Rev. Hanko is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Lynden, Washington. Previous article in this series: January, 1, 2007, p. 150.

The Fifth Disputation: Chapter 3:7-12

7. Even from the days of your fathers ye are gone away from mine ordinances, and have not kept them. Return unto me, and I will return unto you, saith the LORD of hosts. But ye said, Wherein shall we return?

In this fifth section of Malachi’s prophecy he returns again to the sins of the people, this time rebuking them for the sin of robbing God in their tithes and offerings. By this sin also they were guilty of gross covenant unfaithfulness.

The sin, however, was a sin of which Israel had long been guilty. Other sins they had been cured of by the long years of the Babylonian captivity, especially the sin of idolatry, but of this sin they had not been cured. Hezekiah in his reforms had to reestablish the law’s system of tithing (II Chron. 31:4-10), but after Hezekiah there is little evidence that the law’s demands regarding tithing continued to be observed.

In speaking of their fathers, God reminds them not only that these sins were of long standing, but also that they had learned them from their disobedient fathers, and were really no different from their fathers. Perhaps they prided themselves in having forsaken the sins of their fathers, but God shows them that it was not so. Their fathers had been covetous and worldly, and so were they.

This is the way that God visits the sins of the fathers upon the children as He threatens to do in the Second Commandment. He does not punish the children for the sins of their fathers. Ezekiel 18:20 is clear: “The soul that sinneth, it shall die.” But God visits the sins of the fathers on the children when in His just judgment the children learn the sins of their fathers and walk in them and come themselves under the judgment of God. Thus God shows that there is a corporate responsibility for sin. Our sins have consequences, as did Adam’s and as do every man’s, not only for ourselves and for others but also for our children.

What a warning that is to believing parents! What an incentive to careful godliness! Not only out of the love of God, but out of fear for their children, they walk in God’s ways with all their heart. And what grief it is—greater grief there is not—when they see their own sins in their children. Then they pray the more fervently that God will deliver both them and their children from those sins, and that He will be gracious and remember His covenant.

God speaks of ordinances rather than just of one single ordinance concerning tithes for several reasons. He means that there were many laws concerning tithing and that none of them were being kept. He also means to say that the apostasy of the people, both at this time and in times past, was widespread. It was not only the law concerning tithes that they had neglected, but all the ordinances concerning the worship and service of God. That is always the case. Never is it true that the church in her calling to serve and worship God goes astray only at a few small points, but apostasy once begun continues until the whole of obedience to God’s ordinances and laws erodes away.

This widespread apostasy also shows the insolence of the question asked by the Jews, “Wherein shall we return?” Not only had they departed in a few minor matters, but they needed to return at every point. Yet they could not and would not see their sin. So it is with those to whom God has not given His grace. Not only does the unredeemed sinner continue in his sin, but he cannot and will not see his sin or turn from it. How we must beware, therefore, the temptation to make excuses, to play down our sins and the sins of our children, to give no heed to the warnings that come to us from the Word of God and from others, or to pretend that those warnings apply to others and not to ourselves!

Yet God identifies Himself as Jehovah of hosts, the God of the covenant. He does this not only to remind them that as the LORD of hosts He was the lawgiver whose laws they broke and the one to whom all their sacrifices belonged, the one against whom they sinned; but He also hints at His covenant faithfulness to them, for though they had often been unfaithful, niggardly, and hard-hearted, He would never be unfaithful to them.

Of this same faithfulness He speaks when He tells them to return to Him and promises that, in their so doing, He would also return to them. That promise, like all God’s promises, is sure and was surely fulfilled in Christ. Never does God cast away His people whom He foreknew.

That He would return to them when they returned to Him does not mean that His returning depended on theirs. In that case there could be no hope of His ever returning to them. Their returning to Him, though He does not say that here, would be, when it happened, an evidence that He had alreadyreturned to them! Nevertheless, it was only in the way of their returning that they would experience again His favor and blessing. As long as they continued hardhearted and impenitent, their experience would be that He was far off as a God of mercy and love, and near only in wrath and judgment.

Of this relationship between our returning to God and our experience of His lovingkindness the Canons of Dordt speak beautifully. In explaining the sins of God’s people the Canons say:

By such enormous sins, however, they very highly offend God, incur a deadly guilt, grieve the Holy Spirit, interrupt the exercise of faith, very grievously wound their own consciences, and sometimes lose the sense of God’s favor for a time, until, on their returning into the right way of serious repentance, the light of God’s fatherly countenance again shines upon them (V, 5).

In showing that repentance is always a work of God the Canons say that He:

…by His Word and Spirit, certainly and effectually renews them to repentance, to a sincere and godly sorrow for their sins, that they may seek and obtain remission in the blood of the Mediator, may again experience the favor of a reconciled God, through faith adore His mercies, and henceforward more diligently work out their own salvation with fear and trembling (V, 7).

That is the great incentive to repentance—the knowledge that God receives and blesses those who are sorry for their sins. That He always forgives them and never turns away His face from the tears of those who weep for their sins assures us that “though we oft have sinned against him, yet his love and grace abide.” There is, however, no mercy for those who continue to say, “Wherein shall we return?” 

8. Will a man rob God? Yet ye have robbed me. But ye say, Wherein have we robbed thee? In tithes and offerings.

9. Ye are cursed with a curse: for ye have robbed me, even this whole nation.

God now proceeds to show why the neglect of tithes and offerings was such a serious sin. This emphasis was needed then and is needed now, for not only Israel but the church today is guilty of gross unfaithfulness to God in this matter, nor is the church today any more eager to acknowledge its sin than it was in the days of Malachi. Instead, with callous indifference it brushes aside the complaints of God’s Word: “Wherein have we robbed thee?”

The tithes of which God speaks were of various kinds. Moore distinguishes them thus:

The tithes required by the Mosaic law were, first, a tenth of all that remained after the firstfruits, (which belonged to God and must be given to him,) which tenth was God’s, as the original proprietor of the soil, and was paid to the Levites for their maintenance.

Lev. 27:30-32

Secondly, from this tenth the Levites paid a tenth to the priests.

Num. 18:26-28

Thirdly, a second tenth was paid by the people for the entertainment of the Levites and their own families at the tabernacle.

Deut. 12:18

Fourthly, another tithe was paid every third year for the poor, widows, orphans, etc.

Deut. 14:28, 29

Moore adds:

The first three classes of tithes are especially referred to here, as appears from the context, though the fourth was also withheld, as we would infer from chap. 3:5.*

On the basis of II Corinthians 9:6, 7, we do not believe that strict tithing is obligatory for New Testament Christians: “But this I say, He which soweth sparingly shall reap also sparingly; and he which soweth bountifully shall reap also bountifully. Every man as he purposeth in his heart, so let him give; not grudgingly, or of necessity: for God loveth a cheerful giver.” These verses require freewill giving on the part of God’s people, not giving that is regulated by law. That is, of course, in harmony with the fact that we live in the New Testament. Nevertheless, even these verses show that giving is an important part of the service and worship of God (cf. also Rom. 12:8). God loves a cheerful giver! And the practice of tithing, even if not obligatory, remains a good guide for our giving. If a person is not giving at least a tithe of what he has, he is probably not giving as he should. Giving is not a matter of repayment, for who can repay God for His abundant mercies.

Giving is rather an expression of thankfulness. We give a little of what we have received in order to demonstrate our conviction that God has given us all things in Christ, and to show that we understand that we have only the use of what He gives—that it all remains His, for He is the sovereign Creator and Owner of all.

Failure in these obligations is a matter of covenant unfaithfulness, for those who do not give as they should do not acknowledge God’s goodness and faithfulness, and do not recognize that all they have belongs to Him and is given them for their use because they are His covenant friends. In this way, too, sins committed by lack of giving or by grudging giving are robbery. These sins are robbery not only because they are a refusal to give Him what He requires, but because they are a refusal to recognize that all we have is His. When we do not give or give cheerfully we are not just stealing the tenthfrom Him but everything.

Romans 1 condemns the heathen nations for ingratitude, for though they know God through the things that are made and by His own testimony within them, they are not thankful (Rom. 1:20, 21). If God condemns them for ingratitude, how much greater will our condemnation be for the same sin, aggravated as it is by our knowledge of Him as Savior and our confession that we are His covenant friends.

For this reason, God’s curse is upon those who fall under the condemnation of these verses. Though poor giving may seem a small thing to us, it is no small matter to God. His curse is the Word of His anger, which sends the sinner to Hell. He speaks here, therefore, of damnation for such sins.

* T.V. Moore, A Commentary on Haggai and Malachi, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1974, p. 159.