God sets a challenge

Chelmsford Cathedral: Breakfast with the Bible – 3 February 2019.

The Book of Malachi

Malachi was the last of the prophets – or at least the prophet whose prophecies form the last book of the Old Testament

We know absolutely nothing about Malachi.

  • We are not even sure of his name. For the word ‘Malachi’ simply means ‘messenger’ – it could have been an assumed name, not his real name.

  • We don’t know when he was born, or when he died.

  • We do know that he lived after the return of the Jewish exiles from Babylon in 537 BC. Most scholars date the book of Malachi around the mid-5th century BC, perhaps some 100 years after the return of the Jews from exile.

It was a time of disillusion and indifference.

When the Jews had first returned home to Jerusalem, there was a sense of great excitement. People thought that God was going to restore the fortunes of the nation – that their country would experience the glory it had known under King Solomon.

But the reverse became true: instead of experiencing freedom, power and glory, Israel found itself having to pay taxes to Persia and having to provide provisions for the Persian army.

To make matters worse, the country experienced droughts and crop failures.

Money was tight – people were struggling to make ends meet.

Not surprisingly people began to question whether the God whom they worshipped really loved them (1.2). Indeed, some were beginning to say that if God didn’t care for them, then why should they care about God.

People began to feel indifferent toward God – even the religious professionals, the priests, could scarcely care about the God they worshipped.

As a result, people began to live for themselves rather than for God – honesty in business and faithfulness in marriage went out the window. People began to worship the fertility gods of the nations around them. It was a time of moral and spiritual decline.

This is the context in which Malachi operated as a prophet.

He rebuked God’s people for doubting God’s love (1.1-15)

He accused both the priests (1.6-2.9) and the people (2.10-16) of faithlessness.

He warned that the Lord would come to judge and refine his people (3.1-5): “But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?” (3.1

Return to me, and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts. But you say, ‘How shall we return?” (3.7)

Stop robbing me

This is the context in which God sets his people a challenge. If you want to know my blessing again, then you must stop robbing me. Listen to Malachi 3.8-12:

Will anyone rob God? Yet you are robbing me! But you say, “How are we robbing you?” In your tithes and offerings! You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing me—the whole nation of you! 10 Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in my house, and thus put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts; see if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing. 11 I will rebuke the locust for you, so that it will not destroy the produce of your soil; and your vine in the field shall not be barren, says the Lord of hosts. 12 Then all nations will count you happy, for you will be a land of delight, says the Lord of hosts.

The Lord accuses his people of spiritual laxity – in our terms, they had lost their first love for God. A sign that things were not right spiritually was that they were no longer committed in their giving. They were robbing him in terms of their “tithes and offerings” (3.8).

Notice the use of the plural term – “tithes”.

The Israelites were required to give a tenth of everything – not just of their money, but of their crops, their flocks, and their herds to God.

So we read in Lev 27.30-32 GNB: “One-tenth of all the produce of the land, whether grain or fruit, belongs to the Lord. If a man wishes to buy any of it back, he must pay the standard price plus an additional 20%. One out of every ten animals belongs to the Lord… The owner may not arrange the animals so that the poor animals are chosen, and he may not make any substitutions. If he does substitute one animal for another, then both animals will belong to the Lord and may not be bought back”.

I.e. the tithe is not to consist of the dregs, but of the best of our possessions.

Incidentally, I think it is highly unfortunate that we speak of Oxfam shops & the like as ‘charity’ shops – for it equates charity with giving away old clothes and things we don’t want.

True Christian charity surely only gives the best!

To whom were the tithes normally paid?

First & foremost they went to the Levites, the priestly tribe of Israel – in our terms, they were for the maintenance of ministry. So we read in Num 18.21: “To the Levites I have given every tithe in Israel for a possession in return for the service that they perform in the tent of meeting’” – the Tent in question was the precursor of the Temple.

Malachi’s concern was not that the people of his day were not giving – they were giving, but not giving enough.

He says “Bring the full tithe into the storehouse” (3. 10) or in the words of GNB: “Bring the full amount of your tithes”. Give not just 2% or 3%, nor even just 7% or 8% – give the whole 10% of your income to God.

Indeed, he says that a failure to give the whole 10% was tantamount to “robbing” God/

Let me read to you 3.8 in the GNB: “I ask you, is it right for a person to cheat God? Of course not, you are cheating me. ‘How?’ you ask. In the matter of tithes and offerings.”

Wow – that’s an interesting thought. We rob or cheat God not by what we take, but by what we keep!

God through Malachi accuses his people of cheating him of their “tithes AND offerings”.

In this context, the offering was not the same as a tithe. The offering was that which people gave over and above their general giving.

Tithing is what God expects of us; offerings are gifts that go beyond the norm.

Strictly speaking, we ‘pay’ our tithes and ‘give’ our offerings.

God sets a challenge

Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in my house, and thus put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts; see if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing” (3.10)

Jesus made a similar promise: “Give and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap, for the measure you give will be the measure you will get back” (Luke 6.38).

Paul wrote: “God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work” (2 Cor 9.7, 8)

Giving today

Some argue that tithing is purely an OT practice, for which we find no command in the NT.

Nowhere does Jesus explicitly command tithing – nor does Paul.

On the other hand, Paul believed in ‘proportionate’ giving: “Every Sunday each of you must put aside some money, in proportion to what he has earned” (1 Cor 16.2 GNB).

Others argue that tithing is a form of legalism, foreign to the spirit of the Gospel.

It is significant that when Paul writes about giving to the Corinthians, he doesn’t major on the duties & responsibilities of Christian giving – rather he speaks about the “grace” (2 Cor 8.4 NRSV) or “privilege” (GNB) of giving. For Paul giving was essentially an indication of one’s love for the Lord. “I am trying to find out how real your own love is. You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ; rich as he was, he made himself poor for your sake, in order to make you rich by means of his poverty” (2 Cor 8.8,9 GNB).

Paul would have been amazed to have discovered that some people deduced that giving out of love rather than giving out of duty would result in less than giving a tenth.

Questions

  1. Today Anglicans are asked to consider giving 5% of their income to the church. Would Malachi have regarded such a target as ‘robbing God’?

  2. What in practical terms does ‘proportionate’ giving mean for you? Might it mean that those on benefits give a smaller proportion of their income than those paying standard tax, and that those paying 40% tax would give an even greater proportion? How do you respond to the practice of Rick Warren, who on becoming a millionaire began to ‘reverse tithe’ (i.e. he began to give away 90% of his income)?

  3. “If I hadn’t tithed my firth dollar, I would never have tithed my first million” (John Rockefeller). Would churches be less strapped for cash if they taught their children how to give?

  4. To what extent would it be helpful for churches to encourage their people to follow Malachi’s distinction between ‘tithes’ (regular committed giving) and ‘offerings’? Would the Christmas market fall into the ‘offering’ category – or not even that?

  5. Would you agree with Winston Churchill that “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give”? How true in your experience are the words of Jesus: “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20.35) or in the GNB “There is more happiness in giving than in receiving”?.

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