A boy once asked his father, “Dad, how do wars begin?” “Well, take the First World War,” said his father. “That got started when Germany invaded Belgium.” Immediately his wife interrupted, “Tell the boy the truth. It began because somebody was murdered.” The husband drew himself up with an air of superiority and snapped back, “”Are you answering the question, or am I?”
Turning her back on him in a huff, the wife walked out of the room and slammed the door as hard as she could. When the dishes stopped rattling in the cupboard, an uneasy silence followed, broken at length by the son. “Dad, you don’t have to tell me any more. I know now!”
It is not news that American families are fracturing at an alarming rate. Only 34 percent of all children born in America will live with both biological parents through age eighteen. Seventy percent of African-American babies and 19 percent of white babies in the United States are born out of wedlock. Most will never know their fathers, let alone experience their love (source, James Dobson newsletter, March, 2002).
If those statistics were only “out there,” it would be alarming enough. But evangelical Christians don’t fare much better than the world when it comes to fractured families. At a recent pastors and wives conference that Marla and I attended, the speaker said that he grew up in an evangelical family, but his parents’ faith never quite connected with the way that they related to one another in the home. That’s tragic, in light of the fact that the second great commandment is to love one another! What good is our faith if it doesn’t result in daily loving relationships in our families?
Malachi’s parting shot tells us how to have reconciled families. It is significant that this is also God’s parting shot to His people for 400 years. Malachi was the last of the Old Testament prophets. After him, there was no fresh word from the Lord for four long centuries, until John the Baptist began preaching in the wilderness. In His parting shot, God speaks to His people about reconciled families. It is not a minor subject: God indicates that the only alternative to reconciled families is His curse upon the land! Our families are the building blocks of our churches and of our entire society. If our families fracture en masse, we will have a fractured nation. It’s vital that we all follow God’s directives on how to have reconciled families.
Many commentators interpret “fathers” in verse 6 to refer to the Jewish patriarchs, and “children” to refer to the disobedient people of Malachi’s day. I reject that interpretation for two reasons. First, in 2:10-16, we have already seen that the people in Malachi’s day were intermarrying with unbelievers and experiencing fractured families. Second, Malachi here does not just refer to the children being reconciled to their fathers, but also the fathers to the children. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob didn’t need to be reconciled to the people of Malachi’s day. So I interpret it in the normal sense, to refer to literal fathers and children being reconciled.
There is a progression here: First, there was personal alienation from God due to neglecting His Word (4:4). Next, there was family alienation (4:6a). If that were not corrected, the final step would be national deterioration (4:6b). God’s remedy for the nation was to send Elijah the prophet to call the people to repentance before the day of judgment (4:5). God only sends judgment if we reject His offer of mercy. These people were indifferent to God’s great love (1:2). So they needed first to get right with God by obedience to His Word and then to get right with one another. These are the two great commandments that sum up all of the Law and Prophets. Malachi is saying,
The key to reconciled families is that we obey God’s Word.
That may strike you as an overly simplistic answer to complex problems. You may protest, “That answer ignores my abusive father and all of the emotional pain that I have suffered as a result!” You may say, “That answer glosses over the poor communication that causes friction between my spouse and me!” “That answer doesn’t help me deal with my rebellious teenager.”
I grant that it’s not always easy to get to the root of these problems and it’s not easy to apply the solution. But I contend that virtually all of our relational problems in our families stem from disobedience to God’s Word on the part of at least one, and almost always more than one, family member. If we obeyed God’s Word, we would love Him fervently, and we would love one another as we do in fact love ourselves. We would treat others as we wish to be treated. Since God’s Word is sufficient to equip us for all of life and godliness (2 Pet. 1:3; 2 Tim. 3:16-17), we do not need to go to therapists to get in touch with our feelings and to learn to cope with our rage. We need to go deeper with God through His Word!
Let’s look then at the root cause of fractured families:
Sin always results in alienation, both toward God and toward one another. When Adam and Eve sinned, they hid from God and they suffered distance in their own relationship. Adam began to blame Eve (and God) for his problems (Gen. 3:12). Sin leads to guilt; guilt not properly dealt with leads to blame; blame leads to anger and alienation. Pride causes us to justify ourselves and to attack the other person.
This is a basic pattern that applies to all relationships. One party wrongs the other party. That party retaliates with anger or resentment or some way to “even the score.” Instead of humbling themselves before God, asking His forgiveness, and then asking forgiveness of the other party, both sides begin blaming each other. The increasing blame and anger create further distance and alienation. At the bottom of the whole cycle is the root sin of pride.
What is the solution? God says (4:4), “Remember the law of Moses My servant, even the statues and ordinances which I commanded him in Horeb for all Israel.” “Remember” is used 14 times in Deuteronomy with regard to the law. It means not only to recall what the law says, but also to obey it (Craig Blaising, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, ed. by John Walvoord and Roy Zuck [Victor Books], 1:1587). Note that, contrary to liberal critics, Malachi believed that God inspired Moses to write the first five books of the Old Testament! John Calvin observed, “God makes himself here the author of the law, that all the godly might reverently receive it as coming from him” (Calvin’s Commentaries [Baker reprint], on the Minor Prophets, p. 625). There is a threefold progression:
Forgetting assumes prior knowledge! Some may need to back up a step and learn God’s Word in the first place! I am appalled at how many Christians have never even read through their Bibles once, let alone repeatedly. I have read through the Bible many times, and each time I find many things that I forgot from the last time. My brain leaks! So God says, “Remember My law!” If we forget it, we won’t obey it.
As the Lord accused this people (3:7), “From the days of your fathers you have turned aside from My statutes and have not kept them.” As we’ve seen, every time Malachi confronted them they protested, “What do you mean? How can you say these mean things about us?” They were disobeying God, but because they had forgotten His Word, they didn’t even know that they were disobeying! They were blaming God because things weren’t going well for them, but it never occurred to them that the problem might lie with them, not with God.
Proverbs 19:3 (New Living Translation) says, “People ruin their lives by their own foolishness and then are angry at the Lord.” I encounter this all the time. People come for counsel because they are having severe family problems. I don’t have to listen long before I can see that they are violating God’s Word in many ways. But, invariably, they moan, “Why is God allowing this to happen to me?” Like the people of Malachi’s day, they are blind to their own disobedience because they have forgotten God’s Word.
God never divorces the spiritual from the relational, although we often do. We’re prone to say, “Things are fine between the Lord and me, but that wife of mine! Those kids of mine! Those parents of mine!” But God connects our relationship with Him and our relationship with others. The apostle John bluntly says, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for the one who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:20; see also, Matt. 5:23-24).
When fathers turn away from obedience to God’s Word, the result will always be alienation between them and their children. Scripture is clear that fathers should not be angry and harsh with their children (Eph. 6:4; Col. 3:21). The fruit of the Spirit includes love, patience, kindness, gentleness, and self-control, whereas the deeds of the flesh include strife and outbursts of anger (Gal. 5:19-23). “The anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God” (James 1:20). There are many more such verses—it’s not as if the Bible rarely mentions this!
Yet so many professing Christian fathers are perpetually angry with their children. They sound like a drill sergeant, yelling and barking orders at their kids. When they correct them, they sound like they’re correcting their dog. They don’t bring their anger under the control of the Holy Spirit, and they never humble themselves before their kids to ask forgiveness when they sin. They don’t demonstrate to their kids the gracious love of Jesus. Then when the kids hit their teen years and rebel, the dad shakes his head and says, “After all that I’ve done for that kid, I just don’t understand why he’s giving us all this trouble!” When we forget and disobey God’s Word, we will experience family alienation.
How do we reverse the process and experience reconciliation in our families?
The entire Bible is a manual of relationships: How to be rightly related to God and to your fellow man (the two great commandments). It explains why we are alienated from God (our sin), and how we can be reconciled to God through faith in the shed blood of Jesus Christ. It tells us how to maintain a close walk with God through daily faith, obedience, and repentance. It explains why we are alienated from one another (same reason: our sin) and how to be reconciled to one another through following God’s commandments in all our relationships. To reverse the cycle…
You can’t obey it if you don’t remember what it says. You can’t remember what it says if you haven’t diligently studied it in the first place. But we can’t use our lack of knowledge or our short memories as a valid excuse for disobedience. Much could be said here, but I limit myself to two observations:
That sounds so obvious as to be ridiculous, but it is not. Many Christians disobey God’s Word all over the place, often through ignorance. But when they start reaping the consequences of their disobedience, they blame God or they blame others. But at the root of their problems is the fact that they never learned God’s Word in the first place.
Dorothy Sayers (referred to on a tape by Dr. Haddon Robinson) pointed out that there are two kinds of laws: man-made laws, and natural laws. A man-made law, for example, would be a city’s parking ordinances. A natural law would be, “If you put your hand in the fire, you will get burned.” Natural laws are not affected by man. The city council could pass a resolution that said, “You can now put your hand into the fire and not be burned.” I wouldn’t advise you to test that city law!
Sayers points out that the law of God is like the natural law. You don’t break it without it turning around and breaking you. It has built-in consequences. The human race can get together and agree that it’s okay now to engage in premarital sex, adultery, homosexuality, and abortion. We can decide that anger is not a sin; it’s just a natural human emotion. But our opinions and resolutions do not alter the law of God. He has ordained that if we sow to the flesh, we will reap from the flesh destruction (Gal. 6:8). If a man sticks his hand into the fire and then complains, “I didn’t know that it would burn me,” his ignorance doesn’t alter the fact that he got burned. The fire burns everyone, even those who are ignorant of its characteristics. Sin destroys people and relationships, even when those sinning don’t realize that they are sinning.
So if you want to remember God’s Word, you must apply yourself to learn what it says. Read it over and over. Memorize key verses that tell you how to love others. You will only remember and obey what you already know.
I’ve heard many complain that they just can’t remember what the Bible says. They say, “I’ve just got a bad memory.” But that is seldom the case. Unless you’re suffering from a brain disease, like Alzheimer’s, you can remember the things that are important to you. The key is to regard the information as important.
Marla and I often chuckle over the different things that we each remember. I once heard her talking with one of our daughters about the color of the table settings at a wedding reception. As far as I can recall, they must have had table settings, or we couldn’t have eaten there, and I would have remembered that! Or, sometimes we will talk about someone new that we met at church. She will ask me, “What was she wearing?” I’ll say, “I know she was clothed, but beyond that, I can’t remember!” The details weren’t important to me, so I forgot.
A main reason we forget God’s Word is that we don’t regard it as crucial for our survival. You’ve got to come to the place where you see that this Book holds the answers to life’s most important issues. It tells you how to know God and walk with Him, and how to love your neighbor, including the neighbors who live under the same roof as you do. Remember God’s Word!
Both Moses and Elijah are mentioned in our text. Moses wrote the law, the first five books of the Old Testament. Elijah symbolizes the prophets, although he did not write any prophetic books. “The law and the prophets” was a common way of referring to the entire Old Testament (Luke 24:27, 32).
As I said in our study of Malachi 3:1, there is a double fulfillment of this prophecy about Elijah. John the Baptist came in the spirit and power of Elijah as the forerunner of Christ in His first coming (Luke 1:17; Matt. 17:10-13). Before Christ’s second coming, another will come, probably Elijah himself, to give people one last chance to repent before judgment (Matt. 17:11; Rev. 11:3-6). The application for us is that we need to obey all of God’s Word, especially as it relates to our family relationships. Note two things:
God didn’t give Moses some helpful hints for happy living. He commanded Moses statutes and ordinances for all Israel. God’s moral and relational commandments are not just for the Old Testament era. Living under grace does not mean living without commandments. Believers under grace are given all sorts of commandments, including the oft-repeated command to love one another. If you are not acting in love toward your family members, including your church family, you are sinning! Obedience to God’s commandments is not legalism. Legalism is when a person tries to earn acceptance with God or status from others by outward behavior. Obedience to God’s commands should stem from the heart because of His grace and love toward us. But the point is, loving one another is not just a nice thing to do when you feel like doing it. It is God’s commandment.
God doesn’t say, “Behold, I am going to send a therapist to help you work through your rage toward your emotionally abusive father!” He promised to send Elijah the prophet. Elijah was probably the most confrontational prophet in the Old Testament. So was John the Baptist, who called his audience a brood of vipers.
If God’s Word steps on your toes, welcome to the club! That’s what it is designed to do. We wouldn’t budge from our selfish, sinful ways if it didn’t clobber us once in a while. The Jews didn’t like the confrontational way that Malachi ended his prophecy, talking about a curse on the land if they didn’t obey. So in the Hebrew Bible, verse 5 is repeated after verse 6, and in the Septuagint, verse 4 is repeated after verse 6. In fact, they did the same thing at the endings of Isaiah, Lamentations, and Ecclesiastes.
But the Lord knew that our proud, stubborn hearts need some direct confrontation as the parting shot to remember. We need an occasional Elijah to get in our face so that we will deal with our sins and be ready for the coming great and terrible day of the Lord. That’s one of the great benefits of reading the Bible consistently: it is profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16). It will hit you with your sins.
You may be thinking, “I thought that God is love. Confronting me sounds judgmental.” But what can be more loving than to shout a warning at someone heading toward destruction? God’s warnings through His Word stem from His love. We will experience His love personally and in our families if we submit to His Word by correcting our sinful behavior.
The hearts of fathers will be restored to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers. One mark of true conversion is when the bitterness of past alienation between fathers and children is healed and their hearts are reunited in love.
Maybe you’re wondering, “Steve, why are you mentioning fathers, but not mothers?” The answer is, the text mentions fathers. We can easily extend everything I’ve said to mothers. If they obey God’s Word by dealing with their sin, they will be reconciled to their children. But I mention fathers because so many American men, even Christian men, are relationally passive in their homes. They leave the spiritual training of their children to their wives. They put in excessive time on the job, rationalizing it by saying that they are showing their love by providing for their families. But if you are an absent, passive father, or if you are not relating to your family in God’s love, you are not providing what they need most.
When you begin to obey God by judging your anger, by demonstrating the fruit of the Spirit towards your family, and by setting an example of walking with God, He will bring healing into your home. It won’t happen all at once, but it will begin. If you have been sinning against your wife and children by not loving them, first ask God’s forgiveness. Then ask your family’s forgiveness, and begin to obey God by walking in love, just as Christ loved you and gave Himself up on the cross (Eph. 5:2).
Former First Lady, Barbara Bush, spoke these words several years ago at a college commencement:
As important as your obligation as a doctor, a lawyer, or a business leader will be, you are a human being first, and those human connections with spouses, with children, with friends are the most important investments you will ever make. At the end of your life, you will never regret not having passed one more test, winning one more verdict, closing one more deal. You will regret time not spent with a husband, a child, a friend or a parent. Our success as a society depends not on what happens in the White House but on what happens inside your house. (Reader’s Digest [1/91], pp. 157-158.)
What should happen inside your house and mine is that we obey God’s Word so that our hearts turn toward one another in love. The alternative is that God will come and smite the land with a curse.
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2003, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation