Malachi 4:5 “See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. 6He 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.”
Did Malachi 4:6 prophecy the coming of John the Baptist?
Yes, it is confirmed in
Luke 1:11 Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. 13But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John. 14He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, 15for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. 16He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. 17And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
To turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just. The usual explanation of these words of the angel, who uses here the language of Malachi (Malachi 4:5, 6), is that the result of the preaching of this new prophet, who is about to be raised up, will be to restore harmony to the broken and disturbed family life of Israel, whereas now the home life of the chosen race was split up - the fathers, perhaps, siding with the foreign or Roman faction, as represented by Herod and his friends; the sons, on the other hand, being Zealots attached to the national party, bitterly hostile to the Herodians.
At first glance the NT appears equivocal on this question. Luke 1:17 quotes Mal 4:5, 6 about John the Baptist but John the Baptist appears to deny the suggestion in John 1:21. What is going on here?
- Matt 11:11-14 - Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has risen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet even the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been subject to violence,f and the violent lay claim to it. For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John. And if you are willing to accept it, he is the Elijah who was to come.
- Matt 17:11-13 - Jesus replied, “Elijah does indeed come, and he will restore all things. But I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but have done to him whatever they wished. In the same way, the Son of Man will suffer at their hands.” Then the disciples understood that He was speaking to them about John the Baptist. See also Mark 9:12, 13.
- Luke 1:13, 17 - But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, because your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John. ... And he will go on before the Lord in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
Thus, Jesus is quite emphatic that John the Baptist was the prophesied person of Mal 4:5, 6 who would preach in the spirit and power of Elijah.
So, what are we to make of John's denial in John 1:21, "“Then who are you?” they inquired. “Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” ...
I believe John was answering the question, "Are you actually [the person of] Elijah, which he obviously was not. However, according to Jesus John was a prophet who preached in the spirit and power of Elijah and who prepared to way for Jesus and turned the hearts of the fathers back to God.
Ellicott summaries this well in his remarks on Mal 4:5 -
(5) Elijah.—There is no more reason to suppose that this refers actually to “Elijah” the prophet, and that he is to appear upon earth, than to imagine from Hosea 3:5; Ezekiel 24:23; Ezekiel 37:24; Jeremiah 30:9; that David himself is to come again in the flesh. When John the Baptist answered the question of the deputies of the Sanhedrim, “Art thou Elias?” by “I am not,” he simply gave a negative reply to their question, which was formulated on their misapprehension. On the other hand, that John the Baptist is the “messenger” of Malachi 3:1 and the “Elijah” of this verse is shown conclusively (as far as Christians are concerned) by Luke 1:16-17 before his birth, by Matthew 3:1-12, Mark 1:2-8, Luke 3:2-18, at the commencement of his ministry. Moreover, our Lord Himself assured the people that John was this “messenger” and “Elijah” (Matthew 11:10, seq.; Luke 7:27, seq.), and His disciples that he had appeared, and not been recognised (Matthew 17:11, seq.; Mark 9:1, seq.).
It is abundantly clear in Mark 1:1 that Mark is asserting that the prophecy of Malachi respects John the Baptist :
As it is written in the prophets, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee. [Mark 1:1 KJV]
Here, Mark is quoting, almost verbatim (apart from changing the wording 'my' face to 'thy' face) from Malachi 3:1 :
Behold, I will send my messenger, and he shall prepare the way before me: and the Lord, whom ye seek, shall suddenly come to his temple, even the messenger of the covenant, whom ye delight in: behold, he shall come, saith the LORD of hosts. [Malachi 3:1 KJV].
Mark immediately references John the Baptist and by highlighting the Malachi quote first ( a more minor prophet and a later prophet than Isaiah, whom he also quotes) he draws attention to the 'Messenger of the Covenant' who is 'the Lord' himself.
The 'messenger' of preparation is without doubt, according to these two passages, John the Baptist.
So, also, is the further defining of the prophesy in Malachi 4:5 and 6 indicative of the prophet (John the Baptist) of whom Jesus says that 'none greater begotten of woman ... hath arisen'.
As to Mark's changing 'my' face to 'thy' face, it is a matter of further revelation of the Father and the Son in which Mark follows the words of Jesus when he quotes the same passage in Matthew 11:10 :
For this is he, of whom it is written, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee. [Matthew 11:10 KJV]