Old Testament ethics was founded on God’s sovereignty over history, which should have enhanced Israel’s motive for obedience. His sovereignty was not only manifested in redeeming his people and judging their enemies in the past but in disciplining his people in the present. Israel’s bitter attitude toward God shown in their opening question in 1:2 (“How have you loved us?”) and throughout Malachi demonstrates that they were suffering and considered God to blame. They were whining because God was not responding favorably to their offerings (2:13).
God never denies in Malachi being the immediate cause of Judah’s troubles, but he places the blame on their shoulders. He was Israel’s “Father” in that he had begotten them, and thus he became their Master. It was on that basis that he demanded “honor” and “fear.” The priests were charged with failing to respond in this way to God’s provisions and blessings at his “table” (1:7). But God’s rebuke and discipline of the priests was in order that his covenant with the priestly tribe of Levi should continue. This covenant was not a conditional contract but a grant. God’s promise of a future redemption for the righteous is another aspect of his sovereignty over history that is foundational for Old Testament ethics. Strikingly in Malachi, it is the nations (Gentiles) who are first mentioned as objects of redemption.
Old Testament ethics was God-centered in content. The shape of Old Testament ethics was largely determined by God’s character. As he is not only faithful but diligent and persistent in his relationships (2:4; 3:6, 17), he demands that same behavior of his people in their relationships (2:10, 14). As his love is equitable and impartial toward all his people, he expects his people to be impartial in their treatment of others (2:9; 3:5). As he is holy, his people must be holy; and “God’s own holiness is thoroughly practical,” including generosity, justice, integrity, considerate behavior, impartiality, and honesty. It was precisely because Israel during Malachi’s time had lost sight of what God had done for them that they were failing to obey his law. They had lost not only the motive but also the model for obedience. Idolatry was so destructive to Israel because a different “god” resulted in a different ethic. This is why the ethical triangle must begin with the theological angle and why Malachi begins with a focus on how God was being viewed, treated, and portrayed by Judah’s teaching leadership.