Reading Scripture with John Calvin: Malachi 3:9–15
[N.B. I’ve always used the TNIV in this series. That began more or less on a whim and I just stuck to it. However, I’m switching to the NRSV now.]
 You are cursed with a curse, for you are robbing me—the whole nation of you!  Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in my house, and thus put me to the test, says the LORD of hosts; see if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing.  I will rebuke the locust for you, so that it will not destroy the produce of your soil; and your vine in the field shall not be barren, says the LORD of hosts.  Then all nations will count you happy, for you will be a land of delight, says the LORD of hosts.  You have spoken harsh words against me, says the LORD. Yet you say, “How have we spoken against you?”  You have said, “It is vain to serve God. What do we profit by keeping his command or by going about as mourners before the LORD of hosts? Now we count the arrogant happy; evildoers not only prosper, but when they put God to the test they escape.”
COMMENTARY: Calvin begins his commentary on these verses by highlighting the point that everything that happened to Israel, the curse that is lamented here, happened to them because they deserved it. And Calvin extends the category of who deserved it beyond simply the leaders of the religious establishment, which had been his focus in previous sections of the commentary. Now the issue is that the nation as a whole, or at least a vast majority of it, was guilty and deserved this curse. But what were they guilty of? “They trifled with God” (588) through the combination of withholding a portion of their tithes but acting as though they had given the whole. This is, in Calvin’s view, theft – and theft from God.
This is where things get interesting, though, and this ties in with the last installment of this series where we saw Calvin speaking very much like a liberation theologian. Calvin recognizes that God doesn’t need food. These tithes are not supplying God’s necessities, seeing as how God has no body and no necessities. So why the tithes, and why their importance? “Now as God needs not meat and drink . . . and as men in their grossness are ever prone to superstitions, he substituted the priests and the poor in his own place” (589; emphasis added)!!! In other words: God knows that he needs to have his people give a tithe of their goods to remind them where they come from and who they properly belong to, but God doesn’t want them thinking that God needs these things, so God has priests and the poor stand in God’s place as recipients of what is owed in grateful obedience to God! This puts me in mind of Matthew 25.40…
But this is only Calvin’s warm-up act, as it were, because the real theme of his commentary on these verses is the doctrine of providence. We see already that God, as it were, hides behind the priests and the poor. By giving to them, you give to God. Calvin goes on to talk about how God also hides behind natural processes. When verse 10 mentions God opening the windows of heaven, for instance, Calvin gives a long discussion on natural processes and how God works through them. Here is one quote where he pulls it together: “Though then rain descends naturally, we are yet reminded here that God sends it” (590). Note well: Calvin assigns two different causes to the rain – a natural cause, and the divine cause. Rain comes both through the immanent world system of cause and effect, the usual operation of the cosmos; and, rain comes because God sends it. What we have here is a gesture toward a non-competitive account of divine and human action, an account that Calvin sometimes struggles toward articulating in his Institutes (in my humble opinion). This sort of an account is, in my view, the heart of a properly functioning doctrine of providence.
As is his wont, and perhaps his strength on this doctrine, Calvin gives insight in his commentary on the practical value of the doctrine of providence. Sounding a note that he sounds often, Calvin articulates his conviction that the doctrine of providence is a comfortable doctrine, one that bolsters faith in God as a celestial parent looking out for you. “God shows here, that he takes constant care of us, and every day and every night performs the office of a good and careful head of a family, who always watches for its benefit” (592). I find this to be an interesting disconnect from the other practical consequence of providence that Calvin highlights in this passage (and elsewhere). Later he says that “in the service of God the chief thing is this—that men deny themselves and give themselves up to be ruled by God, and never raise a clamour when he humbles them” (596). Calvin’s ideas about what it means to be a caring head of a family are clearly different from our own. But he goes on concerning the last part about not raising a clamor. The reason why some people do raise such a clamor is “because they did not consider in how many ways they had provoked God’s wrath, and”—and this is the shocking bit—“what just and multiplied reasons he has for chastising his people, even when they do nothing wrong” (emphasis added). I suggest that Calvin let his rhetoric get away from him here, unless he has in mind original sin. But on the next page he suggests that what he really means is “even when we haven’t done anything wrong as far as we are aware,” or some such.
(Calvin concludes each of his lectures on Malachi with a prayer.)
Grant, Almighty God, that since we continue to afford many and various reasons to induce thee to withdraw thy blessing, and to show thyself displeased with us, —O grant, that we may patiently bear thy scourges, by which thou chastisest us, and also profit under them, and so contend with all our depraved affections and the corruptions of the flesh, that we may become partakers of thy paternal kindness, which thou offerest to us, and also so taste of thy goodness, which in innumerable ways is manifested towards us, that it may keep us in the pursuit of true religion; finally, may our tongues be consecrated to magnify thy judgment and to celebrate thy justice, that whatever happens to us, we may always serve thee through our whole life as our Father, and declare also thy goodness towards us, and confess that we are justly punished whenever thou visitest us with severity, until we shall at length reach that blessed rest, which is to be the end of all our evil, and an entrance, not only into life, but also into that full glory and happiness, which has been procured for us by the blood of thine only-begotten Son.—Amen.