The above title does not refer to the teaching of Moses and of Christ concerning the whole subject of divorce, but only concerning Jesus’ interpretation of one of the laws of Moses. The text referred to in the title is found in Deuteronomy 24:1-4. This passage reads: “When a man hath taken a wife, and married her, and it come to pass that she find no favour 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 text therefore teaches that a husband, once having put away his wife for some uncleanness which he found in her, may never take her again to be his wife under any circumstances.
This text and its interpretation, the wicked Pharisees of Jesus’ day used as an occasion to try to trap Jesus so that they would have some basis on which to accuse Him and condemn Him.
The rabbins did not agree completely on their interpretation of this text. There was the school of Hillel, a rather noted rabbi himself, who taught that this passage meant that a wife could be put away for any reason which the husband might consider just. If a wife burned her husband’s food for the evening meal, this might be considered adequate grounds for divorce if a husband was so inclined. The school that followed this rabbi was a lax school with a very wide and almost worldly interpretation of the law. It was, to a considerable extent, followed by the Pharisees in Jesus’ day â€•at least when it served as the rule for their own lives. They were always ready to apply a narrower interpretation of the law to the lives of the common people. There was however, also the school of Shammai which was much more strict in its interpretation of the whole body of Mosaic legislation in general, and of this passage in particular. This school, following its founder, taught that the “uncleanness” spoken of in the text referred particularly to some sin of fornication, as lasciviousness, inordinate lust, wanton living, etc. And the conclusion was that only for these reasons could a man put away his wife and give her a writ of divorce.
It is evidently to the difference between these schools of thought that the Pharisees refer when they came to Jesus “tempting him.” In fact it seems as if they refer specifically to the Rabbi Hillel when they say, “Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause?”Matthew 19:3. If Jesus answered “Yes,” they could accuse Him of a very loose interpretation of the law and a scorn for the sanctity of marriage; while if He answered in the negative, they would be ready to point out that Moses had made provision for divorce, and that He was placing Himself in conflict with Moses.
But Jesus was perfectly aware of their treachery and base designs; and in answering them He used the occasion to lay down some important principles concerning the marriage relation. Christ went back not to Moses, but to Adam and Eve in Paradise. He pointed out to them that the marriage relationship was established in Paradise, and that it was an unbreakable relationship. “Have ye not read, that he which made them at the beginning made them male and female, And said, For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh ? Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder.” Matthew 19:4-6.
This was exactly what the Jews had been waiting for; and they are quick to point out to Jesus the passage quoted above where it appears as if a divorce is permissible after all. Jesus had emphasized that the marriage bond was incapable of being destroyed. The Pharisees, almost gleefully, show that Moses had made provision for putting away one’s wife. “Why did Moses then command to give a writing of divorcement, and to put her away?” vs. 7. The answer of Jesus to this question is that “Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so.” vs. 8.
Thus the question is, Was Jesus teaching concerning divorce different from the teaching of Moses?
Before discussing the relation between these two passages of Holy Writ, it is important to notice that the question before us is not whether remarriage is possible for divorced people. This was not the question that concerned the Pharisees, nor is it the question that concerns us. This subject has aroused considerable discussion of late and has even resulted in Synodical action in the Christian Reformed Church. But this is not here our problem. In fact, this subject, which was assigned, would seem to imply that a true severing of the marriage bond is impossible, and that any remarriage constitutes adultery for both parties that are separated and who marry others. Although divorce is possible on the grounds of adultery, this can only mean that husband and wife separate, remaining in fact however in the covenant of marriage. For, if those who had assigned the subject had taken the position that Jesus teaches that remarriage after divorce is possible, there would then be no point in discussing this matter, for there would not even be an apparent contradiction. Deuteronomy speaks of the remarriage of the guilty party. And certainly if the guilty party may remarry, the innocent party may also enter into a marriage relationship with another.
With the position that the marriage relation can be dissolved by nothing but death, I am in perfect agreement. This is the position that Jesus takes in this passage in Matthew 19, and this is quite obviously the meaning of Scripture in such passages as Matthew 5:32,Mark 10:11, Luke 16:18. This is also plainly taught in the fact that the marriage relationship is but a picture of the eternal relation between Christ and His church in which He is the Bridegroom and His elect church the bride. This marriage can never be dissolved. It is an eternal relation that Christ sovereignly and graciously maintains even when His people repeatedly commit spiritual adultery.
But the question remains, Did Jesus contradict Moses? This is, of course impossible. Moses was a prophet, and as such the mouthpiece of God. Moses laid down the laws which governed Israel’s life by divine revelation. What Moses said, God said. And Jesus, Who is God’s own Son in our flesh could perfectly speak the Word of God and could perfectly understand and interpret what God said through Moses.
But then, how could Jesus speak of the marriage bond as indissoluble while Moses spoke of giving one’s wife a writ of divorce for certain reasons?
Usually the interpretation is given that Moses made a concession to the sin of the people. This is construed as being the meaning of Jesus when He says, “Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives.” Then the meaning is that somewhere in Israel’s history, probably in Egypt in their association with the heathen Egyptians, they had picked up the custom of divorcing their wives for various reasons. When Israel came to Sinai, and the law of God was given to them, Moses found it to be impossible to root out this evil completely, for the people were of a very hard heart. He therefore conceded that the custom could not be entirely eliminated and tried instead to put some check on a loose life of divorce and remarriage. Frivolous divorces were stopped by the law which Moses laid down, for if a man could not remarry his wife once she had been put away and remarried to another, he would not rashly divorce her in the first place. Besides, a woman, knowing that divorce was possible if she did not please her husband, would be careful not to offer an inducement for divorce. And finally this, check was placed upon rash divorces, that a woman was defiled morally by a second marriage which defilement made it impossible for her to go back to her first husband.
The serious objection to this interpretation is however, that God never makes concessions to sin. His law is holy and just and good and is the perfect reflection of His own will with respect to the lives of His moral creatures. He does not take into account the sins of which mankind are guilty and lighten the requirement of the law because it may be impossible for man to fulfill it. He does not “tone down” His just demands because man has sinned so greatly and hardened himself in sin to such an extent that he cannot keep the law at all. For God to do this in one instance would make probable the possibility that He had done it in other instances, and this would be a virtual denial of God’s righteousness. He cannot deny Himself. His demands stand eternally. He never lowers the requirements of His law. He always punishes evil doers, whether or not they are able to keep His law.
Calvin offers the following interpretation. “But it is asked, Ought Moses to have permitted what was in itself bad and sinful? I reply, That, strictly-speaking, he did not permit it; but in so far as he did not strictly forbid it, he is said to have permitted it. For he did not lay down a law about divorces, so as to give them the seal of his approbation, but as the wickedness of men could not be restrained in any other way, he applied what was the most admissible remedy, that the husband should, at least, attest the chastity of his wife. For the law was made solely for the protection of the women, that they might not suffer any disgrace after they had been unjustly rejected. Hence, we infer, that it was rather a punishment inflicted on husbands, than an indulgence or permission fitted to inflame their lust. Besides, political and outward order is widely different from spiritual government. What is lawful and proper the Lord comprehended under the ten words. Now as it is possible that many things, for which every man’s conscience reproves and charges him, may not be called in question at a human tribunal, it is not wonderful if those things are connived at by political laws.” Harmony, Vol. II, pp. 381, 382.
Keil, in his commentary on the Old Testament, speaks also of the fact that this is in some sense a concession to sin on the part of Moses. But he adds two points which are worthy of note. In the first place he remarks, and correctly so, “Divorce is not established as a right; all that is done is, that in case of a divorce a reunion with the divorced wife is forbidden, if in the meantime she had married another man . . .” Pentateuch, Vol. III, 416, 417. The meaning is that Moses does not say anything about the right of divorce, nor does he approve of it. He simply establishes a law concerning the remarriage of persons who have once been divorced. Secondly, and in connection with this, Keil points out that because the divorced woman, who was divorced for some “uncleanness” and is defiled by her second marriage is really guilty of adultery. “Thus,” Keil concludes, “the second marriage was placed impliciteon a par with adultery.” Idem, p. 418.
With this interpretation we are inclined to agree.
There is however, one other consideration, which in our opinion ought to be considered. This is the fact that there were certain evils which were never as such condemned in the Old Dispensation. While these evils were never approved, they were also never condemned in explicit language. Perhaps this was the case with the prevalent evil of polygamy. While it is emphatically true that God never condoned polygamy, and in fact that those who married more than one wife suffered untold grief in their households, it is nevertheless not condemned by any definite law. The same thing is true of divorce as it was practiced by some Jews. Certainly frivolous divorces were severely condemned, and, in fact, when divorce for any reason other than fornication was practiced it was never approved by God. And certainly when either party remarried, they lived in an adulterous relationship. Nevertheless, we never read that it was condemned in the explicit language of a precept or law.
What may be the reason for this?
It is striking that there is not one instance in Scripture of anyone ever divorcing his or her marriage partner. It must have been practiced, for the practice is referred to, but we never read of any case either, among the Saints or the apostates in the nation.
I think that the reason why such a practice of divorce and remarriage was never forbidden by explicit law is to be found in the fact that the covenant of marriage is a picture of the eternal covenant of grace which God has established with His people in Christ. However, this glorious covenant of grace realized in the solemn marriage of God to His people could not be and was not fully realized until Christ came into our flesh. Only when Christ suffered and died on the cross for the sins of His people and arose from the grave in Joseph’s garden for their justification, could this covenant be fully realized in all its blessedness. In the Old Dispensation it was always by promise. In the New Dispensation it is fully realized through Jesus Christ who is the Bridegroom of the church.
And therefore while every marriage consummated in life is a picture of the relation between Christ and His church, this was preeminently true of the marriages in the Old Dispensation. The marriages of the saints were pictures and types of the coming marriage when the Bridegroom would come into our flesh .and suffer for us and die for us to take us into the embrace of His loving arms and make us His wife forevermore.
And so, with all the types of the Old Dispensation, this type also was imperfect. It pointed ahead to a reality that was to come. But in pointing ahead, it fell far short in imperfection. As long as the glorious reality was not fully realized, the shadow of the reality could not be perfect.
But now the true marriage has been realized and the church looks forward with eager anticipation to the time when her Bridegroom shall come again to take her into His perfect covenant in glory. And so what stained the type and made it imperfect before this reality, must now be taken away. While divorce and even remarriage under certain conditions were never condemned in the Old Testament, it must be severely condemned in the New. We live no longer in that eerie shadow of types. We live in the glorious light of the full revelation of Jesus Christ. What was not and could not be expressly condemned then, is now condemned in no uncertain terms. As we never would consider living in polygamy in the New Dispensation, so also we may not and cannot consider it ever proper to divorce our spouses to marry another. Now we live in the more perfect marriage bond, for it is the more perfect reflection of that blessed relation between us and our Lord.
This we must do. Hallowing the sanctity of the marriage bond, we hold forth the picture of the glorious covenant of grace into which we are taken. In the shadow of the cross we live in an adulterous world that destroys marriage and the home. But such should not be the case with us.