“Don’t all of us have one Father? Didn’t one God create us? Why then do we act treacherously against one another, profaning the covenant of our ancestors? Judah has acted treacherously, and a detestable act has been done in Israel and in Jerusalem. For Judah has profaned the Lord’s sanctuary, which he loves, and has married the daughter of a foreign god. May the Lord cut off from the tents of Jacob the man who does this, whoever he may be, even if he presents an offering to the Lord of Armies.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
Have you ever been in one of those moments when you’re messing around with someone and all of a sudden things turn from silly to serious? It’s not always clear where this line is, and because of that, when you cross it, not everyone is immediately aware of the change. Sometimes we get surprised by the discovery of just how important to someone else is something that we had considered trivial. As Malachi introduces this next topic, the language used suggests we’ll be talking about a really serious issue. Well, we are…but not everyone agrees today.
Listen again to the kind of language the prophet uses here. He speaks of treachery and profaning the covenant. Something detestable has been done. The Lord is going to cut off the ones who have been involved in this even if they try and get themselves right with Him. No amount of power or position will save them. Yikes, right?!?
What could be the crime of which the people were so guilty here? Was there brazen idolatry that had broken back out among the people? Was there a murderer loose in their midst? Was this an issue of some gross injustice? What could warrant this kind of language?
We find that in v. 11. Some of the men of Judah had…are you ready for it?…married non-Jewish woman. That’s it? That’s the big deal here? Are you sure we didn’t misread this somehow? No, that’s really the issue. The ensuing context is focused similarly on marriage and divorce. The people were marrying outside their clans and it was a really big deal.
There are two reasons for this. One is cultural and applies pretty narrowly to Israel. One is theological and applies to everybody, including you and me.
First the cultural. In ancient Israel as well as the ancient world more generally, most of a person’s wealth was tied up in how much land they owned. A family’s land gave them security both now and in the future. Yes, you had to work the land to have vineyards and fields, and use it wisely for large flocks, but it was the land itself that mattered most. A father would divide up his land when he died and give it to his sons. Ideally, they would each be able to expand their holdings over time and the overall family wealth would increase. This was how towns formed and became cities. One family eventually became a clan which eventually became a nation and then an empire.
Because of all this, it was really important to marry someone who was part of the clan so that the land stayed in the family. The only exception would be when a marriage was arranged with someone of a nearby tribe (but still in the larger clan) in order to finalize a deal that was financially beneficial to both families.
When a man didn’t follow this trend, but brazenly married a woman from another nation who worshiped a different god, now there was a chance that family land could pass into the hands of this other nation. If the woman outlived her husband, she would be able to influence her children away from his family and beliefs and in the direction of hers. That would hurt the overall tribe and shrink the might and power of the nation as a whole. And the worst part was, the men of Judah weren’t just making these devastating moves from the start, they were abandoning stable, proper marriages to good women–and their children as well–in order to chase foreign fancies. They were making the active choice to weaken their people as a whole. In this sense, marriage was a national security issue.
Now the theological. Marriage matters a lot. Well, surely we understand that today. Just look at all the energy and attention (not to mention money) that we give to getting married today. Our nation has fairly recently been expanding the definition of marriage so that it is available to more people than it has ever been before. Of course we understand just how much it matters. Ah, but you see, all of these modern trends only serve to reveal how profoundly we underestimate the importance of marriage. We give all our attention to getting married, not to being and staying married. And when we start to call everything marriage, we begin to lose the ability to really call anything marriage.
What we understand from the Scriptures is that marriage was intended to be a covenant. A covenant. That is an unbreakable bond in which the two parties commit to honor the aspects of the covenant regardless of the worthiness or faithfulness of the other partner. Now, yes, eventually covenants can be so thoroughly broken through violence or neglect that it gets dissolved as a reflection of what already is true, but that’s a profound deviation from its intent.
Marriage was designed to be a covenant between a man and a woman that formed the fundamental building block of human society. It created the safest and most likely-to-succeed context for the rearing and raising of a subsequent generation that is equipped for the challenges that are still down the road. It was to be a reflection of the relationship God Himself has with the His people, putting on beautiful display for the world to actually see the kind of humble, self-giving, intentional, unconditional love that He has for us.
Because of the nature of this bond, married partners need to share the same basic worldview. Where there is deviation from one to the other on fundamental issues, there are fractures sewn into the fabric of the relationship that will eventually spell great trouble down the road. The seeds of destruction are sown in the rich, fertile soil of the relationship’s early days. They will eventually grow and bear their bitter fruit. This will always result in chaos for that family. And, when this kind of thing becomes a culture-wide trend, it spells chaos for a nation as a whole. Indeed, given the state of our nation today, this really shouldn’t be a debatable point. So why invite this in the first place?
We have been taught to think of marriage in very much unrealistic terms for many years and the fruits of this are coming to bear in ways that are causing much grief for many people. And the solution to all of this mess is not to make marriage somehow bigger as we have or to abandon it altogether as we are trying to do as well. It is to return to an understanding of marriage that properly reflects its reality. It is to begin once again taking it as seriously as God Himself does. This is something the church needs to do better. It is something parents need to be more intentional in teaching their children. It is something we need to be more diligent about practicing personally.
If you have made a covenant, honor it. Even when it is hard and inconvenient and taking away from your personal happiness, honor it. Now, this does not mean anyone should accept abuse in any form. But many more marriages are dissolved for reasons of personal inconvenience or wounded feelings than abuse. If you are thinking about entering into this covenant–and you should enter into this covenant unless God has called you to celibate singleness–think carefully about who it is with whom you are considering the intertwining of your life. Ask questions that go deeper than external attractiveness or some basic points of relational connectivity. Is she going to support and encourage you in the long days when you’re both exhausted from working and the kids demand more attention than either of you can give? Is he going to treat you like a precious gem and humbly sacrifice his personal preferences for you and your babies even when he sees his friends pursuing their carnal dreams with no apparent consequences? More importantly still, does this other person share a worldview foundation with you at the most fundamental and important levels? Is she a follower of Jesus? Is he?
None of this makes marriage any easier, but then it was never an easy thing to begin with. When we get it right, though, it is a good thing. A very good thing. We’ve got to take all of this seriously. God most certainly does. Nothing less than the fate of our culture and even the world is at stake.