Writer’s note: This week’s lesson focuses on a group of people who let the wrong practice religion get in the way of a right relationship with God. But a great relationship with God starts by having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. If you feel you don’t have a personal relationship with Jesus and want to know more, a good way to start is by clicking here.
Ben Stein is a renaissance man—author, advocate, economist, presidential speechwriter and lawyer. He also is known for his role as actor and game show host. Many know him from his first foray into the acting field—a bit part as the terribly boring, monotonal teacher in the 80s comedy, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
Stein has written 30 books, including the pocket-sized How to Ruin Your Life, a satire that offers 35 short essays on how to accomplish the title’s goal. It’s funny, biting—and true—almost like having your dad sitting on the bed in front of you reiterating life’s rules. Chapter titles like, “Never Be Grateful,” “Hang Out with the Wrong Crowd,” “Ignore Your Family,” “Live Above Your Means” and “Don’t Enjoy the Simple Things in Life” give you an idea of the book’s direction and tone.
Chapter 4, “Never Accept Any Responsibility for Anything that Goes Wrong,” fits this week’s lesson well. Consider this excerpt of excuses from the book:
“Play the blame game. It’s always someone else’s fault, or it’s just bad luck. You failed your algebra class? You obviously had a lousy teacher. The other kids passed? They were obviously brownnosers. The cops gave you a ticket because you were driving recklessly? Hey, you had a lot on your plate that day, and you had a late night before. You lost your job because you didn’t show up on time for a week? Wow, who can work those kinds of hours anyway?”
And this satirical response:
“The world should know this by now: It’s no fun to be criticized, and that means it’s no fun for you to be criticized. You’re free, indeed required, to insult and blame others. But as the official designee of the Almighty to be His Deputy on Earth, obviously you’re above it all.”
While delivered tongue-in-cheek, Stein emphasizes the message that sometimes we do ruin our lives—or at least our relationships—by not accepting responsibility.
In the book of Malachi, we see the Jews of the post-exilic period ruining their relationship with God and giving these kinds of excuses. Faced by God with the truth that their religious practices were only surface in nature—that they were going through the motions of religiosity without true commitment—they were faced with the truth that their religion actually was disrespectful of God.
The book of Malachi is the 12th and final book of the minor prophets. It also is the final book in both the English Bible and Hebrew Scriptures. The date of Malachi is unclear, but the religious practices and the mention of the rebuilt temple in Jerusalem are consistent with the time of our previous lessons in Ezra and Nehemiah, sometime in the latter quarter of the fifth century B.C.
Nothing is known about Malachi. While some doubt Malachi is a particular man’s name (it means “messenger”), Burton L. Goddard says it “probably is the name of the prophet who wrote the book.”
The book consists of six indictments by God on the Jewish people. It’s a frank discussion that highlights the lack of responsibility of the people of God for their worship practices. The indictments take the form of 13 questions posed by God and, in the fashion of a people devoid of responsibility, God doesn’t receive answers, but 13 questions from the people that bear a sense of a big corporate, “Who, us?” In our focal passages, we’ll look at the first two indictments.
Indictment 1—“You don’t love us anymore!”
In verses 1:2-5, God through Malachi answers the Jews’ question of his devotion to him. “I have loved, you,” says the Lord, But you say, “’How hast Thou loved us’” (v. 2)? While in his next five indictments God will speak to the effects of the people’s shallow religious practices, he hits the root of the problem first: The people question God’s love and loyalty to them.
How selfish. How short-sighted. The God of the universe is forced to once again declare his love for the Jews, and remind them of his covenant to bless them as the children of Jacob, reminding them he chose them over the children of Esau.
Before we point fingers, how often do we do this to God? Could this be what is wrong with our religion today? When faced with adversity, do we sometimes point to the negative and ask God if he still loves us? Do we forget to see the rich blessings he has given us throughout our lives and the offer of eternal life with him? Do we put God in the same position that the Jews put him in—of having to prove his love so that “your eyes will see this and you will say, ‘The Lord be magnified beyond the border of Israel’” (v. 5).
Indictment 2—Those who should serve instead dishonor
In verse 6, God moves from having to prove his love for the people to reproving his chosen religious leaders, the Levites. In a now familiar pattern, God accuses the priests of dishonoring his name, and the priests respond back, “How have we despised Thy name?”God gives a litany of proof back, centering on the sacrificing of second-rate offerings not fit for the Lord of hosts.
This indictment comes to a head in our focal verses (2:4-9), when God reminds the Levites of their priestly heritage, the covenant he made with Levi, the reverence Levi held for God, and Levi’s redemptive nature as “he turned many back from iniquity” (v. 6).
While God offers his indictment in volume, it is verse 7 that God uses to communicate the right way for the Levites to behave: “For the lips of the priest should preserve knowledge, and men should seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts.”
As lay Bible study leaders or as Bible students, we shouldn’t pass this passage up as a warning only to our clergy. Remember that Christians under the new covenant of Christ are given full access to God through Christ (Ephesians 3:12) and are expected individually to be priests (1 Peter 2:9). Baptists typically have referred to this charge as “the priesthood of the believer.”
It should be considered both an imminent privilege and a solemn charge, not to be taken lightly. So God’s admonition for priests to “preserve knowledge” and to act as “a messenger for God” should carry all of the weight it carried for these original hearers in Malachi.
Questions to explore
• Put yourself in their shoes: In verses 1:2-5, God defends his love for Israel. How do we put God in the same position?
• Put yourself in their shoes: In verses 1:6-2:9, God indicts the priests for offering shoddy sacrifices. How do we give God our second- or third-best when we give?
• Discuss the concept of the priesthood of the believer in light of verses 2:1-9. The priests were held to a higher standard. Should we, as new covenant priests, also be held to a higher standard?
• Put yourself in your shoes: Discuss two or three ways God could indict you for putting religion practice before a religious heart and what you need to do to fix it.