In the last words of the last book of the Old Testament there is a prophecy about the second coming of Elijah. And in the gospels John the Baptist is identified with this Elijah figure (Jn. 1.21; Luke 1.17; Matt. 11.14, 17.10-13).
So according to Malachi, what was this second Elijah going to do?
According to Malachi, the second Elijah was to proclaim the coming Day of the Lord. And this would be a mixed sort of day, a day of blessing for the righteous and a day of judgment for the wicked:
Malachi 4The second Elijah will appear proclaiming the coming "great and awesome day of the Lord." In preparation for that day the Elijah figure will preach a message of repentance to "turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers."
For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. The day that is coming shall set them ablaze, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch.
But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall. And you shall tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet, on the day when I act, says the Lord of hosts.
“Remember the law of my servant Moses, the statutes and rules that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel.
“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.”
For those who repent, the Day of the Lord will be a blessing: "The sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall."
For those who don't repent, the Day of the Lord will bring "a decree of utter destruction" in the land. This day of judgment is also associated with fire: "the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. The day that is coming shall set them ablaze, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch."
All this is exactly the message John the Baptist brings to Israel.
Matthew 3.1-2, 5-8, 10-12John's message is that "the kingdom of heaven is at hand." But the imminent arrival of the kingdom also brings judgment.
In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance...
"Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
“I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
John calls Israel to repentance so that Israel might "flee the wrath to come." As foretold in Malachi, the kingdom's arrival brings a fiery winnowing, a blazing judgment separating the wheat from the chaff.
For a preterist reading, the important point to note is how the fiery Day of the Lord was imminent and inaugurated by the ministry of Jesus. Israel was being called to flee the wrath to come.
But this wrath wasn't some future event at the end of time, the "Judgment Day" of popular Christian imagination. It was a historical event about to happen.
The fiery judgment of the Day of the Lord was "at hand."