In our study of the Biblical teaching of divorce and remarriage, we have considered what God intended with marriage from the very beginning. We now consider what we can learn from the Old Testament period. This knowledge is important to this subject for two reasons.
First, it seems that during the Old Testament period, a great deal of leniency was manifested toward the sanctity of marriage. This was evident in two ways: the practice of polygamy and concubinage and the putting away of a wife that didn’t please. Both of these practices would seem to contradict God’s purpose of marriage as divinely instituted.
Secondly, the Jews of Jesus’ day looked back at this “leniency” and used it to justify their own practice of divorce, see Matt. 19. If it was “all right” to have more than one wife or divorce one that didn’t please a man in Old Testament times, why is this not allowed in the church today? We must consider these important questions as they relate to our understanding the Biblical teaching of divorce and remarriage.
GOD, THE HUSBAND OF ISRAEL
Basic to anything the Old Testament may have to say to us concerning marriage is the spiritual truth that God emphasized for His people during this time: viz., He was their husband and they were His wife. In principle, this was revealed to the patriarchs through the practice of eating in connection with the making of a covenant, see Gen. 15. It was a sign of friendship, not only, but the intimate friendship of the home.
When Israel became a nation, this truth was brought forth to them more forcefully. The prophets spoke of this. God said, “For I will betroth thee unto me for ever; yea, I will betroth thee unto me in righteousness, and in judgment, and in lovingkindness, and in mercies,” Hosea. 2:19. God informed Israel, “For thy Maker is thine husband; the Lord of hosts is his name; and thy Redeemer the Holy One of Israel; The God of the whole earth shall he be called,” Isa. 54:5. Because of this, should Israel fall into sin, they would make themselves guilty of spiritual adultery, “They say, If a man put away his wife, and she go from him, and become another man’s, shall he return unto her again? shall not that land be greatly polluted? but thou has played the harlot with many lovers; yet return again to me, saith the Lord,” Jeremiah 3:1.
This spiritual covenant of marriage was the prevailing influence on the life of Israel. This separated them from the other nations. It impressed upon Israel the spiritual direction of their whole life; they were consecrated unto Jehovah and their life had to show it. Jehovah was their husband!
PRINCIPLES FOR MARRIAGE IN ISRAEL
One practical application of this may be seen in the influence this had on marriage. In trying to understand the attitude of the people of God toward marriage in Old Testament times, one encounters so much emphasis by commentators upon their having more than one wife and the practice of divorce that one gets the impression that this was so common that the average Israelite must have had a very low idea of marriage and love, that he could get rid of his wife if she so much as raised her voice against him. This however, is hardly the picture.
God specifically designated His relationship with Israel as a marital relationship to emphasize for them the sanctity of marriage. Surely, there were other relationships which described God’s dealings with Israel, e.g. He was their King, He was their Father. Among such lofty concepts, ‘God also emphasized He was their husband. This certainly impressed upon Israel the importance of the marriage relationship. Their earthly marriage was to reflect this divine marriage.
There is plenty of evidence in the Old Testament that this happened. Consider how Abraham sought a wife for Isaac, not from the daughters of the land, but from his own seed, Gen. 24. He wanted Isaac to “marry in the Lord.” Similarly, Samson’s parents were concerned when he asked them to arrange his marriage with a Philistine, “Then his father and his mother said unto him, Is there never a woman among the daughters of thy brethren, or among all my people, that thou goest to take a wife of the uncircumcised Philistines?” Judges 14:3. Then it is added as an explanation that they didn’t understand that the Lord intended this as occasion to attack the Philistines. Certainly, the laws of God given at Sinai emphasized God’s will to guard the sanctity of marriage. Think of the explicit laws for sexual purity ofLev. 18-20. Adultery was forbidden, Lev. 18:20, and even the death penalty was fixed upon the violator, Deut. 22:25, 26,Lev. 20:10. God even prescribed a test for determining guilt, to satisfy the jealous husband, Numbers 5:18ff. Add to this the fact that the prophet exhorted Israel to “separate yourselves from the people of the land, and from the strange wives,” Ezra 10:11.
In the daily life of Israel, effort was made to conform their marriages according to the lofty standards God, had set forth in His marriage to them.
When the Pharisees came to Christ and tried to get Him to take sides in their dispute over the proper grounds for divorce, Christ said, “Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, suffered you to put away your wives, but from the beginning it was not so,” Matt. 19:8. How could Moses “suffer” this? This has a direct bearing upon our question, why could Israel practice polygamy and we cant?
The clue to this idea of “suffer” may be found in Gal. 4:3, 9, “Even so we, when we were children, were in bondage under the elements of the world; But now, after that ye have known God, or rather are known of God, how turn ye again to the weak and beggarly elements, whereunto ye desire again to be in bondage?”
The point that Paul is making in helping the Galatians to understand the role of the law as it applied to Israel, and how that had bearing on the whole life of Israel, is this: Israel was a child. After the creation, man fell into sin. The inner workings of grace had their beginning in Israel during the Old Testament times. Spiritually, they were children, they had a great deal of growing up to do. God gave the law of types and ceremonies to assist them as object lessons for children. As children, they also had much “hardness of heart,” Matt. 19:8. They acted childish and consequently brought themselves into bondage, Gal. 4:3. In their spiritual childishness, they often looked at the other nations and wanted to be like them, I Sam. 8:5. They wanted to have the pleasures of sin as the heathen enjoyed, as at. Sinai, Exodus 32. This also applied to their attitude toward marriage.
When does the change to maturity come? According to Gal. 4:9, it comes with the presence of the Holy Spirit of Christ to liberate us from the law of bondage and elevate us into the liberty wherewith Christ sets us free. The people of God today are more spiritually mature, not because they are inherently better, but because Christ has given His Spirit to the church, and His presence makes the difference. This maturity will become perfect when we finally arise beyond the present life into the perfect glory of God in heavenly splendor.
Keeping this in mind, we are able to evaluate the Old Testament times. God “suffered” with His people much like parents have to “suffer” with their slowly maturing children. There are certain things which are forbidden; some things are tolerated, and parents need the sanctified wisdom to distinguish which is which. God practiced this wisdom with Israel.
Take polygamy and concubinage. God forbade adultery in every form Yet, we do not expressly read that God forbade his saints in certain instances to take more than one wife, e.g. Jacob. This does not mean that God approved and blessed it; He suffered it. In most instances the practical consequence of this sin brought much heartache and pain in the lives of the patriarchs. God let them learn the hard way of experience. He was dealing with them as children.
We must apply this same thing to Deut. 24:1-4. In trying to understand this passage (look it up) we consider the following:
First, God did not instruct a man who was married and had a wife in whom he did not continue to find favor (because he had found some uncleanness in her) to put her away and give her a writing of divorcement. Calvin correctly points: out, “Some interpreters do not read these verses continuously, but suppose the sense to be complete at the end. of the first, wherein the husband testified I that he divorces his wife for no offense, but because her beauty does not satisfy his lust. If however, we give more close attention, we shall see that it is only one provision of the law, viz., that when a man had divorced his wife, it is not lawful for him to marry her again if she have married another. The reason of the law is, that by prostituting his wife, he would be, as far as in him lay, acting like a procurer. In this view, it is said that she was defiled, because he had contaminated her body, for the liberty which he gave her could not abolish the first institution of God, but rather, as Christ teaches, gave cause for adultery (Matt. 5:31, Matt. 19:9). Thus the Israelites were reminded that although they divorced their wives with impunity, still this license was by no means excused before God,” Commentary on Deut. 28. What the law forbade was the remarriage of a couple once divorced.
Secondly, Moses suffered this divorce. Here, too, we must not imagine that Moses suffered more than God did. That is not the idea of Christ in Matt. 19:8. God suffered this practice in Israel and therefore Moses suffered it. The law simply recognized a thing that was practiced in a limited way in Israel; only God placed this restraint upon it, that if a husband thus put his wife away, he might not imagine that he could ever have her back again if she remarried. This was forbidden in the law of Deut. 24. The priests were also forbidden to marry such a divorced person, a clear indication of God’s rejection of such a thing, Lev. 21:7. The Levites were to be examples of holiness, and therefore they could have nothing to do with such a “putting away.”
INSTRUCTION FOR THE GROWN UP CHURCH
Viewing the events in Israel from this point of view, we certainly must not look at them and envy them in their polygamy or divorce. This is exactly the opposite point of view of Christ in the New Testament. Christ answered the Pharisees who had come to Him asking Him for what grounds they might put away their wives, whether for adultery alone or every cause. His answer was that they might not put their wives away for any cause, Matt. 19:6. This answer surprised them and they asked what about Moses and the law of the Old Testament. Jesus referred them to the beginning and said, from the beginning it was not so. How could He say that? Because He was instructing the grown up church. He was about to redeem them from the curse of the law and pour out the Holy Spirit upon them. No wonder the disciples reacted and said, who then would want to get married if divorce is only for adultery and remarriage is out? Jesus said, “For there are some eunuchs, which were so born from their mother’s womb; and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men, and there be eunuchs which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven’s sake. He that is able to receive it let him receive it,”Matt. 19:11, 12.
God created marriage as an institution within which He reveals Himself as the covenant God. Sin affected this, and during the Old Testament times, God suffered with His infant church, bearing with their hardness of heart. Now, this is different and the church today has the privilege to live within the sanctity of marriage in the highest possible way, even as God intended with creation. In Christ, we are renewed in the image of God and by our marriage to Him, possess power to do that which by nature is impossible, live holily within marriage and never forsake the marriage partner, so long as both shall live. This is not bondage; it is freedom. We will examine this next time D.V.