Question: If “God hates divorce” (Malachi 2:16), then why does Ezra command the remnant to “put away” their foreign wives (Ezra 10:3-5)?
Archie England responds: Malachi 2:16 powerfully asserts, God hates divorce. That’s it: case closed!
Well, perhaps not so quickly. Ezra commanded the returned remnant (from Babylonian captivity) to divorce their foreign wives. Since both Ezra and Malachi lived during the 5th century BC and ministered in the same context, they appear to have taken radically different positions on the Law’s allowance for divorce. Let’s investigate.
Moses presented two passages that allow for divorce: Deut 22:13-30 and 24:1-3. A wife could be “put away” by death or by certificate. The divorce certificate issued, then, protected the woman, declaring her innocent of marital unfaithfulness. Having such a certificate was therefore important, as Isaiah and Jeremiah attested (Isaiah 50:1; Jeremiah 3:8).
Malachi reached his conclusion at the end of his discussion about God’s covenant and Israel’s unfaithfulness (2:1-16). God desired faithfulness; not ritual. To illustrate, Malachi reminded them of Levi’s covenant with God and how that obligated all Levites and priests to lead a holy life – ministering and teaching the Word of God – properly affecting God’s people (2:5-9). Unfortunately, the priests had failed to do so or to hold the people accountable to God’s truth (2:1-4); so, now Israel was defiled. Consequently, God himself would defile those priests (2:3).
With God as the covenant Father, how could the remnant be such flagrant covenant breakers (“dealing treacherously”) and “profaning” the covenant so cherished by their ancestors (2:10)? This was Malachi’s point! His audience had openly violated God’s covenant. Just like Ezra’s audience some four decades earlier, the people had lowered their standards, intermarried with foreigners, and essentially sought to live out their lives in the shadow of a neglected temple, city, and broken wall. God had first sent Haggai and Zechariah in 520 BC to motivate the remnant to rebuild the Temple, which they did by 516 BC. But steady opposition eventually stopped all progress on rebuilding Jerusalem and its walls. Some 70 years later, Nehemiah is having to confront the same but worse opposition since many among the Jews had now intermarried with the families of the opposition (Neh 6:18).
Malachi used this marriage to foreigners to illustrate how treacherously God’s people had broken the covenant (2:11). Like the priests, these ‘profaners’ miserably failed to be holy or faithful. Their frivolous divorces had become a nasty stench to God. Thus, God “hated divorce” because it represented their vile interpretation of His covenant: they used the law to expedite their sin! Indeed, God hated divorce – their misuse of His Law!
The wicked will not be invited into the eternal presence of God – not even the church-going kind!
Archie England Ph.D., is Director, Baptist College Partnership, and Professor of Old Testament and Hebrew, occupying the J. Wash Watts Chair of Old Testament and Hebrew at NOBTS.