Rev. Hanko is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Lynden, Washington. Previous article in this series: September 1, 2007, p. 472.
5. Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD:
6. 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.
That the coming of Elijah in these last verses of Malachi is a reference to John the Baptist and his work as forerunner of the Messiah is beyond doubt in light of Jesus’ words in Matthew 11:14: “And if ye will receive it, this is Elias, which was for to come.” In Matthew 17:12 Jesus says the same: “But I say unto you, That Elias is come already, and they knew him not, but have done unto him whatsoever they listed. Likewise shall also the Son of man suffer of them”—to which Scripture adds, “Then the disciples understood that he spake unto them of John the Baptist” (v. 13).
It may seem strange, however, that the prophecy ends with a reference to John as God’s messenger and not to the great Messenger of the covenant Himself. Nevertheless there is good reason for this ending.
We should understand that John was Elijah, not because he was some reincarnation of Elijah the prophet, but because he came “in the spirit and power of Elijah” (Luke 1:17) and because he preached the same message of judgment and repentance as Elijah. From that perspective, all the prophets of the Old Testament were “Elijah” and all prepared the way of the Lord. John was only the last and greatest of them all. Even the ministers of the Word in the New Testament bear a certain resemblance to Elijah and stand in his place when they preach that same message and point to Christ as the one who fulfills all the promises of God.
But why does God speak of this messenger (and of all who stand with him as messengers and preparers of the way) and not of the great Messenger Himself, especially here at the end of the prophecy? There are two reasons. First, because those who heeded God’s messengers in the persons of John and Malachi and the prophets would also heed the Messenger of the covenant Himself, and those who did not heed the lesser messengers would not heed the greater either. As Jesus said later to the Scribes and Pharisees, “If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead” (Luke 16:31).
Second, the fact of the matter is that it is through such messengers that the Messenger Himself speaks. They do not just speak about Him, but He speaks through them, so that to hear and heed them is to hear and heed Christ. For that reason, too, those who would not hear John, or any of those others who stood in the long line of prophets of which John was the last and greatest, would not hear Christ. Nor today will those who refuse to hear God’s messengers hear Christ, though they may piously protest otherwise.
To Israel God is saying that they must give heed, not only to John who had not yet appeared on the scene of history and would not appear for 400 years, but also to Malachi and to the other prophets who had gone before him, who were part of that long line of prophets. To us He is saying that we too must give heed to those who come in the spirit and power of Elijah and who bring his message of repentance and judgment, and that in repenting we must “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”
Along with verse 4, this passage very strikingly sets before the people Moses and Elijah, the two who appeared to Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration. They appeared there and are mentioned here for the same reason. They represent the whole Old Testament, the law and the prophets, all of which testified of Christ. That testimony is the principal message of the prophets, including Malachi in the Old Testament. Search the Scriptures, Jesus said to the Jews, for they are they which testify of me. In the New Testament the testimony is also of Christ, but of Him as the fulfillment of all the promises and as the one who is coming again. In the Old Testament that testimony kept the church looking for the coming of Christ and the fulfillment of the promises in Him. In the New Testament it keeps us “looking for and hastening unto the coming of the day of the Lord,” the day when He shall come again.
Testifying of the coming of Christ, therefore, the law and prophets prepared the way of the Lord. Moses did that by setting before the people the demands of the law, which would become a “schoolmaster to lead them to Christ.” Elijah and the prophets did that by calling the people to repentance in view of the coming day of wrath, and their spirit lives on in all those who preach the law and the prophets, pointing to Christ as the one in whom alone salvation is to be found. As Moore says:
Indeed, to every regenerated soul there is essentially this coming of Elijah, this summons, “Repent, for the day is coming!” And as the faithful minister of Christ goes forth, it must ever be in the same spirit, calling on men to repent, and pointing to the lurid flashings of the dies irae, which, when once perceived by the startled eye of the soul, will lead it to flee to the only refuge from this wrath to come.¹
We should note, though, that this sending of Elijah, fulfilled over the whole course of history in the testimony of the law and the prophets, in Malachi, in John, and in every preacher, is not for the purpose of giving men a chance to repent, but to work repentance in the hearts of God’s elect—to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children and the hearts of the children to the fathers. The language is the language of sovereign grace and a wonderful testimony to the fact that the gospel preached through the ages is indeed the “power of God unto salvation.”
Verse 6, then, describes the fruit of “Elijah’s” work through the ages. It is the good fruit of repentance and conversion. Though expressed in language that may seem strange to us, this is clear from the quotation of the passage in Luke 1:16, 17. There the second phrase is interpreted by the angel Gabriel to mean “the disobedient to the wisdom of the just.” The idea must therefore be this, that by the preaching of repentance the hearts of the pious and faithful fathers of Israel would live once again in their children and the children would be restored to the piety of their fathers.
That piety of the fathers Malachi had referred to repeatedly (1:2; 2:5, 6; 3:4). It would live again, and does live again not only in the hearts of their Jewish children but in the heart of every spiritual child of Abraham, that is, in the hearts of all those who are children of Abraham by faith (Gal. 3:29).
That fruit would be produced by Elijah’s message, whether preached by Elijah himself or by those who followed him. The message produced that fruit in the Old Testament because it was the Spirit of Christ who spoke through the prophets (I Pet. 1:11). It produces that fruit in the New Testament because Christ Himself speaks through the preaching (John 10:27; Eph. 2:17).
That promise of good fruit was God’s encouragement to Malachi in a time when it seemed as though no one listened or gave heed. It would be an encouragement to John when he was “a voice crying in the wilderness.” It is an encouragement to everyone who brings the Word of God in times of apostasy, coldness, and wickedness. The encouragement is the promise that salvation is God’s work and that therefore His people will surely be saved. That promise of God through Malachi had really been given to Elijah many years before when God assured him in his despondency that He had reserved in Israel seven thou sand who had not bowed the knee to Baal. It is given in the New Testament language when the Word of God assures us that even today there is a remnant according to the election of grace (Rom. 11:5).
All this is reinforced by the threat of God’s curse. On Israel as a nation that curse came when they were cut off and destroyed and the gospel was sent to the Gentiles. But just as the Word of God concerning the conversion of many continues to be fulfilled throughout the New Testament, so does this threat of curse still hang over the heads of all who do not repent: “Be not high-minded, but fear; for if God spared not the natural branches, take heed, lest he also spare not thee” (Rom. 11:20, 21).
With these words, Malachi’s prophecy and the whole Old Testament ends. And what an ending! As Pusey says:
After the glad tidings, Malachi, and the Old Testament in him, ends with words of awe, telling us of the consequence of the final hardening of the heart; the eternal severance, when the unending end of the everlasting Gospel itself shall be accomplished, and its last grain gathered into the garner of the Lord. The Jews, who would be wiser than the prophet, repeat the previous verse, because Malachi closes so awfully. The Maker of the heart of man knew better than the hearts which He had made, and taught their authors to end the books of Isaiah and Ecclesiastes (and Malachi) with words of awe, from which man’s heart so struggles to escape.²
Or, as Laetsch puts it:
The Masoretes [early Jewish editors of the Old Testament] repeated v. 23 after v. 24, and the LXX [the Septuagint, a Greek translation of the Old Testament] reversed the order of the last two verses in order to have the last book of the Bible close, not with a curse, but a blessing. That is not the way for unbelief to escape the curse. None but Jesus saves!³
The concluding prayer of Calvin certainly expresses, therefore, what everyone who reads and understands the prophecy of Malachi must feel:
Grant, Almighty God, that as nothing is omitted by thee to help us onward in the course of our faith, and as our sloth is such that we hardly advance one step though stimulated by thee,—O grant, that we may strive to profit more by the various helps which thou hast provided for us, so that the Law, the Prophets, the voice of John the Baptist, and especially the doctrine of thine only-begotten Son, may more fully awaken us, that we may not only hasten to him, but also proceed constantly in our course, and persevere in it until we shall at length obtain the victory and the crown of our calling, as thou hast promised an eternal inheritance in heaven to all who faint not, but wait for the coming of the Great Redeemer.—Amen.4
¹ T.V. Moore, A Commentary on Haggai and Malachi, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1974, p. 176.
² E.B. Pusey, The Minor Prophets, A Commentary, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1977, vol. II, pp. 503, 504.
³ Theo. Laetsch, Bible Commentary on the Minor Prophets, St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1970, p. 547.
4. John Calvin, Commentaries on the Twelve Minor Prophets, trans. John Owen, vol. 5, Zechariah and Malachi, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1950, p. 632.