“And he will turn the hearts of the fathers to the children,
And the hearts of the children to their fathers
Lest I come and strike the earth with a curse.”
The book of Malachi is not primarily focused on intergenerational, time-spanning fidelity. It is much more about the here and now: You are blaspheming God! You are sacrificing second-rate animals! You are defiling marriage! STOP!
Even in the New Testament to follow, Jesus’ commentary on the relationships between generations is slight, and in some ways he even emphasizes the individual culpability for sin that had been brought to fore in the Prophets. His advice on parents and their children sometimes includes challenges like “Forsake your mother and father and sister and brother” prophecy such as “From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other.”
But of course, the New Testament occurs in Old Testament context, and not least the context of the closing verses of the Old, in which Elijah (in this context, prefiguring Christ) will turn the hearts of the fathers to the children and the hearts of the children to the fathers – “before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD” (Mal. 4:5).
Malachi is not a prophet unattuned to the spirituality of the conjugal unit:
- “A son honors his father … If then I am the Father, where is my honor?” (1:6)
- “The LORD has been witness between you and the wife of your youth.” (2:13)
- “And why one? He seeks godly offspring.” (2:15)
But his prophecy of intergenerational amity in 4:6 is set apart: not quite an analogy to God’s Fatherhood, and not part of the precedented Biblical commentary on marriage covenant.
Nor is it merely a reference to Israel turning to its Fathers, the Patriarchs – truly a theme of the book, but for it Malachi uses all the traditional language: Jacob and Esau, sons of Jacob, the days of your fathers, profaning the covenant of the fathers.
No, this generational fidelity is no mere metaphor for obedience to the law, and it is not contained in the marriage covenantal imagery. Rather, the words are natal, specifically speaking about actual progeny and age groups.
Our present culture contains almost exactly zero opportunities for healing between generations. Children are reared in age cohorts from the earliest ages, and the values/eccentricities/etc. of any one are accepted as part of its individual group identity. (Think of the language surrounding Gen X or the Millenials). When we do ask what is wrong with a generation, we might compare it to another, but we rarely lament the disconnection of a whole generation to its preceding, or foregoing.
Yet, this problem is part of the need for eschatological judgment, according to Malachi (“Lest I come and strike …”). And eschatological judgment can hardly be read without feeling the intensity of its call on the present time – an open picture of the desires or disappointments of God, and of His right order.
A central question of ours, therefore, should be why our culture is so stratified. Is it the “culture of cool”? Almost certainly, pop culture and mass media play an influence – but not a purely controlling one. As Adam recently pondered, it is not so impossible to use virtue to judge media, rather than the other way around.
Rather than a simply analytic answer to our question, a spiritual one must also be confronted, in which the demands of culture, entertainment, and even personality itself need to be submitted to the wrenching desires of the God, and intergenerational relationship sought for its own sake. That is the right order, whether we are attuned to it or not.
Bryan Wandel works in government finance and has studied history, accounting, and religion. He is a member of the editorial board at Humane Pursuits. Bryan’s writing has appeared at Comment Magazine, First Things, and elsewhere.