Reading Scripture with John Calvin: Malachi 3:4–8

Malachi 3.4–8

[4] [A]nd the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the LORD, as in days gone by, as in former years. [5] “So I will come to put you on trial. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive the foreigners among you of justice, but do not fear me,” says the LORD Almighty. [6] “I the LORD do not change. So you, the descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed. [7] Ever since the time of your ancestors you have turned away from my decrees and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you,” says the LORD Almighty. “But you ask, ‘How are we to return?’ [8] “Will a mere mortal rob God? Yet you rob me. “But you ask, ‘How are we robbing you?’ “In tithes and offerings.”

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COMMENTARY: There are three themes or units in Calvin’s commentary on this passage that jumped out at me, so I want to highlight those for you, gentle readers.

(1) In the previous section, Calvin elaborated at some length concerning the attitude that Malachi finds in the religious establishment of his day. As I outlined there, such people believe God had given up his being as judge because God is not obviously punishing the people that the establishment see as their enemies. Calvin reads Malachi as suggesting that God maintains God’s office as judge precisely by judging these leaders. All this comes back again in the context of verse 5, where God indicates that he will come to judge his people and their leaders. Calvin gives us some great language here: “They expected God to be to them like a hired soldier, ready at hand to help them in any adversity, and to come armed at their nod or pleasure to fight with their enemies: this they expected; but God declares what is of a contrary character,—that he would come for judgment.” And judgment of whom? “They indeed wished God to put on arms for their advantage, but God declares, that he would be an enemy to them” (576). Far from coming to support the religious status quo and its perpetrators by judging those that such structures themselves judge, God will come to judge precisely those who take upon themselves the task of passing judgment. Those who claim and assert that God is on their side, those who act in the name of God but nonetheless against God, will be the ones to receive God’s judgment. This reminder is as important today as it was in Calvin’s (and Malachi’s) time. And note well that verse 5 goes on to say that when God comes, God will come quickly . . .

(2) If the members of the religious establishment expect God to act as their mercenary and be on their side, but they are mistaken, this raises the question of whose side God does in fact support. Continuing with verse 5 provides an indication: God is on the side of those that the religious establishment has defrauded: those who oppress workers, widows, orphans, foreigners, and the otherwise unjust. If Calvin had written what I’m about to show you in the last few decades, rather than centuries ago, I imagine that labels such as “preferential option for the poor” and “liberation theology” would attach themselves to his position.
For the orphans, widows, and strangers, we know, are under the guardianship and protection of God, inasmuch as they are exposed to the wrongs of men. Hence every one who plunders orphans, or harasses widows, or oppresses strangers, seems to carry on open war, as it were, with God himself, who has promised that these should be safe under the shadow of his hand. (578)
But Calvin doesn’t stop there. He returns to the theme in the context of verse 8 and its comments about robbing God with reference to “tithes and offerings.” Calvin understands this as evidence of how “openly sacrilegious” (585) the majority of folks had become insofar as “every one, bent on their own profit, neglected the temple and the priests.” But this neglect has a wider aspect as well insofar as “a part [of the harvest, the wealth produced by the community] also was required for the poor.” The consequence of all this means that depriving the needy of the support that they need amounts to withholding from God. Calvin concludes his commentary on this passage with the following, which is another word that we need to hear today (bold is mine as usual):
But we know that other sacrifices are now prescribed to us; and after prayer and praises, he bids us to relieve the poor and needy. God then, no doubt, is deprived by us of his right, when we are unkind to the poor, and refuse them aid to their necessity. We indeed thereby wrong men, and are cruel; but our crime is still more heinous, inasmuch as we are unfaithful stewards; for God deals more liberally with us than with others, for this end—that some portion of our abundance may come to the poor; and as he consecrates to their use what we abound in, we become guilty of sacrilege whenever we give not to our brethren what God commands us; for we know that he engages to repay, according to what is said in Prov. Xix. 17, “He who gives to the poor lends to God.”

(3) Verse 6 is a bulwark of the doctrine of immutability, i.e., the idea that God is unchangeable. This doctrine is intended as a comfort: since God cannot change, God will always be the highest being and – this is the critical bit – therefore able to save his people. Now, the interesting thing to me here is what Calvin does with this statement. In the theological tradition there is a tendency to interpret this notion of immutability as pertaining to God’s being: the divine being is defined by certain attributes (such as omnipotence, infinity, absolute goodness, etc.) including the attribute of immutability, which safeguards the rest by ensuring (or reiterating) their eternal persistence. But Calvin does not take this approach. Rather than emphasizing the unchangeableness of God’s being, Calvin stresses the unchangeableness of God’s will: this passage means “that God continues in his purpose, and is not turned here and there like men who repent of a purpose they have formed, because what they had not thought of comes to their mind, or because they wish undone what they have performed, and seek new ways by which they may retrace their steps. God denies that anything of this kind can take place in him” (579). The relationship of will and being, of course, is an intricate (and complicated) one. But I find it interesting (and perhaps revealing, or at least suggestive) that Calvin reaches for the one and not the other category here.

PRAYER:

(Calvin concludes each of his lectures on Malachi with a prayer.)
Grant, Almighty God, that since thou has been pleased to choose us as priests to thyself, not that we may offer beasts to thee, but consecrate to thee ourselves, and all that we have,—O grant, that we may with all readiness strive to depart from every kind of uncleanness, and to purify ourselves from all defilements, so that we may duly perform the sacred office of priesthood, and thus conduct ourselves towards thee with chasteness and purity; may we also abstain from every evil work, from all fraud and all cruelty towards our brethren, and so to deal with one another as to prove through our whole life that thou art really our Father, ruling us by thy Spirit, and that true and holy brotherhood exists between us; and may we live justly towards one another, so as to render to each his own right, and thus show that we are members of thy only-begotten Son, so as to be owned by him when he shall appear for the redemption of his people, and shall gather us into his celestial kingdom.—Amen.

[Ed. note: I find it incredibly fitting and satisfying that an installment of this series should mark the 1000th post here at DET. It has been quite a run, and "digital theology" has changed quite a bit in the meantime. But we're still here reading, thinking, and writing about theology.]

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