There are some hard yet comforting words here:
Before looking at this passage in detail, let me make this prefatory remark. Every year at this time I say goodbye to an old friend and hello (again) to a new one. I have again completed the Old Testament and started on the New. It is good to know that both are always there when I want to be with them.
Can I ask you, have you read the Bible all the way through yet? If not, it is a very good exercise indeed – just 3 and a bit chapters a day will get you through in a year. And no, it is not legalism to encourage believers to love, read and study God’s word.
OK, now let me turn to the passage – the very last two verses of the OT: “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.”
Several things can be difficult to understand here. What does it mean to say Elijah will return? How are the hearts of fathers and sons turned to each other? How does the promised destruction fit in with this? As to the first issue, it seems Elijah is being used as a type. Matthew 17:10-13 puts it this way:
The disciples asked him, “Why then do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?” Jesus replied, “To be sure, Elijah comes and will restore all things. But I tell you, Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but have done to him everything they wished. In the same way the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands.” Then the disciples understood that he was talking to them about John the Baptist.
Luke 1:16-17 also makes this identification with John the Baptist: “He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
And in Mark 1:6-8 we read these words: “John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. And this was his message: ‘After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit’.”
Sounds like what we read about Elijah: “He had a garment of hair and had a leather belt around his waist” (2 Kings 1:8). And since both Moses and Elijah were archetypal prophets, Jesus meets with the pair while on earth as we find in Luke 9:28-31:
About eight days after Jesus said this, he took Peter, John and James with him and went up onto a mountain to pray. As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning. Two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared in glorious splendor, talking with Jesus. They spoke about his departure,which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem.
Lastly, one can also speculate on the identity of the two witnesses of Revelation 11:3: “And I will appoint my two witnesses, and they will prophesy for 1,260 days, clothed in sackcloth.”
As to the inter-generational reconciliation, it certainly is a wonderful promise, especially in light of the massive breakdown of marriage and family in the West today. Duguid and Harmon offer this commentary:
The activities of Moses and Elijah were not simply in the distant past in Malachi’s day; they were also of relevance for the future. God promised to send another Elijah-like figure before the coming of the final day, a prophet who would preach repentance and turn many from darkness to light, who would restore the broken relationship of children to their heavenly Father as well as to their earthly fathers. In other words, this coming prophet would bring many prodigals and elder brothers to their senses and lead them on the pathway back home to the Father’s heart. The Old Testament thus ends with the anticipation of a coming prophet like Elijah, who was well known as someone who live out in the wilderness and often spoke of fire and repentance.
And keep this in mind when we think about judgment and the last days. In one sense of course the last days began with the first coming of Christ. They will be culminated at his second coming. So it is appropriate to apply OT prophetic ‘end-times’ words to what has already happened 2000 years ago.
The final and complete fulfilment of this and other prophetic words await his second coming. But we are now living in the last days, so we find partial fulfilment of things, including restored relationships, in the here and now. We await their complete fulfilment when he comes again.
Moreover, the idea of ‘the Day of the Lord’ includes both good and bad elements: dreadful judgment for those who reject God and comforting restoration for those who do receive him. So the talk of father and son restoration contrasts with another word about what would befall fathers and sons.
Ezekiel had warned the nation about what would happen to them as a result of divine judgment. As we read in Ez. 5:9-10: “And because of all your abominations I will do with you what I have never yet done, and the like of which I will never do again. Therefore fathers shall eat their sons in your midst, and sons shall eat their fathers. And I will execute judgments on you, and any of you who survive I will scatter to all the winds.”
This speaks of cannibalism resulting from the siege of Jerusalem. This is the complete opposite of the good things Malachi says will befall those who are ready for the Day of the Lord. How will God’s people meet him? With the curse of judgment or the blessing of restoration?
We today also need to take this to heart. As Duguid and Harmon say as they conclude their commentary:
This impending reality raises the question for each of us as to which of these groups we find ourselves in today. Are we penitently rushing to Christ by faith, grateful for God’s inestimable gift, looking to his righteousness as our only hope? Or are we coldly presuming that we can judge God’s justice as inadequate, denying his goodness and holiness because he hasn’t given us the things that we think our goodness deserves? These are the two groups into which all humanity will ultimately be divided.
For those who are his, it is most certainly good news:
As we await his glorious coming, we need to continue to speak to one another in the community of faith. We need to stir one another up to love and good deeds as well as to faithful hope and trust in the midst of life’s difficulties that God is indeed a good Father to his children. He has already shown us great compassion for the sake of Christ, the Son who truly served him perfectly, and the day is coming when this same Christ will return to claim us for his own. On that day, in the word of J. R. R. Tolkien, everything sad will indeed come untrue: our tears will be dried, our sorrows will be comforted, our sicknesses healed, our losses made more than whole. Then indeed we will be like joyful calves in the spring sunshine, reveling in the fullness and completeness of our salvation in Christ and in his beautiful, kind, and gracious word to us.
Fantastic news indeed. And that Tolkien quote intrigued me, so I looked it up, and here it is in context (from The Return of the King) – a fitting conclusion to this piece:
Full memory flooded back, and Sam cried aloud: ‘It wasn’t a dream! Then where are we?’
And a voice spoke softly behind him: ‘In the land of Ithilien, and in the keeping of the King; and he awaits you.’ With that Gandalf stood before him, robed in white, his beard now gleaming like pure snow in the twinkling of the leafy sunlight. ‘Well, Master Samwise, how do you feel?’ he said.
But Sam lay back, and stared with open mouth, and for a moment, between bewilderment and great joy, he could not answer. At last he gasped: ‘Gandalf! I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue? What’s happened to the world?’
‘A great Shadow has departed,’ said Gandalf, and then he laughed, and the sound was like music, or like water in a parched land; and as he listened the thought came to Sam that he had not heard laughter, the pure sound of merriment, for days upon days without count. It fell upon his ears like the echo of all the joys he had ever known.
But he himself burst into tears. Then, as a sweet rain will pass down a wind of spring and the sun will shine out the clearer, his tears ceased, and his laughter welled up, and laughing he sprang from his bed.