This is not a exactly treatise on the above title, and yet, in a way it is. We really wish to consider the subject of divorce and remarriage, but in such a way that it is not just a consideration of legalistic arguments, but rather focuses on “the weightier matters of the Law”.
We wish to look at the subject against the backdrop of other Scriptural laws and see if we can ascertain how God really wants us to understand Divine law.
Our title, however, has a very important bearing on the matter. When Jesus was asked for the greatest commandment, he answered “You will love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”
Paul confirmed this principle in Romans 13:9-10 – “For the commandments, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY,’ ‘you shall not murder,’ ‘you shall not steal,’ ‘you shall not bear false witness,’ ‘you shall not covet,’ and if there is any other commandment, are all summed up in this saying, namely, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.’ Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.”
In Gal. 5:14 the concept is repeated . . . “For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this: “YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.”
In James in chapter 2:8 it is called “the Royal Law” because it is the one law that reigns over and governs all other laws.
How is this second great commandment “like unto” or to put it another way, “the same thing as”, the first? To love our neighbor as ourselves is THE WAY God has chosen for human beings to express their love for Him.
We love our neighbor because we love God and this is what He has taught us to do. In fact, this is what all the commandments of God are about, including the sayings of the Lord and the apostles regarding divorce and remarriage. Consider this possibility that, for someone to commit adultery by remarriage after divorce, then for it to be the adultery that God hates, there must also be in the adulterous act, or union, a repudiation of the precept “love thy neighbour as thyself.”
If this is not so, then conversely we should be careful before making such a claim.
It Precedes the Law
The manifestation of this “royal law” begins in Eden. The woman was created from the side of Adam and brought to him, upon which he recognized her as his own body….. “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh”. From this creative act, the apostle Paul draws the very principle under consideration. “So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife loveth himself.” (Ephesians 5:28).
The Scriptural use of Genesis 2 by either Paul or Jesus was never to define “what constitutes a marriage” or “one flesh” in a legal sense, but to expound the spirit that should prevail in the human relationship called marriage. It is the spirit summarized by the words “love thy neighbor as thyself”.
The Reason for Law
God was more concerned that His people understood the reason why He gave various laws, rather than merely know the laws themselves. He wants us to know His intentions and who He really is more than His commandments. A little child must be ruled by commandments until it grows to maturity and understands the reason why its parents prohibited certain things.
So Paul wrote to Timothy, “the Law is not made for a righteous man, but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners . . . and any other thing that is contrary to sound teaching” (1 Tim. 1:9-10) The Law of Moses contained many statutes which were never meant to be understood as absolute and final, regardless of circumstance. The sayings of the Lord Jesus are the same.
Here are some examples:
The sixth of the Ten Commandments was “thou shalt not kill”, yet Israel was commanded to slay the Canaanites; David fought the battles of Yahweh; and the wicked were not suffered by the judges to live.
The Law said quite plainly that “An Ammonite or Moabite shall not enter into the congregation of Yahweh forever” (Deut. 23:3) and yet Ruth the Moabitess is a notable exception. Was this a disregard for the Law? By no means! In fact, it was a fulfillment of the spirit of the Law, because the reason why a Moabite was withheld was “because they met you not with bread and water in the way”.
Ruth the Moabitess sustained her widowed mother-in-law by gleaning in the fields and so was received into Israel.
The Law prohibited Eunuchs and illegitimate (bastard) children from “entering the congregation of the LORD” (Deut.23:1-2) yet Isaiah blessed “the eunuchs that keep my sabbaths” and promised them “a name” in Israel. Daniel was such a eunuch, yet a “man greatly beloved” who prayed on behalf of his people. God used the “illegitimate” Jepthah the son of a harlot, to save Israel.
The law stated that only the priests could eat the holy shewbread, yet when David was hungry on one occasion, he received it without condemnation. Yahweh gave His food to someone in need. But another man was stoned to death for merely picking up sticks on the Sabbath day.
Jesus said on one occasion that whoever calls his brother a fool is in danger of Gehenna (Matt. 5:22), yet he himself called the Jewish rulers “fools and blind” (Matt. 23:17,19).
It is the spirit behind the words, not the words at face value that are important.
The “Law of Christ”
We often say we should remember the context when interpreting Scripture. It is important we apply this when we come to what are often referred to as “the commandments of Christ”. Consider these examples:
In Matthew 5:34 Jesus tells his disciples to “swear not at all” and James repeats the instruction in James 5:12. Yet Abraham caused Eliezer his servant to swear an oath that he would not take of the daughters of Caanan for his son (Gen. 24:3). Jacob caused Joseph to swear that he would not bury him in Egypt (Gen. 47:31). The Law commanded Israel to “fear Yahweh thy God and swear by His Name” (Deut. 6:13). David and Jonathan swore an oath of friendship (1 Sam. 20:42). Solomon made Shimei swear that he would not leave Jerusalem (1 Kings 2:42). The Psalmist blesses him that “swears to his own hurt and changes not” (Psa. 15:4) and many times an intention or assurance was given using the term “as Yahweh lives”.
Would Jesus condemn these acts as ungodly? By no means! Then why did he say what he did? The Lord’s words reflected a time when the swearing of oaths was grossly abused. The Jewish mentality had developed an ascending scale of things to swear by, which betrayed varying levels of commitment to ones’ word. The Lord abhorred a deceitful spirit that needed to convince another of his credibility by resorting to an oath and exhorted his disciples to be men of truth and integrity, without the need of oaths. This was different from an emphatic affirmation such as the ancients used. His words are not an absolute prohibition of oaths, though a casual reading may seem so.
A similar understanding can be obtained from his references to the saying “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”. His ensuing comments again referred to the current abuse of this precept and were not an interference with Divinely prescribed justice, which will be enforced when God’s law is the order for all men in the future. Certainly, no one would accept “if your eye is a stumbling block to you, pluck it out” – at face value!
The Real Issue
What then of the Lord’s words concerning divorce and remarriage? How should they be understood and to what extent should they be applied? We can readily observe from his remarks about “he that looks on a woman to lust after her” that he is again concerned with a man’s intentions, not just his deeds.
Instead of focusing on “what constitutes marriage” and therefore adultery after divorce; and whether that adultery is a “continuing state” or just “an act” . . . or whether there is “an exception” . . . or whether the remarriage of two unbelievers is somehow different to remarrying “within the Christian community”….. perhaps we should bypass the legal and external things and penetrate a bit deeper. What does God really want? What was Jesus really saying?
To love your neighbor as yourself means “to do to others as you would have them do to you”. If you would like to be dealt with faithfully, then deal faithfully with another. If you make promises or give your word, then keep it, even if it means suffering loss or inconvenience, because this is how you would like to be considered.
When a man or woman promise to hold fast to each other as long as they both shall live, they should be diligent to honor that promise. This is faithfulness … or “Amen”. The opposite is treachery. Malachi abhorred those who were putting away their wives and flooding God’s altar with tears because they “dealt treacherously against the wife of their youth”. It was for this reason that “Yahweh Elohim of Israel saith that He hates putting away” and warned the men of Judah to “take heed to your spirit”.
What is adultery? Some may say it is taking marital privileges with another man’s wife. But doing that is only really an external outworking of something else. Adultery is really only one form of unfaithfulness (cp. Luke 16:10-18) motivated by selfishness. It is just the same as giving your word on any number of matters, great or small, and not keeping it, except that in the case of adultery, the consequences for others such as children and other family members, can be greater.
We Can’t Ignore Polygamy
In Old Testament times it was not the practice for a man to promise himself to only one woman and so the taking of another was not considered adulterous. Indeed, the principles of loving one’s wife as himself (per Genesis 2) could be worked out with a number of women. Faithful men such as David married other women, even after his first wife (Michal) had been given to another. Technically, legalistically, we today would say that David was a divorced and remarried man – yet he was not condemned and God subsequently made him king in Hebron.
How could this be? Because it is a man’s motives and intentions that God takes into account, not merely the appearance of things. God even said to David on one occasion, “I gave you your master’s wives (plural) into your bosom”. Let us also remember that David understood Genesis 1 and 2.
But if a man dealt treacherously with a woman and sent her away because he no longer loved her and in her place, took another, leaving her vulnerable (in those days) his hard heart and unfaithfulness constituted the next relationship, even in a polygamous context, a committing of adultery “against her” (Mark 10:11) ….. and consequently a sin against God (Gen. 39:9; Psa. 51:4).
David didn’t so this with Michal. What happened was beyond his control. There may be many cases today where marriage breaks down through circumstances beyond the control of at least one of those involved.
Jesus Answers His Tempters
The principle of loving your neighbor as yourself was in the Lord’s mind when the Pharisees asked him, “is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for any reason?” (Matt. 19:3). It must be remembered that the Lord’s answer was not to provide a definition of marriage (as it is often cited for) but to get to the heart of why marriages break down. He reminded them of God’s original intention in creating man and woman. He made woman from man that the man might acknowledge and care for her as his own body. It is “for this reason” or, in this sense, that a man should consider himself “one flesh” with a woman he makes a lifelong commitment to.
God intended that men should exercise a faithful and considerate spirit toward their wives; and if such a spirit prevails, then God has “joined together” – not in the sense of dissolving two individuals and creating in their place a new “one flesh” entity, but as a quality of relationship operating the way God intended it to be. In such a relationship, “putting away” is not even a consideration. Thus, their question was comprehensively answered!
Again, we emphasize the point that the Lord’s reference to Genesis 2 was not meant to be a definition of what constitutes a marriage, in some legal sense, and certainly not to establish that marriage involves only one man and one woman, but a morally penetrating answer to the question “Is it lawful to divorce your wife?”.
But the Pharisees pressed the question from a legal viewpoint. “Why then did Moses command to give a writing of divorcement and to put her away?” Jesus told them that Moses’ words were only an attempt to deal with the consequences of the hardness of mens’ hearts and had nothing to do with what God wanted to see.
Jesus then continued to expound the spirit of the Law by saying that whoever divorced his wife and married another would, on account of his unfaithfulness to the promises he had once made her, commit adultery (treachery). The only exception to that (v9) would be if she had already been unfaithful to her commitments to him and he found it necessary to send her away, as a disciplinary measure, not wishing to share in her abominations – in which case the taking of another wife (in a polygamous culture such as the Law was formulated in) would not be adultery because it was not motivated by the spirit of treachery against his wife.
But if this was his reason, he should also remember that he must be ready to receive back his repentant wife (whether she is his first, second or seventh) and perhaps examine whether he himself has been of a faithful and considerate spirit that seeks to “love his wife (neighbour) as himself”. Jesus claimed he had come to fulfil the law, he expounded its spirit, including comments on divorce – and summarized by saying, “all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets” (Matt. 7:12). Or in other words, “love your neighbour as yourself”.
The practical outworking of the spirit of the Mosaic Law is nigh on impossible today. The marital promises men make are on different terms than Old Testament times. Roman Law saw the institution of the “one man, one wife” arrangement and this cultural heritage we have received. Today, a man and woman, especially those enlightened in Divine principles, commit themselves to each other in the understanding that there will be no other and … if any influence of the Bible is involved … that for life. It is faithfulness to these undertakings that are paramount from the Divine perspective.
When Principles Conflict
Imagine you lived in Germany during World War II. The Nazis came to your house and asked whether there were any Jews hiding there. It so happened that a Jewish family had taken refuge in a secret cellar of yours. What would you do? Would you tell a lie? Or would you save a life? Rahab the Harlot was asked a similar question on one occasion and she chose to tell a lie, so that “Jews” hiding on her roof would not be discovered. When the midwives were called into Pharoah and questioned why they had not killed the Hebrew male children, they lied ….. but God blessed them. The governing principle, or “royal law” that reigns over all others is, “thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. Love works no ill to his neighbour”. It settles any apparent conflict of principles.
What has this to do with divorce and remarriage? We have been discussing the fact that the reasons for Divine commandments are more important than the law as such. There were occasions when men were commanded to divorce their wives. Ezra chapter 10 is a case in point. Foreign wives had to be put away that the national holiness of the remnant of Israel might be preserved. This issue was more important than the treachery that would be committed against them and their children, because their collective treachery against specific commandments of the Law of Moses had been greater. Moreover, the influence of these women in the nation would ultimately destroy it. It would be wise for us to bear in mind, that when considering divorce and remarriage cases, there may be more involved than mere clear cut “legal” or external considerations.
For Abraham to “cast out the bondwoman and her son” was very grievous, but still by Divine commandment. As much as we might like to argue that Hagar was not legally Abraham’s “wife” we cannot overlook the fact that under normal circumstances, any man who takes a woman, even a maidservant, and has a child by her, has certain obligations, such as “her food, her raiment and her duty of marriage” (Exod. 21:7-11). Would we be so bold as to say that Abraham’s physical relationship with Hagar was illegitimate and sinful? If we don’t apply today’s standards to those times, then neither should we do so regarding their marital status. Moreover, Hagar in “the allegory” represented natural Israel with a slavish mentality, serving under Law. But this nation is nonetheless described as “a wife that deals treacherously” (Jer. 3:20). The point is, there were bigger reasons than mere carnal or legal ones that led to their separation, which, in those days, didn’t exclude Abraham from taking another (Keturah).
The Only Thing that Really Counts?
The “weightier matters” for us to discern are not merely external appearances, or legal states in which a man or woman may find themselves. God is not interested in these! The Father wants a faithful spirit, motivated by a love for Him and a desire to “love your neighbour (wife) as yourself”. A man’s love for God will breed in him a desire to be faithful in all things, for this is what God is. He must consider any undertakings he has made and weigh up for himself whether his circumstances were such that he committed himself to the extent that he is still bound by his word. He must ask himself whether to marry again would involve a breaching of his own promises, or treachery against another – indeed, whether he has trodden under foot the second and greatest commandment, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.”
A man or woman may be divorced. The relationship may have ceased, and since marriage is simply a human relationship with a unique quality, there is no more marriage. Some may say that promises have been made and should still be kept. These promises were for a lifelong commitment to one partner, “forsaking all other”. For this reason it is claimed that a man or woman should remember that although the relationship has been a failure, they may be bound by their own word not to take another. But if faithfulness and doing to others as you would have done to you, is the real issue, then it should also be remembered that, even in a single state, they may no longer be able to keep their original promise to care daily (in sickness and in health, etc) for their partner. So where are we going to draw the line on promise keeping?
For others who feel duty bound to judge a case when such a promise has been breached; it should also be remembered that unfaithfulness can take many forms, each of which “work ill to his neighbour” to various degrees. Failure to keep agreed appointments or commercial undertakings are just as unfaithful as remarriage after divorce. Yahweh, whose “royal law” governs all, is primarily concerned with the extent to which any of these unfaithful or treacherous dealings affect others – and on that basis alone does He measure His severity. Yes, “adulterers will not inherit the kingdom of God” – but neither will liars! It is the general spirit more than the appearance of things that are paramount in both cases.
Perhaps we should see things from this viewpoint also, and not be “partial in judgement”. The severe punishments for adultery under the Law of Moses, were for a reason, namely, the emotional and psychological violence against another man, in taking his wife – and we should not be tempted to overlay this sort of judgement upon a case where circumstances may be entirely different. All discipline must be with the object to save. In our zeal to uphold ideals we must ensure that our methods don’t leave us guilty of another form of heartless violence against our brother or sister, which is entirely unwarranted.
“For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill,, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. Love works no ill to his neighbour: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” (Romans 13:9-10)