What would you say to someone you were not going to talk to again for four centuries? What final words of wisdom would you leave with them? After six condemnations of Israel, God ends the message of Malachi with a charge and a promise. He commands the people to remember the law – the very thing they are not doing presently – and pledges to send Elijah to them to prepare their hearts for the coming Messiah. Obedience and hope. Law and redemption. God mercifully uses His final words to direct the people back to Him. They must come back by honoring the law but they’ll ultimately be reconciled through the Messiah. This ending provides a fitting bridge to the New Testament. The people must look back to the law and forward to the Messiah.
Remember the Law
God’s charge to the people of Israel is to remember the law – both the statutes and ordinances – He gave to Moses at Horeb (Sinai). He takes the people back to the beginning of the covenant. He reminds them of their responsibility to fulfill the vows of their forefathers to keep the law. It is the law that forms the basis of their status as God’s chosen people. It is the means of reconciling with God and coming back under the protections of the covenant.
Disdain for the law is the thread that runs through all the condemnations of the book. The Israelites do NOT remember the law. They do not keep the law regarding sacrifices, caring for the priests, interpersonal relationships, tithing, divorce, intermarriage, and justice. The law means little to them because they have replaced God with the world and their own interests.
God describes Moses as My servant. This is the opposite of the Israelites – Moses was God’s friend and obedient servant. He represents everything the present Israelites are not – he was the agent for the law and was obedient to it. He lived a life of submission, in contrast to the arrogant and rebellious lives of the people.
God points Israel to the law because without it the people cannot be ready for the Messiah. The law is what shows them their need. The law defines the standard that must be met to come to God. The impossibility of keeping the law is what drives the sacrificial system – and what ultimately points to the Perfect Sacrifice to come. Without the law the people cannot have hearts prepared for the Messiah because they will not fully comprehend why the Messiah must come.
This means their ignoring the law is more than just a violation of the covenant. They actually keep themselves from realizing their hopeless state. Not caring about the law and not abiding by it thus has larger implications than they can even know. They are not only outside the protection of the covenant – they are outside the knowledge that leads to salvation (Rom 7).
It makes sense, then, that this is God’s final command to the people for the next 400 years. God will be silent until the time of John the Baptist – thus the most important thing He can leave them with is to remember (obey, return to) the law. Remember the origin of the covenant at Sinai. Remember Moses and the redemption from Egypt. Remember the reason they must continually make sacrifices for their sin. And long for the day when the law and the covenant will be fulfilled by the Messiah.
Promise of Elijah
After admonishing the people, God comforts them with hope. He tells them He will send Elijah to them before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord and Elijah will prepare the people for the coming Messiah. This logically follows God’s charge to keep the law. The only answer for people charged with something that is in fact impossible is an act of God. God does not leave them with the law – He promises the ultimate solution to the problem of their sin.
Verses 5 and 6 elaborate on the promise of 3:1. In that verse God promised to send My messenger to prepare the way before Me. Here He identifies the messenger – Elijah. Elijah will prepare the way for the Messiah. Jesus will later identify John the Baptist as the prophesied Elijah (Matt 11:7-19, 17:10-13), and the angel who appears to the father of John the Baptist will quote this text to explain John’s birth (Luke 1:17).
Why God decides to identify John as Elijah is open to conjecture. Elijah was the most powerful of the prophets and perhaps the most important. He prophesied in an extraordinarily evil time in Israel’s history (Ahab and Jezebel, rampant Baal worship) and performed many powerful acts. Perhaps what God means is that a prophet as powerful and gifted as Elijah will come to herald the appearing of the Messiah. We know that Jesus will say that among those born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John. John will be the last of the prophets – and his influence and importance will rival Elijah in the pantheon of God’s servants.
Elijah will come before the day of the Lord. Since John the Baptist will come before Christ it seems somewhat odd that this is a description of his time. This is why some assume it refers to another coming during the end times and that Elijah will return as one of the two witnesses (who are not identified) described in Revelation 11. What might make more sense, however, is that it means John will usher in the Messianic age which will culminate in the second coming of Christ on the great and terrible day of the Lord. In any case, he serves as God’s messenger of mercy to the people warning them of coming judgment.
It is very interesting how God describes what Elijah will do. Instead of simply saying again that he will prepare the way for the Messiah, He instead says he will restore the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers. It is difficult to understand what this means. Perhaps since Moses put responsibility on the fathers to pass the faith to their children and tell them about God’s provision and redemption, this refers to the fathers and the children once again coming together under the covenant (Deut 6:1-9). Fathers will fulfill their responsibility to teach the law (and since teaching the law is actually an act of love, it is the means of turning their hearts to their children) and children will follow after their fathers (turning their hearts to their fathers by following their teaching) in obedience. Generations of Israelites will once again serve God and remember His covenant (…so that you and your son and your grandson might fear the Lord your God, to keep all His statutes and His commandments, which I command you, all the days of your life). John will cry out for repentance and thus restore the people to the covenant – and prepare their hearts for its fulfillment.
Elijah’s ministry will spare the people from God’s curse on the land. Among the blessings and curses of the covenant are promises regarding the land. If the people obey the covenant, the land will be blessed and if the people do not obey, the land will be cursed (Deut 11:13-17). The end of verse 6 seems to refer to the curses of the covenant but on a wider scale. For people whose hearts are not prepared the day of the Lord brings only judgment.
Thus God closes His last words for the next four centuries with references to Moses – representing the law – and Elijah – representing the prophets. The law and the prophets – the same words Jesus will use to refer to the entirety of the Old Testament. Interestingly, these will be the same two men who meet with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration (Jewish tradition holds that Moses did not die – God simply took him from Mount Nebo. Elijah definitely did not die as God took him in a chariot of fire. Thus, according to some theories, both are alive and can return). The people must return to Moses and look forward to Elijah. To be restored to God the people must remember the covenant and look forward to its fulfillment.
Remember the law and trust in God’s promise to send a Savior – these are the most important things God wants His people to remember until He speaks to them again in 400 years.
God’s final command addresses perfectly the problem of the people of Malachi’s time – their view of God. Since they do not abide by the law their view of God is skewed (and since their view of God is skewed they have no sense of urgency to keep the law). They have no sense of His holiness and righteousness. They do not understand His perfection and His demand for perfection for His people. God sends them back to the law to remedy their small view of Him and their complacency towards obedience.
In the same way the law forces us to confront God’s holiness and our sinfulness. It puts our status before Him in the right perspective. That is why remembering the law is not simply a command for Old Testament Israelites – it is relevant for us today. The law reminds us of God’s perfection and our need of redemption. It shows us God’s standards for His children. Since the standards are impossible to uphold, they drive us continually to the gospel. As we meditate on the gospel our love for God and for our redemption drives us to obedience – which brings us back to the law. We do not strive to fulfill the law for our salvation – we strive to fulfill the law in love and thanksgiving for our salvation. Thus the law is our means both of understanding God and of demonstrating our love for Him.
God’s promise to send Elijah resonates with us also. Elijah may or may not come again to usher in the last times, but in either case his ministry of preparing hearts for the last day must be completed in us as well. We look back to the law to understand God and inform our view of Him but we look forward to His return to motivate us to righteousness (we will stand before Him) and rest in His ultimate victory. Victory and judgment are coming. The consummation of our salvation is coming. Like the Israelites, we live continually with a view of the coming great and terrible day of the Lord.
Let the law inform our view of God.
Let our view of God inform our every thought and action.
Let every thought and action look forward to Christ’s return.
The ultimate lesson of Malachi is that our view of God is the most important thing about us. A small God equals a big world and a big view of self. A big God equals a small world and a small – and correct – view of self. The Israelites of Malachi’s time served a small God. We must hallow His name daily and serve a big God.