“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD: And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.”
(Malachi 4:5–6)

The last verse in the Old Testament is a promise and a warning. It is a promise of a man who will come to prepare the nation of Israel for the coming of Messiah. It is a warning that, if his ministry is not successful, God must smite the earth with a curse.

This must be a serious situation to put the whole earth in danger of judgment. Fathers are the target of this ministry. In anticipation of the coming Messiah and to prevent judgment, the greatest need of the nation of Israel was for fathers to properly relate to their children. This was so important that it must be accomplished before the ministry of Christ could be effective.

In the first chapter of the gospel of Luke, the very beginning of the New Testament, the author reminds us of that last promise given over 400 years earlier. “And many of the children of Israel shall he turn to the Lord their God. And he shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Luke 1:16–17). Luke, moved by the Spirit, adds a note of interpretation to Malachi’s promise. He quotes the first phrase word-for-word, but the second phrase, “turn the hearts of the children to the fathers,” he interprets as “turn…the disobedient to the wisdom of the just.” He causes us to understand that the children were disobedient and the fathers should deal with them by becoming wise and just. It was the one crucial condition to prepare the nation to receive Messiah. It is therefore fair to say that at that time the world’s greatest need was for fathers to become wise and just, thus winning the hearts of their children.

The prominence of this in Scripture and the acuteness of the situation demands that we regard this with utmost seriousness. Most Bible believers are confident that we are once again at a point just prior to Messiah’s coming. The Great Tribulation, which precedes the Second Coming, is rightly understood to be the very curse about which Malachi spoke.

This curse is not just an arbitrary event that will occur because it was prophesied to occur. There is a reason why God is provoked to curse the earth, causing great suffering on all its creatures. Malachi called it the “great and dreadful day of the LORD.” In another place it is called “the day of his great wrath.” In Matthew 24, Jesus called it the “great tribulation.” It is a day when God’s anger is turned loose on sinful mankind.

What great sin would provoke God to such drastic measures? We will find God’s perspective quite different from ours. We have a way of standing inside the church, looking out at the spectacular sins, knowing that the judgment of God must fall on THEM at any moment. But “judgment must begin at the house of God.” It was John who had the ministry of turning the fathers’ hearts, so his message will reveal the fathers’ needs. The sin was summed up as lack of justice. Children will turn their hearts to their fathers when fathers are wise and just.
What does he mean by “the just”? He is not speaking of being justified; there was no such condition in John’s day. “Just” describes the relationship fathers sustain to the world in which they live. The fathers were to be just, act just, express justice in their daily dealings. This could only be done through wisdom. The pseudo-political justice of our modern socialistic system is no substitute for Biblical justice. Biblical justice is horizontal, the way one acts toward his fellow man, towards his wife, his children, his neighbors, etc. This is nothing new. It is in fact the theme of the law. “He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?” (Micah 6:8)

Professions and beliefs have nothing to do with justness. Justice is what you DO in regard to others, not what you claim to believe. Most people have never ever considered the relationship between child training and one’s duty to his fellow man, but they are inseparable. Children are not trained by words and spoken principles; they are trained by example and principles lived out in daily life. You don’t teach a child to be a giver during home devotionals; you teach him to give as he watches you give. You don’t teach patience by demanding that he wait; you teach patience by him seeing you wait. Honesty, kindness, mercy, love, purity—all virtues—are communicated by example only. Wise fathers are just, and just fathers are a joy to their children. The heart of a child is won by a father living justly.

John characterized the mentality of the men of his day:

Matthew 11:14:
14 And if ye will receive it, this is Elias, which was for to come.
15 He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.
16 But whereunto shall I liken this generation? It is like unto children sitting in the markets, and calling unto their fellows,
17 And saying, We have piped unto you, and ye have not danced; we have mourned unto you, and ye have not lamented.
18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, He hath a devil.
19 The Son of man came eating and drinking, and they say, Behold a man gluttonous, and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners. But wisdom is justified of her children.”

John was calling that nation of fathers to repentance, but they shielded themselves from his message by denigrating the messenger. They expected to set the tone for the messenger and the message. If they “mourned,” the messenger was to mourn; if they played music, the messenger was to dance. A man who stays in control never repents. They wanted the prophets to be subject to their viewpoints.

John called on the fathers to repent and become men of wisdom. But rather than preparing themselves to win the hearts of their children, the fathers were acting like children. Instead of repenting they faulted the messenger. The first messenger, the serious ascetic John, would not dance to their tune; he was not part of their tradition. He didn’t laugh at their humor, and, to him, life was as serious as death. The second messenger, the joyful Christ, would not mourn with them over concerns for their lost status as a nation. He did not use his powers to free them from Rome. Their religious spirit of decrying their poor condition did not take away his joy. He refused to join them in their pretended grief for the poor moral conditions of their time. They enjoyed taking note of how terrible was the moral state, how hopeless the times. If they had lived in our time they would have circulated literature showing the terrible statistics on abortion, teenage pregnancy, the encroachment of liberalism, the rapid loss of religious freedoms, the certain nearness of the Tribulation. They would have talked about how deplorable was the moral plight of out teenagers and how shameful the conduct of our President. They would have been the first to condemn immoral and unethical behavior. And there they were content to abide. Somehow in their minds, to take note of sin and speak out against it placed them beyond reproof.

It reminds me of Jonah. He assured the wicked Ninevites of their coming destruction and then settled down to comfortably await their damnation from the Almighty. Instead, God continued his work in Jonah’s heart. The work today doesn’t need to be done in Nineveh, it needs to be done on the hill, above all the sin, under the vine where the “righteous” conduct homeschooling and hold church in anticipation of being outside the cone of destruction when the eminent judgment does fall. To Jonah, judgment on Nineveh would have been a kind of vindication for his attitude. Like the devout of our day, his heart was sicker than the sinners of Nineveh (Matthew 12:41).

John’s message reveals exactly what he meant by justice.

Luke 3:8–14:
8 Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of repentance, and begin not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: [Genesis 18:18] [Trusting in their religious identity] for I say unto you, That God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham.
9 And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: (Ps. 1:3) [the trees represent men, fathers] every tree therefore which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.
10 And the people asked him, saying, What shall we do then?
11 He answereth and saith unto them, He that hath two coats, let him impart to him that hath none; and he that hath meat, let him do likewise. [Benevolence and generosity]
12 Then came also publicans to be baptized, and said unto him, Master, what shall we do?
13 And he said unto them, Exact no more than that which is appointed you. [Honest in business]
14 And the soldiers likewise demanded of him, saying, And what shall we do? And he said unto them, Do violence to no man, [Peaceable] neither accuse any falsely; [Do not bear false witness] and be content with your wages. [Not greedy of money]

The first thing we see in John’s message is his frontal assault on their defenses. He demanded that they bring forth fruit to match their claim to repentance. They had insulated themselves from his message by a boast of having Abraham as their father. How common it is for fathers to avoid actually obeying by falling back on their profession or religious lineage.

Fruits worthy of repentance

    Not trust in religious identity (“Abraham is our father”)
    Benevolent and generous—to supply food and clothing to those in need
    Honest in business—they were not to deal under the table, not take bribes, not to cut a deal on the side, not to grease the palms
    Peaceable—they were not to act in violence and that would include the attitude that accompanies violence or oppression
    Not bear false witness—not to accuse any falsely
    Not greedy of possessions—content with your wages. The key word here is content. A man who is not economically content has a poor frame of reference.

This list is not the ghastly sins usually associated with the wrath of God, but the very fact that we view them so lightly is proof of our carnality. That we should view social sins so indifferently is an indictment on our respect for our fellow man. Must sin be against one’s own body to be reprehensible? Are not sins of neglect or indifference toward our fellow man even more abominable than sins against our own person? If children are raised by a religious father who professes to walk in righteousness and holds his children to the high principles of religion, but he himself walks in the shadow of injustice, the children will see through it like a clear sky.
Think about it. A father claims that their religion is the right way (“Abraham is our father”), and he occasionally expresses his disdain for the less-informed and not-nearly-so-dedicated. But in his high standards he passes over the poor and hungry with an air that they are “low class” and “brought it upon themselves.” Many families will not dirty themselves with stooping to help the piggish. Just quietly remaining above the fray is indictment against one’s self.

Remember when Jesus said that the greatest commandment was to love your neighbor, one standing by asked, “Who is my neighbor?” He was not seeking clarification; he was seeking exemption from involvement. Remember, the Good Samaritan was preceded by a “good” priest and a “good” Jew, who no doubt had good things to which they must attend. But their business kept them from justice and mercy (“these ought you to have done, and not to have left the other undone”). Tell me, what difference do you foresee in the two sons: one, the son of the Samaritan, who assisted his father in helping the stranger; and the other, the son of the priest, who hastened away from the disgusting scene to get back to the safety of decent society? Will the two boys grow up differently? The priest may offer religious instruction, but will it equal the silent instruction of the Samaritan who parted with his valuables and his time?

John told them to “exact no more than that which is appointed you.” When a son sees his religious father advantaging himself, secretly hiding his action lest discovery prove embarrassing, will that son be prone to always be above board in his dealings with parents, or will he learn to twist the truth and hide the facts? Can that father realistically expect a son to turn his heart over to such a man, even if it is his own father?

John told the fathers that, in their quest for justice, they should “do violence to no man.” If a son sees or hears violence, animosity, hatred, or a get-even aggression, coming from his father, will he believe that his father is the spiritual leader of the home? When does the angry man stop and do his metamorphosis into the lowly disciple, the meek man of God? Can he be believed when he speaks of love and patience, mercy and grace? Does the son believe that this father is a praying man? Does he pray for his enemies—like Jesus did? When he is angry and violent towards Mom and the kids, is the son to ignore what he does and still respect him? If you find a son who can respect the unrespectable father, you have found a vein of gold in a garbage dump. If the Messiah came to a nation where the men were all angry and violent, could they be his disciples and remain violent and angry? If they did, would their sons follow them into a “faith” that did not issue in justice?

John told them not to “accuse any falsely.” How unjust to bring false accusation. There is but one reason to falsely accuse, and that is to bring the other man down, to hurt his reputation, to hurt him. It is an act of aggression, of dominance. It is a lie told not to gain gold or save your own reputation, but simply to destroy another. Have your children ever suspected that you have misrepresented the truth because you wanted to get back at another person? If you have accused your wife falsely, your children will take up her offense and never forget it as long as they live—or until they see the tears of your repentance wash the soul of your wife.

John said that justice was being “content with your wages.” One of the stains on our generation is the working man’s conviction that he has a “right” to work. The socialistic mentality is so commonly accepted that it is considered part of democracy, and not thought of as socialism at all. Everybody feels they have a “right” to eat from the corporate pie, and most seem to feel that their piece of the pie is not as big as it should be. There was a time when men on the farm sought wealth by working harder or longer hours, or devising some method of doing more in the same period of time. No one owed him anything and he did not expect it. Today there is a general lack of contentment. Fathers everywhere come home from work with sour tales of how they are misused on the job.

Again, the key word is content—content with wages. Lack of contentment makes a man poor on any financial scale. “Godliness with contentment is great gain.” There can be no godliness where there is no contentment. A man who learns to be content in whatever state he is in, is indeed a rich man, and his children will be rich. A man with great means but no contentment is a man of poverty. A poor man who is discontent would be discontent as a rich man. Discontentment is not an economic condition; it is a heart condition, and is therefore only affected by what is within, not the circumstances without.

Children of truly poor families, but raised on smiles, hugs, and a spirit of togetherness, will think they are well off. Kids fed on beans, cabbage, and cornbread will think it is the best stuff in the world. Kids never know they are poor unless someone in the family gripes about it. Outsiders can’t make you feel poor. Only family can do that, and Daddy can do it better than anyone. If Daddy is not content, if he is always worried about money, always talking about getting more for the family, then the kids not only do without many things, but they have to do without Daddy, as well. Daddies caught up in discontentment will never win the heart of their children, and they will never have anything in their own hearts that their children will desire. Economic discontentment will eat all your joy, all your hope; it will silence your song, put a drag in your feet, cause you to close in on yourself and grow bitter in thought of what should be. In fact, economic discontentment will keep a man poor because it burns up his creative energies and takes away his hope.

I know what I am talking about because I was raised as poor as the cracks in the walls that left my bed with thin crusts of snow. I remember one Sunday evening as we were leaving church, my family rejoiced over finding a slab of salt meat in the front seat of the old Model T Ford. When we came home to a one-room house with no insulation and tried to get a fire started, I didn’t know we were poor. When I was fortunate enough to get one new pair of pants at the beginning of each school year, I didn’t know we were poor. Everybody seemed happy. I was happy. I was grown, had completed college, and was well-traveled before it dawned on me that we had been poor most of my youth. I can remember my Daddy writing poetry by the light of a kerosene lantern. At night—with a blanket covering our legs to stay warm—we listened to Mama read Bible stories from an old book with only a few line illustrations. But believe me, there was nothing better anywhere.

My Daddy was not a perfect man, but I didn’t know that when I was young. He has been dead now for 20 years, but I still remember him as the most just man I have ever known.

Fathers, do you have a heart to which your children would want to turn? If you seek to turn your heart toward your children will they shut you out, or welcome you? If they would shut you out it is your responsibility to “repent and bring forth fruits meet for repentance.” The disobedient will turn to the “wisdom of the just.” It is yours to become an example of justice.

Jesus said, “But wisdom is justified of all her children” (Luke 7:35). Wise fathers are just men, benevolent men, kind men. They will raise just children. The final tally is taken in the fruit. Wisdom (wise fathers) is justified (vindicated—demonstrated to be, in fact, wise) of her children (your children will demonstrate your justice and extol your wisdom in the practice of their own lives).

The time is short. The great day of his wrath is near. Repent now before he comes and smites the earth with a curse.

This article has also been republished under the title The Hearts of the Fathers.