It is an amazing circumstance. Judah is unfaithful but God remains faithful. The whole story of Israel (“from the days of your fathers”) is a history of failed covenant-keeping. Time and time again Israel failed to keep the Torah. In other words, the description of Judah’s systemic ethical problems in Malachi 3:5 is not exceptional but a habitual pattern within Israel’s history. The prophets abundantly testify to that.
Nevertheless, Israel is not “consumed.” Unlike Edom, as the prophet noted in chapter one, Israel still exists. They have not been annihilated. Their identity is still in tact. They are God’s covenant people. They are loved.
Their continued existence, however, is not grounded in their faithfulness or in their value. Rather, it is grounded in God’s own identity. Yahweh does not “change” (shanah). The verb is sometimes used to describe a change of clothes (2 Kings 25:29) or different customs (Esther 3:8) or even a disguise (1 Samuel 21:14; 1 Kings 14:2). The noun form means “years” as in the passing of time.
God does not change. This is not a metaphysical statement about God though it may entail that. The primary point is God’s faithfulness to his people. God does not change through the passing of years; God does not disguise himself with his people. God remains steadfast and committed to his covenant. God is faithful to his promises, to his covenant love. Israel continues because Yahweh is who he is. God’s own identity is the ground of Israel’s continued life and that is why they are not consumed.
Since this is true–because God’s grace abounds through his faithfulness–post-exilic Judah is called to renew its relationship with God. They hear the same message from Malachi in the mid-400s that Zechariah gave in the 510s: “return to me, and I will return to you” (Malachi 3:7; Zechariah 1:3). God seeks relationship with his covenant people.
The people respond to this gracious invitation with a kind of “what shall we do?” “How shall we return?” they ask. One wonders whether the question is skeptical, that is, they doubt whether they have ever left and thus they have no need to return. But it may be an honest inquiry that arises from a bewilderment or confusion about their status before God. Perhaps they truly wonder in what respect they have left God despite Malachi’s previous oracles.
Malachi pinpoints–as a “test” case–one way in which they need to return to God. Interestingly, it is about economics and money. They are stealing from God! Money–one of the most common topics of Jesus–reveals our commitments, priorities and fears. It is a window into the heart. Malachi goes directly to a root problem. They steal from God because they do not trust God.
The question, “how have we robbed you,” perhaps arises from a confused–even sincere–heart. Money often blinds us to our real commitments and priorities. Money masks the deeper problem so that we don’t ever realize that we are materialistic, selfish and driven by insecurities (fears). We have plenty of excuses for how we use our money, right?
Judah robs God when they do not tithe. Their economic situation–the curse under which they live and about which they complain–is rooted in their inability to trust God. They refuse to tithe because they need to preserve food stuffs and other materials for their own survival. They cannot spare resources for the tithe. They don’t trust God’s provision. They fear the future.
The lack of tithing may be related to the covenant-breaking in Malachi 3:5 as well as the ineffectual ministry of the priests in Malachi 1:6-14. Tithes served at least two purposes in Israel, according to the Torah. The storehouses of the Temple (cf. Numbers 10:38-39) supplied the priests with a livelihood (Deuteronomy 12:5-18) but they also supplied the poor and needy with resources for life (Deuteronomy 14:28-29). Without tithes the ministry of the Temple and the poor suffer.
Yahweh challenges the people to trust him. For the only time in Scripture, God asks his people to “put me to the test.” Such language is associated with “evildoers” in Malachi 3:15. Only the wicked test God.
Indeed, God is usually testing his people (cf. Jeremiah 6:27; 9:7; 11:20; 20:12; Zechariah 13:9), but here he asks his people to test him. In effect, it is a call to trust God’s covenant promises. If they will practice the Torah–including tithes–then God will pour out on them the blessings which the Torah promises.
The text reminds us of the Deuteronomic blessings and cursings (Deuteronomy 27-28). Judah is cursed because it has broken the covenant, and the promise is that if they will return to God, then they will be blessed. Trust and obey, seems to be the point. And when they obey, God will pour out his blessings upon them.
Within Israel’s covenantal arrangement with God in the land of Palestine, they were promised blessings if they obey. Their life would abound and they would have no needs. Malachi speaks in that context as Yahweh remains the faithful God of the covenant.
But this arrangement was not self-serving. On the contrary, its intent is global. Israel’s embrace of the covenant and their obedience would bear witness to God. As they became a “land of delight,” so the nations would call them “blessed.” This, in turn, would draw the nations to Yahweh as they asked, “Who is your God?” (Deuteronomy 4:6-8). Through Israel, even the nations would practice the Torah and enjoy God’s blessings as well.
At bottom, Malachi’s oracle reminds Judah that their primary commitment is to trust Yahweh rather than themselves. They must trust God’s love for them and his provision for their lives rather than withhold their “tithes”–their gifts to the poor.
“I, Yahweh, do not change!” In other words, “I am who I am and I do not forget my love for my people.” Though negligent and sinful, Israel is nevertheless invited to return to God. They are not consumed because God is faithful.
So, church, trust the faithfulness of God and practice justice, mercy and faithfulness. God will not forget us. Let us let go of our treasure on earth and trust the one who reigns from heaven.