God sent Malachi to preach to his people some time after they had returned from exile and after they had rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem. And from what Malachi said to them, it’s clear that their love for the Lord had waned. And, like the people before the exile, they had become unfaithful to the Lord their God. In his first message to his people, God accused them of failing to appreciate his love for them. ‘I have loved you’, he said. ‘How have you loved us?’ they asked. They doubted his love. They were cynical about it. And the Lord replied that many, many years before he set his love on Jacob and chose Jacob and his descendants to be his people. In other words, he had chosen them. That’s how he loved them. They did not deserve it and they could not earn it, but he graciously and freely chose them. And having chosen them, he had blessed them in many ways. He was for them and not against them, as he had been against Jacob’s brother, Esau, and those who were descended from him. That was his first message to his people. In the second message, God accused the priests of offering unacceptable sacrifices on the altar in the temple. Instead of bringing him the best, they brought him the animals they wanted rid of: the blind and crippled and diseased. Their attitude seemed to be that it didn’t matter what they brought, because God did not matter. And so, they treated the Lord with contempt and they regarded worship as a burden. And instead of fulfilling their calling as priests and instructing the people to honour and serve the Lord, the priests caused many to stumble by the things they taught. And therefore the Lord warned the priests that he would curse them and remove them from the priesthood.
The Lord sent Malachi to preach his word to his people and to confront the people and the priests over their sins. But do you remember? In the middle of the second message, when rebuking the priests for showing contempt for God’s name, the Lord promised that a time would come when his name will be great among the nations. From the place where the sun rises to the place where it sets, and in every place in between, people will offer him pure worship. So, despite the sins and shortcomings of the people of Israel, the name of the Lord will be proclaimed throughout the world and men and women and boys and girls will worship him. And that promise is being fulfilled right now, because God’s word has gone out into all the world, and God has used the reading and preaching of his word to convince and converts sinners to faith in Christ and he has added them to his worldwide church. And all over the world, men and women and children join together to worship the Lord and to give thanks to him for Christ our Saviour and for the salvation he has accomplished for us by his life and death and resurrection. Despite the sins and shortcomings of his people, God will build his church throughout the world.
Today we come to the Lord’s third message to his people in which the Lord complains that his people have been faithless to one another and they have profaned the covenant which God made with them. So, they have been faithless to one another and to the Lord their God. And in the following verses he explains what they have done: they have married women who do not believe what they believe; and they are in the habit of divorcing their wives. So, this is the Lord’s complaint to his people in those days; and from his complaint we learn what God’s will is for us in relation to marriage.
And his message to them begins in verse 10 with two questions which lead into a third question. The first two questions are these: ‘Have we not all one Father?’ and ‘Did not one God create us?’ God was their Father, because he regarded the people of Israel as his son. And just as a father cares for his children, so the Lord cared for the people of Israel and he provided for them. All of them had benefitted from his fatherly care. And all of them were created by the one God. Malachi is probably referring here to how the Lord created them as a nation. So, he’s not referring to Genesis 1 and the creation of the world out of nothing. He’s referring to Exodus 19 when the people assembled before the Lord at Mount Sinai and he entered into a covenant with them and chose them to be his people in the world.
So, all of them have one Father and the one God created them to be a nation. And that means that all of them have this special relationship with him. And since that’s the case, then all of them should have been careful to keep to the terms of the covenant which he made with them. However, the third question makes clear that they hadn’t done that. The Lord asked them: Why do you profane the covenant of our fathers by breaking faith with one another? He’s accusing them of profaning the covenant he made with them in the days of Moses. They were defiling it. They were violating it. And they were profaning it by breaking faith with one another. So, instead of being faithful to the terms of the covenant, they were breaking the terms of the covenant. That’s God’s basic complaint this time. And in the verses which follow he unpacks that complaint by specifying two things they were doing. According to verses 11 and 12, they were marrying women who do not believe what they believe. And according to verses 13 to 16, the men were divorcing their wives.
Verses 11 and 12
So, turn with me now to verses 11 and 12. ‘Judah has broken faith’, the Lord says. That is, his people have broken faith. They have been faithless to the terms of the covenant by doing something detestable. Do you see that in verse 11? The word he uses can be translated ‘abomination’. So, they have committed an abomination. They have done a disgusting thing, a terrible thing. What have they done? They have desecrated the sanctuary which the Lord loves by marrying the daughter of a foreign god. That means they have married foreign women, who worshipped, not the God of Israel, but false gods and idols. Whenever we’ve come across this before, I’ve made the point that the problem is not that these women were foreigners. The problem was not to do with race or nationality. After all, foreign woman like Rahab from Jericho and Ruth from Moab married men from Israel and it wasn’t a problem. The problem was not that these woman were foreigners. The problem was that they were pagans. They did not worship the Lord, but they worshipped false gods and idols. So, the phrase ‘daughters of foreign gods’ means they belonged to foreign gods. That’s what they worshipped.
And marrying these women was forbidden under the terms of the covenant. And it was forbidden because God knew these women who worshipped false gods would only lead the Israelites astray. For instance, in Exodus 34:15+16, God warned the Israelites through Moses not to make a treaty with the Canaanites, because the Canaanites will only lead them astray. And they mustn’t take the daughters of the Canaanites as wives for their sons, because those pagan women will only lead their sons astray and encourage their Israelite husbands to bow down and worship their idols. And that is exactly what happened to King Solomon. Though he was the wisest man in the world he did a very foolish thing because he married foreign wives who led him astray. In 1 Kings 11 we read that he loved many foreign women. And it says that as Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other gods and his heart was not fully devoted to the Lord his God. And so, Solomon set up altars in the land of Israel, which were devoted, not to the God who gave them the land, but to foreign gods. It was a terrible thing. The same problem occurred in the days of Ezra, when Ezra discovered that some of the exiles who returned to Jerusalem had married foreign wives. And Nehemiah had to deal with the same problem. In fact, Nehemiah discovered that the children of these mixed marriages could not speak the language of Judah. The couldn’t speak Hebrew. And do you know what that meant? It meant they could not understand the Scriptures, which were written in Hebrew. They couldn’t understand the Scriptures which tell us about God and all that he has done for his people. And so, they grew up as pagans who did not believe.
And here’s God confronting his people about this problem through the words of Malachi. In verse 12, Malachi says about the man who does this, whoever he may be: May the Lord cut him off from the tents of Jacob. It’s not entirely clear what ‘cutting someone off’ meant in those days: it might mean the person should die; or it might mean the person should be, in a sense, ex-communicated and sent away. Whichever it is, Malachi says that he should be cut off even if he brings offerings to the Lord Almighty. The Old Testament law distinguished between unintentional sins and defiant sins. An unintentional sin was one that someone committed by mistake or in ignorance. When someone committed a sin like this, and afterwards discovered their guilt, they could confess it and offer a sacrifice to God for forgiveness. A defiant sin was one someone committed deliberately and without remorse. And someone who sinned defiantly was guilty of despising God’s word. He knew what he was supposed to do, but did not do it. He knew what God’s will was, but he disregarded it. According to the law, that person must be cut off because of his wilful rebellion. And so, Malachi is saying that those who married foreign wives knew that what they were doing was wrong. And yet they went ahead and did it. And so, they demonstrated that they despised God’s word and did not care about the will of the Lord. They should therefore be cut off.
And so, this is the first part of God’s complaint. And God is coming to us today through the reading and preaching of his word to teach us that his people should only marry other believers. And that means Christian young people should only go out with other believers, because going out with someone often ends in marriage. Instead of thinking we’re wiser than God, and we know best, we ought to listen to his warning in Exodus 34 that an unbelieving spouse will only lead us astray. And we ought to pay attention to what happened to Solomon, who was so wise in so many ways, but so foolish in this one vital way, because he married wives who did not believe and they turned his heart away from the Lord. And we have the Lord’s complaint to his people in today’s chapter about marrying those who do not believe. And, in 1 Corinthians 7, we have God’s word to us through Paul that believers must marry ‘in the Lord’, which means that a Christian should only marry another Christian. And since that’s the case, then that means Christians should only go out with other Christians. And perhaps that means for our young people that your friends all have boyfriends or girlfriends, and you don’t. And sometimes you feel left out. Perhaps you feel you’re missing out. And perhaps it seems unfair to you. But when you feel like that, you need to remember and believe that God is your loving heavenly Father. He does not hate you, but he loves you. And he cares for you and he knows what’s best for you and for all of his children. And so, you need to trust in him and trust that he knows what is best for you and you need to live according to his word.
But in case anyone is loaded down with a sense of their guilt, and a fear that you might be cut off from God’s people because you went out with the wrong person, or you married someone who did not believe, or you sinned in some other way, I should add that while there was no forgiveness under the terms of the old covenant for those who sinned knowingly and deliberately, under the terms of the new covenant, which was established in the blood of Christ, there is full forgiveness for all who trust in him. Under the terms of the new covenant, God promises to remember your sins no more and all your sins are covered over by his blood; Through faith in him you’re washed and cleansed and pardoned forever. There is no forgiveness for those who refuse to trust in Christ; but for those who trust in him as Saviour, there is full forgiveness, because Christ gave up his life to pay for our sins and he shed his blood to cleanse us. And God is willing to pardon you for whatever you have done wrong, so long as you’re trusting in Christ the Saviour.
And the God who pardons you for the sake of Christ who died for you, is also the God who is saying to you today: This is the way that you should walk. This is how you should live your life. He says that his will for you is that you should remain faithful to him. And therefore do not go out with or marry someone who does not believe.
And one last thing before I move on. In the days of Ezra, God’s people were commanded to send away their unbelieving wives. However, in the New Testament, Paul commands believers who are married to unbelievers to stay with an unbelieving spouse. The marriage bond is so sacred, so special, that it must not be dissolved even if your spouse does not believe. And that takes me to the next part of God’s complaint which is about divorce.
Verses 13 to 16
Look with me at verse 13 where God says to his people through Malachi: ‘Another thing you do….’ What other thing do they do? ‘You flood the Lord’s altar with tears.’ What’s wrong with that? Surely it’s a good thing to bring our sorrow to the Lord? And so the question is: Why were they flooding the Lord’s altar with tears? He tells us: ‘You weep and wail because [God] no longer pays attention to your offerings or accepts them with pleasure from your hands.’ That’s why they’re crying. It’s because God will not accept their sacrifices. And why will the Lord not accept their sacrifices? That’s their question in verse 14. And the answer is that it’s because the Lord is acting as the witness between the people and the ‘wife of your youth’. The phrase ‘wife of your youth’ means their wife. They’re called the ‘wife of your youth’, because people got married when they were young. And the people were breaking faith with the wife of their youth. That is, they were acting faithlessly towards her, even though she is your partner, the wife of your marriage covenant. The word translated partner can also mean ‘companion’. And that’s what a spouse is. A spouse is a companion: someone who accompanies you throughout your life and sticks with you through every trial and trouble, for better, for worse, in sickness and in health, for richer, for poorer, to love and to cherish till parted by death. They stick with one another and they help one another and comfort one another. But instead of remaining faithful to one another, the Israelite men were divorcing their wives. Now, the text doesn’t mention divorce until verse 16, but it’s clear that this is what they were doing. The men were breaking faith with their wives by divorcing them.
Since it refers to marriage as a covenant here, I should perhaps say that the most common view of the nature of marriage today is that marriage is a contract. People today believe that it’s a contract between two people — and nowadays it can be between two people of any sex — that is voluntarily formed, maintained and dissolved. So, I will form it and maintain it and dissolve it if I want to. It’s up to me. And like most contracts, the continuance of the marriage is conditional upon the performance of contractual obligations. So, you can cancel your contract with you mobile phone provider if you’re unhappy with their service. And in the same way, if you’re unhappy with your spouse’s service, you can cancel the marriage contract. That’s how people think of marriage today.
But then there’s the biblical view of marriage which is that marriage is a covenant between a man and woman who make promises to one another in a public ceremony before God. People sometimes say there’s no difference between being married and living together, apart from a marriage certificate. But there’s a massive difference, because when a man and woman are married they make solemn promises to each other. With a promise, they bind themselves to one another for as long as they live and they promise to remain faithful to one another through the ups and downs of life. And it’s an exclusive relationship, because they promise to forsake all others. And just as God enters into a covenant with his people and promises us forgiveness and eternal life, so husbands and wives enter into a covenant with one another and promise to be loving, faithful and dutiful to one another until separated by death. Marriage is a covenant, not a contract. But, according to Malachi, the people of Israel were breaking their covenant promises and the men were divorcing their wives.
‘Has not the Lord made them one?’ That’s what we read in verse 15 and he’s probably referring to what we read in Genesis 2:24 where it says that a man will leave his father and mother and be united with his wife and they will become one flesh. Before they were married, the man and woman were two separate individuals. Now that they’re married, they’re united together as one. They are now one couple, joined together in a life-long union. And, according to verse 15, the Lord is seeking godly offspring.
And so, the Lord’s will for married couples is for them to remain united to one another so that, if they have children, their children will grow up in the faith and be devoted to God. And so, guard yourselves in your spirit. Do you see that in verse 15? Guard yourself in your innermost thoughts. And do not break faith with the wife of your youth. Remain faithful to her always.
And so we come to verse 16, which is a difficult verse to translate. Part of the problem is that in the Hebrew Bible, words were written without their vowels. The scribe who wrote the text down only ever wrote down the consonants and it’s up to the translator to figure out what the vowels should be. In most cases, it’s straightforward. If you see an English sentence, with the vowels taken out, you can probably understand it. But occasionally it’s not clear. So, one way to translate verse 16 is, ‘I hate divorce, says the Lord God of Israel, and I hate a man’s covering himself with violence as well as with his garment.’ That’s the NIV. Another way to translate the verse is: ‘For the man who hates his wife divorces her, says the Lord God of Israel, and covers his garment with violence.’ So, in the first, it’s ‘God says, I hate divorce.’ In the second, it’s ‘the man who hates his wife divorces her’. And therefore, he, in a sense, does violence to her by divorcing her. Which is it? I’m persuaded more by the second option. So, the man who hates his wife divorces her. Instead of loving her and remaining committed to her, he now hates her and divorces her. But God’s will for his people is that they remain married, because the passage ends once again with the command to guard yourself in your spirit and do not break faith. To those who are married, God is saying don’t break faith with your spouse. Don’t be faithless. Don’t break the covenant. Don’t break your promise. Commit yourself to your spouse.
In Mark 10, some Pharisees came to the Lord Jesus to ask him about divorce. They said, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’ The background to their question is Deuteronomy 24, where God said that a man may divorce his wife if she becomes displeasing to him. The scribes used to discuss what that meant. Did it mean his wife displeased him by being unfaithful? Or did it mean his wife displeased him by burning his dinner? Could a man divorce his wife for any reason or only for certain reasons? And the Pharisees asked the Lord Jesus what he thought. And in his reply, the Lord Jesus made clear that God’s will for those who are married is that they should remain married. He referred to Genesis 2 where it says that a man and woman become one flesh in marriage. Once they were two separate individuals, but now they are one couple. So, God’s original plan for marriage and his will for those who are married is that we should remain united together and must not separate. And the Lord Jesus also explained that the reason Moses permitted a man to divorce his wife was because our hearts are hard. Our hearts are hardened by sin which prevents husbands and wives from loving one another the way that they should. And so, since our hearts are hardened by sin, the Lord God permitted husbands to divorce their wives for certain reasons. So, according to Matthew 19, divorce is permitted where one spouse has committed adultery and the innocent party is free to remarry. According to 1 Corinthians 7, divorce is permitted where one spouse has deserted the other. And some Christians say that a spouse who is irresponsible or abusive has also — in a sense — deserted their spouse, because they’ve given up their duty to love and care for their spouse. Divorce would therefore be permitted in these cases.
However, just because divorce is permitted, doesn’t mean it is required. And God’s will for married couples is for them to remain together. As I’ve said before, believers who are married would do well to erase the word ‘divorce’ from their vocabulary. And whenever the Devil whispers the word ‘divorce’ to them and tries to persuade them that they would be better off divorced rather than remain in an unhappy marriage, they must stand firm against his wicked schemes and refuse to pay attention to his evil suggestions, because the Devil hates us and wants to ruin our lives, whereas our Heavenly Father, who loves us and cares for us, has made clear to us that the best thing for his children is for them to remain married.
And our Heavenly Father, who loves us and cares for us, gives us his Spirit to help us to love him more and more and to love one another more and more. And whoever is in an unhappy marriage must rely on the Holy Spirit to help them, not only endure an unhappy marriage, but to transform their marriage and make it better. They must rely on the Holy Spirit to help them to be loving, faithful and dutiful to their spouse, for this is God’s will for you. And you can rely on the Holy Spirit to help your spouse to be loving, faithful and dutiful to you, for this is God’s will for your spouse. And the God we believe in is a God of hope, who promises to work together all things for our good; and who is able — because he is both mighty and wise — to bring good out of our daily struggles.
And the final thing to say today is to remind anyone who has sinned in this way — and all of us are sinners who sin against the Lord in many ways — that God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love; and he has promised not to treat us as our sins deserve, but to pardon us for the sake of Christ, who loved us and gave up his life to pay for our sins. If you’re trusting in Christ for forgiveness, then God pardons you no matter what you have done wrong.
The Bible tells us that Christ loved his bride, the church. And because of his love for his bride, he left his Father’s house in heaven and he came and sought her; and with his blood, he bought her and he cleansed her of all her guilt. And therefore, if you’re trusting in Christ, then you belong to him and he has paid for your sins and he is willing to wash away all of your guilt, every stain and every blemish. He washes it all away with his blood. And he has promised to be faithful to you and never to leave you or forsake. He has promised to love you with an never-ending love. And so, though we sin, though we fall short, though we disobey him in thought and word and deed, he has promised never to take away his love from you and he has promised to pardon you always. And so, no matter what you have done wrong, you may go to him for the forgiveness you need. And you may go to him for the help you need to walk in his ways and to do his will.