OK, Malachi spent most of his ammo on the priesthood, the spiritual leaders. But in today’s passage he delivers a verbal broadside against his entire culture, the commons sins of the common men. In a nutshell, they were being unfaithful to the Lord and blatantly disregarding his standards. Like today, a lot of it had to do with sex.
What was the problem? Today’s passage deals with two main problems: Idolatry and divorce.
Idolatry was a danger to Israel’s spiritual health and even its existence since its inception. One interesting theory/explanation I’ve heard about the whole “Going-into-Egypt” scenario is that Jacob and his family probably were brought into Egypt (out of Canaan) so that they could become a distinct nation under the Lord. In Egypt there were many (existential) dangers, but assimilation was not one of them, considering the Egyptians wouldn’t even eat with them. But Moses—again and again and again—warned his people not to fall into the trap of idolatry.
Now, we need to be careful here. There are two points to consider: 1) The people of Israel, under their covenant, were under the marching orders not to associate with the pagans around them, Canaanites in particular. But we're under orders to take the Message of Jesus to the ends of the world, to share the Good News with everyone.
Also, we need to be absolutely clear about this: The problem with intermarriage was not racial or ethnic. Moses married a Cushite--very likely a black woman--and there’s no condemnation of this. The problem was religious. Mixing worship of the true God with worshiping anything else will only work to the detriment of the former. This is why they weren’t supposed to marry pagan women (which brought, for example, the downfall of Solomon).
Then we come to the thorny issue of the next problem: Divorce. Some men were marrying pagan women, while others were cavalierly divorcing Israelite women. From the description of their wives as “the [wives] of [their] youth,” it appears that these men (and I use the term very loosely) were divorcing their older wives--the ones who had supported them and loved them and had grown old with them--for a younger woman.
Now I need to be completely open about vs. 16. The traditional reading of it quotes God as saying “I hate divorce.” There are, however, some translational difficulties with this. It is possible, as the NIV renders it, to translate it as “The man who hates and divorces his wife . . . does violence to the one he should protect.” Other modern translations, like the NASB, NET Bible, and NLT render it the traditional way, quoting God as saying “I hate divorce.” I know this might ruin some sermons (I’ve heard multiple sermons on how God hates divorce), but I have to be careful about what the Scripture says, and be up front about questions like this. I have to be extremely meticulous about this sort of thing.
But does the alternate translation (per the NIV) change my theology at all? NO. I thoroughly believe, based on what the whole of Scripture teaches, that God does hate divorce. When Jesus was asked about the supposed command of Moses to give an estranged woman a “certificate of divorce,” he brought the whole conversation back to the original plan of God found in the first two chapters of Genesis: One man united with one woman for life. That’s the standard, and the further we deviate from it, as a nation or as individuals, the worse we’ll end up.
And please notice how the Lord sees divorce here: Violence against women. The Lord always has had a soft spot in his heart for the underdog, and women—yes, more than men—usually end up with the short end of the stick in divorce, most especially in a highly patriarchal society like in the past. There are a lot of reasons why the Lord created marriage, but one biggie is the protection of women, especially in a society in which they’re routinely treated like second-class citizens (at best). As women get older and their physical beauty fades, the easiest thing in the world is for a man to "trade up" his older wife for a younger model. Valuing marriage and discouraging divorce protects women.
But let’s move past the negative command (“don’t be unfaithful to the wife of your youth”) to the positive command hiding behind it. To all the married men reading this, I call upon you to cherish “the wife of your youth.” Protect her. Love her as Christ loved the church, giving himself up for her. Listen to her. Serve her. Your Father’s watching.
Father God, I love my wife, but not nearly as much as I should. Please love her through me. And when my heart begins to stray, to even move one inch towards unfaithfulness, pull me back as hard you need to.
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