Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

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Sunday, December 20, 2015

Can the Future mean “Should” (Malachi 2:6)

Malachi 2 contains a serious warning to the priests, and I would apply the warning to preachers today.

The priests refused to honor God’s name, and so God will rebuke their descendants. They should have followed Levi’s example, who revered God and “stood in awe of my name. True instruction was in his mouth and nothing false was found on his lips” (vv 5-6).

What caught my attention was the use of “ought” in translating v 7. “For the lips of a priest ought to preserve knowledge (יִשְׁמְרוּ), because he is the messenger of the Lord Almighty and people seek instruction from his mouth” (NIV). יִשְׁמְרוּ is a Qal imperfect, and there is nothing in the verbal form that requires the use of “ought.” You find “should” used by the ESV, NASB, HCSB, NRSV, NLT, NET, and KJV. So where does the sense of “oughtness” come from?

It was interesting to check the LXX, which says the priests φυλάξεται knowledge and the people ἐκζητήσουσιν knowledge from the priests. Simple futures.

This is a great example of why all translations are interpretive, every last one of them. If the translators had not used “ought” or “should,” what would be the problem? Read the verse in context. Do you see it?

The verse would be stating a non-truth. The whole issue is that the priests don’t preserve (God’s) knowledge and the people weren’t seeking their instruction. So if you just translate without any interpretation, you have an incorrect statement.

I would guess that if everyone read the Bible in context, translators wouldn’t feel the need to do this type of interpretive work. V 8 makes this clear; “But you have turned from the way and by your teaching have caused many to stumble.” If you read v 7 always with v 8, the juxtaposition of the two thoughts would be clear. “The priests teach God’s knowledge, but they don’t.” But since many people don’t read in context, translators have to deal with the real possibility of confusion and error. So they add in “ought” or “should.”

Once I figured out where the “ought” came from, what really hit me was the present-day relevance of the statement in light of the dirth of biblical preaching today. Preachers are heralds of the king, and as a herald your job is to proclaim the king’s words exactly and clearly. But if my experience is anything close to normative — and based on my conversations and reading of the polls it sadly is — this is not what is happening.

I tell people that preaching is the easiest thing in the world to do. You study a passage, find the author’s intent, and then work to express that intent through your own experience and context. Simple. It must be hard working every week to come up with your own idea, and then look for a couple verses to use as a jumping off point to give your personal message a sense of biblical authority.

That’s hard, and it elicits Malachi’s judgment on those who don’t stand in awe of the King and who don’t fulfill their role of herald. As God says, “Because of you I will rebuke your descendants; I will smear on your faces the dung from your festival sacrifices, and you will be carried off with it” (v 3).

Thankfully, there are many preachers who know that their role is to be a herald of the king, faithfully and clearly proclaiming his words. Their children have nothing to fear!