“I hate divorce!” Many who grew up in the church are familiar with these words as coming from God’s mouth, even if we can’t identify the reference as Malachi 2:16. If you look this up in the English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible, as I recently did, you will wonder what happened to these famous words. The ESV reads like this: “For the man who does not love his wife but divorces her, says the LORD, the God of Israel, covers his garment with violence, says the LORD of hosts. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and do not be faithless.” The syntax of the Hebrew text is very difficult to nail down exactly, but the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament) favors the ESV’s translation. For a brief discussion of the translation alternatives I recommend the ESV Study Bible notes on this text. For a discussion of the translation difficulties see R. A. Taylor and E. R. Clendenen, Haggai, Malachi, (Nashville: B & H, 2004), 357-70. The difference boils down to this: does the text say that God hates divorce or that divorce is an act of hatred. On either interpretation it is clear that divorce is a travesty of a creation ordinance of which the Creator disapproves, and only allows because of the hardness of the human heart (Matt. 19:8).
In Malachi 2:10-16 God brings two related charges against the men of Judah concerning marriage. First, God says that they have violated their covenant with Him by marrying foreign wives who continue to worship the gods of the nations (v. 11, “the daughter of a foreign god”). Because of this God rejects the worship of these men. Second, God says that they have violated their covenant with Him and God’s purpose for marriage by divorcing their Jewish wives (v. 14, “your companion and your wife by covenant”), with whom they should be raising up godly offspring (v. 15). Again, God reiterates that because of this He rejects their worship. So the picture we get from Malachi, which probably sheds light on Ezra 9-10 and Nehemiah 13, is that certain men, including priests and Levites, had divorced their Jewish wives, leaving them destitute, and had taken idol worshiping wives in their place. Of course, they tried to separate this injustice toward their wives from their worship of the LORD. But God would have none of that! Why not?
- Marriage is a covenant involving three parties, One of whom is God. Malachi says it like this: “Because the LORD was witness between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant” (v. 14). Contrary to what many men believed and practiced, God viewed the woman as an equal partner (“companion”) in the covenant (not same roles, but equal parties). The word “faithless” is God’s charge against the husband for breaking his covenant vows. Of course, what is even more heinous is that he could take his vows so lightly when they had been witnessed by God Himself.
- Marriage is a sacred union which God uses to perpetuate godly offspring (lit. seed of God). “Did He not make them one, with a portion of the Spirit in their union? And what was the one God seeking? Godly offspring” (v. 15a). God is the One who makes husband and wife one. This one-flesh union (Gen. 2:24; Matt. 19:4) is God’s creation by His Spirit. To paraphrase Jesus’ application: “What mere mortal would dare to tear in two what God has made one?!” (Matt. 19:6). The reference to godly offspring in this context probably serves two purposes: 1) an allusion to the promise of a Seed of woman who would crush the serpent’s head—the first promise of the Savior; 2) the call to teach the Lord’s covenant diligently to your children (Deut. 6:7).
- Marriage is to be guarded by the husband. “So guard yourselves in your spirit, and let none of you be faithless to the wife of your youth” (v. 15b). Just as a soldier is held accountable for falling asleep during his watch, so husbands are accountable to God for not being watchful over their marriages.
- Divorce is an act of bloody violence. Malachi says that the man who hates and divorces his wife “covers his garment with violence (ḥāmās)” (v. 16). Divorce is portrayed as a crime scene. When the LORD comes to investigate, there stands the man with his bloodstained clothes! There is no clean way to tear in two what God has made one. It takes a violent act that leaves the victims broken.
- The marriage covenant represents God’s covenant with His people. When Malachi introduces this charge, he does not first mention the breaking of the marriage covenant; instead, he charges them with profaning “the covenant of our fathers” (v. 10). Their faithlessness is called an abomination and a desecration of God’s holy place. When we turn to passages such as Ephesians 5:22-33 we can see the connection between the marriage relationship and our covenant with God. God marries His people (Isa. 62:4-5). Our marriages are meant to reflect the love relationship between God and His people. Divorce distorts this picture.
In our egalitarian society it is no longer only men who must heed this warning. The injustice and violence of divorce is within arm’s reach of husband and wife. Therefore, let us close our ears to our society’s casual promotion of divorce, and listen to the reality described by God. May this also inform our ministry to those who have suffered the violence of divorce.