Reading Scripture with John Calvin: Malachi 2.6–9

Malachi 2.6–9

[6] “True instruction was in his mouth and nothing false was on his [Levi’s] lips. He walked with me in peace and uprightness, and turned many from sin. [7] For the lips of a priest ought to preserve knowledge, because he is the messenger of the LORD Almighty and people seek instruction from his mouth. [8] But you have turned from the way and by your teaching have caused many to stumble; you have violated the covenant with Levi,” says the LORD Almighty. [9] “So I have caused you to be despised and humiliated before all the people, because you have not followed my ways but have shown partiality in matters of the law.”

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COMMENTARY: Calvin is preoccupied in his commentary on these verses to explain the failings of the priests against whom Malachi’s prophetic word comes and, as the flip-side of that indictment, to sketch a picture of what a proper priestly ministry looks like. Implicitly – and explicitly at various points – this material is a criticism of Roman Catholic clergy. The central factor that Calvin focuses on, taking his cue from the passage, is the teaching office that accompanies proper priestly ministry.

Calvin begins by emphasizing the “mutual” or “reciprocal” (523) character of the covenant made between God and Levi (who stands in for the hereditary line of the Jewish priesthood). Calling back to verse 5, Calvin points out that this covenant was one of “life and peace, because the Levites had found that God was in every respect kind and bountiful, whenever they performed their parts” (523). Things can change, however, if the priests fail to keep their end of the deal. But what does it mean for the priests to do their part? Moving to verse 6, Calvin writes that “the chief duty of a priest is to show the right way of living to the people” (525). This does mean simply living a proper life; rather, “Levi taught the people” (my emphasis, 525). To faithfully exercise the office of priest and thereby to maintain the reciprocal covenant with God must include providing instruction to the people. As Calvin elaborates: “nothing is more preposterous, or even more ridiculous, than that those should be counted as priests who are no teachers. These two things are, as they say, inseparable – the office of the priesthood and teaching” (525). This is a clear assault on the medieval status quo since the majority of Roman clergy did not teach. Mass would be said in Latin and generally without a homily. If commoners heard sermons, they would have been delivered by members of the different mendicant orders who would travel around preaching. For his part, Calvin understands preaching and teaching to be the central task given to church leaders.

This emphasis continues in the discussion of verse 7. Calvin understands this verse to mean that the priests’ lips should act as a “store-house” of truth, not in the sense that it should stay locked up there but in the sense that everyone comes there to get it. The image that Calvin paints is of a pantry or wine-cellar in the house where victuals are stored by the house’s master so that all those in the house can be nourished. Furthermore, this verse speaks of priests as messengers of God. Calvin takes this opportunity to further emphasize that being a priest and engaging in teacher are inextricably linked. Indeed, “it is a monstrous thing when any one boasts himself to be a priest, when he is no teacher” (528).

A negative shift occurs in verse 8, moving from the positive depiction of Levi to the indictment of the priests in Malachi’s day. Calvin likewise makes a negative shift. He identifies how verse 8 mirrors in negative fashion what have been said positively about Levi: Levi enjoyed peace and righteousness while these priests depart from the path; Levi turned many from sin while these priests cause many to stumble.

The problem, identified in verse 9, is that the priests had “shown partiality in matters of law” (above trans.). In my mind, given the context of Malachi, this suggests that they did not apply the law equally to all people but perhaps favored the wealthy and oppressed the poor. This would fit with the material at the end of chapter two and beginning of chapter three. Calvin instead argues that the partiality in play here is preference for themselves, that is, the priests have elevated their own status and arrogated to themselves the prerogatives of God: “the priests in vain glorified in the honour of their office, for they had ceased to be priests of God” (529).

I think Calvin gets a little too far from Malachi in this train of thought, but it makes sense in his context. For Calvin, as for Luther, the problem with Roman Catholicism is the way that clergy had taken it upon themselves to bind the people’s conscience with laws and observances, purgatory, indulgences, etc., holding one’s salvation hostage at gun-point (as it were). As a counterpoint, Calvin and the Reformation maintain that only God can bind consciences and that clergy have only subordinate authority. So Calvin in the present discussion: “Priests are not to abuse their right, as though the highest power were granted to them; for God will not have his Church subject to tyranny, but his will is to reign alone in it through the ministry of men” (530).

PRAYER:

(Calvin concludes each of his lectures on Malachi with a prayer.)
Grant, Almighty God, that since thou has deigned to take us as a priesthood to thyself, and hast chosen us when we were not only of the lowest condition, but even profane and alien to all holiness, and hast consecrated us to thyself by the Holy Spirit, that we may offer ourselves as holy victims to thee, - O grant, that we may bear in mind our office and our calling, and sincerely devote ourselves to thy service, and so present to thee our efforts and our labours, that they name may be truly glorified in us, and that it may really appear that we have been ingrafted into the body of thy only-begotten Son; and as he is the chief and the only true and perpetual priest, may we become partakers of that priesthood with which thou hast been pleased to honour him, so that he may take us as associates to himself; and may thus thy name be perpetually glorified by the whole body as well as by the head. - Amen

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