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Intermarriage with unbelievers

A sermon on Malachi 2.10-12


by Tim Gallant

Congregation of Christ,

It is not so uncommon, even in broader evangelicalism, for young Christian singles to find it a temptation to marry outside the Church. Not merely outside their own congregation, but outside the people of God altogether.

There are numerous reasons for this. Sometimes it is because they are keeping the wrong company to begin with. Single Christian men and women actually sometimes have few friends within the church; most of their single friends, both guys and gals, are unbelievers. Sometimes it's the common interests of co-workers, or perhaps just activities like going to the gym, where you meet people. And that's who they get to know.

Or sometimes, it is frustration. Perhaps the congregation is small and the young man or young woman looks around and says: "Who can I marry here? There are no candidates."

And in the event, they go to the altar with somebody who is not bound to Jesus Christ.

This is not merely a modern problem. Israel too faced the issue of intermarriage. That's what we are dealing with in our passage this morning, in Malachi 2:10-12. Judah marries the daughter of a foreign god.

The Lord takes this seriously. This intermarriage has very significant ramifications, and we'll be considering how those are developed in this text. Judah marries the daughter of a foreign god. This is betraying Judah's identity. It undercuts who Judah is. It is also betraying Judah's community. The issue is not simply a personal issue, but it affects the people of God as a whole. Further, such marriage is betraying Judah's God. And finally, it is provoking Judah's punishment.

1. Judah marries the daughter of a foreign god. This betrays Israel's identity. Malachi opens this disputation in verse 10 by asking two questions: "Have we not all one Father? Has not one God created us?"

In other words, who are we? Who are we?

"Have we not all one Father?" Some interpreters take this to refer to Abraham, or perhaps to Jacob. Malachi then would be pointing to a common ethnic root, or perhaps employing the idea of one father in order to talk about the Abrahamic covenant.

This, however, is highly unlikely. The New King James translators have capitalized "Father" to show that they take this to be a reference to God, and I think with good reason. For first, this picks up on verse 6 of chapter 1. God says there: "A son honors his father, and a servant his master. If then I am the Father, where is My honor?" Second, the two questions before us in verse 10 are poetic parallelism. The one Father and the one God who has created refer to the same person. The third, and perhaps strongest, argument is that there is a contrast between verses 10 and 11. "We have one father," but Judah "has married the daughter of a foreign god." In other words, the daughter of another father. The God of Israel is contrasted to the false gods of the nations.

"Have we not all one Father?" As God's people, we are His children. This is the fundamental, defining feature of our identity.

The fundamental issue at stake in connection with this question of intermarriage is not racial. In other words, what provokes Malachi's inspired blast against the marriage practices of Judah here is not that he is offended that people are marrying non-Jews.

We need to be clear on this, because even today, many so-called Bible believing people appeal to passages such as this in order to "prove" that white people should not marry blacks or aboriginals or Orientals. But that is not what the passage is talking about. And such a view of racially-based marriage rules simply does not comport with what we know from elsewhere in Scripture. Ruth was a Moabitess and became a blessed mother of Israel. God vindicated Moses when he was criticized by his brother and sister for marrying a Cushite woman. Cushites were Ethiopians. They were black. When Miriam made this complaint about a black woman, God saw that she had her reward: He made her all white. He gave her leprosy.

So God here is not defending Israel's ethnic identity. He is not concerned with keeping her "racially pure."

But the people of God confess that "we all have one Father." We belong to Him; He constitutes our family. This is the issue. Those who belong to God as Father are to marry those who belong to God as Father.

And then the second question gives further nuance to the issue. "Has not one God created us?" The language of creation brings some things to mind. It takes us back into the history of Genesis. As God created the world at the beginning, and as He re-created the world at the time of Noah, so too He engages in re-creation when He constitutes Israel as His people. The creation of Israel is an outworking of God's purpose to fashion a humanity for Himself. He is building a new human race. Not in an ethnic sense, but in a covenantal sense. He is fashioning a people who will worship Him, who will faithfully bear His image in the world.

Seen in this light, intermarrying with pagans is a betrayal of Judah's identity. Such intermarriage undercuts God's purposes. It attempts to undo God's creative act, to return everything to the formless void. Intermarriage disrupts the viability of God's new humanity.

As with Adam, God gave His new creation Israel a law to keep. And this law was life. This law said: "You are my peculiar people, My treasured possession." And out of that flowed rules against intermarrying with pagans. When Judah marries the daughters of a strange god, Judah is betraying her own identity, destroying her place as a peculiar people to the Lord. Making a covenant with the daughter of a foreign god breaks the covenant of the true God.

2. Judah marries the daughter of a foreign god. This betrays Judah's identity. And this is betraying Judah's community.

We tend to see marriage as primarily a personal affair. Whether or not I marry this girl or that girl is my business, not yours. But listen to what Malachi says in the latter part of verse 10: "Why do we deal treacherously with one another by profaning the covenant of the fathers?"

The original language literally says, "Why do we deal treacherously, or unfaithfully, a man with his brother?" That's quite remarkable. Malachi is saying that intermarriage with pagans is a betrayal of each other. It is not, after all, a mere "personal choice." It entails breaking faith with our fellow members in the covenant community.

That seems radical, and as is so often the case with biblical teaching, it cuts against the grain of our modern way of thinking. We live by the tried-and-true maxim from the Beatles: "All you need is love, love, love - love is all you need." It doesn't matter if the relationship makes sense. It doesn't matter what people think, because you are the one that has to live with it. They don't.

But Malachi says, "No, everybody lives with it. By intermarrying with pagans, you have betrayed not merely your individual identity; you have betrayed the identity of the community." The people of the world may think of themselves as so many little individual islands, but the people of God are not allowed to think of themselves in that manner. We belong to one another; we are covenanted together.

The point is not, however, "what others think." The point is the identity of the community of God's people. What you do in this area affects the community in a profound way. Marrying "in the Lord," to use Paul's language, affirms the covenant people; it builds according to the pattern which God has created. Marrying outside the covenant does the opposite. It erodes the character of the people of God.

Therefore, single people contemplating marriage must ask the right questions, questions prompted by the covenant which God has made with His people. Would this marriage be glorifying to God? Or would it be compromising God's new creation? Would it contribute to the health of the Church, or would it undermine it? Failure to ask such questions and act faithfully with reference to them means betraying the community of God's people.

3. Given all of the above, it is not really surprising that we can go a step further. If the fact that Judah marries the daughter of a foreign god betrays Judah's identity and betrays Judah's community, it is clear that it is also betraying Judah's God.

There is a hint of this already at the end of verse 10. God says, "By doing this, you are profaning the covenant of the fathers." From the beginning, when God made His covenant with Abraham, He had said, "You belong to Me, from generation to generation." You are My treasured possession, out of all the earth. I have created you for Myself.

And so the prophet continues in verse 11, "Judah has dealt treacherously, and an abomination has been committed in Israel and in Jerusalem, for Judah has profaned the LORD's holy institution which He loves: he has married the daughter of a foreign god."

Here we see that the treacherous dealing is not merely with one another. No, intermarriage is treachery toward one another precisely because it is treachery toward the God of the covenant.

We noted at the beginning that we all have one Father, that one God created us. This language refers to the people of God; it refers to the Church of Jesus Christ. This fatherhood of God is in contrast to "the daughter of a foreign god." That phrase could also be translated "the daughter of a strange god." Any "god" other than the one true God, the God of Israel, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

This contrast highlights God's jealousy. He will not tolerate other gods. That is very clear in the first commandment of the law: "You shall have no other gods before Me." That is, no other gods are to be in My presence. Since God's presence is especially understood in Scripture to be with His people, in the law it is very clear that there are to be no other gods in Israel.

And that means that God's people are not allowed to marry outside the faith. That is to import a competing deity, a detested "god," into the fellowship of the covenant. God says, "You are My sons, and you may not marry the daughters of other gods. That is to bring my enemies into My household. It is to betray Me."

You may recall that this was what the sons of Seth were censured for, way back in Genesis 6. They looked upon the "daughters of men" - in other words, the young ladies descending from the line of Cain - and they saw that they were beautiful, and they married them. And that practice was so abhorrent to God that it is the one thing that is singled out in the context of the destruction of the world by flood. Isn't that remarkable? The Sethite intermarriage with unbelievers wiped out the line, it mixed together the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent, to the extent that really there was no covenant community left. And the result was that God spared only Noah and his family, in order to start over.

That history indicates well enough for us the seriousness of this sin. And that seriousness is also underscored by this word abomination which is used in verse 11. "Judah has dealt treacherously, and an abomination has been committed in Israel and in Jerusalem." This is a very strong term that identifies something as highly detestable in the eyes of the Lord, reserved for the most serious sins. The Lord hates pagan intermarriage.

The prophet continues, "For Judah has profaned the LORD's holy institution." Literally, Judah has profaned the LORD's holiness. It is not entirely clear what specifically is being referred to here. The addition of institution in italics in the New King James Version would probably make us think of the institution of marriage, and that is a possibility. The word holiness by itself often refers in Scripture to the sanctuary of the Lord, the temple. Others suggest that it refers to the covenant, or perhaps to the covenant people.

I'm not sure that we have to determine the answer to the question narrowly in order to understand the general sense. What is clear from the context is that by widespread intermarriage, the people of God have become polluted. They have polluted God's purpose for marriage - a purpose which, Lord willing, we will take up next time, when we deal with verses 13-16. They have polluted God's purpose for themselves, to be a special people to Him, separate from the children of false gods.

One further point in connection to the betrayal of God. We noted that God is the Father of His people. You may recall that in Scripture, very often the father has special responsibilities regarding the marriage of his children. And that is the case for us too. God is our Father, and He doesn't merely sit back and leave marriage up to us. He is a primary figure in our love life. The one you marry must match His criteria. And He requires that we marry someone who also calls Him "Father." Let us not grieve Him, and let us not despise His wisdom.

4. As we have already seen in this book, serious sin has serious consequences. Here, Judah marries the daughter of a foreign god, provoking Judah's punishment. We see this in verse 12: "May the LORD cut off from the tents of Jacob the man who does this, being awake and aware, and who brings an offering to the LORD of hosts." Under the inspiration of the Spirit, Malachi offers up an imprecatory prayer, a prayer of cursing against the offenders. He calls upon God to root out such people.

Why? Because he is hard-hearted? No. But he understands the implications of everything that he has said regarding Judah's sin. He sets no stock in Judah's mere existence as a nation. That has no intrinsic value. The value of Judah is that she is God's treasured possession. The great privilege of Israel is not ethnic. It is the covenant which God has made with her.

And therefore the covenant must be defended. Malachi would rather see the people of God reduced in number than to see the covenant perish through corruption. It was better that God saved Noah and his family - eight people - than for the whole world to have continued on the way it was, because then there would have been no covenant and no hope.

And so Malachi prays for the preservation of the covenant. Preservation by amputation. "May the LORD cut off from the tents of Jacob the man who does this." He adds a phrase which is here translated "being awake and aware." The translators have had difficulty with this phrase, sometimes translating it "the one who calls and the one who responds" or "witness and testifier." The general sense seems to be: each and every one, no matter who he may be, whether leader or follower. This is crucial. In reading through Ezra and Nehemiah, we discover that this particular sin had riddled every level of the society. Not just common people, but a great many priests were guilty. And Malachi says, "Cut them off, all of them, that your covenant may be preserved."

And notice what he adds at the end of verse 12: "And who brings an offering to the LORD of hosts." In other words, Malachi takes the line that God does. As we saw already in the preceding passages of Malachi, God does not accept the worship of the unrighteous. He cannot be bribed. And so too Malachi says, even if a man brings you offerings - don't listen to Him. Cut off the disobedient; pay no attention to their worship, because they are not set on serving you.

We see again that God has more to do with us than just Sunday worship. Sunday and the rest of the days of the week are closely interrelated. If you do not serve God from Monday to Saturday, it is folly to suppose that God will accept your worship on Sunday. As God says in the book of Amos to those who are acting injustly, "Take away the noise of your songs!" "I won't listen to you, because you do not listen to Me."

It is not that we have to earn the right to be heard by God. We cannot do that. But neither can we pretend that God is some little idol who is satisfied to receive a snippet of Sunday. "Have we not all one Father? Has not one God created us?" We have to do with the sovereign Creator, the exalted Father. Worshipping Him while at the same time radically disobeying Him and breaking covenant do not go together. We must set our hearts to seek the Lord, to walk with Him. Obedience, as Samuel says to Saul, is better than sacrifice.

As with so much of Malachi, this is a heavy passage. As with so much of the book, there is once again material here that strikes to the heart, that exposes our sins, that makes us uncomfortable.

But the heart of faith is able to hear the gospel in words even such as these. Passages like this remind us of God's passion for His covenant. They remind us of His faithfulness. They remind us that God is ready to speak to us, to call us to faithfulness, rather than merely to abandon us to our own devices. That in itself is wonderful grace.

Then too, God has shown Himself powerful to overcome even the greatest sins of His people. Think of Samson. We can look at him and say, "What a lech!" He was a man driven by his hormones. It resulted in the loss of his eyes, the loss of his freedom, and the loss of his life. And yet we must also say that it resulted, not only in his repentance, but also in the opportunity for him to destroy more Philistines, more of the enemies of God, at the time of his death than he had done all throughout his life.

So too with mixed marriages. Unlike under the old covenant in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah, Christians are not called to divorce unbelieving spouses. Paul makes that very clear in 1 Corinthians 7: if the unbeliever is pleased to dwell with the believer, then they should remain together. I think the reason for the difference is the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost. There is a new wealth of God's power in the Church, and Paul is confident that God's grace is not only sufficient to keep us united to Christ, but even to spill over and convert the unbelieving partner. And time after time, that is precisely what God in His grace does.

That is not to minimize the seriousness of the sin of intermarriage with unbelievers. It remains a great evil. And we have no right to put the Lord to the test by marrying outside of the covenant people. There are too many examples of people who have left the faith altogether because of failing at this point. And even if God does ultimately prevail upon the heart of the unbeliever - which He is not bound to do - we may well find that there are all sorts of negative consequences for our disobedience. As Paul says, "Marry - in the Lord." Let us commit ourselves and our children to be faithful to God in this area.

But congregation, I want us to go away from here with more than just a lesson about intermarriage. For most of us, it isn't an issue. Perhaps we are already married. Perhaps we are already strongly committed to ensuring that our children find godly spouses. Well and good.

But there is more here than that for us, as significant as that is. We learn again the great mutual character of the covenant community. As you spend your time this coming week, consider that. Our lives are not our own, to do with as we please. They belong to God, and they belong to Him by way of covenant. And that means that in a very real sense, they also belong to each other. As we are faced with temptations to sin, as we are confronted with the world, the flesh and the devil, let us remember our identity, let us remember our covenant with one another, so that we may be moved to greater holiness, both for the glory of God's name, and for the good of His community on earth. May we seek its prosperity always.

Amen.

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