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Rev. Hanko is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Lynden, Washington. Previous article in this series: August 2006, p. 440.

The Third Disputation: Chapter 2:10-16 (continued)

12. The LORD will cut off the man that doeth this, the master and the scholar, out of the tabernacles of Jacob, and him that offereth an offering unto the LORD of hosts.

In Israel the sin of marrying heathen wives made the sinner worthy of being cut off, that is, of death or banishment. In the New Testament it makes one worthy of excommunication. Nor ought the elders of the church hesitate to censure, and if necessary put out of the church those who are guilty of these sins. The principle set out in I Corinthians 5:6 applies here also: “A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump.” Excommunication in such cases is simply a recognition of the fact that a person, by such sins, has shown himself to be one who despises God’s covenant and friendship. To this covenant and friendship with God the “tabernacles of Jacob” refer here in verse 12 (cf. Rev. 21:1, 2).

God speaks here of master and scholar because it was not only the common people who were guilty of this sin, but the leaders also. Perhaps He even means to point out that those who held such positions in Israel used their influence and study (in the case of scholars) to justify their actions by misinterpreting and misapplying the Word of God, as is usually the case. God speaks also of those who offered an offering, because these Jews were doubly guilty, not only of forsaking God’s covenant in intermingling with the heathen, but of maintaining a hypocritical pretense of loving God and fearing Him by continuing to bring their offerings to the temple. None of them, however prominent, would escape God’s judgment.

13. And this have ye done again, covering the altar of the LORD with tears, with weeping, and with crying out, insomuch that he regardeth not the offering any more, or receiveth it with good will at your hand.

With these words the prophet begins to deal with the other sin of which the Jews were guilty, the sin of divorcing. “This ye have done” refers not to what has just been said, but to what follows.

There are those who take this verse as referring to heathen and idolatrous worship and who take the verses that follow as a reference not to actual divorcing and a condemnation of that sin, but as a reference to pagan worship. In other words, the Jews committed the sin of divorce only by forsaking God and worshiping idols. Now it is true that idolatry and intermarriage with the heathen are a kind of spiritual fornication (Ezek. 16), but there is no reason at all to take this passage in any other way than as being a literal and explicit condemnation of divorce. Those who take it otherwise usually have a hidden agenda, not accepting the teaching of the Word of God about divorce and remarriage.

The tears referred to, therefore, are the tears and weeping of the Jewish wives who had been injured by this sin, tears that are as often shed today as then, not only by wives who have been forsaken, but also by husbands and children who have suffered as a result of this sin and whose tears are a testimony against those who continue to commit the sin of divorcing.

The warning is especially forceful since God refuses to receive the worship of those who commit this sin or to show them any good will or favor in their attempts to placate Him. How many there must be today whose worship is unacceptable to God on account of this unrepented sin!

14. Yet ye say, Wherefore? Because the LORD hath been witness between thee and the wife of thy youth, against whom thou hast dealt treacherously: yet is she thy companion, and the wife of thy covenant.

As always the Jews refused to see their sins and to hear the Word of God through Malachi, and so God elaborates on their sins and speaks of the treachery of the Jews against their wives. Each of these mistreated wives is referred to as “the wife of thy youth,” not only because the Jews married young, but as a reminder of the fact that they were divorcing the wives to whom they had been married for many years, who had born their children and whom they were now forsaking. No less common and no less treacherous are such deeds today.

God emphasizes the seriousness of this sin also by describing each of these wives as “thy companion” and “the wife of thy covenant.” He is referring by the first to the intimacy, fellowship, and love that ought to characterize a marriage and usually does in the beginning, but that often, through sin, wanes and disappears. By describing her as “the wife of thy covenant,” He not only reminds the people that marriage is a covenant, but that it is part of God’s covenant. The intimacies of marriage picture the intimacies of God’s relationship to us, and the bond of marriage is part of the bond between God and His people.

This is an important reminder. When we are dealing with marriage, we are not just dealing with a temporary and human relationship that is of no real spiritual significance, but are dealing with God’s covenant and an aspect of that covenant. To put it differently, it is gross hypocrisy for anyone to say that he or she loves God and is a friend of God and not do all that can be done to preserve and protect and live in marriage as an institution of God.

God describes Himself as a witness between the Jews and their divorced wives because He alone was able to see and know the real motives behind their actions. There can be no doubt that the Jews excused themselves by saying that they had married young when they did not really know what they were doing and therefore could not be responsible for their actions and could not be expected to live anymore with their wives; that they no longer loved their wives and that they were sure that God wanted them to be happy; that circumstances had changed, and though they had done all they could to maintain their marriages, there was nothing left but to divorce—the same vapid excuses that are heard today.

God knew better. He knew, as the One who searches the heart, that their real motives were selfish and wicked—that they were moved only by lust—and that all their excuses were just that and nothing more. He had seen not only their actions, but their hearts, and was witness against them, a witness who would make sure that they suffered just punishment for their crimes.

15. And did not he make one? Yet had he the residue of the spirit. And wherefore one? That he might seek a godly seed. Therefore take heed to your spirit, and let none deal treacherously against the wife of his youth.

Verse 15 is by all accounts the most difficult verse in the whole prophecy. One commentator even gives up and says that “the worst thing that could be done would be to assume that itcan be understood.”¹ The questions are many: What does it mean that He made one? What is the residue of the spirit and who had it? Who was seeking a godly seed and how? These questions show that the verse is indeed difficult. But it is not impossible. In fact, the questions must be answered and the verse interpreted, for it lies at the heart of what God is saying in this part of the prophecy.

Perhaps the most common interpretation is that God is holding up to the Jews the negative example of Abraham, their first father, who was married to Sarah, one flesh with her, but took Hagar as his concubine, seeking a godly seed in doing so. The problem with this interpretation is first that Abraham did not divorce Sarah or deal treacherously with her. In fact, it was Sarah’s idea that Abraham marry Hagar. That example would have had no force with the Jews therefore.

Another common interpretation, that of Calvin and others, refers the verse to the creation of Adam and Eve and to the fact that God made them, man and woman, one flesh in marriage. The example would then be positive and an implicit condemnation of the Jews who were acting against God’s original marriage ordinance in divorcing and remarrying, and separating what God had joined together. That interpretation has little against it exegetically and would parallel what Jesus says in Matthew 19:1-9.

Better, though, is the interpretation that understands the verse in the context of what God has just said about His own relationship to the Jews. The making one, then, is God’s establishing His covenant with the Jews and taking them as His own peculiar people—the seeking of a godly seed being His reason for doing so, that is, that they from among all the heathen nations might be His dear children.

The reference to the residue of the spirit, then, is to the fact that God by His Holy Spirit dwelt among the Jews, but that the riches of His Spirit had not been poured out even on them. The passage means something like this:

Did not God make us one? Did he not separate us from other nations into an isolated unity? Yet this was not done because the blessing was too narrow to be spread over the other nations, or because infinite fulness was exhausted; for the residue of the Spirit was with him. There remained an inexhaustible fulness of spiritual blessing that might have been given to other nations. Why then did he choose but one? It was in order that he might make a seed of God, a nation which he should train to be the repository of his covenant and the stock of his Messiah, a people in which the true doctrine of the unity of God should be cherished amid surrounding polytheism and idolatry, until the fulness of time should come.²

The verse, therefore, picks up on some of the themes already introduced and develops them.

There is good application of the verse to the church and to believers today. The verse reminds us, as New Testament Christians, that God has separated us in marriage from the wicked world in which we live in order that we might be holy to Him, and that any violation of what God has commanded for marriage is a contradiction of what God has done for us in Christ. It would be a reminder also of the fact that God has made us separate in order to fulfill His own promise to be our God and the God of our children—has separated us, in other words, in order that the seed of the covenant might be brought forth and preserved among us and that in that way God’s promise might not fail, His purpose be accomplished, and His name glorified and honored.

All this leads to the conclusion: “Therefore take heed to your spirit, and let none deal treacherously against the wife of his youth.” The warning is a warning not only of treachery toward other persons but toward God. That is also the reason why God speaks of taking heed to our “spirits.” The spirit of man is that aspect of man’s creation that enables him to know God and to live in fellowship with God. It is not only a man’s relationship to others that is damaged by marital treachery, but also his relationship to God. May we hear and heed that warning!


¹Douglas Stuart, Malachi, in Thomas Edward McComiskey, An Exegetical and Expository Commentary on the Minor Prophets, vol. 3, p. 1340.

² T.V. Moore, A Commentary on Haggai and Malachi, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1974, p. 137.