Over the last year, this writer has had several discussions with different brethren who were defending the position that God accepts remarriages that Jesus plainly calls adulterous (Mt. 19:9), as long as those marriages were entered before the couple became Christians. After all, they will say, God forgives sin when people are baptized into Christ. In these discussions, the people so arguing would say something like, “I can’t divorce her [the unscriptural wife] because God hates divorce, and I don’t want to do anything God hates.” Yes, the Bible indeed teaches that “He [God] hates divorce” (Mal. 2:16), but which divorce is it that He actually hates?
God Hates Divorce From Scriptural Wives
Malachi 2:16 is a passage that is twisted by those defending the position above. Malachi 2:10-16 deals with the corrupted family life of God’s remnant who returned to Palestine from captivity (cf. Ezr. 1:1-4; 7:1-10; Neh. 1:1–2:8). In this section of Malachi, the prophet identified two main reasons why their family life was corrupted.
First, their family life had been corrupted by their religiously mixed-marriages (Mal. 2:10-12). Intermarriage with those of the surrounding nations was expressly forbidden under Israel’s law (Ex. 34:16; Deut. 7:3). Solomon’s violation of this law several hundred years prior to this time greatly contributed to Israel’s apostasy (1 Kgs. 11:1-13; Neh. 13:23-27). Since idolatry led to the Exile (cf. Hos. 7:8-10; 13:2), it should have been unthinkable for God’s remnant to tolerate this kind of apostasy again.
Malachi reminded them that their common unity in the covenant made mixed-marriages an offense against their own brothers and sisters (Mal. 2:10). They should have respected the covenant their “one Father” had given to the children of Israel when God created them to reflect His character (cf. Deut. 32:6; Isa. 43:7; 63:16; 64:8). Instead, they broke the covenant’s unity in “dealing treacherously” and “profaning the covenant” through entering into these mixed marriages, an “abomination” to the Lord. Furthermore, marrying outside the covenant polluted the holiness of God. They were indulging in idolatrous practices with these foreign wives and then entering into God’s presence as if everything were alright (cf. Ezr. 9:1-2; [cf. Isa. 1:11-15]). Judgment was pronounced upon those guilty of mixed marriages (Mal. 2:12). The guilty would be removed from the covenant people for taking wives of heathen women (cf. “does this”) and for acting piously while at the same time desecrating the “holiness of the Lord” (cf. “yet who brings an offering,” Mal. 2:12).
Second, their family life had been corrupted by divorce (Mal. 2:13-16). Mistreating their covenant wives made their worship and sacrifices unacceptable (Mal. 2:13). “Cover the altar … with tears” may refer to the rejected wives’ tears which, so to speak, extinguished the altar fires (Hailey 416), or it may refer to the people’s tears upon their realization that their communion with God was broken (Verhoef 273). Either way, since these tears were not the guilty husbands’ tears of godly sorrow (cf. 2 Cor. 7:10), God did not accept their sacrifices (cf. Num. 16:15).
The reason why their offerings were not accepted was because their marriage vows had been broken (Mal. 2:14). Marriage involves more than just the two spouses. Marriage also involves God (cf. Mt. 19:6)! “The Lord has been witness,” not only of the marriage, but also of the treatment of their wives. Even under the old law, marriage was a binding covenant to which the Lord was (and is) witness (cf. Gen. 31:50; Pr. 2:17). Lawfully, they only had a right to one wife. That authorized wife is identified as “the wife of your youth” (found only twice outside this context, Pr. 5:18; Isa. 54:6). This refers to their first love, to one to whom they promised faithfulness and support (Verhoef 274). Note how this is term is also paralleled with “your companion” and “your wife by covenant” (Mal. 2:14). Yet, they had been faithless to their only God-approved wives by rejecting them for heathen women.
Malachi gave two reasons why breaking their marriage vows was wrong. First, divorcing the covenant wife did not perpetuate God’s covenant (Mal. 2:15). Although this verse is textually one of the most difficult in Malachi, it is possible to understand its general meaning, which can be conveyed by two possible interpretations. One is that God made Adam only one wife (although He could have made him more) for the specific purpose of producing “godly offspring. Thus, this divine purpose is contrary to both divorce and mixed marriages (Verhoef 277). The other is that the person who seeks a godly offspring is spiritually wise and does not therefore violate God’s divine institution of marriage (Keil 453). In either case, the continuance of the covenant is threatened by the lack of “godly offspring.” Therefore, they must quit divorcing their wives. No husband of God’s remnant desiring to have “godly” descendants, would divorce his Israelite wife to marry a heathen woman!
Second, breaking marriage vows is wrong because God “hates divorce” (Mal. 2:16). God has always intended that there be one man with one wife for life (cf. Gen. 2:24; Mt. 19:5-6). “He hates” conveys the idea that God continually and habitually hates divorce. “Divorce [putting away, KJV]” was tolerated only because of their “hardness of heart” (Deut. 24:1-4 cf. Mt. 19:7-8). The sin of divorcing their God-approved wives to marry a “daughter of a strange god” was compounded by the violence involved. The expression, “it covers one’s garment with violence” is figurative for all kinds of blatant wrong doing which, like the blood of a murdered victim, leaves its mark for all to see (Baldwin 241). The man who divorced his God-approved wife, ignoring God’s covenant and her deeply wounded feelings, covered his garment with the violence of iniquity.
From a detailed analyses of this text, it is clear that the divorce God hated was the divorce from their God-authorized wives. Under that covenant, the “wife of his youth” was the only wife to which the Israelite husband could be married.
God Commands Divorce From Unscriptural Wives
Not only did God hate His people’s divorcing their Scriptural wives (Mal. 2:10-16), He also commanded the guilty to put away their unauthorized wives. Sections of the historical Books of Ezra and Nehemiah also concern the post-exilic remnant who had sinned by marrying unauthorized wives. Ezra was informed that:
The people of Israel and the priests and the Levites have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands … For they have taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves and their sons, so that the holy seed is mixed with the peoples of those lands. Indeed, the hand of the leaders and rulers has been foremost in this trespass. (Ezr. 9:1-2)
Ezra reacted with mourning (Ezr. 9:3). He prayed to God:
For we have forsaken Your commandments … and join in marriage with the people committing these abominations … O Lord God of Israel … Here we are before You, in our guilt … no one can stand before You because of this! (Ezr. 9:5-15)
Despite their sin, Ezra was reminded, “yet now there is hope in Israel” (Ezr. 10:2). Restoration involved separation from unlawful marriages.
Now therefore, let us make a covenant with our God to put away all these wives and those who have been born to them, according to the advice … of those who tremble at the commandment of our God. (Ezr. 10:3)
The “covenant” they made required them to “make confession to the Lord God … and do His will; separate yourselves … from the pagan wives” (Ezr. 10:11). The “descendants of the captivity did” exactly as God through Ezra demanded (Ezr. 10:16), even in cases where children were involved (Ezr. 10:3, 44).
Nehemiah 13:23-31 also details similar instruction and response from the guilty.
While these are Old Testament examples and people today are not answerable to Old Testament law, there are some truths we learn from the fact that God commanded these unauthorized wives to be put away (cf. Rom. 15:4). First, God is merciful and will allow His people to repent of sin and be restored to His favor, even when the sin involves marriage (Ezr. 9:9-15; 10:1-3 cf. Acts 8:22; Rom. 2:4). Second, some marriages are not pleasing to God (Ezr. 9:13-14; 10:2, 10 cf. Mk. 6:17-18; Mt. 5:31-32; 19:9). Third, the guilty are responsible for their own repentance in any sin, including sinful marriages (Ezr. 10:4, 12, 16, 19 cf. Lk. 13:3, 5; 2 Cor. 7:10).
The claim by some today that it is sinful to put away their unscriptural wives because “God hates divorce” is an abuse of Malachi 2:16. The divorce God hates is the one from “the wife of his youth” (Mal. 2:15), not from the unauthorized wife, “the daughter of a foreign god” (Mal. 2:11), which God commanded to be put away (Ezr. 10:11-44; Neh. 13:23-31). Rather than justify unauthorized marriages, people involved need to repent, for God “has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead” (Acts 17:30-31)!