Israel Drazin

Will the prophet Elijah announce the arrival of the Messiah?

The popular notion among Jews is that the biblical prophet Elijah will return to earth from heaven and announce the coming of the Messiah before he arrives.[1] I do not think this will happen.

  • Many Christians, Jews, and people of other religions are convinced that there will come a time when there will be a miraculous Messianic Age. Many Jews also feel confident that this Age will be announced by the biblical prophet Elijah. Yet, the Hebrew Bible has no promise or hint that these two events will happen.
  • The folk legend that the Messiah will be a miraculous person, with the Messianic era being a miraculous period, was rejected by Maimonides. In his Mishneh Torah, he explained that there would be no miracles. The Messiah will be a human leader who will bring about peace. Life will be as it is today. People will die in the Messianic age.
  • He explained that when prophets made statements like Isaiah 11:6 who said, “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together, and a little child shall lead them,” they meant people can learn to care for one another and thereby create a peaceful existence.
  • Two prominent ceremonies focus on Elijah. The best known is opening the door and welcoming Elijah during the Passover Seder. Part of this ceremony is to place a cup of wine on the table for him. This is what is called sympathetic magic.[2] This is the belief that one can do something that will cause another thing to happen. An example is an Indian dance where the dancers jump up and down. The downward motion imitates the falling of rain. The Indians felt dancing would cause rain to descend. Similarly, opening the door for Elijah, welcoming him, and placing wine for him is done in the hope of forcing him to arrive in person.
  • The other is the singing by some Jews after Shabbat, as part of the Havdalah service, where we speak of the marvel of the Shabbat over other weekly days. Some Jews, thinking of the Messianic Age being more delightful than the present, sing, “Elijah the prophet, come to us with Messiah, a descendant of David.”
  • But the longing, as we will see, is recent post-biblical. It is not logical to think that God would need to have a person announce the coming of the Messiah before his arrival. It is ridiculous to imagine Elijah as a butler opening a door entrance and telling the household of the Messiah’s arrival.
  • The folk legend that Elijah would return from heaven and announce that the Messiah has arrived is based on two misunderstandings: (1) that Elijah was taken to heaven while still alive so that he could return and help Jews, and (2) the prophecy of Malachi.
  • The biblical wording that God took Elijah to heaven is simply a poetic way of saying he died. Even today, many clergy describe dying as God taking the person.
  • The prophet Malachi did not speak about Elijah announcing the coming of the Messiah.
  1. Malachi begins his discourse to the small remnant of Judeans who returned to Judea after being exiled by the Babylonians in 586 BCE by telling them that despite their hardships, God loves them. His precise date is unknown, but it is likely around 420 BCE.[3]
  2. Conditions in Judea were terrible. The Judeans offered sacrifices to God, but because of their impoverished conditions, they were only able to offer cattle that were maimed. Malachi rebuked the priests for accepting such sacrifices. They would never give the Persian monarch cattle as a gift that was so injured. It is far better, he said, under the desperate situation to stop offering sacrifices altogether.
  3. Malachi emphasized that the priest’s primary role is instructing the people to behave. They are abolishing their role by accepting the mutilated offerings and not teaching the people the correct behavior.
  4. He criticized the Judeans for their intermarriages in 2:13-16, as Ezra and Nehemiah did around the same time. The Judeans were so poor they were unable to support two wives, so they divorced their Judean wives to take foreign women. This caused hardship to the divorced Judean women and their children. It also caused the former wives and their children to hate their husbands and fathers. Furthermore, the intermarriage led to the acceptance of the gods of the new wives and the abandonment of the true God.
  5. Because of the Judeans’ misbehavior, Malachi states in 3:19 that a day burning as a furnace will turn the wicked into stubble.
  6. Verse 3:19 is followed by verses 23 and 24, which state, “Behold, I am sending you Eliyah the prophet before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes. He will turn the heart of fathers to children and the heart of children to their fathers, or else I will come and strike the land with total destruction.”
  7. There are several matters to note about these two sentences: (a) Verses 23 and 24 do not speak about a time of peace, a messianic age, but the “great and terrible day of the Lord.” (b) Verse 23’s sholeach is in the present tense, I am sending, not the future, “I will send,” and it can reasonably refer to the prophet who is speaking. He is seeking to resolve the problems he sees. (c) While it is true that the Bible frequently shortens names, and Eliyah might be a shortened version of a resurrected Eliyahu, Elijah in English, Eliyah is, as some scholars say, the name of the prophet of this book; and Malachi would be an adjective, “my messenger,” not the prophet’s name. There is no one else in the Bible called Malachi, and the term Malakh is used two other times in this book where it means “messenger.” (d) Most significant is the promise of turning the father’s heart to his children and the children’s heart to their father. This promise has absolutely nothing to do with a messianic age. It refers to the intermarriage results discussed in item 4 above. Eliyah will resolve the intermarriage problem, resulting in familial love.[4]
  8. It should, therefore, be evident that Malachi is talking about the problems of his own time, that God will either bring destruction upon the people for their intermarriages or their behavior will be resolved with the help of Eliyah, Malachi’s name.
  • Since no biblical book mentions Elijah announcing the Messiah, including Ezra (c. 458 BCE), Nehemiah (c. 445 BCE), and Malachi (c. 420 BCE), it seems reasonable to assume that the idea developed after 420.

[1] The New Testament states that John the Baptist announced the coming of Jesus.

[2] James G. Frazer, The Golden Bough, Palgrave Macmillan, London,1990.

[3] The Jewish Encyclopedia Palgrave Macmillan, London, 1906.

[4] Eli Cashdan likewise writes in “The Twelve Prophets,” Soncino Books of the Bible, The Soncino Press, 1961, page 356, “Family discord was the natural result of the divorces and foreign marriages which the prophet had denounced, and family life was in danger of disintegration.”

About the Author
Dr. Israel Drazin served for 31 years in the US military and attained the rank of brigadier general. He is an attorney and a rabbi, with master’s degrees in both psychology and Hebrew literature and a PhD in Judaic studies. As a lawyer, he developed the legal strategy that saved the military chaplaincy when its constitutionality was attacked in court, and he received the Legion of Merit for his service. Dr. Drazin is the author of more than 50 books on the Bible, philosophy, and other subjects.