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Bound before God

A sermon on Malachi 2.13-16


by Tim Gallant

Congregation of Christ,

Once again, a passage in Malachi confronts us which speaks, not only to our modern culture, but to rampant sin in today's churches. I'm not going to stand here and give you statistics. You know as well as I do that divorce is widespread in North America. Single parent families are all too common, and if you check around in Grande Prairie, I think you will find that this city is unusually bad in this regard.

I wish we could say that the Church is immune from all this. Some churches have fared better than others. We are thankful for God's grace in our congregation, but we know that we are not immune from foolishness. We know that we too must employ the means of grace. And those means include the warnings and promises of Scripture.

Consequently, this passage in Malachi is not irrelevant to us this morning. It is God's gift, to renew our attention to our calling to live in fidelity, in faithfulness, to the covenant of marriage.

In Malachi 2:13-16, the Lord defends the marriage covenant. I wish to take note of three things regarding this covenant. First, the covenant's witness, in verses 13-14. Second, the covenant's purpose, in the first part of verse 15. And third, the covenant's commitment, in the remainder of our text.

1. The Lord defends the marriage covenant. That's right. Marriage is a covenant. That's why, when God says in Ezekiel 16 that He had married Israel, He says, "Yes, I swore an oath to you and entered into a covenant with you and you became Mine" (Ezek. 16:8). That's the nature of marriage in Scripture. Contrary to some people's notions, marriage in the Bible does involve more than going into a tent together. It involves a commitment, a covenant.

Marriage is a covenant. And that is why it has a covenant witness. Notice in verse 14 these words: "the LORD has been witness between you and the wife of your youth." That word witness is a term which always appears in a covenantal context. The covenant witness is a person who watches over the proceedings when a covenant is made.

We have witnesses at weddings today. They sign their names on a document to prove that others have borne legal witness to the fact that this wedding has taken place, that this man and this woman have been bound in holy matrimony.

But in the Bible, the covenant witness does more than that. The witness is an enforcer of the covenant. That's why the covenant witness is usually God. He is the one who has witnessed what has been sworn, and if one party to the covenant is unfaithful, He has the power to judge between them, to avenge the injured party.

It is with this in mind that we are able to understand verses 13-14. Look with me again at these verses:

And this is the second thing you do: You cover the altar of the LORD with tears, with weeping and crying; so He does not regard the offering anymore, nor receive it with good will from your hands. Yet you say, 'For what reason?' Because the LORD has been witness between you and the wife of your youth, with whom you have dealt treacherously; yet she is your companion and your wife by covenant.

The idea of verse 13 is by now familiar to you, if you've been here for the earlier sermons on Malachi. There is a form of worship in view. In fact, it would appear to be heartfelt. At least, there is an expression of emotion: tears, weeping, crying.

But as has been the case in earlier passages, God says: "I don't hear you. I'm not paying attention." "You can wail, you can plead, you can cajole, but I don't call this true worship. I won't receive it."

And why? For what reason? "Because I am the witness between you and the wife whom you have betrayed. You swore before Me that you were committing yourself to this woman, that she would be bone of your bone and flesh of your flesh. And what have you done? You have forsaken her."

The ceremony of marriage is very old. It is customary. Saying that you are going to love and cherish another person "until death do us part" has all too often become a cute figure of speech and little more. The terminology of most marriage vows, terminology that implies - rightly - that a man and a woman are making a covenant before God - the import of that terminology is all too rarely considered with due weight.

I want to address the singles here. Many of you are seeking a spouse. That is a good thing. To find one is a gift of God. The writer of Proverbs says, "He who finds a wife finds a good thing."

But this good thing called marriage is not merely a pleasure, it is not merely a privilege, it is not only a gift. It is a responsibility. As you consider seeking a spouse, you need to be very aware of what you are intending to do. When you stand at the front of the church and make those vows, you are not merely going to be engaging in a nice ceremony. You are going to be taking an oath before the living God. He will be bearing witness to the covenant that you make with that man or that woman. That means you are placing yourself on an altar of judgment. Violate the vow you make, and you are calling down God's wrath upon you. That's serious.

Now please don't misunderstand. Marriage is a wonderful thing. It is, as I said, a gift. It is an occasion for joy. That's why in Scripture it is always accompanied by feasting. Covenant-making is a joyful thing. But remember that joy and frivolity are not the same thing. Blessedness and lightness are very different. It is a great privilege to swear God's oath, but it is a fearful thing to break it.

Husbands, wives, I know your marriages are all perfect and rosy, so it seems superfluous, quite needless, for me to say anything to you, doesn't it?

But I will say it anyway.

We are fallen people. There may be mornings when you look at your wife and are tempted to think, "I'm tired of looking at that face." There may be times when you listen to your husband talk, and you are tempted to think, "Boy, that attitude has worn thin on me." "What happened to the woman I married? She's just let herself go." "What happened to the gentleman who courted me? He's just not thoughtful like he used to be."

I pray such thoughts and temptations are not the case for you, but human nature being what it is, it's a distinct possibility.

Your covenant oath was not a promise that you would forever think your husband or wife is perfect. That's not commitment; it's blindness. But your covenant oath is about a commitment before God. Not merely a commitment to grit your teeth and "tough it out." Roommates can do that, but it's not the nature of marriage. The commitment of marriage is: "I'm going to love you. I'm going to lay down my life for you and seek what's best for you, because we are one." That's what God did for us in Christ, and it's what He calls us to do for Him. And that relationship is the profound mystery which is echoed in human marriage.

That is our calling, congregation. And let's not kid ourselves. It's not just a nice option, an alternative. It's a mandate. According to verse 13, God is saying: "If you want to walk with me, if you want Me to accept your worship - keep your vows. I'm watching."

2. So God is the covenant's witness. And as He defends the marriage covenant, He reminds His people further of the covenant's purpose. We find this in the first part of verse 15:

But did He not make them one, having a remnant of the Spirit? And why one? He seeks godly offspring.

This verse is very difficult to translate, the most difficult in the book of Malachi. Consequently, it is not easy to interpret on a phrase-for-phrase level. Nonetheless, it is quite clear overall. God here is dealing with the "why" of the marriage covenant.

He says that He made husband and wife "one." That, of course, goes all the way back to Genesis 2:24: "Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and they shall become one flesh."

It is God who ordained it to be this way. And therefore it is God who determines the purpose of marriage. That's not to say that the whole purpose of marriage is expressed in Malachi 2:15. We have to look to all of Scripture to see the rich design of God. Something very basic to the original creation of woman back in Genesis 2 was companionship. It is not good for man to be alone. And that is picked up on very slightly in our text, in verse 14, where it is stressed that your wife is your companion. The idea with this word includes partnership, of being joined.

But with regard to the purpose of marriage, the greatest stress in this passage is found in verse 15. "He seeks godly offspring." The original language literally says, "He seeks the seed of God."

"The seed of God." I hope you can recognize the echo there. Again going back to the beginning, God said to the serpent in Genesis 3:15, "I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her Seed; He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise His heel."

The woman's seed. A seed that is at enmity with the serpent. A seed that is therefore at peace with God, a seed that fights on His behalf against the serpent. In other words, a seed for God, a seed of God.

That is what God is seeking from marriage. A people set apart for Himself.

Your marriage is not your own, and your children are not your own. Your marriage is the Lord's, and your children are the Lord's. They are "arrows in the hand of a warrior" (Ps. 127:4).

Breaking faith with your husband or wife is an attack on that. We saw last time, in dealing with verses 10-12, that marrying an unbeliever is unfaithfulness to each other, unfaithfulness to the community of God's people. It is a profaning of the covenant.

But this is also the case with the unfaithfulness that is in view here. You will notice that similar language prevails in verses 13-16 as in verses 10-12. Note the repeated use of this language of "dealing treacherously:" it appeared in verses 10-11, and it appears again here in verse 14, in verse 15, and in verse 16. It is a word that refers to radical covenantal unfaithfulness.

This should not surprise us. Before the face of God, a son of God and a daughter of God bound themselves together in an oath to live as one. Breaking that oath is not merely a "failure of romance." It is a radical violation of the unity of the Church. Two people of God who are bound more intimately to one another than to anyone else are cut apart. For a man to say, "I don't love my wife anymore. I'm leaving her," is not merely cruelty. It is that. But it is also covenant-breaking.

And as we've just mentioned, it is an attack on God's covenant at a further level. God is seeking seed. Divorce jeopardizes that. When a man does not love his wife, when he abandons her, he is undermining God's purpose to have a holy seed for Himself. This is true for several reasons. First, the father is the image of God the Father in the home. His self-centeredness, his covenant-breaking bears false witness about God. It teaches bad theology to God's little ones. It implies that God is not faithful to His covenant, that He cannot be trusted.

Jesus said that it is better to have a millstone hung about your neck and to be cast into the sea, than to stumble one of these little ones. That's how serious the marital calling is.

But it goes farther. It is not just children which are to be viewed as "seed of God." It is Mom and Dad too. And when Dad divorces Mom because he doesn't like her anymore, or vice-versa, he is breaking covenant. Unless he repents, he is becoming seed, not for God, but for the serpent. He is destroying the covenant, making war against God. He is attacking the seed of the woman.

That is a strong assessment. But I believe it is the biblical one. The Church has largely collapsed on this issue of divorce. In a culture where divorce is rampant, it is easy for us to begin to excuse it, to downplay its significance, as if it were not a big deal.

Well, it is a big deal. Jesus said that if a man divorces his wife and remarries, except in connection with immorality, he is committing adultery. We don't preach that anymore. We want to make all kinds of excuses. But our excuses aren't going to change anything. The way things are in society release us from no burdens of obedience. God hasn't changed His mind.

Congregation, we are in a war. The serpent, as always, is intent on destroying the people of God. And, as always, he knows that a key way of doing this is by destroying the family. He knows that if he can wreck a marriage, he has a good chance at stealing the children too.

Husband, wife: you are sworn before God. You belong to Him by covenant. And you belong to your partner by covenant. Your husband is your brother in the body of Christ. Your wife is your sister in the body of Christ. For you above all others, God's call, to maintain the unity of the faith in the bond of peace, applies. Please, understand what is at stake. Please, commit yourself afresh to the God who seeks a people for Himself. Faithfulness in marriage is a fundamental calling in view of God's plan to raise up a seed for Himself.

3. Faithfulness. That is what God requires. Commitment. This is stressed in the last part of verse 15, and through verse 16: the covenant's commitment.

Therefore take heed to your spirit, and let none deal treacherously with the wife of his youth. For the LORD God of Israel says that He hates divorce, for it covers one's garment with violence, says the LORD of hosts. Therefore take heed to your spirit, that you do not deal treacherously.

In these two verses, God twice says "take heed to your spirit," and twice says "do not deal treacherously."

"Take heed to your spirit." Literally, "guard your spirit." This is a somewhat unusual phrase. Notice also the phrase in verse 15: "But did He not make them one, having a remnant of the Spirit?" Somehow, this seems to all tie together. I will suggest that we may have here an allusion back to Genesis 6. When the sons of God married the daughters of men - in other words, when the Sethites married the daughters of Cain's line - God said, "My Spirit will not always strive with man." That word "strive" is more literally rendered remain.

God made covenant husband and covenant wife one, giving them a remnant of the Spirit. The Spirit remains with them. It is part of the program for God to have a seed for Himself. But God warns: take heed to your spirit. Take heed to what I have given you. If you do not guard yourself, if you violate the covenant of marriage, I will withdraw my blessing from you. You will come under judgment. This warning applies, then, not only to intermarriage with unbelievers, but also to forsaking the holy marriage which you have entered into. Commitment to God's covenant entails commitment to your husband, to your wife.

Congregation, there is a price for abandoning that commitment. A heavy price. This passage begins by saying that Israel's men are covering God's altar with tears, weeping, and groaning. It ends in verse 16 by saying that Israel's men are covering their own garments with violence, or crime. This covering "trumps" the other. "Because your garment is covered with crime, because you are stained with hardhearted covenant-breaking treachery," God says, "I will not regard your tears. Tears ought to be tears of repentance. But your tears cannot hide the fact that you have left the wife of your childhood, that you have violated the sacred oath which you swore before Me."

Abandoning your oath before God is treachery. It is treachery against your wife. It is treachery against God. And God says that He has no intention of hearing the prayers, receiving the worship of those who engage in such treachery. That is the price of selfishness.

Brothers and sisters, if you watch TV or if you listen to the way people talk, there is this notion: if two people don't love each other anymore, then they may as well divorce. It will be better for both of them.

As we can see, that is not God's solution. If two people don't love each other anymore, they are sinning. The solution is not to split, but to return to their commitment.

That's not the easy answer. Such a return may entail hard work. It will certainly entail self-sacrifice. That is the nature of repentance. You might fall in love. But you don't fall into repentance. Repentance means turning around. You turn around in faith, and faith is not simply natural. It is beyond nature.

But that points us to Christ, doesn't it? As I've said, marital faithfulness isn't just a matter of gritting your teeth. It's a commitment to love. But underlying that commitment is this matter of faith. There is no such thing as faithfulness without faith. It is to Christ's example, Christ's mercy, Christ's love, and Christ's power that we must turn if we want to have godly marriages. We must come before Him confessing our weakness - but also acknowledging His strength, a strength which is sufficient for us. Christ is our hope, not merely in some general way, but in every aspect of the nitty-gritty of our lives. He is the hope for our marriages, for our families. The arm of flesh will fail, but our Lord never fails.

Thank God, Christ's commitment to us has been self-sacrificial. He has loved the unlovely. He has forgiven the sinner. He has beautified the ugly.

He has loved us. Fortified with that wonderful grace, let us too love each other. Let us commit ourselves to our husbands, to our wives, and to the Church which is Christ's Bride. In doing so, we will discover the blessing of being a part of the victory which God is granting to the seed of the woman. We will know the joys of Christ's triumphant kingdom. And again and again, more and more, we will experience anew the amazing love of God.

Amen.

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