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A Message on Christian Marriage

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This “just happens” to be the day designated as “Marriage Protection Sunday” because tomorrow the United States Senate will begin discussion on the Marriage Protection Amendment. This is a constitutional amendment which defines marriage as being restricted to one man and one woman. It is a very important issue, one which should concern Christians and others because of its widespread implications.

While the timing of this message is providential so far as the Marriage Protection Amendment is concerned, promoting this amendment is not the primary purpose of this message. I do strongly believe that the union of same sex couples should not be defined as a marriage. But my concern is that a great many Christian marriages fail to live up to the standard God has set for us. Today, it would seem that any marriage that merely survives (that is, which doesn’t end in divorce or separation) is deemed a success. God’s Word sets a much higher standard, and I would like to explore that standard with you in this message. At the end of this message, Steve and Angie Eichenbaum are going to renew their marriage vows. This message is a challenge to them, and to you who are married, to live out your faith in your marriage, to the glory of God, and to your own good.

Matthew 19:3-12

3 Then some Pharisees came to him in order to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful to divorce a wife for any cause?” 4 He answered, “Have you not read that from the beginning the Creator made them male and female, 5 and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and will be united with his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? 6 So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” 7 They said to him, “Why then did Moses command us to give a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her?” 8 Jesus said to them, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because of your hard hearts, but from the beginning it was not this way. 9 Now I say to you that whoever divorces his wife, except for immorality, and marries another commits adultery.” 10 The disciples said to him, “If this is the case of a husband with a wife, it is better not to marry!” 11 He said to them, “Not everyone can accept this statement, except those to whom it has been given. 12 For there are some eunuchs who were that way from birth, and some who were made eunuchs by others, and some who became eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who is able to accept this should accept it” (Matthew 19:3-12).2

Of all the religious groups within Judaism, the Pharisees were the most conservative in their interpretation of the Old Testament.3 And yet when it came to marriage, even the most conservative view of marriage – even within Judaism – fell far short of the mark. In Matthew 19, we learn that our Lord held a higher standard for marriage than anyone within Judaism, including His disciples. They were shocked to hear what Jesus had to say about marriage, so shocked that they wondered if anyone should marry at all.4

The debate about divorce and remarriage began with a question raised by the Pharisees. They were not seeking the truth, but rather they were seeking an occasion to discredit Jesus, especially in the eyes of the people. A large crowd was present5 when they asked, “Is it lawful to divorce a wife for any cause?” (Matthew 19:3).

Our Lord’s response was to turn to the first chapters of the Bible and to the first marriage, the marriage of Adam and Eve. Jesus first called attention to the fact that from the beginning, God created husband and wife (Adam and Eve) male and female. This we find in Genesis 1:27. Those in the United States Senate who will be debating the Marriage Protection Amendment this week need to read no further in the Bible than the very first chapters to find the answer to the question being debated before them. God created mankind male and female. In Genesis 2, God prepared the woman for the man, to be his wife. She was to correspond to him, not be his clone:

The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a companion for him who corresponds to him” (Genesis 2:18).

Those who stand for biblical values are arguing this week in the Senate that marriage is the union of one man and one woman. Jesus goes one step beyond this. He insists that in the beginning, the original design and intent for marriage was one man, united in marriage with one woman, for a lifetime. He comes to this conclusion based upon the fact that God created Adam and Eve and then joined them together as husband and wife so that they became one flesh. “Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate” (Matthew 19:6). This is the ideal. This is the standard. This should be the norm.

The Pharisees rightly understood that marriage was the union of a man and a woman, but they saw it as a much more tenuous relationship. Their “proof text” was not to be found in Genesis, but rather in the Book of Deuteronomy:

1 If a man marries a woman and she does not please him because he has found something offensive6 in her, then he may draw up a divorce document, give it to her, and evict her from his house. 2 When she has left him she may go and become someone else’s wife. 3 If the second husband rejects her and then divorces her, gives her the papers, and evicts her from his house, or if the second husband who married her dies, 4 her first husband who divorced her is not permitted to remarry her after she has become ritually impure, for that is offensive to the Lord. You must not bring guilt on the land which the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance (Deuteronomy 24:1-4).

The Pharisees’ interpretation of this passage in Deuteronomy is a classic case of “straining gnats and swallowing camels.”7 The Pharisees had taken this text and made it say what they wanted to hear, while they ignored its clear message and meaning. To them it meant: “If a man is unhappy with his wife for some reason, he merely needs to write her a bill of divorce, and then he is rid of her.”

In the minds of many Jews, Deuteronomy 24:1-4 was the proof text for getting a quick and easy divorce. But Jesus showed their interpretation to be wrong. What then is the correct interpretation of Deuteronomy 24, and what is its application? These are the questions I have been wrestling with, and I think I have found the answer in the Scriptures. It has a great deal to teach us about our roles and responsibilities in marriage. But first, let me share some things Deuteronomy 24 cannot be teaching about divorce.

First, Deuteronomy 24 is not prescribing divorce based upon sexual immorality before marriage, or adultery after marriage. The reason I can say this with a fair degree of confidence is that the Law had very specific provisions for identifying and dealing with sexual sins before and after marriage.

Deuteronomy 22:13-19 instructs the Israelites concerning sexual immorality before marriage on the part of the wife.8

13 Suppose a man marries a woman, has sexual relations with her, and then rejects her, 14 accusing her of impropriety and defaming her reputation by saying, “I married this woman but when I had sexual relations with her I discovered she was not a virgin!” 15 Then the father and mother of the young woman must produce the evidence of virginity for the elders of the city at the gate. 16 The young woman’s father must say to the elders, “I gave my daughter to this man and he has rejected her. 17 Moreover, he has raised accusations of impropriety by saying, ‘I discovered your daughter was not a virgin,’ but this is the evidence of my daughter’s virginity!” The cloth must then be spread out before the city’s elders. 18 The elders of that city must then seize the man and punish him. 19 They will fine him one hundred shekels of silver and give them to the young woman’s father, for the man who made the accusation ruined the reputation of an Israelite virgin. She will then become his wife and he may never divorce her as long as he lives. 20 But if the accusation is true and the young woman was not a virgin, 21 the men of her city must bring the young woman to the door of her father’s house and stone her to death, for she has done a disgraceful thing in Israel by behaving like a prostitute while living in her father’s house. In this way you will purge evil from among you (Deuteronomy 22:13-21).

A man accuses his wife of not being a virgin when they were married. Surely by doing so, he intends to use this accusation as a just reason for getting out of his marriage. This is a situation for which every bride’s father was prepared. The bed clothing from the marriage night was preserved. If the woman was a virgin at the time of her marriage, her bed clothing would provide indisputable evidence of her virginity. The father would have kept this clothing for just such a time as this. If the bed clothing proved the wife was a virgin at the time of her marriage, the husband’s claim was shown to be a lie. This man had impugned the reputation of a virgin in Israel, just to be released from his marriage vows. He would be punished (whipped, it would appear), fined 100 shekels of silver (which was paid to the father), and he could never divorce this woman. If, on the other hand, the husband’s claim was vindicated, the woman was stoned to death for her sin. It should be obvious that there is no need for divorce here.

In Numbers 5, we find God’s provision for dealing with adultery after marriage:

12 “Speak to the Israelites and tell them, ‘If any man’s wife goes astray and behaves unfaithfully toward him, 13 and a man has sexual relations with her without her husband knowing it, and it is hidden that she has defiled herself, since there was no witness against her, nor was she caught – 14 and if jealous feelings come over him and he becomes suspicious of his wife, when she is defiled; or if jealous feelings come over him and he becomes suspicious of his wife, when she is not defiled – 15 then the man must bring his wife to the priest, and he must bring the offering required for her, one tenth of an ephah of barley meal; he must not pour olive oil on it or put frankincense on it, because it is a grain offering of suspicion, a grain offering for remembering, for bringing iniquity to remembrance. 16 “‘Then the priest will bring her near and have her stand before the Lord. 17 The priest will then take holy water in a pottery jar, and take some of the dust that is on the floor of the tabernacle, and put it into the water. 18 Then the priest will have the woman stand before the Lord, uncover the woman’s head, and put the grain offering for remembering in her hands, which is the grain offering of suspicion. The priest will hold in his hand the bitter water that brings a curse. 19 Then the priest will put the woman under oath and say to her, “If no other man has had sexual relations with you, and if you have not gone astray and become defiled while under your husband’s authority, may you be free from this bitter water that brings a curse. 20 But if you have gone astray while under your husband’s authority, and if you have defiled yourself and some man other than your husband has had sexual relations with you….” 21 Then the priest will put the woman under the oath of the curse and will say to her, “The Lord make you an attested curse among your people, if the Lord makes your thigh fall away and your abdomen swell; 22 and this water that causes the curse will go into your stomach, and make your abdomen swell and your thigh rot.” Then the woman must say, “Amen, amen.” 23 “‘Then the priest will write these curses on a scroll and then scrape them off into the bitter water. 24 He will make the woman drink the bitter water that brings a curse, and the water that brings a curse will enter her to produce bitterness. 25 The priest will take the grain offering of suspicion from the woman’s hand, wave the grain offering before the Lord, and bring it to the altar. 26 Then the priest will take a handful of the grain offering as its memorial portion, burn it on the altar, and afterward make the woman drink the water. 27 When he has made her drink the water, then, if she has defiled herself and behaved unfaithfully toward her husband, the water that brings a curse will enter her to produce bitterness – her abdomen will swell, her thigh will fall away, and the woman will become a curse among her people. 28 But if the woman has not defiled herself, and is clean, then she will be free of ill effects and will be able to bear children. 29 “‘This is the law for cases of jealousy, when a wife, while under her husband’s authority, goes astray and defiles herself, 30 or when jealous feelings come over a man and he becomes suspicious of his wife; then he must have the woman stand before the Lord, and the priest will carry out all this law upon her. 31 Then the man will be free from iniquity, but that woman will bear the consequences of her iniquity’” (Numbers 5:12-31).

The “water of bitterness” is the litmus test for adultery on the part of the wife after marriage. A married woman could no longer prove her purity as she could on her wedding night. If a husband suspected that his wife had been unfaithful to him, God provided a way for his uncertainty to be settled with absolute certainty. The accused woman would drink of the water of bitterness. If she was innocent, no harm would come to her from this water. But if she was guilty of adultery, it would become very evident. The effects of the curse on her body would be evident to all, and it would seem that she would never be able to bear children.9

My point in calling attention to these texts in Deuteronomy 22 and Numbers 5 is that the Law had provisions for discerning a wife’s infidelity and for dealing with it. Thus, Deuteronomy 24 must apply to something else. Deuteronomy 24:1-4 must serve some other purpose.

Second, Deuteronomy 24:1-4 does not teach that a husband can divorce his wife on the basis of some trivial irritation. This is where the Pharisees went wrong with these verses. They believed that this text gave husbands a “blank check” or a “get-out-of-marriage-easy card.” If a wife had bad breath, burned the morning toast, put on a little weight, or simply aged, it was believed that this might be sufficient grounds for putting her away and getting a “newer model.” Deuteronomy 24:1-4 simply does not support this interpretation and application. Literally, the text reads that the wife does not find favor with the husband because of “a matter of nakedness.” This expression (as the footnote in the NET Bible indicates)10 is one that is used of very serious transgressions. I could only find the exact expression one other place in the Bible – which turns out to be just one chapter earlier in Deuteronomy:

14 For the Lord your God walks about in the middle of your camp to deliver you and defeat your enemies for you. Therefore your camp should be holy, so that he does not see anything indecent among you and turn away from you (Deuteronomy 23:14, emphasis mine).

Obviously, this indecency or “matter of nakedness” is a sin (or sins) so offensive to God that He turns away from His people. Therefore, the grounds for divorce in Deuteronomy 24 were described in terms that required a very serious sin, probably of a sexual nature.11

Third, the main point of Deuteronomy 24:1-4 is not “On what grounds can one get a divorce? I believe that this text is deliberately vague about the grounds for divorce. This passage is about who cannot remarry, and it deals with a very rare and specific set of circumstances. There are many differences of opinion as to who can divorce, based on this text, but there is no question about who cannot remarry. That is clear, and I would contend that this is the main point of the text. This is about the remarriage of a couple after the husband has divorced his wife and she has remarried. If the second husband divorces her, or if he dies, the wife cannot return to her first husband because of her second marriage.

As it stands, Deuteronomy 24:1-4 applies to a very minute portion of the Jewish population in Old Testament times (or any other time, for that matter). How many couples do you know who have divorced and remarried after subsequently marrying someone else? So why would the Pharisees make so much of this text? And more importantly, why is it here in Deuteronomy? The answer to our question is found in the Book of Jeremiah.

Jeremiah 3:1-18

1 “If a man divorces his wife and she leaves him and becomes another man’s wife, he may not take her back again. Doing that would utterly defile the land. But you, Israel, have given yourself as a prostitute to many gods. So what makes you think you can return to me?” says the Lord. 2 “Look up at the hilltops and consider this. You have had sex with other gods on every one of them. You waited for those gods like a thief lying in wait in the desert. You defiled the land by your wicked prostitution to other gods. 3 That is why the rains have been withheld, and the spring rains have not come. Yet in spite of this you are obstinate as a prostitute. You refuse to be ashamed of what you have done. 4 Even now you say to me, ‘You are my father! You have been my faithful companion ever since I was young. 5 You will not always be angry with me, will you? You will not be mad at me forever, will you?’ That is what you say, but you continually do all the evil that you can.” 6 When Josiah was king of Judah, the Lord said to me, “Jeremiah, you have no doubt seen what wayward Israel has done. You have seen how she went up to every high hill and under every green tree to give herself like a prostitute to other gods. 7 Yet even after she had done all that, I thought that she might come back to me. But she did not. Her sister, unfaithful Judah, saw what she did. 8 She also saw that I gave wayward Israel her divorce papers and sent her away because of her adulterous worship of other gods. Even after her unfaithful sister Judah had seen this, she still was not afraid, and she too went and gave herself like a prostitute to other gods. 9 Because she took her prostitution so lightly, she defiled the land through her adulterous worship of gods made of wood and stone. 10 In spite of all this, Israel’s sister, unfaithful Judah, has not turned back to me with any sincerity; she has only pretended to do so,” says the Lord. 11 Then the Lord said to me, “Under the circumstances, wayward Israel could even be considered less guilty than unfaithful Judah. 12 “Go and shout this message to my people in the countries in the north. Tell them, ‘Come back to me, wayward Israel,’ says the Lord. ‘I will not continue to look on you with displeasure. For I am merciful,’ says the Lord. ‘I will not be angry with you forever. 13 However, you must confess that you have done wrong, and that you have rebelled against the Lord your God. You must confess that you have given yourself to foreign gods under every green tree, and have not obeyed my commands,’ says the Lord. 14 “Come back to me, my wayward sons,” says the Lord, “for I am your true master.12 If you do, I will take one of you from each town and two of you from each family group, and I will bring you back to Zion. 15 I will give you leaders who will be faithful to me. They will lead you with knowledge and insight. 16 In those days, your population will greatly increase in the land. At that time,” says the Lord, “people will no longer talk about having the ark that contains the Lord’s covenant with us. They will not call it to mind, remember it, or miss it. No, that will not be done any more! 17 At that time the city of Jerusalem will be called the Lord’s throne. All nations will gather there in Jerusalem to honor the Lord’s name. They will no longer follow the stubborn inclinations of their own evil hearts. 18 At that time the nation of Judah and the nation of Israel will be reunited. Together they will come back from a land in the north to the land that I gave to your ancestors as a permanent possession” (Jeremiah 3:1-18, emphasis mine).

The Northern Kingdom of Israel has already been carried into captivity by the Assyrians. Jeremiah is speaking to the people of Judah, whose destruction and captivity in Babylon is drawing near. In chapter 2, Jeremiah outlines the reasons why judgment is coming. Chapter 3 begins with a very clear reference to the teaching of Deuteronomy 24:1-4. Jeremiah reminds the people of Judah that a wife, who has been divorced and who has remarried another, cannot return to her first husband. He then shows how Judah has turned to spiritual harlotry, and yet they continue to expect God to look favorably upon them.13

In verses 6-10, Jeremiah compares the sins of Israel (the Northern Kingdom) with those of Judah (the Southern Kingdom). Israel was guilty of blatant idolatry, performed on “every high hill” and “under every green tree” (verse 6). Instead of repenting and turning back to God, they persisted in their sin, and so God divorced Israel14 (as we see it symbolically portrayed in the early chapters of Hosea). Judah looked on as Israel persisted in sin and as God’s judgment finally fell on Israel, but they did not learn. Indeed, Judah simply repeated the sins of Israel (verses 6-10).15

Because Judah witnessed Israel’s sins and God’s dealings with her, Judah’s guilt was even greater than that of Israel. Consequently, God promised to forgive Israel and to restore her to Himself if she would but repent (verses 11-14).16 God promised to give them shepherds with a shepherd’s heart. The former days of blessing will seem like nothing compared to the blessings God showers upon them at this time (verse 16). All nations will gather in Jerusalem at the throne of God. Israel and Judah will be reunited and will gather to dwell in the Promised Land (verse 18).

The point I wish to emphasize in these verses of Jeremiah 3 is this: Although it was impossible for God to remarry Israel under the Law, God here promises Israel (and Judah) that He will do just that. How is this possible?

Let’s go back to Deuteronomy 24 for a moment. Why was it impossible for the first husband to remarry his wife after he divorced her and she remarried? Because, God tells us, her remarriage somehow defiled the wife (Deuteronomy 24:4).17 Suppose that the defilement could be removed; would this not solve the problem and make remarriage possible?

No one could be saved by keeping the Old Testament Law, but would only be condemned by it as a sinner:

19 Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world may be held accountable to God. 20 For no one is declared righteous before him by the works of the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin (Romans 3:19-20).

While the Law could not save, it did point toward the Messiah, who would save His people from their sins. It spoke of One, like Moses, who would come (Deuteronomy 18:15). It spoke of Messiah in type and symbol, through things like the Passover Lamb (Exodus 12) and the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16). It looked forward to a New Covenant, by which men’s hearts would be changed (Deuteronomy 5:29; 30:1-6; Jeremiah 31:31-34; Ezekiel 36:25-28). We’ll talk more about this in a few moments. But first, let me point out two Old Testament illustrations of God’s remarriage to Israel to see what this remarriage looked like.

The first example is found in the Book of Hosea, where Hosea personally demonstrates the way God will divorce sinful Israel and then restore her to an intimate marital relationship with Himself. Hosea is a prophet of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. God instructed him to marry “a prostitute,” a woman given to harlotry. She bears three children, though it seems likely that the last two were not really Hosea’s children, but rather children born out of Gomer’s harlotry (Hosea 1:9; 2:4-5). For a time, Gomer will be left to her own devices until things go badly for her. At this time, she, like the prodigal son, will realize how good she had it in the past. At the same time, Hosea will seek her out and tenderly woo her back to himself (Hosea 3).

Chapter 2 reveals that Hosea’s relationship with Gomer is a picture of God’s relationship with Israel. Israel, like Gomer, has played the harlot. Finally, God divorces Israel and lets the people pursue their sinful ways without restraint. Yet God promises that in the future He will draw wayward Israel to Himself as His bride:

19 I will commit myself to you forever; I will commit myself to you18 in righteousness and justice, in steadfast love and tender compassion. 20 I will commit myself to you in faithfulness; then you will acknowledge the Lord” (Hosea 2:19-20; see also 2:14-17).

What is most amazing to me is that, after Israel repents, God restores her to the full benefits and blessings of marriage:

14 However, in the future I will allure her; I will lead her back into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her. 15 From there I will give back her vineyards to her, and turn the “Valley of Trouble” into an “Opportunity for Hope.” There she will sing as she did when she was young, when she came up from the land of Egypt. 16 “At that time,” declares the Lord, “you will call, ‘My husband’; you will never again call me, ‘My master’” (Hosea 2:14-16, emphasis mine).

Here is the interesting thing about God’s words in verse 16 above. The Hebrew word ishi translated “My husband” is one of the Hebrew terms for the husband. It is the more intimate term. The Hebrew word Bali is also used in verse 16, and it is translated “My master.” Both terms are used in reference to the husband. What one might expect is that after Israel returns to God, she would call Him Bali, “my husband” (as in master, or Lord), but this is not the case. She will call Him Ishi, “my husband” (as in “my beloved husband”).

God makes it clear that the marital relationship will be one of intimate fellowship and communion, and not just servile obedience. When Israel’s relationship with God is restored, the relationship will be one of tenderness and intimacy. What an amazing promise God makes here.

This is something like the father’s treatment of the returning prodigal son. The son has already wasted his inheritance, as well as forsaken the family. When he decides to return, it is not as a son, but as a slave (see Luke 15:18-21). The father will not have any of this. This is his son, and he will receive him as such (much to the dismay of the older brother).

The second illustration of what the fulfillment of Jeremiah 3 will look like is found in the Book of 1 Kings. I want to focus on the young Shunammite woman whose name was Abishag. Abishag is first recruited for her usefulness to David:

1 King David was very old; even when they covered him with blankets, he could not get warm. 2 His servants advised him, “A young virgin must be found for our master, the king, to take care of the king’s needs and serve as his nurse. She can also sleep with you and keep our master, the king, warm.” 3 So they looked through all Israel for a beautiful young woman and found Abishag, a Shunammite, and brought her to the king. 4 The young woman was very beautiful; she became the king’s nurse and served him, but the king did not have sexual relations with her19 (1 Kings 1:1-4).

This beautiful young woman is “used” to keep David warm. The relationship cannot go any farther, primarily because David is not at full capacity in many regards. It would seem to me that because of Abishag’s ministry to David, it will be difficult for her to marry and have a normal life.

After Solomon is enthroned, Abishag is found once again in the drama of the early events of 1 Kings:

13 Haggith’s son Adonijah visited Bathsheba, Solomon’s mother. She asked, “Do you come in peace?” He answered, “Yes.” 14 He added, “I have something to say to you.” She replied, “Speak.” 15 He said, “You know that the kingdom was mine and all Israel considered me king. But then the kingdom was given to my brother, for the Lord decided it should be his. 16 Now I’d like to ask you for just one thing. Please don’t refuse me.” She said, “Go ahead and ask.” 17 He said, “Please ask King Solomon if he would give me Abishag the Shunammite as a wife, for he won’t refuse you.” 18 Bathsheba replied, “That’s fine, I’ll speak to the king on your behalf.” 19 So Bathsheba visited King Solomon to speak to him on Adonijah’s behalf. The king got up to greet her, bowed to her, and then sat on his throne. He ordered a throne to be brought for the king’s mother, and she sat at his right hand. 20 She said, “I would like to ask you for just one small favor. Please don’t refuse me.” He said, “Go ahead and ask, my mother, for I would not refuse you.” 21 She said, “Allow Abishag the Shunammite to be given to your brother Adonijah as a wife.” 22 King Solomon answered his mother, “Why just request Abishag the Shunammite for him? Since he is my older brother, you should also request the kingdom for him, for Abiathar the priest, and for Joab son of Zeruiah!” 23 King Solomon then swore an oath by the Lord, “May God judge me severely, if Adonijah does not pay for this request with his life! 24 Now, as certainly as the Lord lives (he who made me secure, allowed me to sit on my father David’s throne, and established a dynasty for me as he promised), Adonijah will be executed today!” 25 King Solomon then sent Benaiah son of Jehoiada, and he killed Adonijah (1 Kings 2:13-25, emphasis mine).

To sleep with the concubine of one’s father was to claim his position. We see this in Reuben’s act of sleeping with Jacob’s concubine Bilhah (Genesis 35:22; 49:3-4) and in Absalom’s public act of sleeping with David’s concubines (2 Samuel 16:20-23). Taking Abishag as a wife (note that she was viewed as a concubine) was a way of laying claim to David’s throne. Adonijah knew this, and so did Solomon. One has to wonder how Bathsheba missed this.

Abishag is once again being “used” as a woman, and specifically as a concubine. Her relationship with David was far less than a true marriage, and neither would her relationship with Adonijah be a true marriage, had it come to pass. Adonijah did not love Abishag. He did not want her as his wife. He hardly cared about her as a concubine, other than that she would facilitate his claim to Solomon’s throne. All he needed was to sleep with her once, and his claim to the throne was made.

If I were Abishag, I would be greatly distressed. She was used by King David and his administration (to keep him warm). She was even used by the author of 1 Kings (to show that David should no longer be ruling as Israel’s king). And now Adonijah seeks to use her as a stepping stone to the throne. Was there any hope for her to be someone’s wife, by someone who truly loved her?

Abishag was called “the Shunammite” in 1 Kings.20 When we come to the Song of Songs, we encounter a young woman who is identified in chapter 6 as “the Shulammite.”21 There are those who believe that this “Shulammite” was the same woman as Abishag, the “Shunammite.”22 If this is the same woman (Abishag) that we find in 1 Kings 1 and 2, then we can rejoice with her because she is now truly loved by someone for who she is, and she is no longer just an object to be used. If it is not the same woman, then we can marvel at the contrast in the way this “Shulammite” is treated, when compared to the “Shunammite” of 1 Kings.

The relationship of Abishag to David (and potentially to Adonijah) was far from desirable. The relationship of the “Shulammite” to her beloved (Solomon?) in the Song of Songs is one that every wife would desire. Yes, there is physical intimacy, but there is far more than that. There is true communion and fellowship. This is the kind of relationship God promises between Himself and Israel, when her sins have been cleansed and she is once again restored to her relationship as God’s bride.

Ephesians 5:22-33

22 Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord, 23 because the husband is the head of the wife as also Christ is the head of the church – he himself being the savior of the body. 24 But as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. 25 Husbands, love your wives just as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her 26 to sanctify her by cleansing her with the washing of the water by the word, 27 so that he may present the church to himself as glorious – not having a stain or wrinkle, or any such blemish, but holy and blameless. 28 In the same way husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one has ever hated his own body but he feeds it and takes care of it, just as Christ also does the church, 30 for we are members of his body. 31 For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and will be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. 32 This mystery is great – but I am actually speaking with reference to Christ and the church. 33 Nevertheless, each one of you must also love his own wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband (Ephesians 5:22-33).

Here is a text which sums up the teaching of the Bible on marriage. We learn from this text how it is that God could “remarry” Israel after divorcing her on account of her harlotries. The Law prohibited remarriage in such circumstances because the wife was defiled by her “marriage” to other gods after being divorced by God. There was no hope for Israel’s remarriage through the Law, just as there was no hope of salvation through the Law. God would accomplish the salvation (marriage) that He promised another way.

The nation Israel failed miserably and was guilty of great sin against God. God divorced Israel and left her to herself. Then Jesus came as the new and perfect Israel:

13 After they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to look for the child to kill him.” 14 Then he got up, took the child and his mother during the night, and went to Egypt. 15 He stayed there until Herod died. In this way what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet was fulfilled: “I called my Son out of Egypt” (Matthew 2:13-15, underscoring mine).

Jesus, who was the “true Israel,” was acceptable and beloved in the eyes of God the Father:

16 After Jesus was baptized, just as he was coming up out of the water, the heavens opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my one dear Son; in him I take great delight” (Matthew 3:16-17, emphasis mine).

God had promised Abraham that He would both bless him, and through him, He would bless the world:

1 Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go forth from your country, And from your relatives And from your father’s house, To the land which I will show you; 2 And I will make you a great nation, And I will bless you, And make your name great; And so you shall be a blessing; 3 And I will bless those who bless you, And the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth will be blessed” (Genesis 12:1-3, NAS 95, emphasis mine).

14 After Lot had departed, the Lord said to Abram, “Look from the place where you stand to the north, south, east, and west. 15 I will give all the land that you see to you and your descendants forever. 16 And I will make your descendants like the dust of the earth, so that if anyone is able to count the dust of the earth, then your descendants also can be counted (Genesis 13:14-16, emphasis mine).

Abraham’s “seed” then, would be blessed and would also be a blessing to the world. The Israelites assumed that they were this “seed,” who would both be blessed and be a blessing to others. Israel failed miserably; indeed, Israel failed so badly that God divorced them. Instead of blessings, Israel experienced far more of the cursings of which God had warned.23

Israel could not merit God’s blessings by law-keeping. So how would Israel enter into God’s blessings and become a source of blessing to others? Jesus was the “true Israel,” who perfectly fulfilled the Law and lived a sinless life. Both Adam and Israel were tested and failed, but our Lord was tempted and was victorious. Israel came forth from Egypt to the Promised Land, and so did our Lord (Hosea 12:1; Matthew 2:13-15). This is why Paul can say that the “seed” was not Israel (plural), but Israel (singular – Jesus):

15 Brothers and sisters, I offer an example from everyday life: When a covenant has been ratified, even though it is only a human contract, no one can set it aside or add anything to it. 16 Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his descendant. Scripture does not say, “and to the descendants,” referring to many, but “and to your descendant,” referring to one, who is Christ (Galatians 3:15-16, emphasis mine).

The true descendants of Abraham are not those who are merely his physical descendants.24 It is those who are the children of Abraham by faith who are true Israelites:

11 And he received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised, so that he would become the father of all those who believe but have never been circumcised, that they too could have righteousness credited to them. 12 And he is also the father of the circumcised, who are not only circumcised, but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham possessed when he was still uncircumcised. 13 For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would inherit the world was not fulfilled through the law, but through the righteousness that comes by faith. 14 For if they become heirs by the law, faith is empty and the promise is nullified. 15 For the law brings wrath, because where there is no law there is no transgression either. 16 For this reason it is by faith so that it may be by grace, with the result that the promise may be certain to all the descendants – not only to those who are under the law, but also to those who have the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all (Romans 4:11-16, emphasis mine).

This is how Jeremiah could prophesy that even though God divorced Israel (and Judah), they would be restored. The divorced wife (Israel) could not return to her first husband (God) under the Law, because she was defiled by her second “marriage” to other gods. But through Jesus, God instituted the New Covenant, by which defiled sinners are cleansed of their defilement, and by which lost sinners, by faith, become the children of Abraham.

This is what Paul writes about in Ephesians 5. He tells us that a Christian marriage is designed to be a demonstration of the relationship God is creating between Himself and His bride, the church. I have referred to this text in Ephesians 5 many times when I have performed wedding ceremonies. I have taught that the husband must sacrificially love his wife, just as Christ sacrificially gave Himself for the church. Likewise, the wife must submit to her husband, just as the church is to submit to Jesus Christ, the Head of the church.

But after considering the Old Testament texts which pertain to marriage, I would like to call your attention to one additional element. In these perilous days for marriage, it is not enough for a Christian marriage to merely survive. It is not even enough for the husband to merely lead and for the wife to merely submit to his leadership (though this should be done). A marriage that truly reflects the relationship of Christ to His bride must be one that is characterized by great love, intimacy, harmony, and fellowship. In the words of Hosea, it is not enough for the wife to regard her husband as Bali (my master); she must affectionately love him as Ishi (my husband).

I fear that many Christians may pride themselves for merely surviving in their marriage, while there is not the love, joy, harmony and intimacy that is needed to portray the marriage of Christ and His church. Let us not be content with marriages which merely survive; rather, let us seek to have marriages which thrive.

For those who may deeply regret the sins of the past, sins of sexual and spiritual adultery and immorality, let me simply remind you that while we can only be condemned by the law, we are made new creatures in Christ.

So then, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; what is old has passed away – look, what is new has come! (2 Corinthians 5:17).

The sins of our past can be washed away by the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ. You can start over, start anew. If you have trusted in Jesus, you are a new creature in Him. If you have not yet trusted in Jesus for the forgiveness of your sins, do so today, and you will become pure and holy in Him.

18 Come, let’s consider your options,” says the Lord. “Though your sins have stained you like the color red, you can become white like snow; though they are as easy to see as the color scarlet, you can become white like wool (Isaiah 1:18).

28 Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke on you and learn from me, because I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy to bear, and my load is not hard to carry” (Matthew 11:28-30).

9 Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! The sexually immoral, idolaters, adulterers, passive homosexual partners, practicing homosexuals, 10 thieves, the greedy, drunkards, the verbally abusive, and swindlers will not inherit the kingdom of God. 11 Some of you once lived this way. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God (1 Corinthians 6:9-11).

1 Copyright © 2006 by Community Bible Chapel, 418 E. Main Street, Richardson, TX 75081. This is the edited manuscript of a lesson prepared by Robert L. Deffinbaugh on June 4, 2006. Anyone is at liberty to use this lesson for educational purposes only, with or without credit. The Chapel believes the material presented herein to be true to the teaching of Scripture, and desires to further, not restrict, its potential use as an aid in the study of God’s Word. The publication of this material is a grace ministry of Community Bible Chapel.

2 Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the NET Bible. The NEW ENGLISH TRANSLATION, also known as THE NET BIBLE, is a completely new translation of the Bible, not a revision or an update of a previous English version. It was completed by more than twenty biblical scholars who worked directly from the best currently available Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts. The translation project originally started as an attempt to provide an electronic version of a modern translation for electronic distribution over the Internet and on CD (compact disk). Anyone anywhere in the world with an Internet connection will be able to use and print out the NET Bible without cost for personal study. In addition, anyone who wants to share the Bible with others can print unlimited copies and give them away free to others. It is available on the Internet at:

3 See Acts 23:8.

4 See Matthew 19:10.

5 See Matthew 19:2.

6 tn Heb “nakedness of a thing.” The Hebrew phrase עֶרְוַת דָּבָר (’ervat davar) refers here to some gross sexual impropriety (see note on “indecent” in Deut 23:14). Though the term usually has to do only with indecent exposure of the genitals, it can also include such behavior as adultery (cf. Lev 18:6–18; 20:11, 17, 20–21; Ezek 22:10; 23:29; Hos 2:10). Translator’s note in the NET Bible.

7 See Matthew 23:23-24.

8 I confess that I have agonized about the fact that, in the Old Testament, men appear to be favored, and women seem to be treated as second-class citizens. A man can divorce his wife, but there is no mention of a wife being able to divorce her husband. The Law gives instructions to the man regarding the possibility of impurity on the part of his wife, but it has little to say about the purity of the husband. Why is it that a man can put his wife’s purity to the test (Numbers 5:12-31; Deuteronomy 22:13-21), but a wife cannot put her husband’s purity to the test? (Granted, there are physiological factors here, but the test of the wife’s purity in Numbers 5:12-31 – or some variation of it – could just as easily be applied to the husband.) Thus far, I have several thoughts on the matter. First, if marriage symbolically depicts the relationship of God to His people, then we know (from Ephesians 5:22-33 in the New Testament, and other texts in the Old) that the husband represents God, while the wife represents God’s chosen people. It is not God who will be unfaithful to His bride, nor will the wife (God’s people) ever have an occasion to legitimately divorce her husband (God). The symbolism of the husband-wife relationship may help to explain the Old Testament “bias” toward the husband. Second, the Law provided protections for the wife. Divorce was not granted for trivial reasons. A man could not divorce his wife on the basis of suspicions alone (Numbers 5:12-31). And when a man made an accusation against his wife, he was rigorously punished for making a false charge against her, thus defaming the woman’s character (Deuteronomy 22:19). Third, Jesus seems to correct the misapplication of this “bias” reflected in the popular Jewish interpretation of Deuteronomy 24:1-4. While the Jews thought of the husband’s dissatisfaction of his wife as justification for divorce, Jesus declared the husband’s frivolous act of divorcing his wife (and remarrying) to be adultery on his part (Matthew 19:9), and the cause of his divorced wife’s adultery when she was forced to remarry (Matthew 5:32). Our Lord was not reluctant to call a man an adulterer for divorcing his wife and remarrying (except for adultery on her part). There does not seem to be a gender bias here!

9 Contrast Numbers 5:28.

10 See footnote 5 above.

11 Deuteronomy 22 and Numbers 5 dealt with sexual immorality before and after marriage. Thus, the sin (“a matter of nakedness”) justifying divorce in Deuteronomy 24 must be different. I would point out that when Jesus refused to allow divorce “except for immorality,” the noun here (porneia) is different from the verb (moicheuo) for committing adultery. Porneia is a broader term for sexual immorality, which would include adultery, but would not be limited to adultery alone. In Matthew 19:3-12, Jesus is completely consistent with Deuteronomy 24 in that certain grave sexual sins would be the basis for divorce. Jesus identifies these serious sexual sins as porneia. Thus, it is not just adultery that constitutes sufficient grounds for divorce, but other serious sexual sins also. In my opinion, this could include addiction to pornography, homosexuality, or the sexual abuse of a child, for example. Take note, however, that just because a certain sin may be sufficient grounds for divorce, this should not be interpreted to mean that one is obligated to pursue divorce. It should, in my opinion, be viewed as the last resort, and not one’s first reaction. Jesus is very clear in Matthew 19:7-8 that what God permits is not a command.

12 The NET Bible contains these two important footnotes:

tn Or “I am your true husband.”

sn There is a wordplay between the term “true master” and the name of the pagan god Baal. The pronoun “I” is emphatic, creating a contrast between the Lord as Israel’s true master/husband versus Baal as Israel’s illegitimate lover/master. See 2:23–25.

The NIV, the KJV, and the NKJV all render this (in one form or another), “I am your husband.”

13 See Jeremiah 3:4-6.

14 See also Isaiah 50:1, where God is said to divorce Judah.

15 See also Ezekiel 16:35-63; 23:1-49.

16 Two things are cited as the basis for God’s restoration of Israel: (1) the greater wickedness of Judah (Jeremiah 3:11-18) and (2) God’s faithfulness to His covenant (Ezekiel 16:60-63).

17 This may also be the reason why the priests could not marry either a widow or a divorced woman – see Leviticus 21:7, 14-15.

18 A translator’s note in the NET Bible reads like this: Heb “I will betroth you to me” (so NIV) here and in the following lines. Cf. NRSV “I will take you for my wife forever.”

19 My sense here is that the author is informing us as to how incapacitated David really was. It wasn’t just that David did not have sexual relations with Abishag; it was that he could not do so. He was too old to serve as king. He could not keep warm and spent much of his time in bed. When in bed with a beautiful young woman, he was not able to have sexual relations with her. The point is that David should have designated Solomon as king and stepped aside, but he did not.

20 See 1 Kings 1:3; 2:21.

21 Song of Songs 6:13.

22 I have heard it said that in the history of the Hebrew language, the “l” interchanged with the “n.” I am not able to verify the accuracy of this claim.

23 See Leviticus 26:1-39; Deuteronomy 28-30.

24 See Romans 9:6.

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