi.” Yahweh rebukes his priests because they have irresponsibly jettisoned the covenant. Most likely, what the text recalls the promise to Levi’s clan in Deuteronomy 33:8-10. “Levi” does not refer to the specific son of Jacob but rather to the clan that was chosen by God as the “firstborn” of Israel (Numbers 3:5-13). The language there fits well with Malachi’s description as priests are not only those who officiate the sacrificial offerings but also teach the Torah to the people. They are responsible for guiding the people in the ways of Yahweh.
Malachi’s language describes both the covenant and Levi’s response. The covenant is characterized by life, peace (shalom; 2x), fear and uprightness (2:5-6). “Life and peace” and “peace and uprightness” are found in pairs as that language is often linked in Israel, and peace contrasts with the “curse” that has been decreed for Judah’s priests because of their actions. God’s covenant with Levi yields shalom rather than chaos.
It also a covenant of “fear” (awe or reverance). The first addressed ended on this note, that is, “my name will be feared among the nations” (1:14). Israel was supposed to be the first of nations to fear the Lord and to lead other nations into that fear. Levi is the fountainhead of that fear. The basic orientation to which Judah is called is to “fear Yahweh” or “fear his name” (3:5, 16, 20).
Levi’s response to this covenant was obedience. He appeared before the face (presence) of God with fear. He is specified, at least in part, as an authentic teacher of “true Torah”–the priests neither deceived nor obfurscated. Their instruction in the Torah “turned many from iniquity.” This is the priestly (perhaps Levitical) calling. Their vocation is teaching as well as officiating. They are responsible for guiding the people into the righteous life of the Torah where peace is experienced through the fear of Yahweh.
Priests are “messenger[s] of Yahweh” (2:7). “Messenger” is the meaning of “Malachi” (meaning “my messenger”). Though the priests are the formal, covenantal messengers of Yahweh, yet Malachi (a prophetic messenger) brings a word from Yahweh. Sometimes prophets must rebuke priests. Priests are important and they serve the people well when they represent the righteousness and fear of Yahweh before the people. But when their message becomes corrupted and they have turned from “the way,” then prophets step into the gap to herald the authentic message of God.
These priests are nailed on a few counts here. They have “turned aside from the way,” they have “caused many to stumble by [their] instruction,” and they have shown “partiality in [their] instruction.” While the text, at this point, offers no specifics, from the message of Malachi 1:6-14 and the rest of the book we can see where the priests have failed to guide the people. Those topics include economic justice, divorce and tithing among other particulars. Instead of using the position to promote righteousness, they have used it for their own advantage and have thus “showed partiality” in their teaching.
Consequently, the decree is just. The priests are judged. They must remember their identity and renew their covenant or God will curse their blessed position. When God’s covenantal priests fail, God raises up prophets to rebuke them.
Malachi’s address to the priests is a reminder that leaders within God’s community have a serious responsibility to model and teach God’s covenant, his “way” of peace, righteousness and life. But we will always need prophets because teachers and leaders will continue to falter and fail.
God, thank you for prophets.