He Will Turn the Hearts of the Fathers to the Children

Remember the law of my servant Moses, the decrees and laws I gave him at Horeb for all Israel. See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the LORD comes. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers; or else I will come and strike the land with a curse. (NIV)

Something Expected and Something Unexpected 

We come to the end of the year, and the end of the book of Malachi, and the end of the Old Testament. There is something here in these closing verses that we would expect, and something that I think we would not expect.

A Bridge Between Old and New

We would expect that there would be a kind of bridge between the old and the new—between what God has said and done in the past and what he will say and do in the future. And we have exactly that.

  1. In verse 4 we have the command to look back and remember the law of Moses: "Remember the law of my servant Moses, the statutes and ordinances that I commanded him at Horeb [=Sinai] for all Israel."

    The backward glance will always be a crucial part of biblical faith. How would we know the path to God's future blessing if he had not spoken in the past and told us the way? God has spoken. And we must always look back to that sure, fixed, infallible word for guidance and hope.

  2. But the bridge stretches not only back to the word of God at Mt. Horeb; it also stretches forward in these verses to the great Day of the Lord—the day when God will bring history to a decisive climax in victory over those who have remained in rebellion against him and with vindication for all his loyal subjects.

    Verse 5: "Behold, I send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes."

    In other words, as the Old Testament closes, God makes known that he is not by any means finished with his plan for the world or for Israel. There is a great day of victory coming and there will be preparations for it so that the people of God will be ready.

That is what I would expect at the end of the Old Testament—a bridge between old and new—a look back at the faithful work of God in the past and a look forward to the final victory.

What "Elijah's" Preaching Will Do

But what I would not expect as the final word in the Old Testament is a pointed and specific focus on the relationships between fathers and children. Of all the things that Malachi could have told us about the preaching of the future "Elijah," he chooses to tell us in verse 6 that "he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the land with a curse."

Three Areas of Focus

So here at the end of 1987 I would like to let the end of the Old Testament direct our thoughts about God in these three ways.

  1. First, from verse 4 we consider the backward look to God's revealed word.
  2. Second, from verse 5 we consider the forward look to God's final victory and the Elijah who prepares the way.
  3. Third, from verse 6 we consider the effect of God's word on the relationships between fathers and children.

1. Looking Back to God's Revealed Word

Take the phrase, "Remember the law!" at the beginning of verse 4. What does that mean? Maybe the best way to bring out the sense of this command is to look at some analogies.

"Remember Lot's Wife!"

In Luke 17:32 Jesus appeals for a sense of urgency in the last day and warns against trying to save your life by piling up worldly securities. To drive this home, he says, "Remember Lot's wife!" Why? Because the memory can save them from a similar fate.

There are many people who have been taken by the hand and brought out of the city of destruction, who then look back with ungrateful longing for the ways of sin and in that moment are hardened like a pillar of salt. But Jesus says, "Remember Lot's wife!" Let that memory live and have power in your life! Memory is a means of salvation.

"Remember the Alamo!"

You may remember the story of the Texas Revolution. In December 1835 the Texas revolutionaries took the town of San Antonio. The fortress there was called the Alamo and was guarded by 150 men when Santa Anna, with Mexican forces, came against the town on February 26 the next year. With 32 reinforcements the Texans held off the enemy until March 6 when the siege ended in bloody hand to hand combat and every Texan was dead including Jim Bowie and Davy Crocket.

The courage of the Texans inspired the rest of the resistance and six weeks later at San Jacinto the Texans defeated the Mexicans under the awe-inspiring cry, "Remember the Alamo!"

Why remember the Alamo? Because the past exerts power in the present through the gift of memory. Memory is power. The person who says that history is bunk, or that the past is gone and all that matters is the present, just doesn't know much about real life. In real life memory has tremendous power to inspire and guide.

"Remember the Law!"

When God says, "Remember the law!" I think it ought to ring in our ears the same way "Remember the Alamo!" rang in the ears of the Texas Revolutionaries. It means, "Don't forget what happened at Horeb! How I brought you on eagle's wings out of Egypt! How I came down with power and glory on Mt. Horeb, and revealed my love and holiness, and made a covenant with you of all the peoples on the earth, and taught you the way of life and everlasting joy with good commandments and wise statutes and ordinances only for your good!"

It means, "You are in a war. The powers of darkness will constantly try to put out the light of truth in your life. Worldliness fights for your mind everyday. But I mean for you to fight back! Fight for the freedom of your mind! And there is only one hope of success: REMEMBER THE LAW!"

The Price Is Great and the Stakes Are High

What if a soldier in the Texas militia got discouraged in military training, and acted cowardly in several skirmishes, and when his captain said, "Don't you remember the Alamo!" he said, "I'm sorry, Captain, I just keep on forgetting"—what would the captain say?

He might say, "Well, if you are so hard that the death of 182 comrades takes no hold in your heart, then you are not fit to serve in the militia." I'm sure that is what God is going to say to some professing Christians for whom the death of Jesus made so little difference in their lives. But not before he has mercy.

The captain may first say something like this, "Listen, soldier, if you don't remember the Alamo, when you go home tonight, you tell that story to your children! And talk about it when you get up in the morning. Speak of it when you sit in your house and when you walk in the way, when you lie down and when you rise up. Bind it as a sign on your hand, and hang it between your eyes if you must. Write the words on your doorposts and on the gates of your house. Do whatever you must do. Do whatever you must do! There is no excuse. The price was too great. Remember the Alamo!"

That is exactly what God says concerning the law in Deuteronomy 6:4–9. And so here at the end of 1987 may I urge you to take some time in the next four days to plan how you are going to keep the Word of God in remembrance in 1988? The price was great. The steaks are high. Much higher than the liberation of Texas.

2. Looking Forward to God's Final Victory

Now we turn to verse 5 and shift our focus from the past to the future, and from memory to hope.

Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes.

There are at least two things about the future that we need to see from this verse. One is that God will be victorious, and the other is that God is merciful.

God Will Be Victorious

We see the prophecy of victory in the phrase, "Day of the Lord." What does "Day of the Lord" mean?

In Luke 22:53 the chief priests and the captains and the elders came out to the Garden of Gethsemane to arrest Jesus in the darkness. Jesus pricks their conscience with the words, "Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs? When I was with you day after day in the temple, you did not lay hands on me." Then he says something full of sovereign sovereignty and submission to God: "But this is your hour, and the power of darkness."

What does he mean, "This is your hour"? He means: For now you have the upper hand. It is as though the almighty simply lets his boxing gloves hang by his side for one round. He is battered to a pulp. And the whole world thinks the fight is over.

But Amos and Joel and Isaiah and Zephaniah and Malachi and Paul and John tell us that God will have his day in the end. The power of darkness has its hour. But God will have his day. And it will be the last day. And his cause will be totally victorious. Not only did he get up off the mat, but the whole arena is surrounded by ten million mighty angels. And Christ will settle accounts with everyone who cheered for his defeat.

So the prophecy of the Day of the Lord is a prophecy of God's victory and the victory of his cause and his people. It is a great folly to stay on the other side.

God Is Merciful

Especially in view of the other thing in this verse, namely, that God is merciful and gives many warnings and invitations before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. "Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes."

If we had time, I would love to go into a detailed study with you about the expectation of Elijah. From my most recent study of this I would say that just as the expectation of the Messiah's coming will be fulfilled in two stages—the first and second coming of our Lord—so also the expectation of Elijah will be fulfilled in two stages.

John the Baptist came as the first fulfillment of this prophecy. But there are good arguments that neither he nor Jesus nor the writers of the New Testament thought of John as the final Elijah. (Luke 1:17—he comes in "the spirit and the power of Elijah"; Matthew 11:14—"If you are able to receive it"; John 1:21—John says he is not Elijah; Matthew 17:11—"Elijah comes and will restore all things.")

Instead Revelation 11:3–12 pictures two witnesses at the end of the age making one last extraordinary call to Israel to repent and prepare for the impending judgment. One of these is almost certainly the final Elijah, because he has "the power to shut up the sky, that no rain may fall," just as the first Elijah did.

Apart from the details, what is the main point of this prophecy? The main point is that God precedes the wrath of judgment with the call of mercy. He sends messengers to Sodom and Nineveh and Jerusalem and Minneapolis before he pours down fire and brimstone. And not just one, but a whole line of messengers.

It is no accident that you are here this morning and I am speaking this message. I am not the biblical Elijah, but I am a kind of Elijah—a voice crying in the twentieth century wilderness to you this morning: Prepare for the day of the Lord! Your presence here and my message from this text is God's invitation of mercy to you today. You are God's creation. You belong on his side. The bridge is built with a cross. The amnesty is signed with the blood of his Son. Come back home before the great and terrible day of the Lord.

In verse 4 we look back and remember the law of God. In verse 5 we look forward and see the victory of God and the mercy of God.

3. Considering the Effects of God's Merciful Word

Now in verse 6 we see one of the effects of that mercy—and an unexpected one at that.

When Elijah preaches, and cries out for people to get ready to meet on the great and terrible day of the Lord, what happens? Verse 6: "And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the land with a curse."

The Relationships Between Fathers and Children

His aim is to spare people from being cursed. That's the mercy we saw in verse 5. But to spare people from being cursed, people must be changed. Specifically, it it says their hearts must be changed. And even more specifically it says that the disposition of the heart toward fathers and children must be changed.

Some take this verse to refer to the fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, so that the meaning is simply this—that the people will return to the faith of the fathers. But the problem with this is that it says that Elijah will also turn the fathers' hearts toward the children. It would be unlikely that God would speak of Elijah changing the hearts of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. So I take it in its simpler sense: ordinary living fathers and ordinary living children will have their hearts changed toward each other.

I want to close this year by pleading with you to turn your heart toward your father or your children, or that relative or friend that you . . . that you what?

Fathers Needing Turned Hearts

What does it mean for a father to turn his heart toward his child? Well, what is the opposite of having a heart turned toward a child? The opposite is to have the heart turned away. Three examples:

  • Fathers, you can have your heart turned away from your children simply by ignoring them. By being so swallowed up in your work that all they get are the dregs of your life.
  • You can have your heart turned away from your children by being abusive. It may be that without even hearing yourself your communication with them is a litany of disapproval and put-downs. Why? Because your heart is not toward them. You don't feel what they feel. Your heart is frozen in a posture of habitual unkindness. Or worse in our day is the increase (or increasingly revealed) sexual abuse of children. And where, then, is the father's heart? It is curled around like a snake in love with its own tail and consuming itself on its own filthy passions.
  • Or you can have your heart turned away from your children through an embittered spirit of disappointment: that you are forgotten by them, or that they have let you down in the way they live, or that they have taken you for granted and never said thanks for all you did. Where is the heart then? In the poisoned puddle of self-pity that threatens to grow into an ocean of resentment.

Children Needing Turned Hearts

What about the other way around? What about children with hearts that need to be turned toward their fathers and mothers? What kinds of hearts would this apply to today?

It would apply to rebellious and disobedient children. It could be a five year old or a fifteen year old. Where is the heart? It sits in front of the mirror of the soul trying to convince itself that the witch-face of cockiness and independence is really the fairest face in the land.

And it would apply to children of any age that neglect their parents and grandparents. I have one grandmother left. Both her children are dead, including my mother. All she has is four grandchildren of which I am one. She is over ninety, lives in a nursing home outside Philadelphia, and doesn't usually recognize visitors let alone cards from me. It is one of the most frustrating things in my life to live at this distance with no way to let her know my care. And the implication of the text is woe to children who agonize with this issue.

Finally, the text would apply to the embittered victims of abuse.

God's Word to Parents and Children

Notice, it does not say that any father or child can turn the heart of the other. That is not your responsibility. But your own heart is. So the word of God to fathers (and mothers!) today is this:

  • Turn your hearts to your children:
    • don't give them the dregs of your life.
  • Turn your hearts to your children:
    • don't be unkind,
    • don't constantly criticize,
    • don't even think the wicked thoughts that lead to sexual abuse.
  • Turn your hearts toward your children:
    • let the bitterness go, at least from your side forgive, and roll the burden onto God.

And the word to children is this:

  • Turn your hearts toward your father (and mother!):
    • don't rebel; obey!
  • Turn your hearts toward your fathers and mothers and grandparents:
    • don't forget them or neglect them; care for them.
  • Turn your hearts toward your father:
    • the road to restoration may be as long as life. It may involve extensive counseling with a wise Christian therapist. But in your heart the decisive step can be taken, must be taken: the feeling of having been victimized must cease to justify animosity.


It's the answer for why our hearts should turn in every one of these cases: Jesus was the ultimate victim. We were the ultimate abusers—our sin nailed him to the cross. And Jesus has turned his heart toward you this morning. That is the meaning of this message. Whether you look back and remember the law of God, or look forward and see the victory of God, the point comes through: God has turned his heart toward you in Jesus Christ. Don't push it away. It is a sweet and wonderful thing to hold no grudges.