Two weeks ago my older brother sent me a message to let me know that he was divorcing his wife.
It was like a punch in the gut.
I messaged him back telling him our story of how God turned our marriage around using the marriage course and I pleaded with him to get help from the God who can bring light into the darkest of places. But it was to no avail. He had already determined that was the action he would take and nothing was going to change his mind. All that is left for my wife and I to do is to support his soon-to-be ex-wife in whatever way we can.
Why does divorce affect me so deeply? Because I understand it’s true meaning. So let’s take a look at what the bible says about divorce.
The Old Testament and Divorce
Now actually the OT testament only hints at how divorce worked amongst the Hebrew people. For example, it makes no mention the provisions made in the ketubah (marriage contract) of the money that had to be paid to the wife if the husband divorces divorce her and only mentions the certificate of divorce when addressing the issue of remarrying your wife.
“When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favour in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house, and if she goes and becomes another man’s wife, and the latter man hates her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter man dies, who took her to be his wife, then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after she has been defiled, for that is an abomination before the LORD.” (Dt 24:1-4a)
It appears to say that if something is so bad that it warrants divorce then it’s clearly so bad that remarriage is out of the question. This protects against hasty decisions and protects the woman against exploitation. Indeed, the combination of a certificate verifying her status and receiving at least her dowry back upon divorce meant she had a chance of life unlike women in other cultures.
The New Testament and Divorce
Fast forward about 1500 years and this passage is no longer about remarrying but about the meaning of “indecency” that Moses commanded them to divorce their wives for.
There were two schools of thought on this: Rabbi Shammai took the conservative view that the sole grounds for divorce was some grave matrimonial offence whereas Rabbi Hillel who took the liberal view that any trivial offence such as burning the dinner or the husband losing interest in his wife.
You’ll never guess which view was preferred by the Pharisees and indeed the population at large and hence why they asked Jesus whether it was lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause (Mt 19:3)
Jesus and Divorce
So what does Jesus say about divorce?
Well Jesus would have none of this – he takes them back to how marriage was designed in Gen 2 – one man, one woman, one flesh, joined together (literally glued) by God in a lifelong covenant (Mal 2:14) and no man should ever separate what God has joined together! (Mt 19:6)
“The man who hates and divorces his wife…does violence to the one he should protect,”.
This is a hard teaching. Small wonder that the disciples despaired saying “it is better not to marry” (Mt 19:10)
Jesus makes clear that the commands about divorce were a concession due to man’s hardness of heart (Mt19:8) and not part of God’s plan at all.
Remember the man and woman and the Spirit are a prophetic image of the Trinity. God is many but One eternally. Divorce caused by our hardness of hearts ruptures that image.
Paul and Divorce
However, Paul gives us more insight to the meaning of marriage – not only is it an image of the Trinity but it is a prophetic image of Christ’s marriage to His Bride, the Church (Eph 5:31-32).
Hence to divorce is to proclaim that Christ gives up on us.
Now Israel repeatedly broke their covenant with YHWH and ran after other gods (Jer 3:6).
How did God react? He wanted to forgive them and have them return (Is 54:6-7). Hosea was even commanded to marry a prostitute (Hos 1:2) to demonstrate YHWH’s commitment to Israel despite their waywardness.
Today and divorce
2000 years on and history repeats itself.
We have the conservative camp (like Rabbi Shammai) that says you can’t divorce except for adultery – even if one spouse is abusing the other.
We have the liberal camp (like Rabbi Hillel) that says you can divorce for whatever reason as God wants you to be happy.
The argument is over whether Jesus really meant what he said or whether we can excuse it due to a cultural thing or whatever gives us what the hardness of our hearts desire.
And Jesus is still calling us back to the heart of marriage and its prophetic declaration about the nature of God and Christ’s love for us.
Reality and hope
Anyone who says marriage is easy is lying – it will bring us to the end of our pride and ourselves as we journey into oneness.
There should be no surprise that it is hard as Satan, the anti-Christ, desires to destroy anything that glorifies Christ and since marriage prophetically speaks of His eternal love for us then of course it will be a target. Of course he’s going to tempt us with lies like “the grass is greener on the other side” or “you don’t feel it anymore” or “it shouldn’t be this hard” or “you deserve better than this”.
We will find ourselves on our knees calling out for His help to overcome our selfishness and hence it is no surprise that the biggest indicator of a marriage surviving is whether a couple prays together. We need Christ’s help and the support of the Body of Christ to daily take up our cross and walk the path of love.
If there are struggles then we stand with them as the Body and support them however we can through godly wisdom, prayer and practical support.
If someone is not living up to their calling in marriage then we should challenge them and use church discipline if necessary — always hoping that they will turn and repent.
However, for reconciliation there needs to be repentance and forgiveness. And without both of these divorce may occur. But let it always be with weeping that Christ has not been glorified and anything thereafter (even if they have successful remarriages) now no longer images the God who gave up everything for us to keep His covenant of love with us.
My wife and I have sought to support those in marriage struggles however we can and we have wept with those where there has been no reconciliation and then practically supported the injured party afterwards.
There has even been an occasion where I have had to rescue someone from dangerous spouse and then ensure they have somewhere safe to go.
However, in all these occasions I don’t rejoice over how things are better now – I weep for what should have been.
Yes the world is broken but may that never lead us to accept anything less than that which brings glory to Jesus, let us do all we can to declare His undying love to a dark world before it is too late.
One thought on “The meaning of divorce (godly marriage)”
Good article John, on a tough subject. May you all find comfort.