Covenant God

The second sermon in our series on Malachi looks at a passage that talks about marriage in the context of the covenant faithfulness of God (Malachi 2:10-16). Speaking through his prophet, God expressed concern about the behavior of two groups of people in post-exilic Israel.

The first group consisted of Israelite men who were marrying non-Israelite women, despite the fact that the Law of Moses clearly prohibited marriage between Israelites and worshipers of other gods (Exod. 34:11; Deut. 7:1-4).

The Old Testament prohibition against marrying foreigners has sometimes been used as a proof-text against interracial marriage. This is certainly a misuse of Scripture. First, there is no reason to assume that ancient Israelites were significantly different in complexion or facial features from their surrounding neighbors. (Note how Moses is assumed to be an Egyptian when seen in Egyptian clothing and how foreign sailors cannot identify Jonah’s nationality by his appearance – Ex. 2:19; Jonah 1:8.) Second, the Israelites were permitted to marry non-Israelites who had converted to faith in Yahweh and had joined themselves to God’s covenant. (See the examples of Rahab and of Ruth.) Third, the New Testament makes clear that racial and ethnic distinctions no longer have any significance for those who are in Christ (Col. 3:11). Though an individual may prefer to marry someone from their own ethnic background because of the cultural perspective they will hold in common, to prohibit or discourage interracial marriage is a clear denial of the gospel. Commenting on Malachi 2:11, Peter Adam writes, “The point was not the race of the women; it was that they were daughters, that is, followers, of a foreign god.”

The LORD’s response to his people’s decision to marry outside the covenant was intense. Malachi says that the people (referred to here as “Judah”) have been “unfaithful” or have “dealt treacherously” (v. 11a). Their interfaith marriages are described as “a detestable thing” or “an abomination” (v. 11b) – a term reserved in the Mosaic Law for sins that are particularly repugnant to God. They have “desecrated [God’s holy] sanctuary” (v. 11b) or, as it can also be translated, they have desecrated the holy institution of marriage. As a result, the man who has done this will be cut off from God’s covenant with his people, no matter how many sacrifices that man may bring to the altar.

It may be difficult for modern readers to understand God’s radical response to his people’s choice to marry individuals of other faiths. Don’t we have the right to marry whomever we want? What about personal freedom? Isn’t it intolerant to forbid interfaith marriages?

The primary reason for this is prohibition was because such marital alliances would turn the hearts of the people away from their devotion to Yahweh. First, the individuals who had married pagans would be enticed to worship the gods of their spouses. Then, their children, in order to please both parents, would find themselves wanting to worship both Yahweh and the false god. Finally, through the influence these mixed families would have on their neighbors, idolatrous practices would spread throughout the entire community. Those who thought themselves immune to this kind of influence were advised to look to the destructive impact that marriage to pagan wives had even on someone as wise as King Solomon. More than this, a person’s decision to join themselves in a lifelong, intimate alliance with an individual who worshiped idols indicated that they did not consider the LORD to be of much importance. Allen P. Ross writes, “The principle is … that the one who annulled the distinction between an Israelite and a heathen woman proved by this very action that he had already annihilated the distinction between the God of Israel and the idols of the heathen, that he no longer had a theocratic consciousness of God.”

It is logical to assume that the Old Testament prohibition against marrying outside the covenant applies to believers in Christ who live under the New Covenant. Though 2 Cor. 6:14-19 is not referring specifically to marriage, it does indicate that God expects Christians to be just as radically separated from the influence of the non-Christian world as ancient Israelites were to be separated from the pagan world in which they lived. 2 Cor. 6:14, therefore, certainly has something to say about our choice of a marriage partner when it says, “Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?” This explains why Paul would give permission to a widow “to marry anyone she wishes” while stipulating “but he must belong to the Lord” (1 Cor. 7:39). Christians who are already married to unbelievers, however, are not to divorce their unbelieving spouse, but are to live with them faithfully, with the hope and prayer that the unbeliever will come to Christ (1 Cor. 7:12-14; 1 Peter 3:1-2).

Single Christians who sense that they might someday marry should be instructed to marry only a person who is spiritually compatible with them because of a shared commitment to Christ. All singles, whether they will someday marry or not, need to be instructed in God’s purpose for marriage so that they are equipped to counsel others within the body of Christ.

The second group of people mentioned in this passage of Malachi were Hebrew men who were divorcing their Hebrew wives. The LORD regarded these abandoned wives with great affection. Note the tender terms by which these women are called: “the wife of your youth”, “your companion”, and “the wife of your marriage covenant” (v. 14b). The LORD himself stood as a witness to testify against the men who were divorcing their wives (v. 14a) and demanded that they not betray the promises they had made to their wives. Verse 16 is difficult to translate, but either states that God hates divorce because it is an act of injustice (violence) against the forsaken spouse, or that divorce is an utterly hateful act (for the same reason.) Though the New Testament does allow divorce and remarriage in the case of unrepentant infidelity (Matt. 5:32) and in the case of irreconcilable desertion (1 Cor. 7:15), God is just as insistent today as he was in Malachi’s time that married couples honor their wedding vows for life.

Married Christians should be awakened to the supreme importance of marriage and cautioned to guard against any influence that might cause them to drift from a committed love for their spouse. Divorced Christians should be assured that, though Mal. 2:16 may say that the Lord hates divorce, it does not say that the Lord hates divorced people. In fact, this passage in Malachi should provide deep comfort for those who have experienced divorce, because it assures us that God understands the pain of abandonment and has compassion for those who have been rejected. Even those believers who have committed the sin of wrongfully divorcing a marriage partner can be comforted with the promise of forgiveness that God offers us in Christ (1 John 1:7).

In this passage of Malachi, we find God calling his people to faithfulness. This should be a deeply comforting thought to us. Why? God calls us to be faithful because he is faithful. No matter what difficulty we may be facing, and no matter how we may have sinned, God will always be faithful to us in Jesus Christ. He gave his Son to make us his children, and he will never turn his back on us. In fact, we can be convinced “that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom. 8:38-39)