Why a tenth?

February 23, 2023

Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. And thereby put me to the test, says the LORD of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need.

Malachi 3:10 ESV

The number “10” is kind of a big deal. Most of us have ten fingers and ten toes. We learn to count to 10 very easily. That probably had a great deal to do with the establishment of our numbering system based on ten digits. In fact, the word “digit” can mean “finger”, or it can refer to any of the whole numbers less than ten – the single digits, 0 through 9. We evaluate things “on a scale of 1 to ten.” The ancient Greeks, after Pythagoras (500 BC), considered it a number that had spiritual power, signifying completeness or perfection.

In the Bible, 10 is used frequently. Along with 3, 7, 12, 40, and 70, it’s a number that’s used to tell us something. Although we don’t have a verse that says, “the number ten means this or that,” we do have a number of instances where we see it used in significant settings. It’s used 242 times in the Bible. The term “tenth” occurs 79 times. In each of these instances, it’s fair to ask, “Of all the numbers that He could have chosen, what was God saying by choosing 10?”

Malachi 3:6 tells us God doesn’t change. The grounds on which He interacts with us are subject to adjustment, but the essence of God, who He is, is immutable. He extends Himself to us through covenant. The terms of the covenant may change to reflect different purposes or seasons, but the Maker of the Covenant does not. The parts of covenant that reflect His nature are immutable: blood, truth, loyalty, etc. When the unchangeable God consistently uses a word in a particular way, He is communicating something about Himself. When He required the tithe, He could have chosen any number, a fifth, a third, a half, but He chose a tenth. Why the tenth?

In 1894, E. W. Bullinger wrote, “ten is one of the perfect numbers, and signifies the perfection of Divine order, … Completeness of order, marking the entire round of anything, is, therefore, the ever-present signification of the number ten. It implies that nothing is wanting; that the number and order are perfect; that the whole cycle is complete.” (Numbers in Scripture; Bullinger. Public domain)

Ten is associated with perfection, completion, or a completed cycle, often of judgment or testing. Let’s review just a few of the significant examples of the “tens” of God:

  • “God said,” is used 10 times in the creation narrative. On the tenth “said,” in Genesis 2:18, He adds Jehovah to the Elohim used in Chapter 1: “the LORD God said.” The Hebrew tells us, “The being of man by himself is not good (NET).” God brought completion to the creation by giving the man the perfect complement to fulfill His purpose.
  • 10 generations from God to Noah. Ten murderous and disobedient generations from creation to judgment and grace.
  • 10 generations from Shem to Abram. 10 failed generations, then the covenant.
  • The 10 Commandments. The ten “words” that reveal the standards that abide in the heart of God, that show that He is their God, and that reflect His nature through them to the surrounding world. Exodus 20:20 tells us this was a test.
  • The 10 plagues upon Egypt. The complete cycle of God’s judgments of Egypt and its gods. “And the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD (Exodus 7:5b)” Note that #10 had a provision for redemption through the blood of the Passover Lamb.
  • Abraham’s faith was tested 10 times. A completed cycle of ten trials.
  • The 10 rebellions of Israel in the wilderness. They tested God. Numbers 14:22-23
  • Laban cheated Jacob by changing his wages ten times. That was when the covenant was abrogated and Jacob could leave without further obligation. Genesis 31: 7, 41
  • Ten days of tribulation for God’s servants. In Revelation 2:10, “you will have tribulation ten days. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life. (Compare Daniel 1:12 “”Please test your servants for ten days and let them give us vegetables to eat and water to drink.”)
  • The 10 “I AM’s” of Jesus in John’s Gospel. A full cycle revealing His nature. “I am The Bread of Life (x2); the Living Bread, the Light of the world; One that bear witness; the Door of the sheep; the Good Shepherd; the Resurrection and the Life; the Way, the Truth, and the Life; the True Vine.”
  • The 10 lepers healed. Luke 17:12-19. The one of the ten who returned, the tenth part, was made whole. He passed the test. All were healed, one was made whole.

There are more. We could look at the significance of the tenth day of the month, the tenth generation, the ten talents, etc. I think we have enough to see that God and the men He used to write the Bible were communicating something by using the number ten. Ten is a number of testing, of completion or wholeness, of the end of a cycle or a season, especially of testing or judgment.

The tithe under the Law of Moses is clearly described as “Holy to the Lord.” He closes the giving of the Law at Sinai by instructing on the tithe. The Law is now complete. (Leviticus 27:30-34)

“And all the tithe of the land, whether of the seed of the land or of the fruit of the tree, is the LORD’s. It is holy to the LORD.

Leviticus 27:30

What does that mean? Moses gives us one clue when he says the tithe “is the Lord’s.” It belongs to Him. When something is described as “holy,” it is entirely set apart for the Lord’s use. In being set apart, it is endued with His nature. He is holy, and that which belongs to Him is holy as well. Holy things are not to be touched by the unclean, nor used for purposes other than those assigned to them specifically by God in His service. The tithe was set apart as belonging to the Lord.

The concept of a divine set-apart as a test of obedience and faith is evident throughout Scripture, starting in the Garden: “ And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” (Genesis 2:16-17 ESV)

The idea of free will is meaningless if there is no real choice to be made. A genuine choice requires that I have the power to make it as an act of my will, conditioned only by my desires and perceptions of benefit. To be a real choice, there must be a genuine appeal in both options. The warning of God about the consequences of eating from the tree of knowledge was countered by the lure of natural attraction and the appeal of becoming like God. For whatever reason, Eve decided against the warning and in favor of the lust, thus bringing destruction on herself and her husband. Even more tragic, she caused a disruption in the course of God’s intent for creation.

Bringing together the ideas of holiness and the significance of the tenth, I find in the Garden test a picture of how God views the tithe. It is a tenth, a test of obedience. It says to God, “I am grateful to You for Your provision. I trust You completely with my well-being, holding nothing back.” In favor of the tithe, we have promises of abundance beyond our ability to receive it. By saying “no” to the tithe we declare that we know better ways of providing for ourselves and our families. We trust ourselves. The question is deeper than, “Will you give a tenth?” The question is more, “Who do you trust?” You decide.

Here’s the Point: In Malachi 3:10, we find a shocking statement concerning the tithe: “thereby put me to the test, says the LORD of hosts. (ESV)”Testing God is universally condemned in the rest of Scripture. Psalm 95:8-9 says, “Do not harden your hearts, as in the rebellion, As in the day of trial in the wilderness, When your fathers tested Me; They tried Me, though they saw My work.” This warning is repeated in Hebrews 3, and referred to in 1 Corinthians 10, warning the Church not to test the Lord. The consequences of doing so were always grave.

The word used in Malachi, as in Psalm 95, refers to a particular kind of testing. It’s also used to mean “taste.” The idea is to try something to verify that it is as advertised. The Lord is almost taunting in His challenge: “Just try Me. See if I don’t do what I promised. Bring your tithes and find out how good I can be. I dare you.” If you boldly trust God with the tithe, He will open His storehouse and bless you. If you don’t believe me, just taste and see.

Pastor Virgil

3141 W. Ironwood Hill Dr.

Tucson, AZ 85741


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