How does the Old Testament close in your bible? Some older Catholic bibles placed 1 and 2 Maccabees as the last two books of the Old Testament. But in many bibles today, the two books of Maccabees are among the historical books rather than appended to the section of the prophets.
If Malachi is the final book listed in your Catholic bible, then it provides a kind of dramatic close to the Old Testament prophets. The curtain closes on the message of the prophets with a solemn warning to be prepared for the coming of the Lord and a promise by God to send us “Elijah” in order to prepare us. And, as the curtain reopens in the New Testament, St. John the Baptist is hard at work in the spirit and power of Elijah.
Let’s take a look at the dramatic words from Malachi. While they ring with promise, they also warn of great peril to those who do not lay hold of the promise. The words come forth almost like iron pellets. They describe the way through, but that way is only by being refined as by fire and by becoming fire.
Consider the words:
Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire, says the Lord Almighty. Not a root or a branch will be left to them. But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its rays. And you will go out and frolic like well-fed calves. Then you will trample on the wicked; they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day when I act, says the Lord Almighty. Remember the law of my servant Moses, the decrees and laws I gave him at Horeb for all Israel. See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of the parents to their children, and the hearts of the children to their parents; or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction (Mal 4:1-6).
With these words, the Old Testament Book of the Prophets ends; the curtain closes. Remarkably, as the curtain reopens on the New Testament, we see the Elijah figure, John the Baptist, fulfilling exactly what is said here. I will have more to say on this later on in this post.
Here on the eve of the opening of the New Testament, with the conception and then birth of Christ, it is worth looking at the final words of the “old dispensation” in order to understand why we need the new, why we need a savior, who is Christ the Lord.
Let’s look at this text from Malachi in four stages.
I. Day of Destruction – Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire, says the Lord Almighty. Not a root or a branch will be left to them.
The concept of the Day of judgment as a day of fire and wrath must be carefully understood. It does not mean that God is angry in some human sense. God is not moody; He is not subject to having a “bad day.” God is love and is unchanging.
The images of wrath and fire describe our human experience of God if we are not prepared to experience His full presence. God is a burning furnace of charity; He is the fire of love and holiness. Some things, such as fine gold and silver, are able to be purified by fire. But many others cannot endure fire (e.g., wood, hay, and straw). God warns in this text that He is a Holy Fire and that we must be made ready to endure His glory. “Wrath” is the human experience of being unprepared to encounter the holy fire of God’s presence.
Consider that fire and water do not mix. One can hear the conflict between the two when water is spilled on a hot stove. Similarly, sin and injustice cannot endure the holiness of God. The unrighteous experience God’s presence as wrath.
Consider, too, the image of light. In the evening hours we delight in having the bright lights of our rooms by which to see. When we turn off the lights to prepare for bed, we grow accustomed to the darkness. Then at six in the morning when we turn the lights back on we complain that the light is harsh. But the light has not changed; it is not any brighter than it was the night before. Rather it is we who have changed; it is we who now prefer the dark.
And thus when we speak of the wrath of God, we ought to remember this and realize that the wrath of God says more about us than about God. God has not changed; we have. He is the same God who walked with us in the Garden of Eden. But we, departing to our sins and preferring the darkness, now too easily experience him as angry or harsh. He is not. The problem is in us.
As for fire, there is no reason to fear the fire of God’s love—provided that fire of love is already at work in us bringing us up to the temperature of glory.
What this text warns about is not so much God’s stance but our stance: our preference for the darkness, and the coldness of our heart, which prefers selfishness and sin to love and holiness. When “the Day” comes, those who prefer darkness and cold will experience the warmth of God’s love as wrathful, as a destructive, burning fire.
Now when shall that “Day” come? It may come in one of two ways: either Christ will come to us in glory to judge the living and the dead, or we shall go to Him. Either way, the “Day” will come. And for the wicked, the Day will be one of wrath, of a burning, oven-like heat.
Historically, the “Day” referred to in this text is the coming of the Messiah, Jesus. One may wonder, since Jesus has come, where is the oven that burns up the wicked? Clearly, that aspect of this prophecy has been delayed to our judgment day.
But make no mistake, Jesus has already called the question. Either we will believe in Him and be saved or refuse to believe and be lost, subject to the wrath that is to come (cf Mk 16:16; John 8:24; 1 Thess 1:10).
Jesus says, I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled! (Lk 12:49). So there is a fire that is coming on this world and all who dwell on it. God will judge the world by fire (cf 2 Peter 3:7). It is a fire that we must be prepared for or we will experience its wrath.
II. Distinction that Delivers – But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its rays. And you will go out and frolic like well-fed calves. Then you will trample on the wicked; they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day when I act, says the Lord Almighty.
For those who have been rendered ready, and have, by God’s grace, come to love the light and heat of God’s love, the “Day” will not seem to be a blazing oven at all! Rather, it will a beautiful, sunlit day; the fire of God’s love will be like rays of sunshine that bring healing and warmth.
This is what God wants to accomplish for us: that we be ready to come into His presence. He will not and cannot change. Thus He must change us into His glory. He must set us on fire. It is no surprise, then, that the Pentecost event featured tongues of fire that came to rest on the faithful. It set them on fire and began a process to bring them up to the temperature of glory!
So again, note that the problem is not in God; it is in us. So also the solution is in us, being changed into glory. God will do this for His faithful and for those who fear His name. That is, he will do this for those who hold Him in awe and who respect that He is God, ever to be adored and obeyed.
Paradoxically, the way to avoid the fire of wrath is to accept the need in our life for a purifying fire. To avoid getting burned in the fire of wrath, we must pass through a fire that purifies rather than burns. Scripture says,
1. But who can endure the day of His coming? And who can stand when He appears? For He is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap. He will …purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, (Mal 3:2-3).
2. Our work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames (1 Cor 3:13-15).
And thus prior to meeting God, we must all be purified as by fire so as to be able to endure the pure fire of God’s love.
To avoid the fire of wrath, let the Lord set you on fire and purify you by it!
III. Directives to avoid Doom – Remember the law of my servant Moses, the decrees and laws I gave him at Horeb for all Israel.
At the end of the day, our love for God and our faith in Him must be made manifest in an obedience to His law. The law of God is not some arbitrary set of rules. It is an expression of the love and will of God to save us. God instructs us for our own salvation.
If you give me directions on how to get to your home, you are not just setting up arbitrary rules for me. You are giving me sound information for my own good and for the ultimate “salvation” of finding my way to your home. It is even more so with God, who can neither deceive nor be deceived. If we will follow Him and the path He sets out, then by His grace we will be saved from the coming wrath and from eternal loss. Follow the directions to avoid getting burned. Trust that His grace will equip, empower, and enable you to do so and thus find the way home to the Kingdom.
IV. Deliverer from total Destruction – See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you 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 total destruction.
And so we come to the closing verses of the Old Testament. Having warned us of a coming fiery judgment, the Lord also promises us help. For it is not His will that any of us should be lost. Though He knows of our stubbornness and knows that many will prefer the darkness to the light, He nevertheless promises the help of His grace and the presence of Elijah.
Who is this Elijah? Does the Lord mean that Elijah will return from heaven in the fiery chariot? Probably not, but rather, that the office of Elijah will revive and be continued.
Historically, Jesus identifies John the Baptist as the Elijah figure who was prophesied here.
To be sure, Elijah comes and will restore all things. But I tell you, Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but have done to him everything they wished. In the same way the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands. Then the disciples understood that Jesus was talking to them about John the Baptist (Matt 17:11-13).
Thus the Old Testament ended with the promise of Elijah’s return. As the curtains close on the Old Testament and reopen again in the New Testament, we are brought almost immediately to the Jordan River, where John the Baptist is preparing the people; “Elijah” has returned. And thanks be to God for this, since many of Jesus’ earliest disciples and many of His apostles were first disciples of John the Baptist. John did his work well!
To some degree, the office of Elijah must continue on. In a certain sense, the Church is Elijah and is John the Baptist. And so are particular members of the Church such as our pastors, parents, religious, catechists, and teachers. All of them point to Christ and help lead us to Christ by saying, “There He is! Follow Him!”
In this last line of the Old Testament there is also a beautiful and poignant description of the work of Elijah: that he would turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers. For indeed, to be reconciled to one another is a beautiful and an essential way to be prepared one day to meet God.
Scripture asks, How we can say we love God whom we do not see, when we do not love our neighbor whom we do see? (cf 1 Jn 4:20) Jesus, in the great judgment scene of Matthew 25:31, also links our love for the needy and the poor to our love for Him.
It is so easy for us to turn holiness and love into an abstraction. And yet, at the end of the day, a huge part of holiness is simply being reconciled to one another and having a vigorous love for one another rooted in the truth of the Gospel. An essential way to get ready for the day of fiery judgement is to be reconciled to God and one another.
Yes, it is fitting that on the last full day of Advent we read the final lines of the Old Testament. As the curtains of the old dispensation close, a promise of grace and mercy is extended. The Messiah will come. But before the day of fiery judgment, He will extend grace and mercy through Elijah.
Thursday evening we will see the Christ child lying in a manger. God makes himself small for us; He comes to us meek and lowly, extending His grace and mercy. One day He will come in fiery judgment on this world, but until that time he brings grace and mercy.
Yes, tomorrow evening, the cry of an infant will sound saying, come unto me; accept me now before it is time to finally close the curtains on this, the final age.
Before He comes again in glory to judge living and the dead, He comes to us once again humility, meekness, and lowliness. He calls to you now, this Christmas feast, in the tender voice of an infant. Yes, He is calling.