Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the LORD come. And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers; lest I come and smite the earth with a curse (Malachi 4:5-6).
Malachi’s last words provide one last promise and warning to Israel. They comprise the final words of the Old Testament in English; even though they have different placements in Hebrew and Greek, they remain the final words spoken by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit for four hundred years. God promises that Elijah will return before the great Day of YHWH comes; he will turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, or the land will be cursed (Malachi 4:5-6). But why Elijah? And what is this about turning hearts of fathers and children?
Elijah’s story is told primarily in 1 Kings 17:1-2 Kings 2:12. YHWH raised him as a prophet in the dark days of Ahab and Jezebel when Baal service was ascendant. Through Elijah God withheld the rain, raised the dead, contended with the prophets of Baal, displayed God’s power before all Israel, and condemned kings for their malfeasance. Yet Elijah was in despair over Israel’s unfaithfulness; he was sure he alone was left to serve YHWH (1 Kings 19:1-14). Toward the end of his time on earth it did not seem that Elijah was all that successful; Ahab’s family still reigned and Baal service remained popular. Then God took Elijah up to heaven with chariots of fire and gave Elisha a double portion of Elijah’s spirit (1 Kings 2:1-12). In Elisha’s day the victory would be complete: Ahab’s descendants would be executed, Jezebel would die, Baal service would be exterminated, and both YHWH and Elijah His servant would be vindicated (2 Kings 2:13-10:27).
Elijah’s story should inform our understanding of Malachi’s prophecy. Since Elijah did not die, many Israelites no doubt heard Malachi’s prophecy and expected God to send Elijah back down from heaven. In the eyes of Israel, Elijah embodied the prophets; they would understand that Malachi prophesied the return of the prophetic message to Israel before the Day of YHWH came, the great day of expectation of the Messiah and the restoration of Israel as told by all the other prophets. If Israel were to need such a prophetic message, it must mean that at that time many in Israel would again prove unfaithful to God, just as in the days of Elijah, and would need to have their heart returned to YHWH and His purposes, the Law of Moses, and concern for property and inheritance, or God would again have to curse the earth, either with drought, as in the days of Elijah, or perhaps even worse.
Whereas Malachi’s words in Malachi 4:5-6 are the final promise of the end of the Old Testament, the same words represent the first hope and fulfillment of the New Testament. The angel Gabriel visited Zechariah the priest and told him he would have a son in his old age: this son would go in the spirit and power of Elijah, turning the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient in the wisdom of the just (Luke 1:1-17). In those days many in Israel were despondent: some were tempted to abandon the ways of their fathers and become as Greeks, some considered themselves as sinners who were beyond redemption, and some claimed to be superior to everyone else on account of their holiness and knowledge of the ways of God. Into this environment the son of Zechariah, John the Baptist, came as the prophet proclaiming the coming of the Day of YHWH, proclaiming a message of repentance, exhorting all Israel to turn from their sins and back toward YHWH and His purposes (Luke 3:1-18).
John the Baptist was the Elijah who was to come (Matthew 11:14, 17:10-13/Mark 9:11-15). He would be imprisoned and executed by Herod Antipas, and at the time of his death, it did not seem that he was all that successful (Matthew 14:1-12, Luke 3:19-20). Yet he had baptized one Jesus of Nazareth, whom God attested was the Christ (Matthew 3:13-17/Luke 3:21-22). This Jesus was the Immanuel, God with us, and He brought forth the Day of YHWH, first in His death, resurrection, ascension, and the inauguration of His Kingdom, and then in His vindication as the Son of God as the land of Israel was again cursed with death and destruction with the Roman devastation of Jerusalem in 70 CE (cf. Matthew 1:22-23, 24:1-36, Luke 23:1-24:53, Acts 1:1-2:41). John the Baptist, the one who came according to the final promise of the Old Testament, was the final prophet of the old covenant (Matthew 11:7-14). Yet he saw the embodiment of the hope and sustaining message of the prophets in Jesus of Nazareth. In Jesus God would restore the fortunes of Israel (Acts 3:19-21). In Christ God would reconcile not only all Israel but all mankind to Himself (Ephesians 2:1-18). In Jesus the Christ YHWH came so all Israel and all mankind could have the opportunity to come to a knowledge of the truth, be saved, and look forward to the day of resurrection, to never taste death again, just like Elijah (1 Corinthians 15:20-58). Let us be ever thankful that God proved faithful to His promises, and serve Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ of God, who fulfilled all the prophets said of Him!
Ethan R. Longhenry