The final chapter of the Old Testament concludes with a prophecy concerning John the Baptist, who would prepare the way for the Messiah: “And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction” (Malachi 4:6). This, of course, implied that the hearts of the fathers had not been toward their children, nor the hearts of the children toward their fathers. So what was going on? Is the same thing happening today? What would God like to say to us now?
The prophet Malachi sounded one final wake up call for God’s people before four hundred silent years preceding the ministries of John the Baptist and Christ. Long ago, the Israelites’ hearts had drifted from the worship of Yahweh, the Lord, the one true God. Their violation of the first and greatest commandment had set them on a course of self-destruction as they violated other commandments along the way. Indeed, their worship of the false gods of the Canaanites actually required them to commit fornication, adultery, and child sacrifice. Just as the hearts of the people had turned away from their Heavenly Father, so also the hearts of the fathers had turned away from their earthly children.
Moses had warned them long ago not to sacrifice their children to Molech (Leviticus 18:21, 20:2–5). But Solomon, who had built a temple for the Lord, was influenced by his pagan concubines also to build a high place for Molech (1 Kings 11:7). King Ahaz of Judah burned his own son in a pagan ritual (2 Kings 16:3). During the reign of King Hoshea of Samaria, God cast the northern kingdom into Assyrian captivity specifically because they had been sacrificing their sons and daughters to false gods (2 Kings 17:7). The southern kingdom failed to learn the lesson. King Manasseh of Judah burned his own son to glorify a false god (2 Kings 21:6). At long last, the righteous reformer King Josiah tore down Molech’s altar (2 Kings 23:10).
How could a culture decline so far that parents would kill their own offspring? The prophet Ezekiel explained that God allowed them to replace His righteous laws with their corrupt practices as a self-inflicted punishment for having abandoned the true God (Ezekiel 20:25–26). The progression began with idolatry, continued into adultery, and concluded with child sacrifice: “And you took your sons and your daughters, whom you had borne to me, and these you sacrificed to them to be devoured. Were your whorings so small a matter that you slaughtered my children and delivered them up as an offering by fire to them?” (Ezekiel 16:20–21) As a judgment against this sinful triad—idolatry, adultery, and child sacrifice—God removed Himself from their presence, turning a deaf ear to their prayers and consigning them to captivity, first the northern kingdom by Assyria and then the southern kingdom by Babylon (Ezekiel 20:31; Ezekiel 23:37,39).
Even before Ezekiel’s ministry began, Isaiah and Jeremiah had already sounded the alarm. “Are you not children of transgression, the offspring of deceit, you who burn with lust among the oaks, under every green tree, who slaughter your children in the valleys, under the clefts of the rocks?” (Isaiah 57:4b-5) “They have filled this place with the blood of innocents, and have built the high places of Baal to burn their sons in the fire as burnt offerings to Baal, which I did not command or decree, nor did it come into my mind” (Jeremiah 19:4b-5; cf. Jeremiah 7:31, 32:35).
In Psalm 106:37–38, the sordid history is recounted once more:
“They sacrificed their sons and their daughters to the demons; they poured out innocent blood, the blood of their sons and daughters, whom they sacrificed to the idols of Canaan, and the land was polluted with blood.”
This, however, was not the end of the story. Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel each proclaimed that God would redeem His people. He would bring them back from captivity (Jeremiah 29:10), give them a new heart (Ezekiel 11:18–20), and send the Messiah—the Anointed One, “the Christ,” who would atone for their sins (Isaiah 53). Psalm 106 concluded with the same Gospel comfort (vv. 44–45, 48a):
“Nevertheless, he looked upon their distress, when he heard their cry. For their sake he remembered his covenant, and relented according to the abundance of his steadfast love … Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, from everlasting to everlasting!”
Even after God restored Jerusalem as a homeland for the Jews, their hearts continued to wander from the One who had shown them such love. Malachi therefore warned of the same evil triad—idolatry, adultery, and child sacrifice. Malachi addressed not only the outward actions, but also the heart. The Jews were sacrificing to the Lord, yes, but without sincerity (Malachi 1:7–8). Jewish men were taking second wives from among the pagans, desecrating their covenant with the first, godly wife (2:11,14,16). These sins of idolatry and adultery violated God’s holy will in principle, and they also had a dangerous practical ramification in unraveling the bond God has established between parents, children, and Himself. “Did he not make them [husband and wife] one, with a portion of the Spirit in their union? And what was the one God seeking? Godly offspring” (v. 15a).
So there it is—God’s gracious plan for our lives. Sadly, our culture has reverted to the pagan practices of old. Nevertheless, through the Messiah’s unfailing love, God turns our hearts to Himself as our Heavenly Father. To preserve this Gospel heritage in future generations, God turns the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers. May God in Christ forgive us our failings and preserve us in His saving truth unto life everlasting.
Ryan C. MacPherson, Ph.D., a member of the LFL speakers bureau, teaches at Bethany Lutheran College in Mankato, Minnesota. He also is the founding president of the Hausvater Project (www.hausvater.org) and the author of “The Culture of Life: Ten Essential Principles for Christian Bioethics.”