The people of Malachi’s day had got tired of God. Or rather, they suspected God had got tired of them. I won’t recap the history in full this morning. I’ve shared the historical background of the book of Malachi on a number of weeks recently. suffice to say for today that a hundred years has passed since God did anything to show that he still loves his people, and so they are growing tired and cynical. They’re treating God cheaply. This comes out in a number of ways, but one of them is that they are treating marriage cheaply. And so it is that we come today to the thorny and painful topic of divorce.
Last week we looked at this same passage in the book of Malachi, Malachi chapter 2, and we looked at the very high view of marriage that there is in this passage. Marriage is the beautiful blend of commitment and companionship. It’s also the context God has created to be optimum for the nurture of children.
It is all of these things because marriage is designed to reflect God’s loving relationship with his people. God’s love for his people is a beautiful thing. It’s marked by immense commitment, and God wants his people to walk through life in companionship with him. Which is why it is so sad and so serious when his people treat marriage cheaply.
Divorce in General
Well let’s begin to move towards the topic for this morning, the theme of divorce. The first thing to say is that we are all sinful, and we are all selfish, and therefore sometimes our actions tragically break a marriage to the point where divorce is something God permits. Not takes pleasure in, but permits as a legitimate way forward.
Taking the Old and the New Testament together, we discover that divorce can be the way forwards after unfaithfulness within a marriage. It can be the way forwards after total neglect and abuse. And it can be the way forwards when an unbelieving spouse decides that their partner’s Christian faith is simply too much to live with.
But tragically people separate and divorce for all kinds of other reasons, and it’s this that Malachi speaks against in this chapter. He is criticizing a casual view of divorce, and a casual view of marriage, that treats divorce as the answer to arguments. That treat divorces as the answer to boredom. That treats divorce as the answer to old age. When the spark is gone, and the wrinkles have come, you simply trade your husband or wife for a younger model.
There are three reasons in this passage why it is so sad, why it’s so wrong, why it grieves God, when divorce is casual in that kind of way. This kind of casual divorce fails to be three things, according to this passage.
Fails to be Faithful
Number one: it fails to be faithful.
So here’s verse 14: “The Lord is the witness between you and the wife of your youth; you have been unfaithful to her, though she is your partner the wife of your marriage covenant.”
God is addressing the men specifically, and he calls their wives “the wife of your youth”. He is reminding them that they came together when they were young, and back then they made promises to each other that went “until death us do part”. Those promises have been forgotten and discarded, and so she is forgotten and discarded. So God says “you have been unfaithful to her”.
It fails to be faithful.
Fails to be Nurturing
Number two: this kind of casual attitude to divorce fails to be nurturing. It fails to be nurturing.
Verse 15: “Has not the one God made you; you belong to him in body and spirit. And what does the one God seek? Godly offspring. So be on your guard, and do not be unfaithful to the wife of your youth.” We said last time that God has designed marriage to pass on the faith to children. That combination of commitment and loving companionship is the ideal environment for nurturing the next generation in the Christian faith. And so it is, verse 15, the end of the verse there: “So [therefore], be on your guard and do not be unfaithful.” This is another reason why being unfaithful to a marriage is a disaster. It removes children from the environment that God would like them to be in.
Now I’ll say again what I said last time. Of course lots of children from other family settings turn out absolutely brilliantly. But if God has designed a Christian marriage to be the ideal context for nurturing Christian children, it’s tragic if those children lose the chance to be in that setting.
Fails to be faithful. Fails to be nurturing.
Fails to be Protecting
Number three: fails to be protecting.
Verse 16: “‘The man who hates and divorces his wife,’ says the Lord the God of Israel, ‘does violence to the one he should protect.’”
That word “protect” is literally “to spread your garment over somebody”, and that’s one biblical way of describing marriage: to spread your garment over somebody. The man embraces his wife in a position of complete safety and security, protection and provision.
And divorce of this kind swaps that protection for violence. Literal violence in some cases, appallingly, but true. But even when literal violence isn’t present it still causes her pain. It does violence of a different kind. It treats his wife in a way that is the opposite of the protection and provision he pledged himself to.
This kind of casual approach to divorce: it fails to be faithful; it fails to be nurturing; and it fails to be protecting.
God Hates Divorce
Verses 15 and 16 are somewhat tricky verses, in the sense that their overall thrust and meaning is absolutely clear, but the precise way to translate them into English is complicated. There are a number of different options. In this church, we use the 2011 version of the NIV, the New International Version of the Bible. But the 1984 version that came before it had verse 16 really quite differently. So our version says, “‘the man who hates and divorces his wife,’ says the Lord”. The 1984 version said, “‘I hate divorce,’ says the Lord”.
And if you’ve read that in a Bible, those words are stark and extremely hard to hear. But please don’t mishear them. If you’re hearing this as someone who is affected by divorce – because it’s affected you, or close friends, or someone in your family – God is not saying here that he hates you. He loves you, and because he loves you he hates anything that hurts you. And that includes the immense pain caused by divorce. God hates that because he loves you.
All of this is a reminder of how far we all fall short of God’s standards in so many ways. God sets high standards in every area of life for our own good, and we fall short again and again. Marriage matters in particular, because it’s designed to reflect God’s love for his people, God’s committed love for his people. That committed love is a love that goes on, and forgives even when we fail him, whatever area of life we fail him in. This is the love that the people of Malachi’s day have lost sight of, which is the source of all their problems.
God wants us to know his committed love and his forgiveness however we failed him in the past.
And then he wants us to show that same committed love to others, in all of our relationships, and especially in our marriages.