The three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.
Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.
My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.
7 They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” 8 He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. 9 And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”[a]
This week’s verses continue our Lord’s discussion on divorce with the Pharisees.
There is much to unpack here.
To recap, the first part of Matthew 19 explains where Jesus is at this time. Last week’s post covered God’s plan for Adam and Eve as well as the covenant of marriage, based on His creation of the couple.
This week’s verses are the middle of Jesus’s teaching on divorce. The Pharisees were known to divorce their wives for any reason, no matter how trivial. I wrote about this at length in 2014 when discussing Luke 16:18. Therefore, it is interesting that they interpret Moses’s position on divorce as a ‘command’ (verse 7), when our Lord clearly saw it as something which is ‘allowed’ (verse 8).
The passage the Pharisees were referring to was Deuteronomy 24:1-4:
Laws Concerning Divorce
24 “When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house, 2 and if she goes and becomes another man’s wife, 3 and the latter man hates her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter man dies, who took her to be his wife, 4 then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after she has been defiled, for that is an abomination before the Lord. And you shall not bring sin upon the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance.
In short, John MacArthur says that ‘indecency’ (verse 1) refers to something just short of adultery. Contrary to what the Pharisees believed, it had nothing to do with burnt dinners, sloppy housekeeping or disagreements with the mother-in-law. Under Mosaic Law, adulterers were to be stoned to death, although there were many who never received that sentence. MacArthur surmises that there were too many adulterers at the time; therefore, handing out death sentences would have been rank hypocrisy. It would certainly have thinned the population, if true.
In any event, a woman’s former husband cannot remarry her if he’s divorced her (verse 4). That is the real takeaway message here — and the one command!
Divorcing for anything other than adultery defiles the woman. Therefore, the ex-husband may not remarry her on those grounds. This is why verse 4 speaks of not bringing sin upon the land that the Lord has given in inheritance.
No Old Testament passages on divorce command it. In fact, in some instances it was strictly forbidden. Where a man has sexual congress with a virgin to whom he is not married (Deuteronomy 22:18-19, emphases mine):
18 Then the elders of that city shall take the man and whip[b] him, 19 and they shall fine him a hundred shekels[c] of silver and give them to the father of the young woman, because he has brought a bad name upon a virgin[d] of Israel. And she shall be his wife. He may not divorce her all his days.
Later on, it says the same in verses 28 and 29:
28 “If a man meets a virgin who is not betrothed, and seizes her and lies with her, and they are found, 29 then the man who lay with her shall give to the father of the young woman fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife, because he has violated her. He may not divorce her all his days.
We read in Leviticus 21:7 of priestly marriage:
They shall not marry a prostitute or a woman who has been defiled, neither shall they marry a woman divorced from her husband, for the priest is holy to his God.
And, again, in verse 14:
A widow, or a divorced woman, or a woman who has been defiled, or a prostitute, these he shall not marry. But he shall take as his wife a virgin[b] of his own people,
Going back to Deuteronomy 24, MacArthur sums it up this way:
Deuteronomy 24 does not command divorce. It commands that you not remarry an illegitimately divorced person. It’s a very strong word, my friend. You don’t want to marry an illegitimately divorced person because you’re marrying someone who is defiled.
This is because God intended for the holy covenant of marriage among His people:
Now, you see, God is protecting marriage. And He’s saying this: you can’t just divorce your wife for anything you want, or you’re going to turn her into an adulteress, whoever marries her into an adulterer, yourself and who you marry into one, so just know that, and that ought to help you when you think about getting rid of your wife. Because you’re just going to become an adulterer, and whoever you marry is going to fall into that category, and so is everybody else. And you see, God is, in a sense, trying to insulate that one man, one woman, monogamous, lifelong relationship by making the alternative one of disaster. And so, this text does not command divorce; it commands that you do not remarry an illegitimately divorced person.
Some may ask if the Bible explains how Moses decided, with God’s help, to allow divorce as a realistic way of dealing with the Israelites’ ‘hardness of heart’ (verse 8). There is no such verse:
Frankly, dear friends, we don’t know where in the Old Testament Moses actually permitted it because it doesn’t say that, but we do know that it must have been permitted for a legitimate basis or it wouldn’t have been discussed for illegitimate basis in Deuteronomy 24. But the Old Testament does not give us a text where it says I permit you to get a divorce on the basis of this. So, we have to sort of draw that out. And I think there’s a reason for that. I think God avoided saying it. It is a permission, but it’s sort of way behind the scenes, it’s not overtly stated lest people hurry to that passage to justify themselves.
God is also merciful and does not want to see innocent parties penalised by forbidding them to remarry:
… when there was an irreconcilable problem, in other words, you’ve got a partner in a marriage who is in an adulterous relationship and will not sever it and will not sever it, and there’s no way to bring it back, there’s no way to restore it. God may be gracious to that adulterous person, but where that hard heart is not softened, God permitted divorce for the innocent party to be free to remarry. I believe where you have an unrepentant, irreconcilable adultery, you have a hard heart. And you are pursuing your adultery in a hard-hearted way, then Moses allowed, not condoned, not commended, and not commanded, but allowed divorce, when God was gracious and didn’t bring death. That’s all we can understand about it, otherwise nothing makes sense.
We cannot give any more latitude than the Word of God does. It was a concession on account of sin to make life more bearable for one sinned against.
In the case of death, the marriage covenant comes to an end. As such, the widowed party can remarry:
In other words, let’s say in the Old Testament your husband commits adultery, he’s dead. He has no chance to repent. If he’s unredeemed, he’s in hell forever. Are you free to remarry? Sure, because death breaks the marriage.
There were, however, times when divorce was allowed. Ezra 10 describes what happened when men of Israel married pagan women then repented. They came up with the idea to divorce them: they were not of their culture which was known to be adulterous. They were defiled women in the first place. Ezra gave the men his permission to divorce.
They had temple prostitutes, both male and female. And when they went to worship, for example, the people who worshiped Baal would go in and actually engage in sex orgies. And I believe the reason that the reason there can be legitimate grounds for divorce here, is because their spouses were pagan adulterers and idolaters, okay? And on that basis, God is permitting them to shed those wives, or husbands, who are engaged in that incessant, unceasing worship of false gods connected not only with idolatry, but with adultery. And so, you see implied here then that they were to be divorced because of the spiritual intermarriage with idols, and the physical union they were having with the prostitutes who carried on the idolatrous worship. Now this is a hint, then, at the fact that there is legitimate divorce where there is adultery involved, a very important text.
Isaiah 50 is interesting as it records God’s asking Israel for her divorce certificate for adultery — sinfulness via idolatry. That ‘certificate’ does not exist. Only God can make that decision. And, because He is loving and merciful, He did not divorce Himself from Israel.
He threatened it later, only after 700 years of continual hardness of heart and worse behaviour from Judah, as chronicled in Jeremiah 3. Even then, God called his adulterous (sinful) people to repentance!
Returning to Matthew 19, this is what Matthew Henry has to say about the ‘hardness of heart’ that Jesus — and Moses — referred to:
their being hardened against their relations they were generally violent and outrageous, which way soever they took, both in their appetites and in their passions and therefore if they had not been allowed to put away their wives, when they had conceived a dislike of them, they would have used them cruelly, would have beaten and abused them, and perhaps have murdered them. Note, There is not a greater piece of hard-heartedness in the world, than for a man to be harsh and severe with his own wife. The Jews, it seems, were infamous for this, and therefore were allowed to put them away better divorce them than do worse, than that the altar of the Lord should be covered with tears, Malachi 2:13. A little compliance, to humour a madman, or a man in a frenzy, may prevent a greater mischief. Positive laws may be dispensed with for the preservation of the law of nature, for God will have mercy and not sacrifice but then those are hard-hearted wretches, who have made it necessary and none can wish to have the liberty of divorce, without virtually owning the hardness of their hearts. Observe, He saith, It is for the hardness of your hearts, not only theirs who lived then, but all their seed. Note, God not only sees, but foresees, the hardness of men’s hearts he suited both the ordinances and providences of the Old Testament to the temper of that people, both in terror.
Henry adds an excellent concise explanation of the difference between the messages of the Old and New Testaments:
The law of Moses considered the hardness of men’s hearts, but the gospel of Christ cures it and his grace takes away the heart of stone, and gives a heart of flesh. By the law was the knowledge of sin, but by the gospel was the conquest of it.
That’s a marvellous way to explain the Bible. So many unchurched and unbelievers press the importance of Mosaic Law, when, in fact, Christ lifts that burden from us and brings us to life — in every sense of the word.
Ultimately, Jesus repeats what has been written throughout the Old Testament (verse 9). He knew the Pharisees were divorcing their wives wrongly, thereby defiling them. This is MacArthur’s take:
He silenced the Pharisees. In fact, He made them appear as adulterers. So, when they came to Him, they really walked into a buzz saw. They were trying to discredit Him and before the conversation is half over. They’re standing there, a whole stack of adulterers in public gaze.
Next week’s post concludes Jesus’s teaching on divorce.
Next time: Matthew 19:10-12