The LORD’s Hatred of Divorce
“Yet ye say, Wherefore? Because the LORD hath been witness between thee and the wife of thy youth, against whom thou hast dealt treacherously: yet is she thy companion, and the wife of thy covenant.
And did not he make one? Yet had he the residue of the spirit. And wherefore one? That he might seek a godly seed. Therefore take heed to your spirit, and let none deal treacherously against the wife of his youth.
For the LORD, the God of Israel, saith that he hateth putting away: for one covereth violence with his garment, saith the LORD of hosts: therefore take heed to your spirit, that ye deal not treacherously.”
Many today have a good word to say for divorce. Many churches bless divorce. Many professing Christians speak well of it. They defend divorce. They approve it. They even advocate it. Divorce, they say, is necessary. It is permissible. It is right. It is beneficial.
Of course, they do not have a good word for every divorce. A few are too scandalous even for contemporary Christianity. But they do defend and approve many divorces. By no means do they limit their defense to divorce on the ground of the sexual unfaithfulness of one’s marriage companion, the one ground for divorce according to Jesus Christ in Matthew 19:9. But they defend divorces that are obtained for other reasons–many other reasons.
Some are interested to justify their own divorces. Others are determined to excuse the divorces of fellow members of the congregation or of members of their family. Churches cave in to the pressure of divorces in the congregations, which keep pace with this evil in the world.
Some are outspoken in their defense of divorce. “You cannot make a blanket condemnation of divorce,” they say; “divorce can be a good thing.” Others approve divorce by simply remaining silent and accepting the sinner who has wickedly divorced. Some churches now speak well of divorce by adopting and publishing new decisions that open wide the doors of the kingdom of heaven to unbiblical divorce. Others, more subtle, bless divorce by refusing to discipline the members who divorce and by receiving those who have divorced into their fellowship. All have a good word to say for divorce.
Then they turn on those who will not say a good word about divorce, but instead condemn it as an evil. In sorrow or, as is more often the case, in anger, friends, relatives, and fellow church members ask, “Why are you so hard-nosed in condemning divorce? How can you be so unloving as to refuse fellowship with the one who has divorced?” Intense pressure is put on the saints to join in speaking a good word on behalf of divorce.
God’s Old Testament Stand on Divorce
Authoritative for the saints is God’s attitude toward, and judgment of divorce. Often the question comes up, “What is your stand on divorce?” Or, “What stand does your preacher take on divorce?” Or, “What stand do your churches have on divorce?” These are important questions. Every believer must take a stand–the right stand. Every preacher must take a stand–and make it known, sharply and clearly, to his congregation. Every denomination of churches must have a stand–distinguishing that fellowship of churches and assisting each congregation and each individual in that fellowship.
Decisive, however, is God’s stand on divorce. This is revealed in Malachi 2:14-16, quoted above. “For the LORD, the God of Israel, saith that he hateth putting away,” that is, divorce (v.16). The God of Israel, whose name is Jehovah, has nothing good to say of divorce whatsoever. He does not defend it, but rather condemns and prohibits it.
What makes this an especially powerful testimony is that it reveals God’s attitude toward divorce in the time of the old covenant. The passage is God’s Word by Malachi the prophet to Judah about the year 400 B.C. That was a time, it is widely supposed, when God was somewhat easier on His people in the matter of divorce. Everyone knows that divorce was practiced in Israel. Indeed, it is difficult to escape the impression that for present-day Christians, as for the Pharisees of old, Deuteronomy 24:1-4 is the only text in the Old Testament Bible on marriage and divorce. All know too that Jesus in Matthew 19:9 states that during that time “Moses suffered,” or permitted, men to put away their wives, although many conveniently ignore that the Lord added, “because of the hardness of your hearts.”
In that age, the LORD God hated divorce.
He has not changed since then. The only change is that with the shining of the full light of the gospel His hatred of divorce is better known. It ought, therefore, to be more obediently acknowledged by the New Testament church in confession and in life.
Divorce is the Evil
God’s prophet condemns a certain evil in Judah. Obviously it is an especially grievous sin. Those who are guilty of it are dealing treacherously. The evil is closely related to the sin exposed in verses 11-13 as “abomination” and “profaning the holiness of the LORD.” It is a sin of husbands against their wives. What it is, verse 16 states: “putting away.” The Hebrew word translated “putting away” is the word that is regularly used in the Old Testament of divorce. The grievous sin in Judah is that husbands are divorcing their wives.
This evil is closely related to the wickedness that is judged in verses 11-13: remarriage. The men of Judah are marrying “the daughter of a strange god,” that is, heathen women of the nations around them. That Scripture describes these new wives in this way reminds God-fearing young men that the most important characteristic of the woman whom they marry is spiritual. She must be the daughter of the one, true God, the God whose name is Jehovah/Jesus. In the interests of new marriages with pagan women, the men of Judah are divorcing their Israelite wives.
Nothing has changed since the time of Malachi. Behind divorce lies the desire for marriage with another woman. In my 25 years as a pastor in the churches I learned to ask every man who poured out his tale of woe about his miserable wife and lamented that he had fallen out of love with her so that he could not live with her any longer, “Who is the other woman?” I do not recall that I was ever mistaken. The motive of divorce, usually, is lust.
Nevertheless, God condemns the divorce that precedes the remarriage. It is not remarriage, or even divorce because it leads to remarriage, that God here condemns, but the “putting away” as such. The result of the divorce is great sorrow on the part of the divorced wives. Theirs are the tears, weeping, and crying out of verse 13. The cause of these oppressed women, the LORD takes up in the passage. It is evident from this that no shame attaches to one in the church who has been unjustly divorced by her husband. God Himself sees her plight, pities her, and arises for her defense.
Equality of Judgment for Women
Although the Old Testament prophet condemns the divorcing of their wives by husbands, it is implied that wives’ putting away, or leaving, their husbands is equally reprehensible. First, the statement concerning God’s hatred of divorce is absolute and unqualified. He hates divorce, all divorce, not only that carried out by husbands. Second, as we shall see, the grounds given for God’s hatred of divorce apply as much to the case of a wife divorcing her husband as to the case of a husband divorcing his wife. Take only the ground of treachery. It is as treacherous for a wife to divorce her husband as it is for a husband to divorce his wife.
In the days of the prophet, the position of the woman was such that it was unheard of that she would put her husband away. Today, it is different. There is equality of civil rights and of cultural possibilities for divorce. It is as common that the wife divorces her husband as that the husband divorces his wife. Many a husband’s tears cover the altar of the LORD. There is as much need today to say, “Take heed, you wives, that you do not deal treacherously,” as to address this warning to husbands.
The Strange Word “Hatred”
Toward this evil of divorce, the attitude of the LORD is hatred. In this Word, God reveals the attitude of His very being. There is in the text a prohibition of divorce: “let none deal treacherously against the wife of his youth.” Behind this prohibition lies the condemnation of the sin: treachery. And behind the condemnation is the divine hatred: “he hateth putting away.”
The Holy Spirit inspired a strong word, the strongest possible, to express the revulsion of the Godhead toward divorce. “Hatred” is a strange word in our day, when it is common in the churches to speak only of the love of God. That God should hate a certain act is a strange idea in our day, when there is hardly any human conduct, no matter how perverse, that this “Christian” god–this idol in the churches–who is only love does not at least tolerate. But God Himself says of divorce, “I hate it.” Jehovah, the God of Israel/church, the God who speaks in Holy Scripture, hates.
When He says that He hates divorce, He tells us something, not only about divorce but also about Himself. Hatred is the perfection of a God of righteousness. Righteousness expresses itself as hatred over against that which conflicts with that righteousness. The reason why the god of the churches cannot hate is not that it is so loving, but that it is unrighteous. Hatred is the revelation of God’s love for Himself as the good and holy one against that which assaults His goodness and holiness. The reason why the god of the churches cannot hate, particularly divorce, is that it does not love itself as the good and the holy. It does not love itself as the good, because it is not the good. It is an abominable idol formed in the image of corrupt men and women who take delight in evil.
Divorce conflicts with the righteousness of God. It assaults His goodness and holiness. As such, it is hated by God. Hating it, He regards it as disgusting and wills its destruction.
Hatred of the Sin, Hatred of the Sinner
Nor does God hate this evil in such a way as to leave the evil-doer under His favor. This is a common opinion among church people. God hates the sin, but loves the sinner. He hates divorce, but loves the one who divorces. The practical effect of this unbiblical thinking is that a church or an individual pays lip-service to the wickedness of divorce, perhaps even decrying this great social ill of our time, while receiving those who are guilty of divorce into their fellowship.
The prophet plainly exposes this popular notion as false. Verse 12 declares that the LORD will cut off the man who does this, that is, marries a heathen woman after he has divorced his wife, from the tabernacle of Jacob. God will excommunicate him from His fellowship, from eternal life.
Not only the divorcing and remarrying sinner, but also the person who offers an offering for him while he goes on in his sin, the LORD will cut off: “and him that offereth an offering unto the LORD of hosts” (v.1 2b). This is the church member today who tries to talk the divorce right, who fights to keep the divorcing friend or relative in the church, and who thus attempts to get him safely under the blessing of the cross, even though he lives impenitently in the sin of divorce.
According to verse 13, the LORD refuses the worship both of the divorcing men in Judah and of Judah herself, who tolerates this iniquity in her fellowship: “he regardeth not the offering any more, or receiveth it with good will at your hand.” The reason is that the altar of the LORD is covered with the tears, weeping, and crying out of the divorced wives. The treacherous husbands are responsible. By permitting divorce, the entire congregation becomes responsible. All public worship comes under the divine interdict. All that the LORD can see on the altar of public worship in the church on a Sunday morning is the misery of the abandoned and divorced wives. In that misery, He sees the treachery, unrighteousness, and unholiness of the divorcing husbands. The Heidelberg Catechism warns the congregation of this very thing when it teaches that God’s “wrath (is) kindled against the whole congregation,” if the congregation admits to the Lord’s Supper anyone who shows himself unbelieving and ungodly (Q. 82).
The hatred of the LORD for the sin of divorce goes out as wrath against the sinner and against all who connive at the sin. His wrath interrupts all fellowship with and worship of Himself. It will eternally destroy the sinner, if he does not repent. It will remove the church’s candlestick out of its place, if the church does not repent.
Such is the hatred of the LORD for divorce according to His own Word.
It is the LORD, the God of Israel, who hates divorce. Not every god hates divorce. Not every god who claims to be the God of Israel hates divorce. One test, therefore, of a church’s God is this:
Does He hate divorce?
Does He hate it in the preaching?
Does He hate it in church discipline?
Does He hate it in consistorial and synodical decisions?
Does He hate it in the lives of the members?
In all the thinking and life of the church can you hear the echo of His own forceful Word, “I hate putting away”?
The Familiar “Wherefore?”
“Why?” we ask. “Why does God hate divorce?”
Judah raised this question also. In fact, the men who were putting away their wives asked “why?” The passage on the LORD’S hatred of divorce begins with their question, “why?”: “Yet ye say, Wherefore?” (v.14). They asked why the LORD “regardeth not the offering any more, or receiveth it with good will at your hand” (v.13). They asked “why?” concerning this judgment of the LORD, even though they knew very well that they were divorcing their wives in order to marry heathen women. Their question, therefore, was really the question, “Why does the LORD hate divorce?”
The question was a challenge. Judah wanted to argue with the prophet about divorce. The men in Judah liked to justify their divorce. In the argumentative question was the determination to say a good word about divorce. Formally, the book of Malachi is structured by this rebellious “why?” in response to the Word of the LORD, with the subsequent explanation by the LORD’s prophet. But this does not take away from the fact that by its “wherefore?” Judah actually raised objection against the LORD’S condemnation of divorce.
This is exactly what we find in our day. When we condemn divorce and, especially, when we carry out the condemnation in our personal lives and in church discipline, we meet with this challenging, and often angry, question, “Wherefore? Why this strong condemnation of divorce?” Although the question is addressed to us, in reality it is directed against God: “Why does the LORD hate divorce?”
The prophet answers the question by explaining that divorce is treachery. Three times in the passage, divorce is described as “dealing treacherously.” Treachery is an especially base and contemptible form of sin. It is the conduct of the traitor, who betrays the love and trust of those to whom he is closely bound in the bonds of friendship. In the state, he is a Benedict Arnold, or a Vidkun Quisling, or the Dutchman at the beginning of World War II who uses his position to give over his country into the power of the enemies. In the church, he is the Reformed minister or professor who secretly works to sell out the churches to theological modernism or to Arminian free-willism. In the history of redemption, he is Judas Iscariot, who used his intimacy with the Lord to give Him over into the hands of His foes. Ultimately, treachery finds its origin in Lucifer, son of the morning, who used his exalted position among the angels, servants of God, to instigate revolution against God in heaven and then to turn the earthly creation against its Creator.
In marriage and the family, the traitor is the man who divorces the wife of his youth, in order to marry another who is probably younger, prettier, sexually more attractive. Today, the traitor is as well the faithless wife who abandons her husband for a more appealing man.
Why does God hate divorce?
Because of what divorce is! Divorce is despicable, perfidious treachery. The LORD hates divorce because divorce is hateful. As even a sinful world holds the traitor in contempt, God hates divorce.
As treachery, divorce is hurtful and destructive. The traitor always works the grievous harm of those whom he betrays. His purpose is to destroy. The Dutchmen who helped the Nazi invaders, and then collaborated with them, did untold damage to their country. They intended nothing less than the destruction of the nation as a free, sovereign state. The heretical Reformed theologian ruins his churches and leads many members to perdition. Judas’ betrayal of Jesus meant shame, pain, and death for the Lord. Nor did His knowledge that the betrayal was ordained by God prevent the grief of soul, that the one who betrayed Him was “mine own familiar friend” (Psalm 41:9).
Malachi points to the destructive nature of divorce when he charges, in the words of the King James Version, “one covereth violence with his garment” (v.16). The Hebrew is difficult, but the correct translation is: “he covered his garment with violence.” The reference is to the man who divorced his wife. Divorce is an act of violence. It is oppressive and injurious. By divorcing his wife, the man covered himself, in the sight of God and man, with the violence of his act. Just as when the LORD looks at the altar where divorce is permitted, all that He can see is the tears, weeping, and crying out of the deserted wives, so when He looks at the man who has divorced his wife, all that God sees is violence.
Why does the LORD hate divorce? “Wherefore?” Because, as treachery, divorce is destructive.
Betrayal of the Wife
First, divorce betrays and thus injures the man’s wife. As Jesus Christ will do in Matthew 19:3-9, the prophet takes his startingpoint in God’s institution of marriage as recorded in Genesis 2:18-25. God made the husband and wife “one” (v.15). This is the work of God in every marriage: the two become one flesh. By virtue of this marvelous, mysterious work, God binds husband and wife together in the most intimate fellowship. Malachi describes a man’s wife as “thy companion, and the wife of thy covenant” (v.14). The essence of the marriage-relation is friendship. Biblically, “covenant” is a bond of communion. In the communion of the marriage-covenant, a man’s wife is his “companion,” his friend.
Divorce, then, is a man’s betrayal of his closest friend. As the wife of his youth, the young woman gave herself to him, body and soul. She entrusted herself to him completely. As a woman in marriage, she depends upon him. Treacherously, he forsakes his trusting friend and lover.
This does her grievous injury. Her divorcing husband hurts her as no other human can. There are her physical, bodily needs. There is her anguish of soul. Worst, there is her vulnerability to relations with another man, which would mean her eternal ruin, as the Lord warns in Matthew 5:32: “and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery.” Her traitor-husband aims at her destruction.
Commenting on the phrase in Genesis 2:22 that literally states that God “built” a woman from the rib of Adam to be his wife, Martin Luther wrote:
There are not only men who think it clever to find fault with the opposite sex and to have nothing to do with marriage but also men who, after they have married, desert their wives and refuse to support their children. Through their baseness and wickedness these people lay waste God’s building, and they are really abominable monsters of nature. Let us, therefore, obey the Word of God and recognize our wives as a building of God.
Betrayal of the Children
Second, divorce betrays and thus injures the man’s own children. The prophet points to this as a reason why God hates divorce when, in answer to his own question, “And wherefore one?” he writes, “That he might seek a godly seed” (v.15). One of God’s main purposes originally with the institution of marriage was the bringing forth and bringing up of children–godly children (Gen. 1 :28). This was God’s purpose with the marriages in Judah, as it is still usually God’s purpose with the marriages of believers. In our marriages, He seeks a “seed of God,” as is the literal translation of verse 15. By His own covenant grace, He finds this “godly seed” among our children also. He begets them by His regenerating Spirit. He then rears them within the godly home by means of the cooperating father and mother to be godly children.
These children are precious to the covenant God of Judah/ church, their heavenly Father. They must be precious also to married Christians.
In every way, the godly seed are the fruit of faithful, peaceful marriages.
Divorce is betrayal of one’s own children, whom the divorcing church member must view as God’s children. This ultimate treachery is ruinous for the family, causing the children untold and indescribable physical, psychological, and spiritual harm, as even the world belatedly begins to recognize. Apart from the extraordinary operations of God’s grace, divorce destroys the children spiritually and eternally. The divorcing husband or wife is willing, not only that his or her own children be destroyed but also that the seed of God be destroyed.
This is the reason why much of the outcry of the “evangelical” churches against abortion rings hollow in my ears. Loud in their condemnation of the killing of the world’s babies by abortion, these same churches are perfectly silent about the destruction within their own fellowship of thousands and millions of their own children and young people–children and young people of professing Christians–by divorce.
It has happened that members of the church, obviously determined to divorce, having poured out their tale of woe concerning their miserable marriage, asked, finally, “You don’t expect us to stay together just for the children, do you?” My answer was an immediate, enthusiastic, “Yes! Yes, indeed! By all means! If you will not stay together for any other reason, stay together for the children! What a noble decision, that you deny yourselves and your own personal pleasure for the sake of the children! Here is a place to start!”
Betrayal of Marriage
Third, divorce is a kind of betrayal of the institution of marriage itself. Divorce in the covenant community strikes out violently against everything that marriage is and signifies. The passage in Malachi is not only one of the strongest denunciations of divorce in all of Scripture, but also one of the most glorious descriptions of marriage. Marriage is an institution of God: “Did not he make one?” (v.15) It is a relationship between one man and one woman: “the wife of thy youth” (v.14). By God’s ordaining and power, it is a relationship of such intimacy that the two become one: “Did not he make one?” (v.15) Implied is that marriage is for life. In accordance with this unique oneness, the actual life of marriage is delightful friendship: “thy companion and the wife of thy covenant” (v.14). A main purpose is the production and rearing of godly children: “That he might seek a godly seed” (v.15).
Only a fool fails to respond to this institution by exclaiming over the goodness and wisdom of God that are evident in it and by living in it as God requires. To enjoy it is a gift.
This good, wise, holy institution has equally remarkable significance It signifies the bond of fellowship between God and His elect church in Jesus Christ ( Ezek. 16; Eph. 5:22ff.). This is brought out in the passage when the prophet calls the earthly bond of marriage by the name of the spiritual bond between the LORD and His chosen people: “covenant” (v.14). Marriage is the divinely appointed symbol of the covenant between God and His church in Jesus Christ. So does God bind each elect personally and the entire elect body of the church to Himself by the Holy Spirit on the basis of the redemption of the cross that we are united with God by becoming one flesh with Jesus Christ. God and His church are no longer two parties, but one party. We are His companion, very really the “wife of (His) covenant.” God has married us. This is the real marriage.
In His own marriage, God is faithful. He is faithful to His own marriage-vow, to be a Husband to this wife. He is faithful to His wife, to us. He will not, He does not divorce His wife, not in her Old Testament form as Israel and not in her New Testament form as the church. He never divorces her in the sense of breaking the bond, so as to marry another. He never divorces her in the sense of separating her from Himself forever ( Jer. 3; Ezek. 16). He does not divorce His wife even though she has given, and still gives, Him ample and just cause by her spiritual infidelities.
His covenant is unbreakable.
The proof is the cross of the eternal Son in human flesh. Although the cost of His marital faithfulness to His bride, and the necessary way of this faithfulness, is the death of His own Son under the divine wrath as atonement for the sins of the bride, God is faithful in marriage. The issue of divorce and remarriage is settled for the believer at the cross of Jesus Christ.
The LORD hates putting away. This is the kind of God He is. In His very nature, He is the “divorce-hating God.” The other gods can approve divorce, even advocate them. At the least, they can tolerate them. Not He! Not the God whose name is Jehovah! Not the God of the covenant of grace! Not the God made known in the incarnation and atoning death of Jesus Christ!
All of this–institution and significance–is betrayed and ruined, at least as regards intent, by the man or woman in the church who divorces his wife or her husband, except, of course, it be for fornication (Matt. 5:31, 32; 19:9). Divorce is hateful because it is ruinous of marriage. God hates divorce because He loves marriage. In His love of marriage, He maintains it. He maintains it in the instance of each and every marriage. Against the one who attacks the institution by divorcing his wife, God defends and maintains His institution by being “witness between thee and the wife of thy youth, against whom thou hast dealt treacherously” (v.14). This means judgment for the sinner. He will not escape.
The Word of God to the church from this revelation of God’s hatred of divorce is not, first of all, the forbidding of divorce in our own lives. It is not any law whatever.
It is, rather, the message of the gospel. It is glad tidings that rejoice our hearts. It comes straight out of the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. God will never cast us away. If for a time, in our experience, He separates us from Himself on account of our sins, He will take us back, renewing His marriage with us. He will be our God forever, embracing us, honoring us, blessing us, as our Husband in Christ. We will dwell with Him everlastingly, as His bride.
Others may groan at this “sharp” Word, or studiously ignore it, or go to work on it to make it conform to their wishes and to the actual conditions in the churches today. As for us, we love this vehement Word as the very gospel of our salvation, “The LORD, the God of Israel, saith that he hateth putting away.” Our response is, “Hallelujah!”
“Be Ye Imitators of God!”
Then there is the calling to the church to conform her attitude and conduct to the nature of her God: “Therefore take heed to your spirit, and let none deal treacherously against the wife of his youth” (v.15; see also v.16).
The church must adopt the same attitude toward divorce that God has. She has no choice in the matter. No study committee is necessary, or permitted, to determine what the church’s attitude will be. The matter is decided. The church of God hates divorce. She clearly and forcefully expresses this attitude in her preaching, by her discipline, and in the decisions of her ecclesiastical assemblies. No one can doubt that the church hates divorce.
Each member must share this attitude. Shall my God hate divorce, but I love it?
Shall my God condemn divorce, but I approve it, or tolerate it?
In his hatred of divorce, the individual member is called to break off fellowship with those who practice and live in the treachery and violence of divorce.
Shall my God excommunicate from His presence those who divorce, but I hobnob with them as friends?
We are ourselves forbidden to divorce. This lends urgency to the calling of the young people of the church to marry only in the Lord, to marry one who shares their (and God’s) high estimation of marriage, and to marry with the carefulness that comes from knowing that this woman or man is the one woman or man with whom they will live until death parts them.
Divorce is not an option for married Christians whose marriages are troubled. There may well be, indeed there undoubtedly are, marriages in the congregations that are troubled, even deeply troubled, troubled to the point that one or the other or perhaps both are giving some thought to divorce as the way out. God slams this door tightly shut. The “way out” of the troubled marriage is the way of repentance; confession of sins; forgiveness; reconciliation; the will to love, or to submit; and changed behavior.
Hard, you say?
Extremely difficult, you object?
Not nearly so “hard” and “difficult” as it was for God to maintain His marriage with you at Golgotha. Besides, nothing right and God-pleasing is impossible for us who carry out our calling, not by our own strength but by the mighty grace of God in us.
In light of God’s hatred of divorce, every married Christian is to guard against the evil of divorce in his marriage. He does this by taking heed to his spirit. The great threat to marriage is not in the bedroom. It is not in the body. It is in the husband’s spirit. There he is to cherish his own wife as one flesh with him by God’s wonderful work and as his companion, his friend, in the covenant of marriage. There he is to esteem his children, and grandchildren, as the seed of God. And there, in his spirit, he is to adore God, who is faithful to him in the real marriage, the covenant of grace.
This man will not divorce.
By David J. Engelsma