About Marriage Regulations For Priests in Leviticus 

This question comes from a Grand Rapids reader: Dear Editor: “Recently we were reading at the table from the book of Leviticus; and as we were reading from the 21st chapter, verses 7, 13, and 14, I noticed something that I had never noticed before. “These verses speak of the laws of marriage for the priests. They may marry a virgin, but not a widow, nor one that is put away from her husband. And then they state the reason why they may not take these particular women to wife, namely, because they (the priests) are holy. “Why is the reason given, and what does it mean in this context? Is it, implied that the other Israelites could marry a divorced woman? “Yours in the Lord,” 


The passages in question are as follows. In Lev. 21:7 we find regulations concerning the marriage of the ordinary priests: “They shall not take a wife that is a whore, or profane (a fallen woman, probably any unmarried woman who has at any time known another man, HCH); neither shall they take a woman put away from her husband: for he is holy unto his God.” In verses 13 and 14 there are regulations concerning the marriage of the high priest only: “And he shall take a wife in her virginity. A widow, or a divorced woman, or profane, or an harlot, these shall he not take: but he shall take a virgin of his own people to wife.” We may notice, therefore, that the regulations for the marriage of the high priest were more stringent than the regulations for the marriage of the ordinary priests. The high priest might only marry a strict virgin; he was not even allowed to marry a widow. The priests would be permitted, under the regulations of verse 7, to marry a widow; but they might not marry anyone who had violated the seventh commandment. We may also note that with respect to both the priests and the high priest the reason for these regulations lies in their holiness unto the Lord. This is stated with respect to the priests in verse 7. And with respect to the high priest, this is clear from the context. The anointing oil of his God is upon him, vs. 12. And in vs. 15 we read, “Neither shall he profane his seed among his people: for I the Lord do sanctify him.” 

It is obvious, therefore, that the reason given for these regulations is the holiness of the priests and of the high priest. But the question is: why is this reason given? What does this reason mean in this particular context. In other words, what is the connection between the observance of these regulations concerning priestly marriage and priestly holiness? 

In answer to this question, I would point out, in the first place, that there is both a typical-ceremonial aspect and a real-moral aspect involved in these regulations. This is plain, first of all, when you read the regulations stated in these verses in their context. This entire chapter, as well as chapter 22, contains many regulations of a ceremonial-typical nature. Thus, for example, a priest might not defile himself (make himself ceremonially unclean) for the dead among his relatives, with certain exceptions; and the high priest might not defile himself for any dead body, even of his nearest relatives. Thus also, in the last part of chapter 21 there is an entire list of prohibitions as far as priestly personnel are concerned: no one who was deformed or who had even a slight physical blemish might function in the priestly office. And in chapter 22 there are regulations concerning the ceremonial cleanness and uncleanness of the priests, and prohibitions in case of uncleanness against serving in the sanctuary. Some of these regulations even extended to a priest’s daughter under certain circumstances. 

In the second place, we may also distinguish between the ceremonial element and the moral element in these regulations for marriage. It is plain, for example, that there is no violation of the seventh commandment as such, and therefore nothing immoral, in the marriage of a widow. The marriage relationship between such a woman and her first husband has been dissolved by the only factor which can dissolve any marriage, death. She is therefore an unmarried woman, eligible, as far as the seventh commandment is concerned, to be married. In such a case, therefore, the regulation was ceremonial, not moSa1. But when in these verses the priest is prohibited to marry a woman put away from her husband, there is not merely a ceremonial rule involved, but also a moral principle, which, if violated, would involve a violation of the seventh commandment.

The same distinction between that which is ceremonial and that which is moral is made in the book of Leviticus with respect to holiness. There was such a thing as a ceremonial holiness. One can find many regulations, both for the priests and for the common people in Israel, which were purely ceremonial and which did not as such involve any moral principle. Thus, for example, there were laws of clean and unclean animals. There was nothing sinful as such in the eating of pork; but ceremonially the hog was an unclean animal and might not be eaten by the Israelites. So also, there is nothing sinful as such in being a leper. But a leper was ceremonially unclean and excluded from the congregation of Israel. Now the priests, and particularly, the high priest, because of their special typical position were called to be holy both ceremonially and in the moral sense of the word in a special way. That holiness involved, positively, complete consecration to the service of the Lord; and, negatively, it involved separation from all the defilement of sin. And evidently the ceremonial regulations with respect to the marriage of the priests saw in the fact that a certain woman had known another man an element of defilement which was symbolic of the defilement of sin. A priest, therefore, might not marry a woman who had been defiled by knowing another man because ceremonially this would imply that the priest himself would become defiled. And this was so strict in the case of the high priest that he was required to take as a wife only one who was strictly a virgin. Not only might he not take a woman who had been a harlot and who had been defiled thus by another man. Not only might he not take a woman who had at any time known another man outside of the marriage bond. But the high priest might not even for ceremonial reasons take for his wife one who had known another man within the bond of marriage, but whose first husband had died. 

As far as any deeper reason is concerned, I would suggest, in the first place, that it may be connected with the peculiar position of the members of the tribe of Levi. They were, you will recall, consecrated to the service of the Lord in Israel in lieu of, or as substitutes for, all the firstborn among Israel. And as such substitutes they must be without defilement and without blemish—even as the proper sacrifice was a lamb without blemish. In the second place, I would point you to the fact that the priests were typical of the High Priest, our Lord Jesus Christ, who is described in Hebrews 7:26 as being “holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners, and made higher than the heavens.” Of the holy and undefiled character of the real High priest the holiness and undefiled character of the Old Testament priesthood was typical. 

There is one more question added here: “Is it implied that the other Israelites could marry a divorced woman?” My answer to this question is negative. The text here simply says nothing about this matter. And the mere fact that it states in verse 7 that a priest might not marry a woman put away from her husband certainly does not imply that ordinary Israelites were permitted to do so. This is not a legitimate conclusion. Nor do the -Scriptures at any point lend approval to such an action. The remarriage of divorced persons is prohibited in Scripture.

Why Does Not Classis Proclaim Prayer Days?

From Northwest Iowa comes the following question:

“Dear Prof. Hoeksema, 

“The Martha Society of the Doon Prot. Ref. Church has a question for the Question Box and would appreciate an answer in the Standard Bearer.

“The question is: Doesn’t classis ever feel it is necessary according to Article 66 of our Church Order to hold a special day of prayer in time of great calamities, war, pestilence, etc.?

“Yours in Christ,

Martha Society”


Article 66 of our Church Order reads as follows: “In time of war, pestilence, national calamities, and other great afflictions, the pressure of which is felt throughoutout the churches, it is fitting that the classis proclaim a day of prayer.” 

In answer to this question, I would say, in the first place, that never is a long time; but as far as I know, in the history of our churches thus far, no classis has ever called such a day of prayer as is referred to in Article 66. In the second place, I suppose we may assume that from a subjective point of view the reason for this is that classis has never felt it necessary to do so. It is another question, of course, whether there have been occasions when it would have been proper to proclaim such a day of prayer. But I would not want to assume that a classis has upon occasion felt it necessary, but then failed to do so. 

Although Doon’s Martha Society does not inquire about this, I will try to shed a bit of light on the meaning of this article of our Church Order and on its possible place in our ecclesiastical life. It so happens that I was recently asked to speak on this subject; and so I have the fruits of my study at hand. 

Without repeating all that I said in that speech, let me call your attention to a few significant elements. 

In the first place, this entire matter of special days of prayer (originally: days of fasting and prayer) has had a history. Originally the Reformed churches tended to shy away from such special days of prayer: not, of course, because they saw no good in days of prayer and fasting or because they considered them principally wrong, but partly because of the abuses which had arisen in connection with such special days in the Roman Catholic Church which they had just left. In the early history of the Reformed churches days of fasting and prayer were set aside at first only when the congregation was going to call a minister of the Word. Later, particularly in the unsettled days of the Dutch war for independence from Spanish rule, days which were also times of persecution at the hand of the Spanish Roman Catholic might, such days of fasting and prayer were set aside because of the pressure of war, pestilence, persecution, and national calamities. I think it is rather significant to note, too, that these days of prayer and fasting were not only called at very serious occasions, but that they were celebrated in a very serious manner. They did not simply call a brief prayer service in the evening—such as we have today, for example, on our annual Day of Prayer (Article 67) but they would designate an entire day during the week on which they refrained from food and drink, on which there would be preaching of the Word twice, and along with this prayers of supplication and thanksgiving, and, between the sermons, Scripture readings of one or another appropriate passage from the Old and New Testaments. In other words, the church at such an occasion would literally have an entire day of prayer and fasting. I would also suggest that the manner in which they celebrated such a day also reflects something of the seriousness of the situation which led them to proclaim such days of prayer. There was something spontaneous here. These days of prayer were not simply mechanically proclaimed when some consistory of classis happened to think it would be a nice idea to have a day of prayer. But the proclaiming of such days arose out of the bosom of the churches and out of a sense of real need to find refuge and solace in the fellowship of their God. In the same connection, I would suggest that there is something of a deep spirituality reflected in the fact that the church would assemble for an entire day as described above,—a spirituality that is largely absent in the church today, when it is sometimes difficult to get the congregation together for an hour-and-a-half service on the annual day of prayer. 

In the second place, I would call your attention to the circumstances spelled out in this article. The article speaks of a time of war, pestilence, national calamities, and other great afflictions. It is rather striking that although this might be covered by the expression, “other great afflictions,” the article as we now have it in our Church Order no longer mentions persecution specifically. This was included in the original article as it was adopted by the Synod of Dordrecht, 1618-’19. But I would especially have you note that according to Article 66 the classis must not merely proclaim a day of prayer in time of war, pestilence, etc. This is not the concern of the article. The concern is expressed in the words, “the pressure of which is felt throughout the churches.” Hence, the article refers to the great calamities which God in His providence sends and which greatly affect the churches—either directly, as is the case in a time of persecution, or simply by reason of the fact that the church is still in the midst of the world, lives on this earth, in this country, and is therefore automatically affected by whatever calamities God sends upon this country or parts of it. Notice, too, that the article does not refer to some passing crisis, some brief calamity, but to calamities which are of heavy and far-reaching effect and scope: the pressure of them is feltthroughout the churches. 

There is, therefore, a certain spiritual attitude presupposed in this article, an attitude which is necessary both to proclaim and to conduct such a day of prayer. That attitude is not a carnal, this-worldly attitude, not one in which the lines of demarcation between church and world, between believer and unbeliever, between the spiritual and the carnal, are of no account. But it is an attitude according to which the church and the people of God are spiritually minded, deeply concerned about the church and its welfare and preservation, and in which they see the calamities of this present time as coming from the hand of their Father in heaven. There is, I think, a striking contrast between the spirit evinced in this article and the spirit of much that calls itself church today. There is much concern today among the churches about the world, about the ills of society and of the nation at large, about social reform, much concern about the church’s outreach toward society, etc. But there is very little concern about the church herself and her needs. But this article of our Church Order expresses concern for the church. This is the only concern which the church has with respect to the various calamities mentioned: “the pressure of which is felt throughout the churches!” And as an example of this concern, I would point you to the times when these days of prayer originated among our fathers. They were times of war and persecution, when the very existence of the churches and the very life of the people of God were at stake. They were times when entire congregations would be separated from the fellowship of the other churches, or when they would be forced temporarily to disband because of persecution, and even to form refugee churches in other cities and other countries! 

In the third place, it should be evident that the purpose of such days of prayer is not that which is so often associated with days of prayer in our times. In some circles it has become a habit to go along with the national proclamation of days of prayer,—days of prayer, for example, for world peace. Our churches do not and should not go along with such ideas because the principle is wrong. Days of prayer are meant for thechurch, the church which alone can pray, not for the nation at large. They are not called for carnal ends, such as world peace. Their purpose is not a petition for mere material relief. The idea is not that when the Lord sends calamity, the church hurries to the throne of grace to importune the Lord kindly to undo the calamity. But, in the first place, there is a recognition here that these calamities come to us from the governing and loving hand of our Father in heaven, from Him Who loves us for Christ’s sake. And it should be the first spiritual instinct of the church and of the people of God in time of stress to turn to their Father in heaven. To whom else should they turn? In the second place, the purpose is that the church and the people of God may confess their dependence upon Him, may express and seek the grace of submission to God’s will, and grace to seek the things that are above,—for example, in time of persecution grace to persevere and to remain faithful. In the third place, the church gathers for prayer under such circumstances because her concern is the preservation of God’s church and God’s saints in the midst of the calamities of this present time. Her need is to cast her burden upon the Lord. 

Perhaps it is true that at this state in history Article 66 of our Church Order is somewhat of a dead letter; it is temporarily out of use. Yet I do not feel that we should throw out an article of this kind. Perhaps the day will come in the not too distant future which will be similar to the day when this article was first given a place in our Church Order, a day when in the face of calamities, in persecution, and under the heavy hand of God the churches will again be impelled and spiritually inclined to proclaim, not a service, but an entire day of fasting and prayer, when the church will experience that “the name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous runneth into it and is safe.