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The corruption of the Levitical covenant

A sermon on Malachi 2.8-9


by Tim Gallant

Congregation of Christ,

Restoration often means gratitude. Lose your house to fire, and you are very joyful to get another one. Lose your savings, and you are presumably grateful when the Lord blesses you with renewed wealth.

When the children of Judah were carried away to Babylon in 587 B.C., the temple in Jerusalem was levelled to the ground. The priests and Levites were de facto removed from their places of honour and service, and banished to a far country without their respected official functions which God had placed in their hands.

But God was merciful to His people and to His priests. He ultimately put it into Cyrus' heart to send people back to the promised land to rebuild the temple of the Lord. Consequently, myriads of priests returned to Canaan. The second temple was completed, by God's grace, and the temple service was resumed.

But as we have seen in the opening two chapters of Malachi, the expected gratitude and joy was short-lived. As decades passed and new generations of priests arose, those empty years in Babylon became forgotten. And the priests lost interest in their work as worship; they became functionaries vying for a living. They fell away from the enthusiastic and careful service which springs from a heart of gratitude.

In Malachi 2:8-9, we arrive at God's indictment and verdict against these priests. God defends the covenant of Levi by exposing His priests. We notice four things in these two verses: first, the priests' apostasy; second, the priests' effect on the people; third, the priests' effect on the covenant; and fourth, the priests' effect on themselves.

1. God defends the covenant of Levi by exposing His priests. Let's consider the priests' apostasy. What is apostasy? It means, falling away, a turning away. In verse 8, God says, "But you have departed from the way."

You will recall that in the preceding verses, particularly verses 5 and 6, God has spoken of the history of the Levites. He has reminded the priests of the good beginning there had been in His relationship to the Levites. And one of the things that is said is that Levi "walked with Me in peace and equity" (v. 6).

He "walked with Me." That implies a path, a way. And now God says, "you have departed from the way." You are not walking with Me. Oh, you are still holding down your office. You still wear the priestly vestments and collect the priestly wage. You're still identified with My cause and My temple.

But you aren't walking with Me.

You see, God is not satisfied with a "professional relationship." There are serious outward faults in the actions of the priests, but when God begins His indictment, He begins at the very heart of things: "You are not walking with Me." Beyond all the symptoms, penetrating to the heart of the matter, the priests have abandoned their walk with God. They have "departed from the way."

It is precisely failure at this level that leads to the failure at the other levels. If the priests had been walking with God, the specific faults which God attacks in Malachi 1-2 would not have been much of a temptation. If your focus is upon serving God, you will doubtless sin, you will doubtless stumble, but you will repent. You will exert effort in order to please God. You will not find His service and His commandments to be burdensome.

But the priests here are not seeking first the kingdom of God and His righteousness. The priesthood has beome a career.

And the consequence is that where the heart is, what fills the heart, flows out into the stuff of life. So at the end of verse 9, God says that "you have not kept My ways, but have shown partiality in the law."

We saw this in chapter 1, didn't we? The priests were accepting substandard sacrifices. The people were bringing lame, sick, maimed animals, and the priests were accepting these as offerings.

Why would they do that? There are a number of reasons why they might do so. Doubtless, the sick animals were accepted for whole burnt offerings, since nobody ate them anyway. This meant that the "worshipper" had made a sacrifice and had managed to get rid of an animal he didn't want.

As for the lame animals - well, despite a lower market value, they tasted the same. The priest would still get his share of meat. And by allowing the people to bring such lower-valued animals, the priests made it more likely that there would be higher participation in worship. Less sacrifice on the part of the worshipper, after all. And in the long run, it seems obvious that if there is higher participation, there will be more food for the priests. It's a nice economic transaction: the worshipper gets to cull the lower-valued animals from his herd, and the priests get a good supply of meat.

Well, thinking about this carefully will allow us to see that this is a form of bribery. The priests were to enforce the law of God; they were not allowed to decide for themselves that they could lower the standards. Imperfect animals are not acceptable offerings, under the law. So by compromising with the people, by accepting these offerings, the priests were violating God's Word for the sake of their own convenience and their own bellies.

There were other ways, as well, that the priests were showing illegitimate partiality. If you read Nehemiah 13, you will discover that Eliashib the priest had allowed the ungodly Tobiah to move into the temple storehouse. Why? Because he was an ally. We find out a little later that Eliashib's son had married Tobiah's buddy Sanballat's daughter. A wonderful faction going on. And the result was that Tobiah got the use of the temple storerooms as living quarters, which he had no right to.

There is a temptation for us to have a notion form in the back of our minds that the minister ought to go easy on us because he knows us and likes us. If he is a family member, or a friend, he won't say too much about the sins which are peculiar to us. If we have friends or family among the eldership, we can get disproportionate representation: the fact that I like the service to be at such-and-such a time is more important than the fact that five other people think otherwise. More seriously, even though my son or my daughter is openly flaunting household authority and doing things which are in clear violation of the Word of God, I can expect the leadership to back off, because of who I am.

Showing partiality in the law. The Word of God has its wings clipped, because of personal bias.

No, congregation, this is not good. It is ungodly. We must love the ways of the Lord, and we must welcome the chastening of the Lord, even when it comes from the hand of a friend. For when the Lord chastens us, He reminds us that we are legitimate children, that He cares for us enough to discipline us. God forbid, then, that a minister default in this area of service, because then he is lying about God. He is saying that God will not discipline us.

2. And that leads us directly into our second point. God defends the covenant of Levi by exposing His priests, namely, the priests' effect upon the people. God's second statement in verse 8 is, "You have caused many to stumble at the law." Because of your example and your ungodly leadership, people are tripping over the Word of God. By implying that God will not discipline His people, you are encouraging them to become willful and disobedient.

"Causing many to stumble" is, as you can readily see, in contrast to the good example of an earlier generation of priests. In verse 6, God says that in the beginning, Levi "turned many away from iniquity." The priestly actions were decisive and clearly based upon fidelity to what God had said. They carried out discipline faithfully, without respect to whether they were dealing with friends, cousins, or even brothers. They were concerned about God's glory among the people, and the result was that they caused the people to return to the Lord.

But when there is laxity, when there is partiality in the law, the people stumble at that law.

Now, we may object: it was the people's own lusts which caused them to want to offer substandard sacrifices to begin with. It was the people's own lusts which caused them to sin in all manner of ways. That was not caused by the priests.

But while that is true, it overlooks the fact that the priest, like the minister of the Word and the elder today, had a responsibility regarding the people of God. As we saw last time, the priest was "a messenger of the LORD of hosts" (v. 7). So too, Ezekiel was told that if he failed to warn the wicked of his wicked way, the wicked man would die for his sins, but that his blood would be upon Ezekiel's head, because the man was under his spiritual care. Likewise, the writer to Hebrews [13:17] admonishes the saints, "Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account." The rulers of the church are guardians of the souls of the people, and they give account for that guardianship.

We may not like that idea. We live in an individualistic age. But that is our problem. God calls the leaders of the church to account; He holds them responsible to bring the Word of God faithfully before the people.

That's why Paul is so emphatic in Acts 20, when he gives his farewell to the Ephesian elders. He says that he kept back nothing that was helpful; that he laboured publicly and from house to house, and as the climax to this recounting of his ministry among them, he says, "Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all men, for I have not shunned to declare to you the whole counsel of God" (Acts 20:26-27).

Paul knew that the ministry meant accountability. He knew that it meant responsibility. The ministry is not merely a vocation. It is a mandate given by God, in which responsibility for the flock is laid upon a human being. That is a fearful thing, and church leaders need to take it seriously. And the flock needs to take it seriously, by a walk of godly obedience, so that the responsibility can be borne with joy rather than grief.

It is interesting that this indictment here sounds so much like the indictment which Ezekiel had sounded in Ezekiel 44:12, about 150 years previously. Regarding the priests, this verse says: "'Because they ministered to them before their idols and caused the house of Israel to fall into iniquity, therefore I have lifted My hand in an oath against them,' says the LORD God, 'that they shall bear their iniquity.'"

In Ezekiel, God is talking about idolatry in the priesthood. But here in Malachi, God is implying that while the priests are formally worshipping Him, yet in truth, by their actions they are treating Him like just another idol of the surrounding nations. And because of that, they are causing Israel to fall into iniquity. They are causing God's people to stumble in the law. Because the people can no longer recognize who God is, in His holiness and absolute glory.

And we all know what happens when the people stumble at the law. They are destroyed; they are cursed; they are judged. We saw this when we looked at verses 1-4 of this chapter. When the priests were pronouncing the blessing upon the people, that blessing was turned to cursing, because the people had come to follow the wicked example set by the priests.

This is what God says in Hosea 4:6: "My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge." That is what is on the hands of these priests. Instead of leading the people in the ways of the Lord, the priests are giving in to the lowest common denominator. The people are selfish and weak and sinful, and so, instead of taking the trouble to fight against the current, the priests maintain their position by caving in. And the result is that the people's sin feeds upon itself, and they come under the judgment of God. They stumble and fall, because the priests refuse to lead.

3. What does all of this mean? God speaks here of the priests' effect upon the covenant itself.

We saw last time that the covenant of Levi was a charge that God gave the priests to keep. What happens if they do not keep that charge? God says here at the end of verse 8, "'You have corrupted the covenant of Levi,' says the LORD of hosts."

When God says that they have corrupted the covenant, He isn't merely saying that they have done wrong, that they have sinned. To corrupt a covenant means that you have violated its terms. It means that you have nullified the covenant with reference to any claim you may have upon its blessings; the curses of the covenant belong to you.

In other words, a covenant can be broken. There is a common tendency to view a covenant as inviolable. As some sort of abstract guarantee. "If I'm in the covenant, I'm safe. God's going to bless me, no matter what."

Well, that's probably what these priests thought too. "We are Levites. That means that by right the covenant of Levi belongs to us, as it has from generation to generation. The people owe us a living through their offerings, and God owes us blessing, because He has made us covenant promises."

And God says: "You're dreaming. That's not how My covenant works. It's My covenant, and I dictate the terms. You cannot shrug off your responsibilities that I have given you, and pretend that everything is all right. You have violated my stipulations; you have broken the covenant. As far as you are concerned, the covenant is nullified, and its blessings are suspended."

Congregation, God has given us wonderful promises in His Word. But promises require a response. Every covenant has two parts. God calls upon us to fear Him, by living before Him in faith and faithfulness. He isn't telling us to "earn our salvation." But He does tell us that we belong to Him, our lives belong to Him. And if we turn away from Him, if we depart from His way, we should not fool ourselves into thinking that all is well. Judgment awaits.

4. Well, if the covenant has been nullified and the blessings suspended for these wicked priests, we see that we can speak about the priests' effect upon themselves. Their sins are not merely hurting others. No, ultimately their sins are self-defeating. They hurt themselves.

That passage from Hosea 4 that we quoted earlier has quite a bit more to say. The passage as a whole is actually directed toward the priests, not toward the people. After saying that "My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge," God continues: "Because you have rejected knowledge, I also will reject you from being priest for Me; because you have forgotten the law of your God, I also will forget your children. The more they increased, the more they sinned against me; I will change their glory into shame. They eat up the sin of My people; they set their heart on their iniquity. And it shall be: like people, like priest. So I will punish them for their ways, and reward them for their deeds."

In Hosea 4, God is rejecting these wicked men, casting them out from the priesthood. This is total: He says, "I also will forget your children." In other words, the whole line of priestly descent will be removed from you.

"I will change their glory into shame." They like to maintain their position by compromise and all manner of evil work, but I know how to humiliate them. Even as they have despised My glory, so I will despise theirs. Or, as God says in verse 9 of our Malachi text, "Therefore I also have made you contemptible and base before all the people." The sense here is one of continued or intended action: "I am making you contemptible and base." That is what God is working on: bringing these complacent priests down from their place of respectability and honour, and covering their faces with feces, to borrow the concepts we find in verse 3.

The culmination of it all in the Hosea passage: "And it shall be: like people, like priest." In other words, even as judgment fell upon the people for their sins, the priests should not be foolish enough to think that they are immune. If the people are destroyed for the lack of knowledge, as verse 6 says, how much more will the priests be destroyed for perverting knowledge! They will be cast out, cursed, and humiliated.

Do you notice the irony there? The priests thought that they could buy the love and respect of the people by letting them have their way. Give the people what they want and get them on your side. And what is God's judgment? "You're becoming contemptible and base before all the people."

You see, God ensures that sin is a lousy shortcut. It may seem convenient for a time to "let things slide," to allow people to go their own way without reproof. It may seem convenient to let your children have their own way. Sound discipline is hard work. It may seem convenient to go along with whatever activities and conversations your unbelieving friends and acquaintances may be involved in. It may appear that this is the way that you can win their confidence and respect.

But real respect requires integrity. It requires that you place your feet firmly upon the Word of God. If you lead without integrity, you will not get real respect. Real respect for church leadership arises when faithfulness to the Word of God is set above all else. Any other sort of "respect" is nothing more than an illusion.

So how are all these warnings against the priests fulfilled? I believe that we get quite a bit of the picture in Ezra and Nehemiah. We discover in those books that there was a major re-ordering among the priests during those days. God upheld the covenant of Levi, both by bringing about repentance, and by expelling and humiliating wicked priests.

Here are a couple of examples. In Ezra 10:18-19, we find that Ezra causes the repentance of priests and Levites who had intermarried with pagan women. It is a costly repentance: he makes them put away these wives, and to offer trespass offerings to the Lord.

In the book of Nehemiah, there is more severe judgment. We noted earlier that the priest Eliashib had allowed his ally Tobiah to move into the temple storerooms. He gets mud on the face when Nehemiah comes along and throws all of Tobiah's belongings into the street (Neh. 13:8). No negotiation. Not so much as an eviction notice. Eliashib's authority in the temple is undercut by the godly governor. And what is more, Nehemiah then makes new levitical appointments to take care of the temple storehouse (13:13). This probably means that Eliashib gets the boot altogether, but at the very least, it means that he loses face and he loses authority. God is not mocked.

And finally, near the end of Nehemiah 13, Nehemiah drives away one of Eliashib's sons from his presence, because he had become a son-in-law to the wicked Sanballat. To see the significance of that, we have to remember again who Nehemiah was. He wasn't a nobody. He was the official governor. Being driven from his presence was humiliating: it put a mark upon you as an undesirable. God removes the glory from these priests. He makes them contemptible and base before all the people.

Congregation, the way of the gospel often seems like the way of shame. It is the way of laying down one's life; it is the way of the cross. Like these priests in Malachi's day, we are often tempted to look for an easier way, a way of compromise. But God is true to His covenant. We can be assured that His Word is our one sure guide. Those who abandon that Word in favour of gaining the applause of men will not prosper in the end. They will be humiliated, they will be brought down.

The way of the cross is also the way of Christ. And Christ is our all. In Him, and in Him alone, is the place of true blessing. If we gain the whole world but lose our own soul; if we gain the whole world but lose Christ - we have gained nothing. Let us then be content to enter into fellowship with Christ's sufferings, that we may also be partakers of His glory.

Amen.

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