Marriage is an institution of God. It accords with the dictates of nature and the laws of divine inspiration. It was an integral ingredient in the happiness of Eden, and so is an integral part of society. It heightened, it perfected, the pure, fresh, and serene joys of that Garden, the scene of every beauty and the temple of God; and so it has been perpetuated to this present hour as asocial blessing to soothe and sustain us amidst the depressing and difficulty circumstances of our fallen condition.
Jesus threw a distinct holiness and grandeur around this particular relationship of a man and a woman. To him it was a blessed estate, and so he clothed it with honor and sublimity. He ratified its contract; he guarded its obligations; he expounded its laws; and he graced its celebration with his presence. In fact, the first sign that his hands performed was at a bridal festival where he turned the water into wine for the joyous celebrations to continue.
The apostles caught the idea of their master, and invested it with mystic solemnity by presenting it as a type of the substantial, invisible and everlasting union existing between Christ and his bride, the church. Accordingly, it involves the most tender, close, and lasting ties that can unite human beings together in this life. It combines the earthly interest, fortunes, and happiness of two people, a man and a woman, and it influences the destiny of many others. The interests of the couple united, the triumph of truth in their union, and the upward progress of humanity in their arena are all dependent on the preservation of God’s institution of marriage.
Unfortunately, things have not turned out very well. If we are to look to the institution of marriage for progress in truth, stability, and progress in society, then we will be disappointed. From the very beginning of Genesis people have attempted to change God’s institution of marriage to suit their desires. That plan was simple and clear: one man and one woman becoming one flesh throughout their earthly lives, to produce a godly seed.
But the human race embraced every form of profane and vile activity; and within the marriage relationship the laws of God were broken at every turn. Formally or informally, marriages were dissolved, because all these sins in one way or another affected the family. And when the family serenity and unity is destroyed, the spiritual life and worship falls as well. In the modern world the dissolution of a marriage is rarely considered a sin; rather, it is an option that may be taken to avoid difficulties or tensions. Oh, it is regarded as a tragedy, certainly a stressful experience, and a failure on some level. But a sin, or even an embarrassment? Only in the strictest of religious settings. To God, however, divorce is a sin, no matter what the causes or circumstances, or who is the guilty party or who is the innocent party. A divorce, according to his word, is the breaking of a covenant, a falling short of the standard of God, and a serious and painful complication of life that seems never to go away.
And we find no better description of this violation and its pain than in the Bible than in Malachi 2. No passage in the Bible deals with all the details of marriage and divorce. Rather, each passage comes from a particular set of circumstances or a particular question. Malachi was dealing with a situation where a good number of men got rid of their Hebrew wives and married pagan women. The prophet gave no details, only a description of this as a treachery--to God and the covenant as well as to the wives. Modern counselors would look into what went wrong with their original marriages, or what in their personality needed to be addressed, which is certainly helpful. But the prophets wanted everyone to realize that the failure was a sin, and that to go ahead in life with God they first had to acknowledge that, or as we say, own it, at least own their part in something that fell short of the will of God. If reconciliation was possible, it was to be pursued; if not, then the people had to accept responsibility for their acts, find forgiveness and healing from God, and get on with their lives--like any other person forgiven and restored.
Malachi delivered his burden to the people of Israel well after the time of the return and revivals of Ezra and Nehemiah, somewhere between 440 and 400 B.C. What we have in the book is a number of his messages; we have them because they are part of the divine revelation of God and timeless in their relevance. But what this prophet faced was an antagonistic audience, much like today in these matters. In the earlier days when people heard the Word of the LORD they trembled and listened; but in Malachi’s day when they heard the Word they challenged it. This should not surprise us. For people to sin, say, for them to get rid of their spouses in order to marry pagans, biblical Law would have to be challenged, qualified, or set aside in some way. It cannot be ignored, because it stands there as a witness. And in the days of the prophets, a Malachi was there to declare the standard. After the captivity many folks got carried away with their freedom. When they divorced and married women who worshiped false gods, Malachi presented their actions as a defilement of the holiness of the LORD. Malachi’s message was similar to that of Ezra and Nehemiah; but he alone focused on the pain all this caused and on the fact that God hates it. His message follows two major sins, first the divorces, and then the marriages to foreign women.
Malachi begins by laying down a principle: although Israel was created by one Father, they were guilty of treachery against the covenant. The first verse affirms the principle by rhetorical question that they had one father who created them; and the second half expresses the prophet’s amazement over their violation of the covenant. The prophet at this starting point speaks in general terms to get the people’s attention; when he has it, he narrows the focus to the actual sins involved. As we shall see in these first three verses Malachi was actually condemning intermarriage with pagans; and these intermarriages gave the occasion for the divorces. And since the message begins with the affirmation of the sovereignty of God, then the message is that unfaithfulness to the marriage in this way is disloyalty to God. But the principle as it will be related to marriage is well summarized by Hengstenberg: 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 the theocratic consciousness of God (Christologie, III:381).
Malachi’s reference to their creator as “father” recalls the language of Malachi 1:6, “Is not God our father?” And the use of “father” recalls the covenant relationship that God established in Egypt and confirmed by covenant at Sinai (“let my son go”; see Exod. 4:22; Deut. 32:18; Isa. 1:2; and Jer. 3:9). Spiritual unity should have existed because they had a close relationship with God and with one another by means of the covenant. But more to the point, because loyalty to the covenant was paramount, the Law strictly prohibited intermarriage with the pagans (see Exod. 34:11 and Deut. 7:1-4). Such marriages would destroy worship and undermine the entire covenant. To do this, then, was to dishonor God and act faithlessly against fellow members of the covenant. It was all unfaithfulness to God, for sin against another person was sin against God. And it still is.
The sin is introduced as a “treachery” before the sin is defined. “A treachery had been committed”--that would get the attention of the audience. The word for “treachery” here means a willful betrayal of confidence, trust or truth. One who is treacherous is a traitor, unreliable and disloyal; and a traitor is dangerous. The term is bagad (bah-gad), related to beged (“garment”). In the Jewish writings the verb came to mean “act violently, faithlessly, and rebel.” So the people had been unfaithful to God, traitors to the covenant. This was very harsh language; the sin must have had greater implications than, say, a couple not getting along and divorcing.
Moving from the general description, the prophet now identified the exact problem. Malachi’s style is first to give the theological principle (against which there was no argument), then the general rebuke (over which people would be concerned), and then the actual sin (which would hit home). Even here it is not until the second half of the verse that it is clear what he is talking about.
The first thing we note is the identity of the guilty. He mentioned Israel, Judah, and Jerusalem in order. These are figures of speech (metonymies of subject, meaning the people in these areas). Israel was mentioned because it was the name of the covenant people; Judah and Jerusalem emphasized the center of the theocratic kingdom, the religious center of the nation. These heightened the boldness of the sin--it was no marginal problem of people who had no biblical training; it was in the very center of the political and religious community.
The force of the verse lies in the idea of the treachery, which was paralleled with the word “abomination.” This makes it something that God loathes, something that is repugnant to God, and therefore tabu. It is clear that the intermarriage of Israelites with pagans was repugnant to God; and it should have then been a matter of reverential dread to the people as well. We are talking about bringing idolatry into the family of Israel! Did they not learn from their history and their exile?
The reason that God loathed it was that it “defiled the holiness” of God that he loves. The words “defile, profane” and “holiness” are cleverly put together--they are antonyms. “Holiness” means “distinct, set apart, separate” to God. “Defile” means “common, profane, separated from the sanctuary” or from God. These people made common that which was to be distinct.
What did Malachi mean by “the holiness” of the Lord? It could refer to the temple. The idea would be that some Israelites were bringing pagan idolaters into the Lord’s house and therefore profaning it. Support for this view comes from the fact that the Lord loves Zion (Ps. 78:68; 87:2) and prohibits idolatry from the sanctuary.
But the word “holiness” may refer to the nation itself. The support for this view is a little more convincing. First, Israel is called a holy nation (Deut. 7:6) and his sanctuary (Ps. 114:2). Second, the immediate context is based on the fact that God made them one nation. Third, Malachi begins his book on the fact that God loves Israel. And fourth, intermarriage with pagans profaned the holy seed (Ezra 9:2; Jer. 2:3; Deut. 14:2). God established the marriage laws (Lev. 21:14, 15 and Neh. 13:29) for the people he loved (=chose) in order that they might be distinct to him. Now, however, Israel had profaned that holiness and made themselves common. The last clause explains how they did this: “by marrying the daughter (worshiper) of a foreign god.” This expression, we know from Jeremiah 2:27, refers to a worshiper of a strange or foreign deity. It would destroy Israelite worship, and therefore the covenant. The text uses the singular “daughter,” but it means the practice was typical of a widespread sin in the land.
The message brought a clear rebuke from the prophet because a violation of the covenant has been committed. Malachi says, “May the LORD cut off … .” This is not an announcement of doom; it is an imprecation of the prophet as if to say the people deserve this judgment. But a curse from the prophet was warning enough that if such sin was persisted in it would bring the penalty.
The idea of being “cut off” needs some explanation. In its uses for divine punishment, the verb “cut off” can be used for the death penalty at the hands of the people, for premature death at the hand of God, or excommunication from the religious community. One of the latter two is probably in the mind of the prophet--God would deal with this matter if the righteous in the land did not.
Who stood to be so “cut off” by God? The answer, through some poetic expressions, indicates that none are excluded. The general statement is given first: “the man who does this.” Then the specifics: “him that wakes and him that answers.” There are many suggested interpretations for this difficult phrase. One thing is clear, the two different ideas in it are opposites, and so the expression forms a figure of speech (a merism)--everyone from the waker to the answerer. One very possible interpretation would be to say the waker and answerer refer to watchmen in the city. Perhaps with the reference to the “tents” we can get the idea of watchmen at either end of the camp, one calling out and the other answering. Thus, it would mean everyone, from one end of the settlement to the other. Judgment for this kind of sin applied to everyone, rich or poor, leader or follower. No one would be exempt.
The last expression is set off by itself in the poetry: “him that offers a offering (a gift, minkhah) to Yahweh of armies.” The point is that judgment would fall on such covenant violators, even if they appeared to be faithful and generous worshipers of God (albeit hypocritically). This kind of gift was not usually a blood sacrifice, but a gift of foods and produce. To give this gift along with the blood sacrifice would be the way to indicate gratitude for God’s provision and dedication of life to his service. Here is real treachery. The outward sign of dedication to the LORD was betrayed by the treachery of uniting with paganism in marriage. Such dedication is a delusion. It is an attempt to gloss over the sin, to salve the conscience, and to appear faithful to the community.
Now a second thing that they did is mentioned by the prophet. This second sin grew out of the first, for in finding and marrying pagan women they put away their primary wives by divorce. The two sins here are inseparably bound together, but the prophet turns his attention now to the treachery on the personal level. Marrying an idolatrous woman was one thing; but dumping a legitimate wife for her is another. Both violate the covenant and bring pain to God, but the latter causes great pain to the women who were put away.
The picture is painted dramatically. The wives who had been put away were in great mourning and anguish. The women came to the altar to pray, but their tears intermingled with their prayers. Their woe rose to God with such intensity that God no longer could regard (give attention to) the offerings brought by the men. So, in effect the men covered the altar with tears and sighing--not their tears, for they were cavalier about it all and thought God was pleased with their gifts, but with their wives’ tears, because by causing the pain the men were actually presenting their wives’ grief to God and not a sacrifice. That is what their hand produced, as Malachi put it. And all such hypocritical worship was completely rejected by God.
Here were men, calloused and less than loyal to the historic faith, coming to the sanctuary with their impressive gifts of dedication and thanksgiving. But over here were their unfortunate wives, now abandoned, praying and crying to God for help. Their tears were what God saw, not the offerings of their husbands. There is scarcely a thought more solemn and searching than the thought that few, if any, of our prayers go up to God unqualified and unchecked. We pray for something, but our sins cry out for something else, and the prayer is hindered. After all, Peter reminded all Christian men to treat their wives with respect as joint heirs of the covenant “so that nothing will hinder [their] prayers” (1 Pet. 3:7).
The response of the men was again to challenge the word of the prophet: “Wherein have we dealt treacherously?” There is a cold defiance in the words of the people, a defiance that comes from a rationalized sin. They had been told by the prophet that God was rejecting their worship; but their response was not fear and repentance. It was a proud challenge to “his view.” They thought that if they did the worship routine well enough and gave to the sanctuary, they would be highly favored in the courts of heaven. Well God not only did not need their gifts--he did not want them. But this is what we are seeing today, people entering all kinds of religious service with new marriages, never having admitted, let alone confessed, that there has been sin.
The answer to the peoples’ question was a stinging answer from the prophet. He takes them back to the marriage of their youth, a marriage covenant that God himself witnessed, and so one signed and sealed in heaven. Here is the rebuke of a prophet most forceful and precise; here is pastoral counseling at its best. The fact that God was witness tells us that marriage is a covenant, whether there was a ceremony or not. To agree to live together as man and wife is a covenant, and God is the witness. To dissolve the marriage is to break the covenant, to break an oath. Several passages use covenant language for marriage: Proverbs 2:17; Ezekiel 16:7 (applying it to God and the nation); Ruth 4:11 (witnessed by the community) and Genesis 24:60 (based on love and faithfulness). The covenant agreement of a marriage is to be based on loyal love, characterized by the protection and care of the partners, and dedicated to producing righteous, believing children that God may provide.
The expression “wife of your youth” should be understood as “youthful wife,” the wife the man married when he was young and full of love and devotion and ambition and plans. Pastoral counseling tries to get the parties of a marriage to go back and recall what they had and what they wanted together. She was the wife of his youth, the one who had his first affections when they were the strongest, the one who probably gave him children, the one who had lived through it all with him. Now she had become the scorn and loathing of his later years.
Malachi also says that the wife is “your companion.” This adds to the treachery. The word comes from a verb “to unite,” or in our language we would say things like “tie the knot” or “be united” in marriage. She was not only the wife of his youth, but his comrade, his partner. She was not a servant or a slave; she was a partner. They were bound together as one in the eyes of God. They shared everything together, grief and joys, successes and failures, hard times and good times. But now, these women were being cast aside as an old garment for something new and fresh and exciting, but thoroughly pagan. Whatever was there that fit the description of “holy matrimony” had now become nothing more than a “common coupling” or “profane fornication.”
All of these qualifications of marriage were piled up by the prophet to enforce how treacherous this all was. The word “treachery” now appears for the third time in the oracle--it was against women like this that the treachery was committed. The word has a use in Job that illustrates the meaning. Job’s friends are described as treacherous as a brook. The brook provided water, as the text explains, so that people became dependent on it. But when Job went to his friends for help, the brook had dried up--when that happens with literal brooks, caravans in the desert die. One cannot depend on a traitor, and that is the case of a treacherous husband--or wife as the case might be.
The main idea of the passage is clear: God planned that a man and a woman would become one, be partners, share everything, build a life together, and please God. Their personal blessing depended on preserving this covenant; and the well-being of the nation depended on the marriages doing what they were supposed to do.
Malachi was not yet through. The final section is clearly set off as a warning for those who are in a marriage. They must understand its purpose if they are going to preserve it.
Verse 15 is the most difficult verse in the book. The two thoughts center on the meaning of “one” and the “residue of the Spirit”: “Did he not make one, even though he had the residue of the spirit? What then is the one? Producing a godly seed.” One view takes the “one” back to the creation of Eve with Adam. It would be normal to think of Genesis 2 because Adam and Eve were to be “one flesh.” God could have done it differently--he had the residue of the Spirit, that is, he had all the resources and options available. But he chose one wife for one man. The difficulty of this view is that monogamy does not guarantee godly children would be produced. The two would have to be committed to the faith and to the training of children in it.
Perhaps a better view is that the “one” refers to the nation of Israel, the covenant people. This view has the support of the book that presents the nation as the creation of God. Why did he choose one nation, Israel? --to produce a godly seed in the earth. Pagan intermarriage and the dissolution of good marriages would ruin the chance to do this. God wanted a nation; he could have chosen and formed others, or more. But by focusing on one as the means of bringing blessing to the world, he would form a righteous people on earth.
Therefore Malachi warned them to take heed not to deal treacherously, against the wife and therefore against the covenant plan of God. The verb “take heed” means “to watch carefully.” It calls for constant vigilance and concern, like a night watchman watching the city. The husband must be careful and alert to protect the marriage covenant from any treachery, by himself or from outside.
The line is powerful: “I hate putting away.” Some of the ancient versions actually misinterpreted the line to say, “if a man hates his wife he should put her away.” But the context is against divorce, and an exception as wide as this would not fit. What Malachi is doing is offering the quintessential reason for trying to keep a marriage together come what may--God hates divorce.
What does it mean when it says God hates it? When “hate” is used in contrast to “love” in passages, as it is in Malachi 1, it has the sense of “reject” and love would have the sense of “choose.” But when the word is used separately, as it is in this particular passage, it adds the idea of “to detest, abhor” to the rejection. We can see from this that God is emotionally involved in the lives of his people. He hates it when they destroy their marriages, because he knows the pain that will cause, and the effect that will have on the faith for the future.
But God adds something else as the object of his hatred--when people cover their garments with violence. This word for violence is a word for social injustice. Their replacing the garment of marriage, their vows of love and devotion to their wives, with acts of social abuse and emotional and even physical violence, God hated as well. The final step in this violence against their wives is putting them away, divorcing them. It creates havoc with the society, violates the family, and spoils the covenant God loves.
The prophet closes with the same warning: Take heed. Be on your guard against such treachery. To do this involves two very important considerations: knowing and agreeing with the plan of the covenant God has made for the people of God, and knowing and agreeing with what God has planned for the marriage. To fulfill the first one must be committed to worshiping and serving God in holiness and righteousness. To fulfill the second one must know that the marriage is a covenant confirmed by God and the wife is a lifelong partner.
To motivate diligence and care for the marriage, Malachi has included three warnings: 1) divorce and remarriage (especially to a pagan) destroys worship; 2) divorce and remarriage (especially to a pagan) hinders producing godly children; and 3) God hates divorce. So the message to the household of faith is clear: if you truly see how the marriage covenant fits the covenant God has made with his people, then you will marry within the faith and you will give all diligence to preserve that marriage come what may. No marriage is perfect. In marriages there will be fallings from the ideal for sure; the marriage may be strained and thinned by friction, or marred and spoiled by a gross contempt for its moral meaning; but the failures and abuse do not destroy or degrade the ideal. We are always called back to the ideal, to the standard of God. For marriage to be “holy” matrimony, it must be pleasing to God; and to develop this there must be a real giving of soul to soul in the Lord, so that the husband and wife truly belong to one another, and truly see their marriage as service to God. Malachi says to take heed that this is preserved--do everything in your power to do it. And it will take such diligence because the way of the world is so different.
Some may find that it is too late, because they have lived through a failed marriage and there is no going back. For them, the message of God’s Word is clear: they must be sure their lives are now right with God, and that means acknowledging their share in the dissolution of a covenant and resolving to serve God now with all devotion and obedience, and that certainly means that in any new relationship they might have they will see to it that it counts for God.