“The words of a priest’s lips should preserve knowledge of God, and people should go to him for instruction, for the priest is the messenger of the Lord of Heaven’s Armies. But you priests have left God’s paths. Your instructions have caused many to stumble into sin. You have corrupted the covenant I made with the Levites,” says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies. “So I have made you despised and humiliated in the eyes of all the people. For you have not obeyed me but have shown favoritism in the way you carry out my instructions.”
Malachi 2:7-9 New Living Translation
The focus of Malachi’s message turns to the priests and Levites. Apparently, the priests had given into corruption and were neglecting their responsibility as impartial messengers of God to the people. The point of the covenant God had made with the priests was to bring life and peace to the people. Their lives and teaching were supposed to be an example of the goodness of God to all who would hear it. Instead of leading the people in the way of righteousness, this generation of priests had caused many to stumble and turn their backs on God. They had led the people into sin and broken their covenant with God. Instead of showing impartiality in carrying out their duties they were showing favoritism based on wealth or other standards. Because of this, God had allowed them to become despised in the eyes of the people.
The community of the followers of Jesus has been given the opportunity to be a royal priesthood before a watching world. The church today is where people should be able to hear the words of life and peace. Sadly, this is not always the case, though. There are times when it is hard to distinguish the followers of Jesus from the values of society around them. Instead of lives of humility and righteousness, sometimes the church is driven by the same greed, debaucher, and quest for power that characterizes the worst of society. Favoritism is always a temptation, as well. Instead of caring for the “least of these” among us, we can get caught up in pursuing the same wealth and celebrity that we see celebrated in the world around us. When this happens, we cease to be the salt and light in the world that Jesus has called us to be. A faith community that persists in dishonoring God through its words and deeds will eventually find itself replaced by those who seek to honor the name of God and represent Him well.
God, forgive us for the times we have misrepresented and dishonored you before our neighbors. Help us to be a community of faith that lives in a way that points people to the life and peace You have for them.
“How I wish one of you would shut the Temple doors so that these worthless sacrifices could not be offered! I am not pleased with you,” says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies, “and I will not accept your offerings. But my name is honored by people of other nations from morning till night. All around the world they offer sweet incense and pure offerings in honor of my name. For my name is great among the nations,” says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies.
Malachi 1:10-11 New Living Translation
Malachi is the last prophetic book of the Old Testament canon, written after the return from exile and the completion of the second Temple. From Malachi’s writing, it appears the Israelites still had learned nothing from their exile and were falling into the same patterns as before the exile. God specifically brings up the lack of reverence in their practice of offerings. They were bringing deformed animals as sacrifices and had a lackadaisical attitude toward their worship. In their attitude and actions, they were showing their disregard for Yahweh again.
God’s response to all this was to tell them that they might as well shut down the Temple if their heart was not in it. God knew that He had people who honored and revered Him in all nations. The Israelites nationality did not give them an automatic exclusive fellowship with God. The Kingdom God sought to build included people from outside Israel. If the rituals being performed in the Temple were not authentic, then the Temple no longer served its purpose. God’s name would be honored in other places and other times in history. Israel was at a point of decision about how much they wanted to be a part of that Kingdom. Would they give their hearts fully to God or continue with empty rituals?
Often in our journey of faith, we face a similar point of decision. Are we going to continue with empty rituals that show God no regard at all? Or are we going to pursue Him with our whole hearts, regardless of the circumstances we find ourselves in? If our worship is only done as a ritual of obligation and does not come from a heart that is fully vested in the ways of the Kingdom of God, it does not honor His name. We can build a magnificent building to house our acts of worship but it is our heart that God is looking for. If our heart is far from Him, our buildings are irrelevant to Him. He will find others whose hearts are fully committed to Him.
God, forgive us for the times we have worshiped you out of ritual and not out of a heart that is fully committed to you. Help us to keep the focus of our worship in the right place.
Then I pressed further, “What you are doing is not right! Should you not walk in the fear of our God in order to avoid being mocked by enemy nations? I myself, as well as my brothers and my workers, have been lending the people money and grain, but now let us stop this business of charging interest. You must restore their fields, vineyards, olive groves, and homes to them this very day. And repay the interest you charged when you lent them money, grain, new wine, and olive oil.”
Nehemiah 5:9-11 New Living Translation
Not all the challenges that Nehemiah faced in his mission came from the outside. He also faced challenges from within. One of them involved the wealthier Jews taking advantage of their less fortunate countrymen in a time of financial distress for the whole nation. Judah was a province under the control of a foreign power (Persia). Persia was known for demanding hefty tributes from its vassal provinces. These tributes were especially hard on the less wealthy landowners who had to pay the same amount regardless of the wealth they possessed. Often they needed to borrow from wealthier Jews to be able to cover their tribute and supply for their family. Lending to the poor was allowed in Jewish law, but the charging of interest of your fellow Jews was forbidden. Many were disregarding this part of the law and taking advantage of the less fortunate ones. The result of this injustice led to many of the poorer families having to sell family members into slavery to cover their debts.
The poorer families came to Nehemiah with their plea for relief and he was incensed by the report he heard. He knew that everyone was important in working together to rebuild the wall of Jerusalem and this practice was not helping them. It also dishonored God and reflected poorly on the people in the eyes of their enemies. They needed to demonstrate to those around them that they respected the dignity of their fellow Jews more than the cultures around them. They believed that all humans were created in the image of God and taking advantage of each other in this way showed disregard for the image of God in their fellow human beings. Nehemiah demanded that the wealthy members of their society discontinue this practice of charging interest immediately and pay back the interest they had already taken. He also set the example in his own practice of lending to those in need without charging interest. The people repented and agreed to do what Nehemiah ordered them to do.
Our society often tells us it’s normal and customary to profit from the misfortunes of others. Laws are sometimes written to give advantage to those who are wealthy. As followers of Jesus, we have the opportunity to demonstrate a different set of values, though. We believe that all humans are created in the image of God and are equal before God, regardless of their social standings. By refusing to take advantage of the misfortune of others regardless of what is allowed by the law, we demonstrate to the world around us that we put the dignity of our fellow humans ahead of our personal gain. In doing so we honor God and present a good witness for Him before a world that is watching to see if Jesus’s followers are any different than the world around them.
God, help us to remember that all humanity is created in Your image. Remind us that when we honor the human dignity of others regardless of social standing, we honor You.
Sanballat was very angry when he learned that we were rebuilding the wall. He flew into a rage and mocked the Jews, saying in front of his friends and the Samarian army officers, “What does this bunch of poor, feeble Jews think they’re doing? Do they think they can build the wall in a single day by just offering a few sacrifices? Do they actually think they can make something of stones from a rubbish heap—and charred ones at that?”
Nehemiah 4:1-2 New Living Translation
Whenever we try to do something worthwhile, we will have people who want to discourage us. They may feel threatened by the progress we are making and afraid of how our work will affect them. In the social media age, we often refer to these people as “trolls.” These are the people who make random comments to stir discontentment and fear among readers about something happening in the community. Sanballat, Tobiah, and their associates were old school trolls back in the days of Nehemiah. They didn’t have the internet, so they stood in earshot of the workers and used exaggerated claims and questions to get the workers to doubt the work they were doing. They, apparently, feared the completion of Nehemiah’s wall and used whatever means possible to create doubt and fear in the minds of the Judean builders.
Nehemiah took the best course of action when he heard about the mocking threats of Sanballat and Tobiah, he turned the situation over to God and continued the work. He trusted God to defend the work against the threats of his enemies. When the threats took a more specific form with rumors of physical attacks by the neighboring people, Nehemiah modified their approach to the work and created a rotating schedule where half the people would stand guard while the other half worked. They didn’t allow the threats of Sanballat and Tobiah to draw them into conflict but they were ready to defend themselves if an attack ever came. During all this time, they remained focused on their primary mission to rebuild the wall of their city, Jerusalem. They didn’t let the efforts of their detractors stop their work and they were determined to persist in the work.
We can learn from the example of Nehemiah and the workers when we are dealing with trolls in our own lives. Whenever we are doing something to improve our community or fulfill the restorative mission of God around us, there will be people who think it’s their responsibility to stop what is happening with words of discouragement and even threats. Today they can hide behind computer screens and smartphones and not even look in our faces as they make their claims. In times like this, it’s easy to give in to the temptation of getting distracted from our work and start responding in a similar manner. Instead of getting caught up in the chatter, though, we have the option to turn our concerns over to God and let Him be our defender against the attacks of others. When we do this, we can stay focused on our call and leave the protection of our plans in His hands.
Lord, help us to deal with the words of discouragement that may try to keep us from Your work. Help us to stay focused on what is really important.
I replied, “Long live the king! How can I not be sad? For the city where my ancestors are buried is in ruins, and the gates have been destroyed by fire.”
Nehemiah 2:3 New Living Translation
When you carry a burden for others for a long time, it will begin to show in your expression. At the point of this story, Nehemiah had been carrying his burden for the city of Jerusalem and it’s people for nearly four months. It was beginning to show in his expressions. For someone who also carried the responsibility of a cupbearer for a king, this could be a dangerous thing. Members of the court were expected to be positive in the presence of the king and present an image that things were going well. Any disheartened expressions could be met with a suspicion that the cupbearer was involved in a plot against the king. So, showing sadness in the presence of the king was a serious matter.
Nehemiah had reached the point where he could no longer just put on a happy face and pretend he wasn’t concerned. The king noticed this and asked what was going on. Instead of responding with suspicion, Artaxerxes showed concern for what was troubling Nehemiah. Nehemiah seems to have earned enough respect from the king that the king was willing to listen to his concern. The king heard Nehemiah’s concern for his homeland and his desire to help restore the wall of the city where he had come from. Artaxerxes eventually approved the plan and sent bodyguards to travel with Nehemiah for protection as he carried out this mission. God had given Nehemiah an ally to carry his burden for his hometown with him.
In our efforts to live out the mission of Christ in our communities, we will often carry a large burden on our hearts. It will often show up in our expressions and others will wonder what is happening. It is then that we need confidence in God and His call to be willing to open up about what is burdening our hearts. If we have found favor in the eyes of our friend, God may use them to be an ally in helping us address the need that burdens our hearts. God can give us favor in these circumstances.
God, You have placed a great burden on our hearts to help see Your Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. Give us allies who will walk with us in fulfilling Your mission for us in this world.