Should a human try to cheat God?
We are nearing the end of our study in Malachi. Today we’re going to look at the second to last, the 5th of 6 disputes in Malachi, and next week we’ll be wrapping it up.
Something Mike brought up last week is how when we decided to study this book, we really weren’t expecting it to be so practical, to find so much application to daily life in Malachi, the last of the minor prophets.
And the passage we’re going to look at this week is no exception to this; the issue it addresses is a very practical topic, though, like each of these disputes, it’s not a topic that’s always comfortable for everybody. But that element of discomfort is something that comes with the territory when studying the prophets.
Before we dive into today’s passage, let’s quickly review the 4 disputes we’ve read so far. Remember, they’re all like arguments between God and his people.
So, those are the 4 topics we’ve looked at so far, let’s find out what the 5th one is going to be.
Let’s read through the whole passage together:
Malachi 3:6–12 (NLT): 6 “I am Yahweh, and I do not change. That is why you descendants of Jacob are not already destroyed. 7 Ever since the days of your ancestors, you have scorned my decrees and failed to obey them. Now return to me, and I will return to you,” says Yahweh of Heaven’s Armies. “But you ask, ‘How can we return when we have never gone away?’ 8 “Should people cheat God? Yet you have cheated me! “But you ask, ‘What do you mean? When did we ever cheat you?’ “You have cheated me of the tithes and offerings due to me. 9 You are under a curse, for your whole nation has been cheating me. 10 Bring all the tithes into the storehouse so there will be enough food in my Temple. If you do,” says Yahweh of Heaven’s Armies, “I will open the windows of heaven for you. I will pour out a blessing so great you won’t have enough room to take it in! Try it! Put me to the test! 11 Your crops will be abundant, for I will guard them from insects and disease. Your grapes will not fall from the vine before they are ripe,” says Yahweh of Heaven’s Armies. 12 “Then all nations will call you blessed, for your land will be such a delight,” says Yahweh of Heaven’s Armies.
What is God accusing Israel of here? In verse 8, he says they’ve cheated him. What have they cheated him of? The tithes and offerings due to him.
So, we’re going to talk about what that means, but first let’s look at how he leads up to this statement, this accusation.
I started reading in verse 6, which we actually already looked at last week. “I am Yahweh, and I do not change, that is why you are not already destroyed.” That statement serves as a transition, from the previous dispute to this one. It works well as a conclusion to the message about God’s judgement, and his justice, and the coming “day of Yahweh.”
But it also gives a good introduction, or transition, into the next thought. He says “I am Yahweh, and I do not change, that is why you descendants of Jacob are not already destroyed.” Why would they be destroyed? Verse 7 explains: “Ever since the days of your ancestors, you have scorned my decrees, and failed to obey them.”
So, he’s basically saying they’ve never been faithful, from the very beginning they have scorned him and repeatedly broken their covenant with him.
When God says, basically, you deserve to be destroyed but I’ve spared you, that sounds familiar doesn’t it? It’s a continuation of the same thread that began in the very first dispute: it’s the idea that it’s only because of God’s love and mercy that Israel even exists at this point. And God’s saying here that who he is, his nature, never changes.
That’s an important fact. When God makes a statement about himself, a statement about God, by God, we should pay attention. That’s theological GOLD! And the theological term we have for the fact that God never changes is “immutability.” God is immutable. That’s important in this context, because it shows that it’s the people who have changed, who have turned away from God, it’s the people who are fickle and quick to abandon their commitments, not God. God doesn’t change.
And that’s important for US, because it’s why we can study who God is, using these ancient texts, reading about how he interacted with Israel thousands of years ago, and know that we’re studying and learning and getting to know the same God who is alive and present and active in our world today. And HE hasn’t changed. That’s amazing! Yet it’s something I think we often take for granted, especially when reading the Old Testament. People change, culture changes, circumstances and governments and technology and pretty much everything about the world changes, except God. That’s actually, to me, a very comforting thought. In a world that is otherwise filled with uncertainty, we can be certain about God.
So, that’s verse 6 and the first half of verse 7. God says “I haven’t changed, but you’ve scorned me. You’ve turned away from me.” So, what are we going to do about that? Obviously Israel has deserved to be destroyed many times over, but obviously God doesn’t want that for them. And he doesn’t follow this up with “But I’ve given you enough chances, your time’s up, it’s time for you to go “poof!” “splat!” “zap!” That’s probably what MY response would be, because I just don’t have the level of patience that God does.
But no, what does he say? He gives them a call to action, saying: “Return to me, and I will return to you.” He’s saying “I’m right here! I want to be with you, but you don’t have my blessing and my protection because you’ve left me. Turn around, turn away from your wickedness, and turn towards me, and I will love you and accept you and forgive you.
That’s amazing! And it’s the same thing he’s asked for time after time again, whenever they abandon him, this is the core, underlying call to action in pretty much every prophetic message. It’s a call to repentance.
That word, translated here as “return” is the Hebrew word “shuvu.” (שׁ֤וּבוּ) “shuv” literally means to turn, or turn back, or return. And it’s the standard word for “repent” in Hebrew, so when you see the word “repent” it literally means to turn around and go back. To return to God.
(shuvu is simply the 2nd person plural form: “y’all repent”)
So God, very mercifully, very heartbreakingly, is calling for his people to return to him. It’s like a spouse begging for an unfaithful partner to come back, saying “I still want you. Return to me.”
And what’s their response? Gratitude? Remorse? Repentance? No. It’s a retort. Like we had back at the beginning, when God said “I have loved you.” The people’s response was “pshhh how have you loved us?” And here, it’s just so bratty! They say “repent? Return? How can we return to you when we never left?” They’re in complete denial!
And it’s not just that they’re ignoring God, they’re actively wronging him, which is explained in verse 8. First, God says “should people cheat God? Yet you have cheated me.” That’s a great question. The answer, it’s a rhetorical question “should people cheat God?” the answer is obviously “NO!” I think it’s kind of a cheeky way of saying “it’s a really bad idea to cheat God!” He’s God! It would be really stupid to cheat him! And yet, you have cheated me.
Again, they retort “What do you mean? “When did we ever cheat you?” They’re oblivious. And they’re essentially accusing God of falsely accusing them.
So then, in the end of verse 8, he spells it out very plainly: “You have cheated me of the tithes and offerings due to me.” That is their sin. They haven’t been giving to God what they owe him. Their tithes and offerings. What does that mean?
First of all, the word “tithe” which is still a word we use today in churchianity, it’s a “churchy,” sort of old-timey word (actually comes from old, medieval English), but it literally just means “tenth” or “a tenth portion” of something. The CSB actually translates this verse (verse 8) differently, and I appreciate it because it’s less traditional but more clear as to the literal meaning. It says:
Will a man rob God? Yet you are robbing me!” “How do we rob you?” you ask. “By not making the payments of the tenth and the contributions.
Payments of the tenth and the contributions. Tithes and offerings. Where are these concepts coming from?
Remember, each of these disputes relates to how Israel has broken their covenant with God. And this was part of the covenant, which we can find back in Leviticus and Numbers and Deuteronomy. This was part of their covenant law since the time of Moses and the Exodus. This is part of what defined them.
And there are really two different concepts, related but slightly different. You have the tenth, or the tithe, and then you have little more ambiguous word: the offerings, or contributions, and I want to talk about both. So let’s start with the tenth. This shows up all over Leviticus and Numbers and Deuteronomy, but I think the most concise statement that defines it is here:
Leviticus 27:30 (CSB):30 “Every tenth of the land’s produce, grain from the soil or fruit from the trees, belongs to Yahweh; it is holy to Yahweh.
So the tenth was just a specified amount, established by God as the amount they should set aside and dedicate to God, from the fruits of their labor…the produce of their crops, which essentially was their wealth and livelihood.
What’s interesting about the tenth is that it was actually meant to be set aside, not to be destroyed or wasted or even completely given away! It was meant to be stored up for the community, and eaten later, in the presence of God as a reminder of their relationship with him and to fear him. So they still got to eat the tithes themselves! Some of it would also get shared with the Levites, the priests, because the idea was for the whole community to participate in this.
So, the tithe was officially instituted and codified under Mosaic law. However, that’s not where it started as a practice or a tradition. It seems this was just a formalization of a practice that was already a common part of their culture and their worship.
The first place we see it in the Bible is actually way back with Abraham, in Genesis 14. It was when he was journeying, he had just won some battles, and he this super awesome and mysterious guy named Melchizedek came to meet him…he was an immortal priest king who…he’s fascinating…but we can’t get into all that now. So Abraham meets Melchizedek, recognizes him as a servant of Yahweh, and wants to honor him:
Genesis 14:19–20 (CSB):19 He blessed him and said: Abram is blessed by God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth, 20 and blessed be God Most High who has handed over your enemies to you. And Abram gave him a tenth of everything.
Jacob also pledged a tenth of everything he had to God in Genesis 28. When we get to the law of the tenth instituted in the time of Moses, we should realize that it would have been a culturally recognizable act of honor and submission, and recognition of God as their king to whom they paid tribute.
So, the tenth was a tenth of their wealth, specifically their crops, and it functioned as a reminder to serve and worship Yahweh as their king.
What about the contributions, or offerings?
The offerings were personal contributions that each person made according to what they could give. There was no specific number or percentage for what they should give; those who had more were expected to give more! And everything they gave went towards supporting the Levites, because they served in the temple and didn’t grow any food or herd any cattle. It also went to support any non-Levites who for any reason didn’t have land or otherwise couldn’t support themselves. So that would include widows, orphans, disabled people, etc. In that sense, the economic model that God prescribed to Jewish society was very much a socialist distribution of wealth and community support. But, with God as the ultimate authority.
Anyway, the point here is that the “freewill offerings” or “contributions” went beyond just the tenth. And it was meant to be given without any coercion or spite, rather out of gratitude and generosity and a sense of responsibility to their community.
The practice of the tenth and the contributions had purpose both spiritually and physically. It focused people on their relationship with God, and, very importantly, was a recognition that everything they had was given to them BY God, and they were merely caretakers of it. And it did all this while serving tangible, physical needs. God’s pretty smart!
But, Israel wasn’t following this design at all. And we’ve already talked about how God is wanting them to repent of this sin. There is a sort of urgency, a demand to respond in some way, and he expounds on that in the next few verses. But before we get into that, I want to pause for a minute and ask “why does any of this matter to us?” “what’s the application here?”
Now, that’s not necessarily a question you always need to be asking when reading the Bible, but I did make a comment earlier about how practical this book turned out to be, so I do want to make sure we understand the practicality of this message.
When looking at Old Testament teachings and practices, as Jesus followers, we want to ask “how did Jesus explain this?” or “how did Jesus’s followers live this out in the first century, as a mix of Jews and non-Jews?”
And, fortunately for us, it’s actually quite clear how Jesus felt about this topic, as well as how his followers lived these principles out in the very early days of the church.
First, let’s look at a pretty famous little snippet, a quick story you can find in Mark:
Mark 12:41–44 (CSB):41 Sitting across from the temple treasury, he watched how the crowd dropped money into the treasury.
So, “he,” being Jesus, is literally just sitting and watching people put their offerings, their contributions, into a collection box, basically. What does he observe?
Many rich people were putting in large sums. 42 Then a poor widow came and dropped in two tiny coins worth very little. 43 Summoning his disciples, he said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. 44 For they all gave out of their surplus, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had—all she had to live on.”
There are a couple things to observe from this. First, it was just a given that the people would be continuing to practice this tradition of giving offerings to the temple. They had a very elaborate religious system set up at this point, which of course had plenty of problems, but this was one of the things they were expected to do. And at this point in their society, the contributions weren’t based just on the physical crops and animals, because this was a more urban context, and their wealth had become largely liquidated and monetized. But they still contributed out of their wealth, in whatever form that took.
But the big point, the main idea that Jesus reveals here is that God doesn’t care about the amount being given, he cares about the motives and the generosity of the giver.
So, what does this all look like in practice, in a post-ascension, Christian, non-Jewish society? To get the answer to that, we can turn to Acts.
Acts 4:32–35 (CSB):32 Now the entire group of those who believed were of one heart and mind, and no one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but instead they held everything in common. 33 With great power the apostles were giving testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was on all of them. 34 For there was not a needy person among them because all those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the proceeds of what was sold, 35 and laid them at the apostles’ feet. This was then distributed to each person as any had need.
Now, this was a mixed group of both Jews and non-Jews, and in this specific situation it was very soon after Jesus ascended. And a bunch of people had gathered to worship and feast in Jerusalem during Pentecost, and then this crazy event happened, where the Holy Spirit of God came to the apostles, they spread it to thousands of people, and those thousands of people wanted to stay in Jerusalem to learn more about Jesus from the apostles. So it was a rather unique, sudden community that was formed, with unique and sudden needs. But all those who believed recognized this principle that nothing was really their own, so they did whatever it took to make sure that everyone had what they needed, and they relied on the apostles to help organize all that.
So, this shows a sort of continuation of that idea of making contributions based on what you have, but it’s really even more extreme! They sold their land and their houses in this case, so they were really all in!
Now, this isn’t prescriptive for every situation. Later in acts, and in the epistles, it’s evident that there were land owners and home owners, and even very wealthy ones, who were a part of the church and were not expected to liquidate all their assets, because it just wasn’t necessary. But those who did own homes made their homes available for the church to meet in, those who had plenty were expected to share and make sure nobody went hungry, and ultimately the bottom line is not that wealth is wrong or must always be avoided, the problem is being too attached to wealth, and not recognizing that material abundance is a gift from God. It’s not wrong to have plenty, but the more you have the easier it is to become attached to it.
Let’s look at one more narrative example of this, from Jesus himself:
Mark 10:17–22 (CSB):17 As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up, knelt down before him, and asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18 “Why do you call me good?” Jesus asked him. “No one is good except God alone. 19 You know the commandments: Do not murder; do not commit adultery; do not steal; do not bear false witness; do not defraud; honor your father and mother.” 20 He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these from my youth.” 21 Looking at him, Jesus loved him and said to him, “You lack one thing: Go, sell all you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” 22 But he was dismayed by this demand, and he went away grieving, because he had many possessions.
So this is just an example of how wealth can become a trap. This guy was living out all the commandments, he was feeling good about himself for not killing people or committing adultery or robbing anyone or lying or cheating and he was honoring his parents…he’s feeling like he’s lived a really good, honorable, God-honoring life. But Jesus revealed the one trap his heart was caught in, and that was his attachment, his love of his possessions.
In 1 Timothy, Paul goes as far as to say:
1 Timothy 6:10 (CSB):10 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and by craving it, some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.
This all relates to the concept of giving, because it shows that Jesus and the apostles recognized and taught the importance of viewing ourselves as generous and faithful stewards of the assets God gave us, not hoarders or always seeking to profit from others, rather always seeking to bless others, and invest in God’s kingdom with everything we have.
And the idea of the “tenth” is something that the Jews kept doing as part of their cultural tradition, and it’s something that non-Jewish Christians have continued to view as a sort of basic guideline, a number to base their giving to the church off of. And that’s fine, and for many of us, giving away 10% of your income is a stretch, and is an act of faith! But it’s a very important act of faith. It demonstrates that you trust God with your finances and with your livelihood, rather than being proud and self-assured in your own abilities and success.
But having that numeric value of 10% is also dangerous in a way, because it can then just become a checkbox and an excuse for a moral pat on your own back. Ultimately, again, it’s not about the amount, it’s about the motives, and the heart behind it, and the willingness to be generous even to the point where it makes you uncomfortable, because it’s at that point where you’re making it about God and not about you.
I think 1 Cor 9:7 sums it up pretty well, where Paul was addressing exactly this topic to the church in Corinth:
2 Corinthians 9:7 (NLT):7 You must each decide in your heart how much to give. And don’t give reluctantly or in response to pressure. “For God loves a person who gives cheerfully.”
So, we’ve established what the tithes and offerings mean, and that conceptually they relate to how we live in community with each other today, though act of giving may vary in substance and practice depending on cultural context, the underlying purpose, motivation, and importance has not changed.
But, I want to get back to our passage in Malachi, because there are some really interesting things about how God addresses this issue, how he continues to flesh out his response to their sin of robbing him.
Let’s read verses 9-11 again:
Malachi 3:9–11 (NLT):9 You are under a curse, for your whole nation has been cheating me. 10 Bring all the tithes into the storehouse so there will be enough food in my Temple. If you do,” says the LORD of Heaven’s Armies, “I will open the windows of heaven for you. I will pour out a blessing so great you won’t have enough room to take it in! Try it! Put me to the test! 11 Your crops will be abundant, for I will guard them from insects and disease. Your grapes will not fall from the vine before they are ripe,” says the LORD of Heaven’s Armies.
This is really interesting for several reasons! First of all, he tells them they’re under a curse because of how they’ve been robbing God! What this implies is that their crops are not doing well, which traps them in a cycle of hunger and poverty, and he’s telling them it’s their own fault!
But he’s giving them the solution. He says “fill the storehouse, and I will ‘open the windows of heaven for you’” which a saying that comes from the ancient near-east view of the world, and it just means “I’ll make it rain!” literally! Make it rain, so the crops can grow and there will be abundance. A blessing “so great” he says, that “you won’t have enough room to take it in!” [that image sounds familiar doesn’t it? Something about some fishermen and a boat or two?]
Anyway, the fact that he then goes as far as to say “TRY IT! PUT ME TO THE TEST!” is really quite astonishing. It’s like he couldn’t put it next to any more of a screaming, blinking, red light, because this is totally opposite of how God normally operates! Normally, HE is the one testing people and only on a few very rare occasions in the Bible does he ever actually invite people to test him! People DO test him quite a few times, but usually uninvited, and it’s painted as a character flaw not a virtue. But here’s he’s giving an open invitation. That’s how much he actually WANTS to bless them!
God’s desire to bless his people has not changed. However it’s very important to understand what that does and doesn’t mean for us as Christians.
Honestly, it seems ridiculous to even have to say it, but unfortunately it’s necessary. The concept of giving has been twisted and corrupted by greedy humans for a long time. Most recently and famously, by very talented televangelist preachers, espousing what has become known as “prosperity theology” … the idea that the more you give to the church, the more God will bless you with material possessions.
But giving is about exactly that. Giving, not getting. Wise stewardship is a virtue, and wealth is not inherently wrong. But investing in God’s kingdom and expecting a “return” of a mansion, sports car and a yacht, is to completely misunderstand what exactly it is you’re investing in, or should be investing in at least, because the goal is not physical wealth but a spiritual return.
Give to give, not to get.
Even in God’s promise to bless Israel, it was a promise to bless them as a whole, in a very broad sense, by allowing their crops to grow, It wasn’t about making them individually wealthy.
Hardship doesn’t mean God has cursed us.
And that brings us to another important distinction I want to make relates to verse 9. God points out that they are under a “curse” because of their sin. And I just want to be clear that this particular statement, in fact both the curse and the specific details of the promised blessing of bountiful crops, those are specific to this context, these people, at that time.
Trials of various kinds are to be expected
In fact, as Christians and as humans, we know to expect hardship and trials, and even to welcome it:
James 1:2–4 (CSB):2 Consider it a great joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you experience various trials, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance. 4 And let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing.
Finally, it’s important to realize that when God does bless us with wealth and comfort, it’s for his sake. Notice how this section ends, in verse 12, after God says how he’ll bless them if they return to him, he says:
Malachi 3:12 (CSB):12 “Then all the nations will consider you fortunate, for you will be a delightful land,” says the LORD of Armies.
The implication here is, once again, that the purpose of God’s blessing isn’t just for their own sake, but to show himself to the rest of the world, and bless all the other nations through Israel, like he originally promised to Abraham.
I know we’ve kinda covered a lot of ground today, but here’s the takeaway:
Everything we have in life, from our material possessions, to our families, and our very breath, we have only because God has allowed us to. We are stewards of God’s resources on this earth. To be a faithful steward is to recognize that nothing is our own, it’s to abandon selfishness and embrace generosity. Not just in our contributions to our church family, but in every aspect of life! And it’s not just about making a donation or writing a check. It’s about living in such a way that you are constantly looking for and seizing opportunities to invest EVERY resource you have, whether it’s time, money, health, food, talents and skills, or even just “things” like a car, or…a shovel…it could be anything…looking for ways to invest what God has given us into his kingdom.
So, ask yourself today, these 3 questions:
These can be hard questions to ask, but they're heart questions and that’s what God cares about at the end of the day. What’s in your heart?
And just as a final note, if you have any follow-up questions about tithing or finances in general, feel free to ask Mike!