Divorce and Remarriage

A reader sent in the following question: 

“In Deuteronomy 24:3, 4 we read that it is an abomination before the Lord if a man marry his divorced wife after she has married another man. It says that if the latter husband die she could not return to the first husband. 

“In Jeremiah 3:1 we read that the land would be greatly polluted if a man marry his divorced wife after she has married another man. It identifies how it was wrong for Israel to return to the first marriage, yet God wants Israel to return to Him even though they have played the harlot with many lovers. 

“The question is, why did God not permit them to repent from the evil of divorce by remarrying their first wife? 

“What is hard to understand is why God considers it an abomination before the Lord and that Israel would pollute the land if they would return to their first wife.” 

The first reference is to Deuteronomy 24:1-4, which reads: 

“When a man hath taken a wife, and married her, and it comes to pass that she find no favor in his eyes, because he hath found some uncleanness in her; then let him write her a bill of divorcement, and give it in her hand, and send her out of his house. 

“And when she is departed out of his house, she may go and be another man’s wife.

“And if the latter husband hate her, and write her a bill of divorcement, and giveth it in her hand, and sendeth her out of his house; or if the latter husband die, which took her to be his wife; 

“Her former husband, which sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after she is defiled; for that is abomination before the Lord: and thou shalt not cause the land to sin, which the Lord thy God giveth thee for an inheritance.” 

This passage refers to a miserable situation that obviously existed in Israel, God’s church. A man takes a wife and marries her. After he has lived with her for a while he puts her away. The reason for putting her away is, that “she finds no favor in his eyes, because he has found some uncleanness in her.” Uncleanness means literally, “a matter of nakedness.” The same word is used in Deuteronomy 23:14, where it is contrasted with holiness in the sight of God. Thus in this passage it must refer to some sexual, moral uncleanness. It cannot refer to the sin of adultery, because that was punishable by death (Num. 20:10). The reference must be to something that displeased the husband in their marital relationship, so that he finds an excuse to put his wife away. 

According to verse 2, it also happened that after the woman left her first husband she married another. We could receive the impression from the translation of the AV given above, that the law of Moses sanctioned this second marriage. But that is not the case. * Verse 4 tells us that by marrying this other man “she defiled herself.” (This is the correct translation of the expression in verse 4.) By marrying another man she is guilty of desecrating the holy, unbreakable marriage bond. According to Leviticus 18:20Numbers 5:13, 14 and Matthew 5:32 she is an adulteress. 

Verse 3 states that the possibility exists that the second husband also puts her away when he tires of her, or even that he dies, and that the first husband has a change of heart, so that he desires to take her back as his wife. This the law of Moses, that is, the law of God forbids. To prevent a repeated desecration of the holy marriage bond, and to prevent a man and woman who had both already defiled themselves to continue on their sinful way, the law of Moses required a writing of divorcement, a legal prevention of the woman returning to her first husband. 

This is the explanation that Jesus gives of this passage in Matthew 19:3-8. The Pharisees, who took a keen delight in trying to pit Jesus against Moses, interpreted this passage in Deuteronomy 24 as if it allowed “a man to put away his wife for every cause.” Jesus reminded them that according to the institution of marriage in Paradise God joins man and wife together as one flesh in an unbreakable marriage bond. Thereupon the Pharisees see their opportunity to expose Jesus as contradicting Moses by asking, “Why did Moses then command to give a writing of divorcement, and to put her away.” Jesus tells these Pharisees that they are all wrong, Moses never did sanction putting away one’s wife, no matter what the reason may be. Nor did Moses command a writing of divorcement as a general rule to be adopted by the church. Jesus blamed the Jews for this writing of divorcement. Moses suffered it, that is, allowed it, because of the hardness of their hearts. It was because they could not forgive one another, or could not bear with one another’s weaknesses, but catered to the carnal lusts of their flesh that this law was instituted. “From the beginning it was not so!” Since neither party showed any real concern for the sacred marriage bond, and since neither party intended to stop playing with holy things, God required that the man who put away his wife should give her a bill of divorcement, and thereby legally establish that he would never take her to wife again. 

The second passage referred to in the question above is Jeremiah 3:1, where we read, “They say, If a man put away his wife, and she go from him, and become another man’s, shall he return to her again? shall not that land be greatly polluted? but thou hast played the harlot with many lovers; yet return again to Me, saith the Lord.” 

In this text we have a quotation from Deuteronomy 24, which we have just discussed. But this reference serves to point out the sharp contrast between the frivolous dealings of a man who puts away his wife and Jehovah’s dealings with spiritual Israel, His wife.

Notice, Jehovah loves His wife with an eternal love in Christ Jesus. Therefore He also cherishes and esteems His wife as His personal possession. In Ezekiel 16:8-14 God describes Israel as the real, spiritual BeautyQueen of the whole universe! From that point of view God never finds anything unpleasant or repulsive in her. 

From this follows that God can never put away His wife, certainly not for some trivial or frivolous reason. What does happen is that Israel plays the harlot even while she is God’s wife. She defiles herself by forsaking her husband and going awhoring after vain idols (Jeremiah 2). For a clear description of this abominable sin of Israel read Ezekiel 19:15-21. God had every reason to put His adulterous wife away in holy wrath. 

Does He do that? Does He give her a bill of divorcement when He sends her to Babylon? NO! (see Isaiah 50:1.) On the contrary, according to Jeremiah 3:1, God declares through the prophet, “Yet return again to Me, saith the Lord.” 

We should notice that Jehovah, the eternal, unchangeable, ever faithful covenant God never puts His wife away. Moreover, He continues to love her and even calls her to repentance with a powerful, efficacious calling. The land would certainly be polluted if Jehovah were to put away His wife for some trivial person, and then take her back again in some equally trivial manner. But the Lord does not do that. He renews the heart, brings to sorrow and repentance, and draws His unfaithful wife back to Him in mutual love and devotion. That is the reality of which the holy marriage among God’s people is the replica. 

Therefore in answer to your question, “Why did God not permit them to repent from the evil of divorce by remarrying their first wife?” the Lord does not sanction a divorce and remarriage, but neither does He sanction a reunion that is not based on a sincere confession of sin, a hearty repentance and a determination to live together in a holy, godly life. Any other kind of reunion would be considered an abomination before the Lord and would pollute the land, that is, the church. 

*See “Marriage” by Rev. D. Engelsma, page 85.

About Being Baptized for the Dead


[Editor’s Note. This is a special contribution to this department. Prof. Hanko answered a question from a correspondent who wrote to the Reformed Witness Hour. The correspondent then requested that this answer be published in the Standard Bearer, and with this request we gladly comply.] 

Dear Mr. ___________, 

The Reformed Witness Hour has forwarded to me a copy of your letter in which you ask concerning “being baptized for the dead.” I shall try to answer this as best I can. 

The passage is found in I Corinthians 15:29, which reads: “Else what shall they do which are baptized for the dead, if the dead rise not at all? why are they then baptized for the dead?” 

There is no doubt about it that this is a somewhat difficult passage. One commentator mentions the fact that there are at least 30 different explanations of this passage; so it is clear that commentators do not at all agree. And’ the difficulty of the passage centers exactly in the questions you raise: “The dead cannot benefit from the baptism of a living person for their destiny was determined at the time of death.” 

However, I think that we must take the words at face value and not try to force some kind of interpretation on them which does not fit the plain meaning of the words. Only, the main point of the apostle in this whole chapter must not be forgotten. We must remember, first of all, that the apostle writes this beautiful and glorious chapter on the resurrection because there were those in the church of Corinth who denied the truth of the resurrection of the body. The apostle is proving that the saints shall indeed arise at the coming of Christ, and his main line of proof is that this must necessarily follow from the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. This verse stands in direct relation to that: the apostle makes this statement as an additional proof of our glorious resurrection.

Secondly, it appears from the text, and this is not really all that surprising, that the saints of Corinth, at least some of them, were concerned about various fellow saints who had died without being baptized. In a congregation of new converts this was indeed a possibility. They were converted very shortly before death and before there was opportunity to baptize them; or they were too sick, too weak and feeble to come to church for the sacrament of baptism. And so they died before they were baptized by the church. Those who were living were apparently under the impression that baptism was essential for them and for their salvation. But they were not baptized. What then? And so they practiced a sort of superstitious ritual which consisted in this that the living were baptized on behalf of or in the place of the dead in the hope that this would aid the unbaptized dead. 

It is, I think, important to understand that the apostle does not put his stamp of approval on this, and Scripture nowhere teaches that this ought to be done. But the apostle recognizes that this superstition, this practice was being carried on in the church of Corinth. And so he appeals to this practice as proof of the resurrection of our bodies. He asks, in effect: “If the dead do not arise, why then do some of you perform this ritual? What good is it? What is the sense of being baptized for the dead, if, in fact, the grave is the end and death terminates our existence. Your own practice, as wrong as it may be, has sense only if there is a resurrection from the dead.” 

It is, I think, important to understand that, when this practice was carried on by the Corinthians, these people who were living were being baptized for deadbelievers. They were not being baptized for all the dead, for the dead willy-nilly; but, emphatically for departed saints. And, while the practice was undoubtedly wrong, Paul turns this very practice into an argument against their position that the dead do not rise. 

It seems to me that this is the clear meaning of the text. If, however, you still have questions, please feel free to write again. Or, if you so choose, you may write to the Standard Bearer and ask that the question be answered by the editor of “Question Box.” It may be that he will come up with some other idea. Nevertheless, I think this interpretation is correct. 

Thank you for your interest in our radio ministry and your concern about matters of Scripture. Whenever we have occasion to study the Word of God more fully, we can only profit from this.