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Rescued by a curse

A sermon on Malachi 2.1-4


by Tim Gallant

Congregation of Christ,

When God makes promises, He means them. This is, of course, why we can rely on Him. If He just spouted off words like we so often do, He would be no more trustworthy than we are.

Back in Numbers 25, God promised to make a covenant of peace with Phinehas and his descendants. This was a priestly covenant wherein God would grant life and peace and leadership to Phinehas and His seed. It was a covenant promise, and God meant what He said.

A covenant is a means whereby God ties a people to Himself. He takes responsibilities upon Himself, and He places responsibilities upon His people. He swears by Himself, and brings His people into His own oath. God's covenants are, therefore, things that can be relied upon, because they are founded upon the Word of a God who cannot lie.

But then this raises the question. What about Phinehas and his descendants? What happens when they do not fulfill their responsibilities under the covenant? Does God carry on and simply bless an unfaithful lot? Or does He simply drop the covenant and start over from scratch?

Our passage offers an example, a demonstration that will help us answer such questions. The answer here is neither automatic blessing, nor simple obliteration. In Malachi 2:1-9, God defends the covenant of Levi. Over the next weeks, we will take note of how He goes about making His defense. Today, we'll be looking at verses 1-4, where God defends the covenant of Levi by announcing His curse. In the coming weeks, we will look further at verses 5-7, where God defends the covenant of Levi by expounding His norms. And finally, in verses 8-9, God defends the covenant of Levi by exposing His priests.

In all of this, He is fighting for His covenant which He has made. He is not relinquishing it; He is not giving up. But neither is He letting the sins of His covenant partner simply pass by as if inconsequential.

We are called to hear this morning then, in verses 1-4, how God defends the covenant of Levi by announcing His curse.

1. I wish to point out first of all the description of this curse.

God says in verses 1 and 2, "And now, I priests, this commandment is for you. If you will not hear, and if you will not take it to heart, to give glory to My name, says the Lord of hosts, I will send a curse upon you, and I will curse your blessings. Yes, I have cursed them already, because you do not take it to heart."

You may recall that when we treated the latter part of chapter 1, we saw quite clearly that God's people were not worshipping Him aright. They were treating Him with dishonour. And God held the priests responsible, because they were the ones who had official charge of the temple.

The language God uses here is that the priests do not "take it to heart." The expression is a bit obscure, but it seems to refer to the glory of God's name, mentioned in verse 2. If the priests were genuinely concerned about the honour of God, the glory of God, if they were taking the glory of God's name to heart, they would be a lot more diligent regarding the worship of God. They would not be satisfied to allow the people to bring substandard sacrifices. They would not be treating corporate worship and the table of the Lord as a weariness and as a drudgery, as they are doing in chapter 1. It is because they are going through the motions that they have begun to cut corners in the worship of God.

So God says: "This commandment is for you, O priests." What commandment? If we read through our passage, it seems a bit difficult to pin down one commandment, one duty, which God is laying upon the priests. What commandment is God speaking of?

There is the startling thing. Let me draw attention to a couple of "commandments" in Scripture that will help us open up this text. Here is what Jeremiah says in Lamentations 2:17, regarding the terrible destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians:

The Lord has done what He purposed; He has fulfilled His word which He commanded in days of old. He has thrown down and has not pitied, and He has caused your enemy to rejoice over you; He has exalted the horn of your adversaries.

God has fulfilled His word which He commanded. And what was that word? A word of judgment; a word of calamity; a word of curse. Why? Because God's people had broken the covenant. They had forsaken His commandments given in the law, and consequently, He sent a commandment which they could not escape: He commanded judgment upon them.

We find similar language several times in the prophecy of Amos. For example, in Amos 6:11, we read, "For behold, the Lord gives a command: He will break the great house into bits, and the little house into pieces." A word of judgment. Or again, in Amos 9:3-4, God says that although those who rebel against Him may try to hide; although they may go into captivity, yet He will command the serpent and the sword and destroy them.

And so it is here. You see, the norm for the temple mountain and for the priesthood is that God commands a blessing through it and upon it. We see that in Psalm 133:3: the unity of brethren is compared to "the dew of Hermon, descending upon the mountains of Zion; for there the Lord commanded the blessing - life forevermore."

But that is all set upside down here. God says He is commanding a curse upon the priests, because they have not taken His glory, His name, His law, His word, to heart.

"I will send a curse upon you," God says. And He goes on to say that He will curse the priests' public ministry; their lineage, and yes, the priests themselves.

Their public ministry will be cursed. "I will curse your blessings; Yes, I have cursed them already." This blessing refers to the priestly benediction which God gave for them to pronounce over Israel, way back in Numbers 6 - a passage that is alluded to several times throughout Malachi 1-2. Instead of a blessing, this priestly service will turn to a curse.

Now, this may raise some questions in our minds. It is a fundamental axiom of orthodox Christianity that the validity of a sacrament is not dependent upon the personal morality or spirituality of the minister. There have occasionally been splinter groups which have denied that, and it gets pretty messy. Consider this: if you were baptized by someone who is secretly a hypocrite, how would you ever know that your baptism was not valid? You see, we open a can of worms when we tie the validity of the sacraments to the person of the minister, rather than to God's appointment itself.

But then what can we make of this warning? God will turn their benedictions into curses! Sounds like a good reason not to ever let the priest speak God's benediction over you! Is God really saying that the righteous in Judah should not be coming to the temple, and thus avoid these wicked priests? That, after all, is what the Qumran community did two or three centuries later.

But I don't believe that is what is going on here. Even the apostles resorted to the temple in the beginning.

We must not isolate this warning from its context. We have already seen in chapter 1 that the people were offering unacceptable sacrifices and unacceptable worship. As we continue on in this book, we will discover that there were many very serious sins in Judah. Sins which essentially broke God's covenant with Israel. These are largely summed up in chapter 3, verse 5: "I will come near you for judgment; I will be a swift witness against sorcerers, against adulterers, against perjurers, against those who exploit wage earners and widows and the fatherless, and against those who turn away an alien - because they do not fear Me, says the Lord of hosts." This list is, of course, not exhaustive - the worship issues are not addressed. But it does illustrate a very severe spiritual state among God's covenant people. They do not fear God.

Now, what do we find in our passage? We're going to look a bit more at this in a later sermon, but take special notice of verse 8. God says to the priests, "But you have departed from the way; you have caused many to stumble at the law." Here, I believe, we have the key to understanding how those priestly blessings are turned into cursing. Those who break covenant bring judgment down upon their heads when they participate in the Lord's worship, particularly in the sacraments. We know this from 1 Corinthians 11, don't we? Paul says, "You're shredding the body of Christ to bits with your divisiveness; you're breaking covenant, and as a consequence, you're eating and drinking judgment upon yourselves."

And so too here: the priests may pronounce a blessing over the people, as commanded in Numbers 6, but because they are disregarding God's Word and leading the people astray, that blessing becomes a curse for the people.

So God says the priestly ministry will be cursed; indeed, that it already is.

The priestly lineage also will be cursed: we read in verse 3 that God will rebuke their descendants. Recalling that a fundamental aspect of covenant life is blessing for "you and for your seed," God is striking a severe blow here. He is basically threatening to cut these priests off from the covenant. If they do not take it to heart, if they do not turn to God and give Him glory, they will be removed from their place of service.

And then the priests themselves will be cursed. God continues in verse 3, "I will spread refuse on your faces, the refuse of your solemn feasts; and one will take you away with it."

What a graphic statement. The word refuse here can refer broadly to all the unclean animal innards, or more specifically to animal dung. In either case, it refers to the unclean waste which was taken outside the camp when a sacrifice was made. It was taken outside the camp, because it was not acceptable; it was considered defiled.

And God says, "This is what I'm going to spread all over your face." And not just a little bit. It's going to be the refuse of their solemn feasts. In other words, the times when there was the most amount sacrificing going on, and therefore the greatest amount of dung and unclean stuff - God says He's going to smear that all over their faces.

And then: "and one will take you away with it." The unclean waste upon their faces will make them unclean too. To be blunt, they will be a pile of crap. They will only be fit to be carried away. God leaves the destination here unstated, but it would readily have come to mind. I could give you several references from Exodus and Leviticus that make that clear enough. The waste was carried outside the camp and burned.

When we recognize that, we already have a premonition of what God will say later on in this book, in chapter 3. God says that He Himself, the Lord, will come to His temple, and He will be like a refiner's fire; He will purify the sons of Levi. He Himself will burn up the dross, the waste, the unclean.

And so the cutting-off process that was merely alluded to when God said He would rebuke the descendants of these priests - that is brought right to the fore here. You priests who have made light of me, who have not honoured me - you don't even know what dishonour is. You are going to become like animal waste, like dung. You're going to be cut off. Cut off, not merely from the priesthood, but cut off from life, cut off from the covenant, treated by Me as vile, as unclean, as unacceptable. No wonder that James writes, "Let not many of you be teachers, since you will be judged with stricter judgment"!

A curse of absolute futility. A ministry of curse rather than blessing. A curse to their children. And a curse to themselves. This is the commandment which God delivers up to His priests who have taken so lightly the commandments which He gave them in the law.

2. So we have considered the description of this curse. Now let us note the purpose of this curse. God makes this very clear in verse 4:

"Then you shall know that I have sent this commandment to you, that My covenant with Levi may continue, says the Lord of hosts."

"Then you shall know." When? When all of these curses come to pass. When God shames His priests, when He turns them to dung, when they are cast out - that is precisely when and where and how God will ensure that His covenant with Levi will not fall to the ground.

This sounds like a paradox. And yet this is God's way. We find this thought recur again and again in Scripture. It is only after four hundred years in Egypt, and in particular after a time of intense suffering and cruel slavery, that Israel is redeemed and made to possess the land which they were promised. It is only after the sack and ruin of Jerusalem, and being carried into captivity in Babylon, that Israel is freed from the rank idolatry which so plagued her over so many centuries. God maintains the covenant by way of judgment.

This is nowhere made clearer than when our Lord suffered for us. He bore the transgressions of many, Scripture tells us. Our sins were laid upon Him. Put another way: He took our place, the place of His people. And that place is a place of judgment.

It is judgment upon the house of Levi. For how, ultimately, does God maintain His covenant with Levi? Lord willing, we'll have opportunity to talk about this a bit more if we reach chapter 3. But we simply need to notice here that there is now no room left for the levitical order. By means of redemptive history, God exposed its poverty. These levitical priests were not what was needed. Time and again, they came under judgment, as they did here. The whole priesthood became a focal point of God's wrath. The divine sentence against them was that they were to be carried away outside the camp to be burned.

And yet it is here, congregation, where mercy meets judgment, where cursing becomes blessing, where the weakness of men becomes the power of God. For it is in the place of burning, it is outside the camp, that we are led as God's new covenant people. Listen to these words from the epistle to the Hebrews:

For the bodies of those beasts, whose blood is brought into the sanctuary by the high priest for sin, are burned outside the camp. Therefore Jesus also, that He might sanctify the people with His own blood, suffered outside the gate. Therefore let us go forth to Him, outside the camp, bearing His reproach.

You see? Christ takes up into Himself the curse upon Levi and transforms that curse into the new covenant, so that there is a way once again for true benediction. The very shame of the priesthood which God pronounces here in Malachi 2 becomes the shame of Christ; His self-emptying; His voluntary submission to the curse; His becoming nothing, as it were, so that we might become kings and priests to God. He bears this curse; He drinks this cup of wrath; He conquers this consuming fire. And in this way, the covenant of Levi continues. Not now with the physical heirs of Phinehas. But with the priest forever appointed after the order of Melchizedek, and in Him, with all of those baptized into His anointing. It continues with the One who bore this curse and transformed it into the blessing of the new covenant, the bringing in of a better hope.

It is interesting that Paul describes the apostles in the sort of language we find here in our text. The apostles, yes, the ones most deserving of honour in the new covenant, we might think. And what does Paul say? "We have been made as the filth of the world, the offscouring of all things until now." [1 Cor 4:13] This is not an offense to Paul, because he is following in the steps of his Master, who suffered outside the gate.

And I think it is fair for us to apply Paul's own words from elsewhere here too: "Follow me, or imitate me, as I also follow Christ." It is okay to be covered with shame, for if we partake of Christ's shame, we also partake of His blessing. We are a crucified Church. We are not angels with wings of gold. We are a crucified Church. Yet because we partake of Christ's sufferings, we have all confidence that we shall partake of His resurrection.

But meanwhile, we are talking about the priests of the restoration temple. Real flesh and blood people. And they are being told they are going to be burned like unclean sacrificial refuse.

3. What a word of judgment! It sounds heavy. And yet, right within this passage - and this is my final point - we have heard about the escape from this curse. It's not all relentless darkness, hopelessness. Listen again to verse 2:

If you will not hear, and if you will not take it to heart, to give glory to My name, says that Lord of hosts, I will send a curse upon you....

"If you will not hear; if you won't take it to heart." God is always seeking. His warnings are not like the cold-blooded killer who says "I'm going to kill you," just for effect, before he wastes you away. God doesn't speak these words for mere effect. He speaks them to have an effect. They are meant to drive His priests to repentance. And that is God's mercy. He will not maintain covenant with unrepentant rebels. But He seeks their repentance. He provides them warnings, not as some hypothetical case scenario, but as a means to bind them to Himself.

That is why God speaks warnings to us too, to you and to me. They aren't hypothetical, unreal. They have your name and address on them. God comes to you and says: "I have placed you in My covenant, and I want you to remain there. Hear Me. Walk with Me in faith and faithfulness. If you don't, you'll be cut off. So cling to Jesus Christ, in whom is safety. And My covenant with you will continue."

That's God's goal here: that the covenant with Levi may continue. That's what He says, after all, in verse 4: "Then you shall know that I have sent this commandment to you, that My covenant with Levi may continue, says the Lord of hosts."

Even in the judgment, God will leave a remnant for Himself, to bear witness to His righteousness. And the effect of that is: then you shall know. You will give me the glory that you have not been taking to heart. You see? God is a fighter. He is a fighter for His covenant. And He does not fight in vain. He will be glorified in the earth. He will have a people, a priestly nation for Himself.

Amen.

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