Quite often Malachi 3:8-10 will be invoked in a sermon series on stewardship.
It makes for a powerful message due to its strong accusation in verses 8-9. “Will anyone rob God? Yet you are robbing me!” the prophet declares on God’s behalf.
“But you say, ‘How are we robbing you?'” Malachi continues. “In your tithes and offerings! You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing me – the whole nation of you!”
Then, in verse 10, the prophet offers instructions on how to repent – “Bring the full tithe into the storehouse so that there may be food in my house” – followed by a wonderful promise – “See if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing.”
This text seems perfect for a stewardship sermon. It encourages giving as the means to unlock the door to God’s bounty for the church and for each individual.
If you will bring the “full tithe” into God’s storehouse, you will no longer be considered a robber of God and will receive blessings from God. But to what did the “full tithe” refer in ancient Israel?
There are different tithes for different purposes that are found in the Old Testament, and it can be difficult to distinguish them.
For instance, Numbers 18 provides a tithe for the Levites because they were the only tribe not to receive a portion of the land. The other tribes tithed to provide for the Levites in return for their service.
Deuteronomy does not seem to mention this tithe, but provides a tithe for the annual festivals and celebrations the Israelites observed (see Deuteronomy 14:22-26).
The Levites are included in another tithe, collected every third year, which also provided for “the resident aliens, the orphans, and the widows in your towns” (see Deuteronomy 14:27-29).
Are the tithes in Deuteronomy in addition to the tithe in Numbers 18 or in place of it? How many tithes are required – one, two or three?
Consensus seems to be that there were two annual tithes and every third year an additional tithe was collected for the poor.
It’s the tithe collected every three years that I think provides the key to understanding Malachi. In fact, Deuteronomy 14:28 calls this the full tithe.
There is more. The context of the Malachi text is a warning to Israel about the coming “Day of the Lord,” when God will judge the nations.
The two kingdoms, Israel and Judah, were conquered and sent into exile because of idolatry and because they failed to take care of their poor.
Malachi tells post-exilic Israel that it still exists, not because of the faithfulness of their ancestors, but because of Yahweh’s faithfulness (see Malachi 3:1).
But on the Day of the Lord all nations will be judged, including Israel. And for what will the nations be judged?
Malachi 3:5 lists several reasons – sorcery, adultery, false witness, oppressing day laborers, widows and orphans, and casting aside the immigrant. This is the language of Deuteronomy 14.
Don’t do these things that your ancestors did, which led to the destruction and exile of the nation, God says. Return to me, he implores.
When Israel asks how they shall return – of what things they need to repent – God, through Malachi, replies with the familiar passage quoted above.
It’s important to note that Malachi isn’t addressed to individual Israelites, telling them that individual charity is the way to care for the poor in their towns. Rather, it’s addressed to the nation (see Malachi 3:9).
All the nations will be judged by their treatment of the poor. If a nation exploits, ignores or does not provide for them, that nation will stand condemned before the Lord.
But if a nation has compassion upon the poor, providing and seeking justice for them, the Lord will pour out his blessings upon that nation, giving it his protection and prosperity.
This message is not unique to Malachi. It underlies the Law of Moses and all of the Hebrew prophets proclaimed it, including Jesus.
In the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31-46), Jesus says that when the nations are gathered for judgment on the Day of the Lord, the criterion by which each nation will be judged will be its treatment of “the least of these.”
This is the message of the full tithe.
I am sure that the Lord is happy when we give generously to support the church, and most churches are deserving of every dollar they receive – but that is not really the message of Malachi.
When we don’t share the real message, we run the risk of putting our churches and our nation at risk of God’s condemnation.
Larry Eubanks is the pastor of First Baptist Church of Frederick, Md. A longer version of this article first appeared on his website and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @EubanksLarry.