Divorce: A Blueprint for Disaster

13 And this second thing you do. You cover the LORD’s altar with tears, with weeping and groaning because he no longer regards the offering or accepts it with favor from your hand. 14 But you say, “Why does he not?” 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. 15 Did he not make them one, with a portion of the Spirit in their union? And what was the one God seeking? Godly offspring. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and let none of you be faithless to the wife of your youth. 16 “For the man who hates and divorces, 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.”

Malachi 2:13-16 (ESV)

In 1999, Karla Hackstaff, sociology professor at Northern Arizona University, dismantled the phrase, “marriage is forever.” Divorce, she said, is a useful tool to “enable wives to elicit values such as commitment, responsibility, caretaking, and equality. In short, it provides a powerful lever to set the terms of a marriage.”[1] In other words, Hackstaff is convinced, like so many today, that divorce is more than a sign of the times, it is progress—an enlightened, liberating trend. Biblical wisdom presents a different perspective: divorce is a tragedy to be avoided at nearly all costs.

In the prophet Malachi’s day, the Jews had been restored to their capital, Jerusalem. The Babylonian captivity was over—and had been for nearly a century. They rebuilt the temple and experienced, once again, the freedom to worship as the law demanded. Although the people had every reason to turn to the Lord, they rejected Him. Malachi catalogued their sin. He rebuked the priests for their polluted worship (1:6-2:9); he chastised the people for forgetting that the Lord would return as a terrifying judge (2:17-3:5); and he shamed the Jews for robbing God of the tithes He deserved. At the very heart of this short Old Testament book is a word on divorce (2:13-16).

The Jews wondered why they were approaching God in His temple and finding no response, no blessing (2:13). The answer is clear: unfaithful husbands had brought condemnation upon the entire nation. Why was divorce so serious? First, their sin was an affront to God, the first-party witness to the marriage (2:14). Second, divorce violated a covenant made to one’s wife (2:14). Malachi explained this “covenant” by alluding to Genesis 2:24, “Did he not make them one?” (2:15). Third, those who chose divorce had torn apart more than a physical union, they had severed a spiritual partnership; mysteriously, husbands and wives shared a portion of the Spirit—another reminder this bond is not to be broken (2:16).[2] Finally, the Lord had sought godly offspring (2:16). This makes sense in light of the fact that many of the Jews were leaving their Jewish wives to marry foreign women (and would be tempted to follow foreign gods). In other words, divorce in this context was a recipe for national, religious dilution.

Notice the dramatic shift taking place at the end of verse 15. Malachi turned his attention away from those who had already divorced, and he set his eye on those for whom there was still hope: “So guard yourselves in your spirit, and let none of you be faithless to the wife of your youth.” The reason was simple: according to the Lord, the man who hates and divorces his wife visibly defiles himself (2:16)—this was true in the fifth century B.C. and it is true today: divorce is public, ugly, and messy.

Malachi’s approach to divorce is full of wisdom for the Church today. First, pastors are called to follow Malachi in explaining from the Scriptures how and when divorce is wrong. Second, pastors can protect those marriages that are currently intact. How? By repeating Malachi’s challenge, “guard yourselves in your spirit.” It is a call for husbands and wives to fight for marriages with all of their heart and soul—with their entire being. After all, divorce is not progress, it is rebellion. It is not a lever for a healthy marriage; it is a blueprint for disaster.

[1] Karla B. Hackstaff, Marriage in a Culture of Divorce (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1999), 202.

[2] A certain amount of controversy has surrounded the translation of Malachi 2:16. Many readers are familiar with the NIV rendering “‘I hate divorce,’ says the Lord God of Israel.” But this translation is only possible if one emends (alters) the actual Masoretic/Hebrew text. The Hebrew verb for “hate” in v. 16 is in the Piel third person perfect, and is rightly translated “he hates” and probably cannot be rightly rendered “I hate.” The best translation is given thus by versions such as the ESV (“he who hates and divorces”) or the Holman Christian Standard (“If he hates and divorces his wife”) is grammatically correct and therefore preferred. As such, Mal. 2:16 cannot be used as a text in which God unilaterally condemns every instance of divorce. For further scholarly consideration of this topic, see C. John Collins, “The (Intelligible) Masoretic Text of Malachi 2:16, or, How Does God Feel about Divorce?” Presbyterion 20 (1994): 36-40; and E. Ray Clendenen and Richard A. Taylor, Haggai and Malachi, vol. 21a, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 2004), 357-370.