Digging in Deeper: Malachi 2:16

“‘If he hates and divorces his wife,’ says the Lord God of Israel, ‘he covers his garment with injustice,’ says the Lord of Armies. Therefore, watch yourselves carefully, and do not act treacherously.” (CSB – Read the chapter)

There aren’t many subjects more uncomfortable to deal with in the Scriptures than the various teachings on divorce contained within them. And yet, given just how important marriage is to our own lives, to our culture as a whole, and to God Himself, whether or not to end it and when and what comes next is something we have to deal with. We have to be able to find that place where theological truth and pastoral reality come together to bring God the glory He deserves and us the joy He intends for us to have. This verse does not by any means solve all the difficulties here, but it does offer an important contribution to our understanding of God’s thoughts on the matter. Let’s talk about it together.

Let’s start with the textual challenge here and then we’ll talk about what it actually means for us. There are two major translation options for this verse. Depending on which major translation you pick you’ll see one or the other. One option is as you just read here. Obviously, the Christian Standard Bible leans in this direction. So do the English Standard and the New International Versions. The Message, New Living Translation, King James, New Revised Standard, New American Standard all lean in the other direction.

Here is the New Living Translation for the sake of comparison: “‘For I hate divorce!’ says the Lord, the God of Israel. ‘To divorce your wife is to overwhelm her with cruelty,’ says the Lord of Heaven’s Armies. ‘So guard your heart; do not be unfaithful to your wife.'”

See the differences? Both have points that accord more literally with the Hebrew grammar and syntax. Neither does so completely. The challenge at the beginning of the verse is that in Hebrew, the first word is the verb “to hate” in a third person form–literally “he hates.” The second word, though, “to divorce,” is not similarly in third person form to justify the translation of the CSB and others (not to mention the fact that you have to supply the word “wife” for the sake of clarity for this translation). But, the first verb isn’t in the first person such that it would justify the direction the NLT goes.

The short version here is this: Is the text talking about a man who divorces his wife or is it presenting God’s opinion on divorce? This isn’t really a place where we can opt for both in terms of the actual translation we choose. This is one of those places where both are options with sound arguments in their support and folks equally committed to the total reliability of the text can decide differently and not waver in their respective commitments at all. Experts in Hebrew grammar simply choose one or the other and go with it.

From a theological standpoint, though–and this is really important–there really isn’t a significant difference from one option to the next. Whether it is pejoratively describing what these men were doing or directly expressing God’s visceral opposition to it, the conclusion is the same: These guys were way off track and God was most displeased with them.

This brings us then to talking a bit about what this means for us. Let me just drop the bomb at the beginning here and we’ll sort out the mess afterwards. God doesn’t like divorce. At all. Even a little bit. There are allowances for it in the Scriptures, but their context each makes clear that these are begrudgingly given exceptions to the ideal.

One of the reasons for His fierce opposition is that He is a covenantal God. When He makes a covenant, He keeps it. Period. Similarly, when we make covenants, we are doing so in direct reflection of His image in us. That means He takes those just as seriously as His covenants with us. Well, marriage is a covenant. Being unfaithful to that covenant is not simply an act of unfaithfulness to the one with whom we made it, but unfaithfulness to Him as well. It is a rejection of His image in us. Think about it: Would you be happy if one of your kids rejected their relationship with you in order to get something they wanted? Of course not, He isn’t either.

This verse, though, gives us another reason for God’s intractable opposition to divorce. We’ve talked twice about the situation here in Israel. Men were divorcing their wives and abandoning their children so they could grab hold of what they saw as something better. They were dropping their faithful wives so they could score trophy wives. Women didn’t have that power in this culture. While they were perhaps not without blame, they were the victims here. They could not work. They did not own any property. They had no way of providing for their children. In other words, this was a gross injustice being perpetrated by these men. God envisions it as a great ugly stain on their clothes that everyone can see. They were treading on dangerous ground and needed to be careful lest they wind up hurt beyond repair.

Okay, but we live in a different time and place. The position of and opportunities available to women today is vastly improved from where it was then. Surely things have changed. Divorce isn’t the injustice it was then, or at least not on the same level. Isn’t it?

In the 1960s the U.S. experienced a legal revolution in favor what was called “no-fault divorce.” Prior to that, couples seeking divorce had to find a sympathetic judge and provide evidence justifying their petition. It wasn’t an easy process and indeed it wasn’t designed to be. The culture recognized how important marriage and stable families were to the overall health of the nation. That changed. After the no-fault divorce revolution, divorce was easy. And then, to the surprise of exactly no one, it became common. But marriage itself wasn’t that big of a deal, right? It was more important for people to be happy in their relationships than committed to them. And besides, children needed happy parents too.

The thing about injustice is that most of us don’t even notice it in small amounts. We certainly aren’t very bothered by it. But a little injustice here and a little injustice there has an irritating habit of becoming a lot of injustice before anyone realizes what’s happening.

You see, divorce is never a victimless crime. There may be a list of things a mile long that would leave even the most intractable opponent completely convinced that the divorce itself is right and necessary, but whatever the reasons for it are and no matter how compelling they may be, it is always a victim-rich crime. It is an act of covenantal violence that leaves a wake of collateral damage in the form of broken women, broken men, and broken children. A few broken people are a tragedy, but not an existential threat to a culture. As more and more marriages ended in divorce, though, these collateral victims began piling up to the point that our culture has been profoundly impacted by divorce and not in any ways that have been a net positive.

Let’s land on a point here and go reflect together on where we are. Divorce is far from an unforgivable sin, but neither is it a victimless crime. There are situations in which it needs to happen because of the extent of damage wrought by sin. But it should also be an absolute last resort pursued only after every other option has been exhausted. And it should only be approached with a full awareness that while it may solve one glaring problem, it will create many more whose damage will unfurl for many years to come. Divorce is not what God planned when He created marriage.

If you have been forced to walk that road, know well that while it was not God’s plan for you, His love for you in Christ hasn’t wavered in the slightest. If you entrust yourself fully into His hands, He can and will heal the wounds you bear and will still yet use you to advance His kingdom in powerful ways. If you are the one who pursued the divorce so that you could have what you wanted instead of what you had, you’re going to need to own that and deal with the sin involved before you are going to be able to move forward. But, you can move forward in Christ. In fact, the only real hope you have to move forward at all is in Him. Turn to Him. Come back to the path of righteousness, and experience the life that is truly life.

2 thoughts on “Digging in Deeper: Malachi 2:16

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