STUDIES IN MALACHI No. 6 February 23, 2003
Tonight we begin our study of the third of Malachi’s six disputations, or stylized conversations between God and his people. In each case the prophet is exposing some way in which Israel is being unfaithful to the Lord and so bringing down upon herself the threat of God’s judgment. The first disputation concerned unfaithful and half-hearted worship. The second concerned the infidelity of the priests who were not only allowing the people to worship God in a disobedient and irreverent way, but were actually encouraging them in their worldliness.
Now comes the third disputation which concerns marital unfaithfulness among the people of God. We are going to familiarize ourselves with the text tonight and with one problem of translation and then, next Lord’s Day evening, God willing, we will take up the main burden of Malachi’s message.
v.10 In the third disputation, Malachi returns to the sins of the people in general. The same format is followed that we have seen in the previous disputations: The Lord asserts through his prophet that his people have violated the covenant (vv. 10-13); the people’s questioning reply (v. 14a); the Lord’s response (v. 14b); and the implication or application (vv. 15-16).
Malachi begins by reminding the people of their special relationship to God. He is their father, their only father. That means that Israel must live in obedience to God. But, it also may imply several things. Fathers had much to do with arranging marriages in that culture and so disobedience to the Lord in the matter of choosing a marriage partner would be a serious violation of filial trust and duty. Further, if he is the father of us all, then we are brothers and sisters of one another and owe love and loyalty to one another. But in fact, the Israelites were breaking faith. He has not yet said precisely what they have done, but the verb, “breaking faith,” is often used in the OT to describe unfaithfulness in marriage, he is hinting at what will come next. [Stuart, 1330]
v.11 The sin was that of spiritual intermarriage. Jews were marrying outside the faith. The fact that “Judah” is blamed for the sin suggests that it was a national sin, widespread and generally countenanced. We know also from Ezra and Nehemiah that spiritual intermarriage was a serious problem at this time and that it was a practice found among the leaders and the priests as well as the people [Ezra 9:1-2]. You remember how Ezra led the nation in repentance and new obedience, even requiring the draconian step of forcing those who had married non-believing wives to divorce them. In fact, Ezra ends with a long list of people who were guilty of the sin of intermarriage, some indication of the seriousness with which this violation of the covenant was taken. By the time of Nehemiah’s second visit, spiritual intermarriage, far from having been totally stamped out by Ezra’s extensive reforms, was on the increase again and had to be dealt with, again with severe measures. Remember, we are talking about spiritual intermarriage, not racial or ethnic. Members of other peoples were welcomed into Israelite life and society and into marriage with Israelites so long as they accepted the faith of Israel. Think, for example, of Rahab, or Ruth, or Abigail.
But, there could no mistaking that the covenant forbade intermarriage with pagans. That regulation was laid down repeatedly. But, then, as we learned in the first and second disputations, the problem in Israel in Malachi’s day was precisely, as one commentator puts it, “the Mosaic covenant was by Malachi’s time understood as a quaint, archaic document too restrictive to be taken seriously and inapplicable to a ‘modern’ age – virtually the same way that most people in modern Western societies view the Bible today.” [Stuart, 1332]
The burden of that regulation, of course, was the holiness of God’s people and their preservation in that holiness, both of which were undermined by mixture with unbelief and pagan practices. That is the sense of Malachi’s way of speaking: “Judah has desecrated the sanctuary the Lord loves…”
A likely motive for many of these marriage was money. The Jews had little when they came back from exile. The land was often owned by non-Israelites. The easiest way to acquire it was through marriage. No doubt there were other reasons, physical attraction being a primary one.
v.12 We read frequently in the Pentateuch of the necessity of cutting off a person from the assembly of the Lord’s people on account of his or her sin. There it is an act of discipline administered by the judges of God’s people on the Lord’s behalf. Here Malachi looks to the Lord to do the cutting off, or, in other words, to enforce the curses of the covenant upon the violator.
It is important to remember that in the ancient world it was assumed that sacrifices always worked. Their principle of effectiveness was mechanical not personal. And, therefore, those in Israel who had imbibed a pagan way of thinking would assume that if they just kept offering sacrifices, it wouldn’t matter much what they did or didn’t do. In ancient paganism the god couldn’t turn a worshipper away or he would be starving himself to death [Stuart, 1334] But Israel’s God was in no need of offerings as the living God and cared not for any that were not the loving expression of faith and trust. And, because he looked upon the heart, he knew what motivated the offering and because he is holy he cared very much if the offering were intended to be a prophylactic against a sinful life.
v.13 Things were not going well in general for the people, prosperity was not forthcoming. And so they did what pagans would do and indulged loud displays of emotion at their sacrifices, thinking that these protestations of earnestness would influence God to act. Think of the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel, crying and cutting themselves as a way of inducing Baal to act. But God desires obedience and not sacrifice and they were not forsaking their disobedience. There is nothing wrong with deep feeling, of course, or deep feeling in worship. It is often commended in the Bible. What is scorned here is emotion that is intended to manipulate God.
v.14 Show all the emotion you want, but I’ll change my mind, God says, when you start obeying me. Notice that one can “break faith” either by spiritual intermarriage or by improper divorce. The same word is used of both marital sins.
Here the marriage is regarded as a covenant. It takes on features like that of God’s covenant with his people. It requires fidelity on the part of the covenant partners. Marriage is a sub-covenant within and below the covenant of God with his people.
“Wife of your youth” is probably a reflection of the fact that many if not most marriages in those days were arranged and before the children had grown to adulthood. They would remain betrothed, a legal status, until the marriage was finally consummated. So a wife was in a real way the wife of a man’s youth. He was still young when she was legally joined to him. No doubt, in many cases, the husband found he didn’t love his wife much and so traded her in on a more interesting pagan woman.
Notice too the egalitarian language. The wife had rights, the husband was unfaithful who violated those rights; she was his partner, and so on. There is nothing here of the typical pagan view of the wife as almost chattel.
v.15 This verse, which reads very smoothly in the NIV, is in fact a notorious difficulty for translators. I won’t go into the detail, but the first half in the NIV is a guess, not a simple translation of what every accepts is there. Nevertheless is the gist of Malachi’s application seems clear: “no genuinely godly man would divorce his Judean wife to marry a pagan woman, since marriage within the covenant has the purpose of raising children to be faithful members of the covenant people.” [Jack Collins, Syllabus, 57]
Now, I want to focus the remainder of my remarks this evening on v. 16. Even in the NIV translation it sounds odd. What does it mean, for example, to say that the Lord hates a man covering himself with violence as well as with his garment.” Sometimes, when the text doesn’t make great sense even in English, it is evidence that the translators had a difficult time figuring out the meaning of the words before them. For example, in the KJV of Job 36:33 we read: “The noise thereof sheweth concerning it, the cattle also concerning the vapour.” What does that mean? Well, no one really knew. They did their best to render the text faithfully and left it there in hopes, I suppose, that new information would eventually arrive to make a sensible translation of the text. Well, it did. In the NIV Job 36:33 makes perfect sense: “His thunder announces the coming storm; even the cattle make known his approach.” In the context, which is a discussion of how God’s wisdom and power are revealed in nature, v. 33 contributes very well to the larger thought. Well, that has happened not infrequently in the translation of the OT and so here in Malachi 2:16.
Further, the blanket condemnation of divorce implied in the statement of the Lord, “I hate divorce,” raises questions about the Bible’s permission of divorce under certain circumstances. There are questions raised by the Hebrew text as it stands and the LXX supplies support for another translation. For example, the Hebrew has the verb “hate” in the 3rd person, not the first – “he hates” not “I hate.” The MT has to be altered to get the translation in the NIV. So this translation has been proposed:
“But if one hates his wife and divorces her, says the Lord God of Israel,
then violence covers his garment says the Lord of Hosts.”
Some of you may have an ESV in church tonight. Your text reads this way:
“For the man who hates and divorces, says the Lord, the God
of Israel, covers his garment with violence, says the Lord of Hosts.”
There is a converging consensus that this is a more faithful translation. Our own Jack Collins has argued for it in a scholarly article.
Now, deeply rooted in the evangelical mind as is the statement, “I hate divorce,” it does not appear that God ever said that in his Word or that such a blanket condemnation of divorce in Malachi 2:16 can easily be harmonized with what the Bible teaches elsewhere. There are many divorces that God forbids. But some he allows and, no doubt, for the welfare and happiness of mankind, just as marriage is appointed for those same reasons. What is being forbidden is what is called “aversion divorce,” that is, divorce because of dislike, divorce because a husband has lost interest in his wife. That is the burden of the first phrase: “If a man hates his wife and divorces her…” That is the divorce being forbidden, and that must have been the reason for most of the divorces being obtained in Judea in Malachi’s day. Husbands divorced their wives because they didn’t want to be married to them anymore or because they found another woman more interesting to them. That is also, of course, a very common reason for divorces today.
The OT law (chiefly Deut. 24:1-4) permitted divorces for some indecency on the part of the spouse (probably a reference to sexual infidelity), but it did not permit divorce for a lack of affection or romantic attraction or because the husband was simply tired of his wife and wanted to trade her in on a new model. In Deut. there is the requirement that a certificate of divorce be written out, and the assumption is that some cause had to be given and the cause, thus, had to be one for which a divorce would be granted by the law.
But, in Malachi’s day, all of those niceties had been long since forgotten as had so many other stipulations of the covenant law. Moses and Malachi come at the question from different angles. Moses permits it for some reasons, Malachi forbids it for certain reasons. You have the same in the teaching of the NT.
Assuming that Malachi came first, came before Ezra and Nehemiah, we can well imagine how unwelcome his message would have been. People were used to laxness in the matters of marriage and divorce. Here came Malachi saying that their practices in these matters were a profound violation of the covenant and were exposing them to God’s wrath. People like to be in charge of their own lives; they don’t like to be told what they can and cannot do, especially when they are used to doing things that are now forbidden them. No wonder that Ezra and Nehemiah had to take such drastic steps. And so Malachi is careful to add twice in this one sentence, “says the Lord.” It is God’s law they are violating, not man’s.
I tell you, in our Presbyterian Church in America elders are dealing with folk all the time who want out of their marriage but haven’t a biblical reason for leaving it. And they can be very adamant. It simply is impossible for them to believe that God would have them remain married to somebody they don’t want to be married to anymore. But he does and often enough says that he does in his Word. I don’t deny the heartbreak or the difficulty that can be caused by the requirement to remain faithful to a loveless marriage or to remain a faithful spouse to a man or woman one does not love. But that God requires such a thing cannot be doubted. There are many things in the Christian life that can be very difficult and very painful while, at the same time, being absolutely required.
But, in this case, there is more. This particular crime is unusually serious and jeopardizes the entire covenant community and its future. This is a sin with reach, a sin that spreads, a sin that has all sorts of consequences unforeseen when it is committed. “Violence or crime covering his clothes” is an ancient Hebrew equivalent to “You’ve got blood on your hands.” Great guilt has come from a great sin. And what is the sin: well, in our modern terms, the sin is divorce for incompatibility. For such divorces God’s wrath looms over Israel.
We will stop here tonight, but take note of the seriousness with which God views both spiritually mixed marriages and improper divorces. Both acts are profound violations of the covenant. We will consider this is more detail next Lord’s Day evening.