So here we come to the final words of God in the Old Testament. Of course, Malachi wasn’t the final prophet under the Old Covenant. According to Jesus, “[All] the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John.” But for about 400 years, the Lord was silent towards the nation of Israel.
Just a quick note here: In the traditional Hebrew texts, the book of Malachi only has three chapters, not four. We mentioned this yesterday, but it bears repeating and emphasizing: The entirety of chapter 4 is really a continuation of the thought in chapter 3. Chapters 3 and 4 (or just a long chapter 3 to the Jews) are all about the Day of the Lord. Right then it looked like the arrogant evildoers were ignoring the Lord, doing things their own way, and wrecking others’ lives while they were doing it. It seemed like God’s people were getting trampled while evil people were prospering. But contrary to how it looked, he was watching and would one day separate those who belong to him from those who don’t, and those two groups will head towards two very different destinies.
We’ve discussed this before, but let me just summarize for a moment about who this “Elijah” is who Malachi mentions before he wraps it up. Is this referring to John the Baptist? Well, yes and no. When John was specifically asked by the if he was Elijah, he emphatically denied it. But when Jesus was asked about him, the Lord enigmatically said that “[If] you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come.” The best explanation is that when the religious leaders were asking John, they were thinking in terms of him being the literal, physical return of Elijah (who'd never died). This is what John was denying. But John came in the spirit and power of Elijah: dressing like him, talking like him, living an austere lifestyle like him. And it seems that Jesus was saying that John was the fulfillment of today’s passage if Israel accepted John’s message (i.e., about Jesus being the Messiah).
So what can we learn from this?
In verse 4, just before he closes this book, he reminds them to hold onto the teachings of Moses. Until the Messiah came, they were to hold onto the last instructions he'd given them. Tough times were ahead. The Greeks and the Romans, in a very few years, would invade and persecute the nation. A lot of people would die. The temple they'd worked so hard on would be desecrated by pagans. For many, hope would flicker and they’d be tempted to give up.
“Elijah” would come before the Lord initiated the end of all things. This prophet would “turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents.” In other words, the social order that God instituted at the beginning would come back into place. I think that this sign of order coming out of chaos is a sign of widespread repentance. The issue, as always, is each person’s relationship with the Lord. Once that’s taken care, a good sign that it’s taking place is that family relationships are restored as well.
By the way, there’s an alternative translation of vs. 6: The NET Bible—with good translation reason—renders it as “He will encourage fathers and their children to return to me.” In other words, all generations will be united in coming back to the Lord. Quite frankly, this makes a bit more sense to me. That would fit in with the theme of the rest of the Bible: Restoration of the “vertical” relationship with the Lord is both necessary and sufficient for restoration of “horizontal” relationships of family, society, etc.
However you translate and interpret the first part of verse 6, it’s important to hear his final warning. If we don’t listen to God’s first messenger(s), then the Lord will “speak” to us in ways which are much harsher. He will strike the earth with a “curse” (which is how it's traditionally translated). This is the same word Moses used when referring to giving something completely over to the Lord by burning/destroying it completely, hence the way the new NIV translates it.
The image—and the choice—is rather stark. In dark days, God still expects faithfulness from his people. When it looks like the evil are winning, that’s when you must hold onto his truth even tighter than ever. Wait for his promises to be fulfilled. Wait for his coming. When he does, you’ll be vindicated for every ounce of trust you’ve put in him. It’ll be worth it.
Father God, it gets really hard waiting sometimes. If not for your grace, I would've fallen long ago into apathy or even worse. Please renew my trust, my faith, my obedience. Lord Jesus, may you find me faithful when you come.
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