“God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Cor 9:7) might sound familiar if you’ve heard a sermon on tithing lately. Many such sermons focus on this type of New Testament passage. But recently, I heard a pastor read Malachi 3:8–10, where God scolds Judah for robbing Him by neglecting to tithe ten percent of their produce. Then came the startling words that the pastor claimed as a promise for us today.
Test me in this … and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it (Mal 3:10).
The Bible says that if I give the church a full ten percent of my income, then God will bless me beyond my wildest dreams. Or at least that was the impression I got from the sermon.
The message that I would get only if I would give troubled me. It conflicted with everything else I had been taught about giving—that it should be willing, not coerced (2 Cor 9:5), and that it was more about the attitude than the amount (9:7). This “give and you shall receive” concept seemed uncomfortably like the rhetoric of those who promise worldly prosperity in return for contributions.
As I studied the text of Malachi, I realized this claim does not fit the historical and literary context of the book. Malachi was writing to the community of Jews who had reestablished themselves in Judah after the Babylonian exile. They had rebuilt the temple and Jerusalem at the prodding of the prophets (see Ezra–Nehemiah; Haggai). But there was one problem: The beautiful picture of restoration and God-given prosperity those prophets promised had not materialized. 1
Malachi explains why this vision had not yet become reality: While the people had returned physically, they were still far from God spiritually. They had not kept their covenant with Yahweh. Yet they blamed Him for their situation: Clearly, He had changed His mind and decided not to bless them after all. God answers that charge in Malachi 3:6–7:
For I, Yahweh, have not changed, and you, O children of Jacob, have not perished. From the days of your ancestors you have turned aside from my rules, and have not kept them! Return to me and I will return to you.
God had not changed but neither had they. Before the exile, the prophets told the people of Israel they would be punished for their sin, but repentance could stop that judgment (e.g., Jer 9:12–16, 17:19–27). Their lack of repentance resulted in exile (Lev 26:33; Deut 28:36). Even now their restoration was the result of God’s mercy, not His response to their repentance (Isa 43; 48:9–11).
Blessings and Curses
So what exactly was God saying in Malachi 3:6–10? Would repentance result in overflowing blessing? That depends on how we understand the last few words of the passage. Many English translations say something like “overflowing blessing” (LEB; NRSV), “blessing until it overflows” (NASB) or blessing “without measure” (HCSB). Others take the phrase as a reference to meeting needs, like “blessing until there is no more need” (ESV; CEB; NCV). That idea of sufficiency and contentment aligns much better with the New Testament attitude toward wealth and giving (see 2 Cor 8:3; Phil 4:11), but the idea of “overflowing blessing” also fits the Old Testament context for understanding Malachi 3:10.
We can better understand this concept of “overflowing blessing” by looking at the biblical law codes found in the Pentateuch. These codes end with warnings about the conditions attached to the Israelites’ covenant with God (Lev 26; Deut 28). Disobedience would bring punishments such as famine, disease and invasion (Deut 28:15–68). Obedience would bring blessings such as agricultural abundance, fertility and military victory (28:1–14). The promised blessings describe a similar result as that described in Malachi 3:10–12. However, the conditional nature of these promises can easily be lost if we read only isolated fragments that say God will “make you successful and prosperous” or will defeat your enemies or will bless all your hard work.
We can work hard at obeying the letter of the law for the wrong reason, like tithing because the pastor says God promises to bless us if we do, and miss the reality that our attitude and intent are just as important as our actions. The prophets repeatedly call Old Testament Israel to a repentance that goes deeper than external obedience (Isa 1:11–17; Micah 6:6–8). Jesus also criticized the religious leaders of His day who similarly overemphasized externals and missed “the more important matters of the law—justice and mercy and faithfulness” (Matt 23:23).
Malachi 3:10 likely draws on the language of the covenant blessing in Deuteronomy, “Yahweh shall open for you his rich storehouse, even the heavens, to give the rain for your land in its time and to bless all of the work of your hand” (28:12), but the tithe represents the bigger issue of obedience to the covenant. Malachi’s audience still lived under the covenant based on obedience to the law. Their failure to tithe represented a continued failure to return to God. By alluding to Deuteronomy 28, the prophet was reminding the Jewish exiles otf their covenant relationship: You keep your part, and God will keep His. This covenant represented salvation and the restoration of their relationship with God—the ultimate overflowing blessing eventually provided to all through Christ.
In context, the passage in Malachi is about obedience and faith in God. Malachi 3:10 challenges Israel to test whether God will really keep His word. Bringing in the full tithe was a test of their faith. For Christians today, tithing should reflect faith and trust in God despite doubts over our own finances. We shouldn’t simplify Malachi 3 to a formula for “give-and-ye-shall-receive.” We’ll give for the wrong reasons—all the while missing out on the real message of Malachi.
Read more about Malachi in The Prophets as Preachers by Gary V. Smith. Go to Logos.com/BSMSmith
Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version (ESV).
1. See also Isaiah 2; 11; 35; 49; 66; Ezekiel 36; 47; Joel 1–3.↩