THERE is nothing more distinctly affirmed in the New Testament than the identity of John the Baptist with the wilderness-herald of Isaiah and the Elijah of Malachi. How well the description of John agrees with that of Elijah is evident at a glance. Each was austere and ascetic in his manner of life; each was a zealous reformer of religion; each was a stern reprover of sin. The times in which they lived were singularly alike. The nation at both periods was degenerate and corrupt. Elijah had his Ahab, John his Herod. It is no objection to this identification of John as the predicted Elijah, that the Baptist himself disclaimed the name when the priests and Levites from Jerusalem demanded: ‘Art thou Elias?’ (John 1:21) The Jews expected the reappearance of the literal Elijah, and John’s reply was addressed to that mistaken opinion. But his true claim to the designation is expressly affirmed in the announcement made by the angel to his father Zacharias: ‘He shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias’; (Luke 1:17) as well as by the declarations of our Lord: ‘If ye will receive it, this is Elias which was for to come’; (Matt. 11:14) ‘I say unto you that Elias is come already, and they knew him not.... Then the disciples understood that he spake unto them of John the Baptist’. (Matt. 17:10-13) John was the second Elias, and exhaustively fulfilled the predictions of Isaiah and Malachi concerning him. To dream of an ‘Elijah of the future,’ therefore, is virtually to discredit the express statement of the word of God, and rests upon no Scripture warrant whatever.
We have already adverted to the twofold aspect of the mission of John presented by the prophets Isaiah and Malachi. The same diversity is seen in the New Testament descriptions of the second Elias. The benignant aspect of his mission which is presented by Isaiah, is also recognized in the words of the angel by whom his birth was foretold, as already quoted; and in the inspired utterance of his father Zacharias: ‘Thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest, for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation unto his people by the remission of their sins, (Luke 1:16, 17). We find the same gracious aspect in the opening verses of the Gospel of St. John: ‘The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe, (John 1:7).
But the other aspect of his mission is no less distinctly recognized in the Gospels. He is represented, not only as the herald of the coming Saviour, but of the coming Judge. Indeed, his own recorded utterances speak far more of wrath than of salvation, and are conceived more in the spirit of the Elijah of Malachi than of the wilderness-herald of Isaiah. He warns the Pharisees and Sadducees, and the multitudes that crowded to his baptism, to ‘flee from the coming wrath.’ He tells them that ‘the axe is laid unto the root of the trees.’ He announces the coming of One mightier than himself, ‘whose fan is in his hand, and who will thoroughly purge his floor, and gather his wheat into the garner, but who will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire’. (Matt. 3:12)
It is impossible not to be struck with the correspondence between the language of the Baptist and that of Malachi. As Hengstenberg observes: "The prophecy of Malachi is throughout the text upon which John comments."1 In both, the coming of the Lord is described as a day of wrath; both speak of His coming with fire to purify and try, with fire to burn and consume. Both speak of a time of discrimination and separation between the righteous and the wicked, the gold and the dross, the wheat and the chaff; and both speak of the utter destruction of the chaff, or stubble, with unquenchable fire. These are not fortuitous resemblances: the two predictions are the counterpart one of the other, and can only refer to the self-same event, the same ‘day of the Lord,’ the same coming judgment.
But what more especially deserves remark is the evident nearness of the crisis which John predicts. ‘The wrath to come’ is a very inadequate rendering of the language of the prophet.2 It should be ‘the coming wrath;’ that is, not merely future, but impending. ‘The wrath to come’ may be indefinitely distant, but ‘the coming wrath’ is imminent. As Alford justly remarks: ‘John is now speaking in the true character of a prophet foretelling the wrath soon to be poured on the Jewish nation.’3 So with the other representations in the address of the Baptist; all is indicative of the swift approach of destruction. ‘Already the axe was lying at the root of the trees.’ The ‘winnowing shovel’ was actually in the hands of the Husbandman; the sifting process was about to begin. These warnings of John the Baptist are not the vague and indefinite exhortations to repentance, addressed to men in all ages, which they are sometimes assumed to be; they are urgent, burning words, having a specific and present bearing upon the then existing generation, the living men to whom he brought the message of God. The Jewish nation was now upon its last trial; the second Elijah had come as the precursor of ‘the great and dreadful day of the Lord:’ if they rejected his warnings, the doom predicted by Malachi would surely and speedily follow; ‘I will come and smite the land with the curse.’ Nothing can be more obvious than that the catastrophe to which John alludes is particular, national, local, and imminent, and history tells us that within the period of the generation that listened to his warning cry, ‘the wrath came upon them to the uttermost.’