Often home schooling advocates and family ministry speakers quote the last verse of the Old Testament. Malachi 4:6 brings the Old Testament to its conclusion with this promise about life in the age of Christ: “He will restore the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers.” Clearly, calling people to claim a Scriptural promise that Christ’s ministry will restore healthy relationships between parents and children is a beautiful hope to offer them.
However, though that might be a possible application of this verse, it is not the proper interpretation of it.
In their classic commentary on the Old Testament, Keil & Delitsch state the following:
The meaning of this is not that he will settle disputes in families, or restore peace between parents and children; for the leading sin of the nation at the time of our prophet was not family quarrels, but estrangement from God. The fathers are rather the ancestors of the Israelite(ish) nation, the patriarchs (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob), and generally the pious forefathers, such as David and the godly men of his time. The sons or children are the degenerate descendants of Malachi’s own time and the succeeding ages.”
They go on to explain that what Malachi was seeing in his prophetic vision was a type of Elijah, i.e. John the Baptist, serving as one preparing people for the imminent coming of Christ. John the Baptist’s message of repentance would turn the people’s heart back to the hope in the Messiah that their godly forefathers had (“restoring the hearts of the children to the fathers”). In so doing, this would begin to fulfill the promises given to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob that, unlike so many in Israel who had turned away from the Lord, they would have descendants who through faith in Christ would number as the stars (“restoring the hearts of the fathers to their children”).
This interpretation comes not just from learned Hebrew commentators, but ultimately from the Bible’s own commentary on this verse. For Malachi 4:6 is referenced in the opening chapter of the Gospel of Luke, where this interpretation is quite clear. Speaking of John the Baptist, Luke records what an angel of the Lord told his father Zechariah before his birth.
He will turn many of the sons of Israel back to the Lord their God. It is he who will go as a forerunner before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers back to the children, and the disobedient to the attitude of the righteous, so as to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
Adam Clarke explains Luke’s meaning:
By a very expressive figure of speech, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the rest of the patriarchs, are represented here as having their hearts alienated from the Jews, their children, because of their unbelief and disobedience; but that the Baptist should so far succeed in converting them to the Lord their God, that these holy men should again look upon them with delight, and acknowledge them for their children.”
This understanding is further confirmed by the rest of Malachi 4:6, which, following this promise, also contains a warning. God told Israel to turn back in faith in Him “so that I will not come and smite the land with a curse.” This warning of curse to the Jewish nation was brought to pass when, following Israel’s crucifixion of their Messiah and large scale rejection of the apostles’ ministry, the Lord brought the devastating judgment of Rome on Jerusalem, which was destroyed in 70 A.D.
So though you may use Malachi 4:6 eventually to encourage such things as familial love between parents and children or the responsibility of parents in their children’s education, remember where you should first start when referencing the last verse of the Old Testament in this New Testament age in which we now live. You should start by calling all people to be true children of Abraham by repenting of their unbelief and placing their faith in Jesus Christ. As Paul told the Galatians, “For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus…And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise” (Galatians 3:26,29).