355 - The Danger of Religious Rituals (Malachi 1:1–2:9)
Our worship tells us a lot about our view of God. Malachi’s prophecy teaches us there is no place for half-hearted or superficial worship of God if we understand that He loves us unceasingly and unconditionally.
The Danger of Religious Rituals
Our Wisdom Journey brings us now to the last book of the Old Testament, the book of Malachi. Like Haggai and Zechariah, Malachi was written after the Jewish people’s return from exile in Babylon. However, keep in mind that Malachi will prophecy for the Lord about a hundred years after Haggai and Zechariah. He will minister right around the time of Nehemiah’s later ministry in Jerusalem.
When Malachi shows up on the scene, the temple has been rebuilt in Jerusalem, and worship has settled into a routine. And that’s a big part of the people’s problem. It’s easy for religion to become a routine. One author wrote, “Outwardly Israel seemed to be doing well spiritually, but inwardly she was drifting away from her spiritual moorings.”
What about us today? Hopefully, we are not interested in a religion of ritual without meaning; we are interested in a relationship, as we walk with the Lord through the day. And that takes nurturing and intentionality just as much as any relationship with anybody else. If we stop paddling that canoe, we will start to drift away from where we want to be.
We know very little about Malachi himself, but his name means “my messenger.” And he is indeed a messenger from God, with a message for Israel. Like most of the other Old Testament prophets, it is a message of rebuke and a call to repentance. His book begins with wonderful tenderness, as the Lord says to the people of Israel, “I have loved you” (verse 2).
That message never gets old, does it? Maybe that is the message you need to hear today: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
What does His love look like for those who belong to Him? Well, look at Israel—His love is unceasing and unconditional. He loves them in spite of their history of rebellion. In fact, His love for them is why He rebukes them and calls them to repentance. True love always seeks what is best for the other person, and that includes correction when it is needed—just as you might lovingly correct your children.
The Lord then anticipates the people asking Him the question: “How have you loved us?” That is the question of a stubborn child, isn’t it?
The Lord answers by pointing to Jacob and Esau. To Jacob and his descendants—that is, the nation of Israel—God showed His special favor. He loved Jacob as demonstrated by His covenant with Israel. Jacob’s brother, Esau, the father of the nation of Edom, was not shown such favor. God says, “I have loved Jacob, but Esau I have hated” (verses 2-3). The words are intended to simply express the fact that God chose Jacob but did not choose Esau. He chose the Israelites, not the Edomites. And beloved, as you dig into the history of the Edomites, the descendants of Esau, you find they did not want God at all. In fact, they became enemies of the Israelites. In a sense, Esau got what he really wanted—life without God.
God’s special relationship with Israel demands that He rebuke them for their failure to honor Him. Here is the charge He brings in verse 6:
“A son honors his father, and a servant his master. If then I am a father, where is my honor? And if I am a master, where is my fear?”
He goes on to address this specifically to the “priests who despise [His] name.” Again, this is followed by the question the Lord anticipates from the priests: “How have we despised your name?”
God quickly answers, “By offering polluted food upon my altar” (verse 7). The priests are offering blind and lame animals as sacrifices to the Lord. They are carrying out the ritual of offering sacrifices, but their heart is not in it. They are not interested in worshiping the Lord with their best animals—unblemished animals. So, they are bringing to the altar animals they don’t want to keep.
But this is even more than a selfish heart issue—they are violating covenant law. Leviticus 22:20 says, “You shall not offer anything that has a blemish, for it will not be acceptable for you.” These sacrifices pictured the coming, unblemished Lamb of God—the sinless Savior. So, only the best was to be presented to the Lord.
The priests were supposed to act as mediators between the people and God and to be examples of how to follow the Lord. But instead, they are disobeying God’s Word.
And it is not out of ignorance that the priests are doing this. They actually do not care. They have reached a point where their role as priests is nothing more to them than a boring job. They say in verse 13, “What a weariness this is.” Their service has become a boring ritual. They are going through the motions of worship without any real motivation to worship. They are just lighting candles and repeating prayers and going through the rituals without any desire for a relationship with God.
I wonder how many people today go to church and yawn their way through the service, mumble through the hymns, and then count the ceiling tiles during the sermon. There is no real desire to worship God; it’s just another series of rituals.
The attitudes and defiance of these priests are going to prove costly. The Lord gives them a stern warning in Malachi 2:2:
“If you will not listen, if you will not take it to heart to give honor to my name, says the Lord of hosts, then I will send the curse upon you and I will curse your blessings. Indeed, I have already cursed them, because you do not lay it to heart.”
The blessings that are cursed here more than likely refer to the material blessings the priests enjoyed. God is going to curse the seed of the crops from which the priests received tithes. Those tithes were their paycheck—their meal ticket.
Even more seriously, God says, “I will . . . spread dung on your faces, the dung of your offerings” (verse 3). This describes an uncleanness that will disqualify them as priests. This is a picture of their total disgrace.
God’s discipline of these ungodly priests is necessary. Why? Verse 4 tells us it is so that His “covenant with Levi may stand.” Remember, God had determined that the priests come from the tribe of Levi. And the Lord says of Levi, “He stood in awe of my name” (verse 5) and “True instruction was in his mouth” (verse 6).
The former priests had worshiped the Lord from their heart and told the people the truth. But to these current priests, God says, “You have turned aside from the way. You have caused many to stumble by your instruction. You have corrupted the covenant of Levi” (verse 8). As a result, He says in verse 9, “I will make you despised and abased before all the people.”
Beloved, this is a severe warning for anybody who represents the Lord, whether it is in vocational ministry or simply as a believer in the community. For all of us, there is always the subtle danger that we can drift—that we can be drawn into serving ourselves and seeking self-glory rather than God’s glory.
God has a way of knocking people off their pedestal. He is not going to let them steal His glory. He is looking for believers who will worship Him genuinely and humbly. Jesus said the Father is seeking those who will worship Him in spirit and in truth (John 4:23-24).
Jesus invites us, not to meaningless rituals or religious traditions, but to a relationship in which we get to know Him through His Word and come to love Him as our Lord and Savior.
 Paul N. Benware, Survey of the Old Testament, revised (Moody Press, 1993), 278.
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