THE COMING OF ELIJAH THE PROPHET
Malachi 4:5-6: Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of Yahweh comes. And he will turn back the hearts of the fathers toward their children, and the hearts of children toward their fathers, lest I come and smite them with utter destruction.
September 29, 2006
The Malachi Prophecy
This is one of the most famous prophetic passages of the Old Testament. Untold numbers of dissertations and expositions have surrounded it, ever since it was published about 400 years before Jesus. In our modern canon this statement appears immediately before the New Testament. However, we can see that the Book of Malachi has an earlier reference to this Personality, 3:1f.
In fact, the statements in Chapter 3 are so important we cannot neglect them.
3:1 — Behold, I send my messenger to prepare the way before me.
The word malawki (hence the name of this book) meant to dispatch, as
a deputy or a messenger; specifically, of God: an angel, a prophet, priest
The Septuagint translates the phrase "prepare the way" as "survey the way." The passage does not mean that the Prophet will make the way ready for Yahweh, but that he will survey the way, he will describe the coming of Yahweh. Millions of Christians today look forward expectantly to the Second Coming of Jesus, but will not know it when He appears. They will not expect His appearance as God; they think of Him coming as Jesus in human form. The Prophet properly tells them that He is now here, as God, and not as man. Jesus will suddenly appear as a great and glorious light.
The Hebrew word l'panee does not mean that the Prophet comes before in time, as part of a sequence, with Yahweh coming later. This seems to be a well nigh universal understanding of the word before for those who are not trained in Hebrew. Rather it means that he stands in the presence of Yahweh. Since the word is written with a preposition it means variously: a. in front of, b. before, c. to the front of, d. in the presence of, e. in the face of, f. at the face or front of, g. from the presence of, h. from before, or i. from before the face of. See Brown Driver & Briggs, Hebrew Lexicon, Oxford University Press, 1906, 195, page 816.
The Prophet will work while Jesus is personally present on our world.
3:1 — Yahweh whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple.
This sentence confirms the suddenness of the coming of Jesus.
The larger question is what the writer meant by to his temple. If Jesus comes to this world He is leaving His architectural world on High to come to this lowly planet. He would be leaving His Temple, His Palace, not coming to His Temple. On the other hand we can regard this planet as a Temple in the eyes of God. We know that this planet has a special position in the Universe.
Because this world is so special, Jesus took it under his wing when He lived here as a man. He will make this planet unique among all the other planets of the Universe. Hence we can truly regard this world as His Temple.
3:1-2 — The Prophet of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says Yahweh of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?
One can see that if we are to maintain consistency in the text we must take this messenger, this Prophet, the same as the earlier one. Then Yahweh is speaking of the Prophet, and not about himself.
The ancient covenant was dishonored by the people of Israel:
Isa 42:6 — I will give Thee for a covenant of the people, a light of the Gentiles.
Refer to my discussions on that prophetic figure.
The Malachi text shows that the coming of the Prophet is not a time of rejoicing. The question is asked, Who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? The coming of the Prophet will be a time of great tribulation, when Jesus separates the wheat from the chaff.
But we should not confuse the Servant with the Master. Jesus, Yahweh, is bringing this great tribulation when He lets loose all the Sons of Perdition. The Prophet merely appears coincident with this great event,
The verses from Malachi 3:2b to 5 are all reflective of Yahweh of hosts.
3:2 — For he is like a refiner's fire and like fullers' soap.
A fuller was someone who cleaned and thickened (to make it "full") freshly-woven (usually woolen) cloth. The process involved cleaning, bleaching, wetting and beating the fibers to a consistent and desirable condition. Fuller's earth was a variety of clay that was used to scour and cleanse the cloth. Fuller's soap was an alkali made from plant ashes which was also used to clean and full new cloth. Since fullers required plenty of running water, along with the natural substances described, a fuller's field was a place where all were available for the fullers to conduct their profession.
3:3 — He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver.
A refiner, Hebrew tsaraph, was someone who literally "fused" (Zech 13:9; Isa 48:10; Mal 3:2-3, etc.). The same word is rendered "tried" (Ps 66:10); "melt" (Jer 6:29 in KJV); "purge" (Isa 1:25).
The personality in these two references may be the Prophet, or they may be Yahweh. The context suggests these attributes are those of the Prophet, when he announces judgment upon mankind.
3:5— Then I will draw near to you for judgment.
God will make His people humble before Him, as in days of old. He will do so in the Great Judgment, when He will Judge all the evil doers, and He will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hireling in his wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the sojourner, and do not fear me.
Most striking is how intimately the Prophet is linked and coupled with Yahweh. One has difficulty distinguishing in the text between the actions of the two. The Prophet does not appear unless God appears; he does not actively work unless God actively works. He is truly a mouthpiece for God.
The New Testament on the Prophet
In the identity of this Prophet we have a major problem. From the earlier discussion we have clear notice that this personality will come when the judgment comes. Jesus said, Now is the judgment of this world, John 12:31. This would imply that the judgment took place at His pronouncement. But there is a difference between an announcement of the world being judged, and the execution of that judgment. There may be 2000 years difference. The details of the judgment include the fate of the former Prince of this world, as Jesus showed, as well as the technical execution of the judgment upon mankind, which will shortly come down upon us. Therefore, we should not conclude that the judgment was completed when Jesus made his pronouncement.
We need also to examine New Testament remarks attributed to Jesus.
We see that Jesus clearly refers to more than one Prophet Elijah coming to this world. Elijah does come, and he is to restore all things; but I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not know him. The Elijah that comes, who is to restore all things, is different from the Elijah who has already come. These cannot be the ancient Elijah of history, but must be personalities that simulate the ancient Elijah in their actions, or that remind the world of that ancient personality. The reminiscence is in the voice of righteousness with which they speak.
How do we make compatible Matt 11 with Matt 17? Is it possible that Jesus was referring to both Servants on equal terms, but that in Matt 11 he was specific of just one personality, John the Baptist? What does the phrase mean, From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and men of violence take it by force? How much time elapsed between John's execution and when Jesus made this remark? This appears as a statement covering a long time, not a year or two from one to the other. This would be the kind of remark someone would make much later and removed in time. Perhaps this is another editing of the text by some later Christian. Then the phrase he is Elijah who is to come may not refer to John the Baptist but to the other coming Elijah.
My personal opinion is that our text is defective. Later editors may have shaped the remarks of Jesus to suit current theological speculation, or inserted their own comments but assigning them to Jesus.
Mark 9:12-13 presents the same difficulty.
Luke 1:17 has again the same difficulty: And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah. where this was the promise made to Zechariah and Elizabeth. The remark does not make him Elijah but one who will speak in power as the old Elijah.
John the Baptist himself explicitly denies that he is Elijah, John 1:21. Rather he refers to himself in the words of Isa 40:3. This has raised intense debate among Christians in the seeming contradiction of the remarks by Jesus in Matt 11 and the remarks by John the Baptist:
It is essential to understanding of the Malachi prophecy that this individual will come when the great and terrible day of Yahweh comes. He will appear at the Judgment. He will come at a time of deep world crises, when he works in the face of the threat of total destruction, in the presence of Yahweh, and under the same circumstances as the individual predicted in Deuteronomy. He will describe to the people the Return of Jesus, the great tribulation then unfolding, and provide warning if the people do not turn their hearts to God.
As with John the Baptist the use of the name "Elijah" betokens the spirit of this individual, not a physical rebirth, or reincarnation, of Elijah. Elijah, John the Baptist, and this individual all display similar spirit in their work for Yahweh in unfolding world destiny.
A major difficulty with translation of this passage is the seeming contradiction between the intent of verses Malachi 4:5 and 4:6. Verse five says that the great and terrible day of Yahweh will come while verse six, according to traditional views, shows that somehow this servant will turn the hearts of the generations toward one another, thus to avoid that great and terrible day. The conditional clause is in the last word, normally translated as "curse." The Hebrew word chayrem means "utter destruction," not curse. By turning the hearts of the generations toward one another, thus to care for one another, the work of the servant helps to avoid failure of God's plan. He helps to avoid the consequences of utter destruction. However, he does not avoid the judgment. He does all this in the face of the judgment.
Why is it important to this salvation that he turn the hearts of the fathers and their children toward one another? The answer lies in the increasing estrangement of the generations as the world neared the end of the age. Young people experienced escalating intensity of disappointment and disillusionment as they faced an ever more fearful world given them by their fathers. They went through periods of rebellion, and then utter hopelessness as time wore on. In the last years, before the final crises, dreaded plagues and destabilization of the nations caused a reassessment of moral and spiritual priorities. Some sought recourse in spiritist practices, as providing the "love" and "kindness" the world could not offer. Others sought salvation in reformed religions. Still others resigned all efforts to find personal consolation; they took one day at a time. As events unfolded those who truly trusted in God learned of the salvation of the world, and their role in it. As the blood baths of sacrifice from the spiritists broke upon them they renewed compassion toward one another. Now they became acutely aware of their dependence upon one another. Now they turned toward one another.
We should never forget the context of the Great Day of Judgment.