Leadership Is a Privilege, Not a Right

1 “And now, O priests, this command is for you. If you will not listen, if you will not take it to heart to give honor to my name, says the Lord of hosts, then I will send the curse upon you and I will curse your blessings. Indeed, I have already cursed them, because you do not lay it to heart. Behold, I will rebuke your offspring, and spread dung on your faces, the dung of your offerings, and you shall be taken away with it. So shall you know that I have sent this command to you, that my covenant with Levi may stand, says the Lord of hosts. My covenant with him was one of life and peace, and I gave them to him. It was a covenant of fear, and he feared me. He stood in awe of my name. True instruction was in his mouth, and no wrong was found on his lips. He walked with me in peace and uprightness, and he turned many from iniquity. For the lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and people should seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts. But you have turned aside from the way. You have caused many to stumble by your instruction. You have corrupted the covenant of Levi, says the Lord of hosts, and so I make you despised and abased before all the people, inasmuch as you do not keep my ways but show partiality in your instruction.” – Malachi 2:1-9 ESV

The tribe of Levi had been given the special privilege of serving God with the responsibility of overseeing the tabernacle and everything associated with it.

Then the Lord said to Aaron: “You, your sons, and your relatives from the tribe of Levi will be held responsible for any offenses related to the sanctuary. But you and your sons alone will be held responsible for violations connected with the priesthood.

“Bring your relatives of the tribe of Levi—your ancestral tribe—to assist you and your sons as you perform the sacred duties in front of the Tabernacle of the Covenant.

“You yourselves must perform the sacred duties inside the sanctuary and at the altar. If you follow these instructions, the Lord’s anger will never again blaze against the people of Israel. I myself have chosen your fellow Levites from among the Israelites to be your special assistants. They are a gift to you, dedicated to the Lord for service in the Tabernacle.” – Numbers 18:1-2, 5-6 NLT

But at the time Malachi penned his prophetic pronouncement, the Levitical priesthood was guilty of neglecting its duties and treating its priestly responsibilities as a burden and not a blessing. The men given the responsibility of caring for God’s house found their duties to be a drudgery, not a delight. They even claimed, “It’s too hard to serve the Lord” (Malachi 1:13 NLT) and rejected God’s commands as too difficult and burdensome. In a real sense, their hearts were not in their work, and that is exactly what God has to say about their behavior.

“If you will not listen, if you will not take it to heart to give honor to my name, says the Lord of hosts, then I will send the curse upon you and I will curse your blessings. Indeed, I have already cursed them, because you do not lay it to heart.” – Malachi 2:2 ESV

God expected heartfelt obedience to His commands, and His emphasis on the condition of their hearts was meant to reveal the true nature of their problem. This wasn’t a case of simple neglect or poor planning. Their failure to follow through on their commitment wasn’t due to overwork or lack of resources. They simply didn’t have the heart for it because their hearts were far from God.

“The word ‘heart’ (leb/lebab) denotes in Hebrew what may be called the command center of a person’s life, where knowledge is collected and considered and where decisions and plans are made that determine the direction of one’s life.” – Footnote 173: H. W. Wolff, Anthropology of the Old Testament, p. 40.

These men were supposed to be the spiritual leaders of Israel but instead, they were setting a dangerous precedent for those under their care. If the restored remnant of Israel was going to survive their return to Judah and enjoy the blessings God had in store for them, it would only happen if the priests faithfully fulfilled their God-given responsibilities. But God’s priests were guilty of the very same sin that had led to Israel’s banishment from Judah in the first place.

“These people draw near to Me with their mouths and honor Me with their lips, but their hearts are far from Me. Their worship of Me is but rules taught by men. – Isaiah 29:13 BSB

God holds spiritual leaders to a higher standard because, as His shepherds, they are responsible for the care of His flock. They serve as His undershepherds and must give an account for the way they have nurtured those under their care. And as for the Levitical priests, they were also responsible for the sacrificial system God had decreed.

“Tell Aaron and his sons to be very careful with the sacred gifts that the Israelites set apart for me, so they do not bring shame on my holy name. I am the Lord.

“The priests must follow my instructions carefully. Otherwise they will be punished for their sin and will die for violating my instructions. I am the Lord who makes them holy. – Leviticus 22:2, 9 NLT

Malachi delivers God’s stinging rebuke to these heartless and faithless priests, warning them that they were about to be cursed for their infidelity.

“I will punish your descendants and splatter your faces with the manure from your festival sacrifices, and I will throw you on the manure pile.” – Malachi 2:3 NLT

“The disgusting picture is of God taking the internal waste of the sacrificial animals and smearing it on the priests’ faces. Consequently both sacrifices and priests would have to be taken outside for disposal. This play on words communicates a double curse.” – Thomas L. Constable, Notes of Malachi

God was threatening to use their defiled sacrifices to defile them. He would no longer allow them to defame His name by their failure to execute their priestly responsibilities with integrity and honor. In a sense, God was warning that He was about to clean house. He remained committed to His covenant with the tribe of Levi.

“They shall teach Jacob your rules
    and Israel your law;
they shall put incense before you
    and whole burnt offerings on your altar.” – Deuteronomy 33:10 ESV

But these particular men had forfeited their right to serve as God’s priests. And when God’s curse fell on them, they would finally understand the gravity of their sin and the sacredness of the priestly role they had once held. And God provides them with a much-needed reminder of how their forefathers had faithfully lived up to their job description, bringing God’s blessings upon the people.

“The purpose of my covenant with the Levites was to bring life and peace, and that is what I gave them. This required reverence from them, and they greatly revered me and stood in awe of my name. They passed on to the people the truth of the instructions they received from me. They did not lie or cheat; they walked with me, living good and righteous lives, and they turned many from lives of sin. – Malachi 2:5-6 NLT

God had kept His word and restored a remnant of His disobedient people to the land of Judah. Seventy years after Judah had fallen to the Babylonians, God had sovereignly arranged for King Cyrus to issue a decree that allowed a small band of exiled to make the long journey home and begin the restoration of Jerusalem. Under the leadership of such men as Zerubbabel, Ezra, and Nehemiah, the walls had been rebuilt, the gates rehung, and the temple had risen majestically from the rubble. And the priests had been given the opportunity to renew their role as the spiritual leaders of Israel, providing instruction in the law and overseeing the recently reinstituted sacrificial system. Yet, despite all the blessings God had poured out on the nation of Israel, the priests had dropped the ball.

“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…” – Malachi 2:8 NLT

It’s essential to understand the serious nature of their sin. These men had not just led poorly, they had purposefully misled and misguided the people. Their teaching of the law had been inaccurate and confusing. They were guilty of misinterpreting and misrepresenting God’s commands, causing the people to unknowingly violate the will of God. Their propensity to offer unacceptable sacrifices meant that the peoples’ sins were never really atoned for. Unlike their forefathers, these men were liars and cheats, living unrighteous lives and causing the people to follow their example. And God was unwilling to allow their devastating actions to continue any longer.

“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 2:9 NLT

According to Numbers 18:32, their penalty should have been death, but God had chosen to punish them by diminishing their stature in the eyes of the people. Their fall from God’s good grace would be painful and swift. They had been set apart by God and given the responsibility of leading and feeding His flock. But they had ended up treating both their position and God’s flock with disdain. After 70 years in exile, the people of God desperately needed solid biblical instruction, godly leadership, and a sacrificial system that provided true atonement from sin. But these men provided none of the above. They twisted God’s words, misled His flock, and defiled the very sacrifices that should have brought atonement to God’s people.

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