If you’re like me you probably have never stood before a carved idol, statue or graven image to worship.
However, I have struggled with idolatry in my Christian life.
The Anchor Bible Dictionary defines idolatry as “putting anything in the place that God alone should occupy as the proper focus of obedience and worship. “(Volume 3, page 381).
My struggle with idolatry is such an issue that I can categorize the struggle into relational and material idolatry.
Writing this blog, I am surrounded by my library of books. Although the digital world has made them obsolete, they hold a near and dear place in my heart.
When I am in my study, I find comfort in my books. They provide me with a sense of meaning and purpose, literally as I study.
There are commentaries, theology books, Greek and Hebrew resources, children’s ministry, and Christian leadership themes with some history books thrown in.
My heart resonates so much with my books that idolatry is always at the doorstep.
On the relational side are my wife and two children. Only through the direct intervention of God could I have successfully courted and married my wife. My daughter was the fulfillment of a long-standing dream to have children.
The adoption of my son, to continue the family name and share life with him as father and son was truly miraculous. The unique and marvelous nature of each of those relationships has had an enormous impact on me. In each case I have struggled to keep God first in my life.
In the early days, my wife captured my heart and then my first child and finally my adopted son. Now the grandchildren have come along and the struggle to keep God front and center continues.
Idolatry in Malachi 3:10
Idolatry takes many shapes and forms and was a problem throughout Israel’s history.
The covenant relationship between God and Israel began with a commandment to have no other gods before Yahweh (Exodus 20:3).
Unlike the other ancient near eastern religions, the Israelites were prohibited from making graven images of their God (Deuteronomy 5:8).
Idolatry is later defined more broadly as putting anything or anyone in the place that God should occupy as the focus of obedience and worship.
Idolatry was a recurring and bewildering problem throughout Israel’s history and was again a problem at the time of Malachi’s work as a prophet.
We see this immediately when we read that Malachi accused the people of placing defiling food on the altar (1:7). He lamented that the Israelites were bringing defective animals for sacrifice. Some animals were blind, crippled or disease-ridden (1:8). What was intended as an act of worship had become deplorable to God (1:13).
Within Judah, idolatry took the form of marriage to pagan women, which Malachi referred to as “marrying a foreign god” (2:11). The Israelites had exchanged a life of true worship for a life of idolatry.
This is the context for the famous passage, Malachi 3:10.
"Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in My house, and test Me now in this," says the LORD of hosts, "if I will not open for you the windows of heaven and pour out for you a blessing until it overflows. (Mal. 3:10 NAS)
The immediate context of this prophetic statement is the Israelites being accused by God of “robbing” God (3:8). Clarifying His accusation, God accused the Israelites of not bringing the full tithe as an offering. They were holding back some of their tithe for themselves, which God labels as robbery.
The simplistic interpretation of God’s next statement, through His prophet Malachi has led to a great deal of misunderstanding regarding giving, blessings, and material wealth. Malachi 3:10 has been foundational for the prosperity teaching within American evangelicalism.
The assertion made by prosperity advocates is that God promises to bless us financially if we tithe. That blessing is poured out on the giver through the windows of heaven leading to a life of prosperity.
This paradigm is essentially financial. This means, if we give our full ten percent to God, He promises to pour out financial and material blessing in return.
This transactional approach is never stated so crassly but is the undercurrent of the teaching. Ironically, this strain of teaching is indicative of the very idolatry present in Malachi’s age.
Let me suggest a different way forward in understanding and applying the meaning of Malachi 3:10.
Malachi makes it clear that the Israelites had embraced a life of idolatry. They gave God their leftovers, their crippled animals. They held back money for themselves from the complete tithe.
Each of these activities was intended as an act of worship. The tithe and various Old Testament offerings were established acts of worship. It was a way of expressing love and adoration towards God. Worship was an acknowledgement of who God is and a demonstration of praise for Him.
It was an expression of devotion and trust in God. The Israelites’ actions in offering defiled food, sacrificing crippled and diseased animals, and holding back from the full tithe were all symptomatic of a much greater problem, namely idolatry.
These acts of disregard for offerings, sacrifices and tithes indicated that the people had given their hearts, obedience and trust to their material possessions, wealth, and prosperity.
To state it practically, they gave the blind, crippled, and diseased animals for the sacrificial offerings and kept the healthy livestock for themselves. They gave a “tithe” but not the full ten percent and kept back some or even most of the tithe for themselves.
The problem was not by nature about a financial transaction.
We know that God owns everything (Psalm 24:1) and therefore, is not relying on us for financial resources. We also know that the tithe and various offerings (Burnt, Grain, Fellowship, Sin, Guilt, etc.) found in Leviticus 1-4 are all acts of worship and expressions of love for God expressed in a gift.
The gift is an expression of one’s love and devotion to God. It is not an investment in His enterprise. It is not a tip for His services. And it certainly is not a “quid pro quo” with God.
Malachi’s concern is that the offerings and partial tithes are indicative of a people giving a courteous nod to God, all the while living a life of idolatry.
The Israelites were committing idolatry by putting their trust in their own material possessions and giving God token leftovers. Malachi 3:10 is God’s response to this problem.
With that background we can know God’s intentions in the statement “bring the whole tithe.” God wants the whole heart of the giver and not one divided by a love for the material things of this world. His desire is that we worship Him wholeheartedly with our absolute best and complete offering.
God wants our best not for His benefit but for our own as an expression of our complete devotion and extravagant love for God. It is this kind of wholehearted worship that He will respond to by pouring out the blessings of heaven. Material blessing is one response that is found biblically.
However, there are a multitude of other blessings much more significant than the fleeting value of money and possessions. These include forgiveness, guidance, direction, meaningful relationships, family, character formation, His abiding presence, intimacy with God and a multitude of other “heavenly” blessings.
The point being driven home by Malachi is that we can avoid idolatry through giving. Giving is fundamentally an act of worship.
Therefore, as we give, we commit ourselves to the worship of God and not to the things of this world. God promises that when we do so, He will bless us.
As with most families, Christmas was a special time for me growing up, and since my birthday is Christmas Day, it took on even more meaning.
Our family had a tradition that each December Dad and Mom would take us shopping and give each child ten one-dollar bills. We were sent out in pairs to buy Christmas gifts. With six gifts to buy, that amounted to about one dollar and sixty-six cents per gift.
This gift limit forced creativity and searching for “deals.” However, sometimes the little kids found themselves in a pinch when they overspent on some of the gifts. This happened to my little sister when she had one more gift to buy and only about fifty cents left.
On Christmas morning we began opening gifts and near the end of our time I was handed a wrapped gift that was about the size of a softball. It was from my little sister. I opened the gift and she had bought me a ………. coconut.
It was the only year I have ever received a coconut. She had run out of money and just tried to find something to give me so that she could say she gave me a Christmas gift.
I am still not sure where she bought a coconut for fifty cents, but I can tell you that her gift was not a favorite. I kept it for a few days and then when I couldn’t crack it open, I threw it out.
We are mistaken to think that giving to God from our leftovers or in some other less than wholehearted manner is pleasing to God. This kind of halfhearted worship indicates a divided heart. God wants our entire heart expressed in generous and wholehearted worship.
This not only frees us from idolatry but assures us of God’s blessing poured out from heaven into our lives.