Must Not Take Her Back

Sermon preached on Deuteronomy 24:1-5 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 9/12/2010 in Novato, CA.

Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
Deuteronomy 24:1-5

”Must Not Take Her Back”

Verses 1-4 is a passage that was hotly debated in antiquity, even before and during Jesus’ ministry. A lot of the discussion back then focused on what grounds were required supposedly by this passage for a biblical divorce. Of course, in the Christian church, much of the debate has been ended by Jesus’ words on this passage. Jesus, of course, challenged the sinful spirit that wanted to turn this into a passage that advocated easy divorce. As we’ll see, this passage really isn’t advocating divorce at all; it’s about a narrow issue concerning remarriage. But, you have to love how Jesus handled this passage. He used another more clear Scripture passage, to help understand a less clear one. That’s a good principle to use. Jesus appealed to Genesis to help shed light on this passage from Deuteronomy. We too should read this passage in light of Genesis. We should also appeal to the light of Jesus’ authoritative instruction to help us understand verses 1-4 properly.

And so here you have a passage that most specifically adds a prohibition against remarriage in a very specific situation. Of course, this passage has historically raised broader questions about divorce and remarriage. So today we’ll think first about what this passage says about these two subjects: divorce and remarriage. We’ll also think about this passage in light of the rest of Scripture. We’ll think about it in terms of Jesus’ words and also a passage in Jeremiah that refers back to this legislation. We’ll finally wrap up our discussion by looking at the contrast of verses 1-4 with verse 5.

We’ll then let’s begin by thinking about divorce and remarriage according to this passage. Let’s deal first with the question of divorce. Many Jews during Jesus’ ministry thought that this passage was God giving husbands a wide authority to divorce their wife. This was the occasion of much debate back then. The argument went something like this. Verse 1 talks about the husband divorcing their wife because he found some uncleanness in her. The word is the same word used back in 23:14 referring to God being revolted by uncleanness in the army camp. And yet this is not the general word for uncleanness that you see more commonly used in the Old Testament. It could be literally translated “naked thing” or “uncovered thing.” Back then and still today, people haven’t agreed on exactly what it has in mind here. Some have thought it’s only a matter of sexual immorality that’s in view. Others have thought it’s a word of very wide latitude; anything that the husband finds displeasing. Most would agree that this isn’t referring to strictly adultery, however. Why? Because there’s already another more clear law about what to do in the case of adultery; that’s the death penalty.

So a couple questions come up then out of this. First, is this passage advocating divorce? Second, if so, in what cases? Well, back then, many people believed it did advocate divorce, and they then debated what cases were allowed. We saw from Mark 10 that Jesus objected to this interpretation. He said that Moses gave this law in light of the hardness of men’s hearts. Jesus says that marriages are supposed to be a lifelong union between a man and woman. He appealed to two separate passages in Genesis to make his point; Genesis 1:27 and Genesis 2:24. In other words, Jesus was saying that it is incorrect to use this passage to advocate divorce, especially divorce for any reason.

Well, that’s what Jesus said, but does it fit with the exegesis of this passage? Well, yes, it does. Look carefully at these verses with me. This is something you can clearly see in the original Hebrew, but you can also see it in the English translation as well. Verses 1-3 set the context. They are in the conditional. Verse 4 is the actual command in this passage. Let me say that again. Verses 1-3 set the context for what is actually commanded in verse 4. In other words, verses 1-3 do not contain commands. Verse 4 is the actual command.

Just look at the language here. Verse 1. “When” a man marries a woman, and is not pleased with her in some way, and divorces her with a certificate of divorce. Verse 2. “When” she departs from his house and gets remarried. Verse 3. “If” then it turns out that after that she finds herself single again; either divorced again or widowed. Verses 1-3 have in the English here the words “when” and “if.” That’s representative of the Hebrew’s conditional nature of the first three verses. Notice that verse 4 starts with the word “then” in our translation. Verse 4 is now the actual commandment. In light of the context of verses 1-3, the command for verse 4 is given.

In other words, Jesus is right. This passage is not advocating people divorcing. There’s no command here that says when divorce is allowed or not. In fact, there’s no passage anywhere in the Torah that advocates divorce. Now to be fair, there’s no passage in the Torah that explicitly forbids divorce either. What this passage does is recognize an existing practice of divorce. Why God didn’t choose to explicitly legislate in the old covenant law about when a divorce was acceptable or not, is a good question. In some sense it is in there. Jesus says the only acceptable reason for you to divorce your spouse is adultery, and of course the old covenant handled adultery through stoning the adulterer: that would have resulted in a permanent divorce.

Of course, we do have to recognize along with Jesus that there is a spirit of toleration given here. This old covenant case law would have the effect of tolerating divorce under the old covenant, within the certain boundaries described here. That being said, notice what is the real commandment here. The real command given here in verse 4 is a specific prohibition about remarriage. In the event of verses 1-3 happening, the original husband couldn’t remarry the women. In the event that a husband divorces his wife, she gets remarried to someone else, and then finds herself single, she could not be reunited to her original husband at that point. If she hadn’t gotten remarried in the interim, she could have. But once she becomes married to someone else in the interim, she’d no longer be eligible for remarriage to the original husband. Why? Verse 4 puts the reason in terms of defilement and in terms of not bringing sin upon the land.

How are we to understand this? What’s this defilement all about? How’s this bring sin upon the land for the couple to be reunited? Well, it seems that this passage basically sees this all of this as a form of adultery. Jesus of course used this language of adultery as well in speaking about remarriage in the case of unbiblical divorces. If the wife had gone off to be with another man, and then returns to the original husband, that frankly looks a lot like adultery. These actions would approximate adultery in effect. This word for defilement is actually the same word used in Leviticus 18:20 where it forbids adultery. Again, we should use Scripture to help us understand Scripture. Leviticus 18:20 says adultery is defiling. That same language appears here again in the prospect of remarrying the original wife after she’s been married to someone else.

My point is that this passage sees that this remarriage to the original husband would be tantamount to adultery. Apart from what’s technically on paper with certificates of divorce, it just looks like adultery. This legislation would have been a deterrence against easy divorce. If you’re going to divorce your wife under the old covenant, you need to realize that you are starting down a path of no return.

I think this is why it also mentions that this would bring sin upon the land. If this kind of thing was allowed, it could lead to rampant sexual immorality. You see, many people have pointed out that this closes up what some might try to exploit as a technicality in the law. You can’t just temporarily divorce your spouse, technically marry someone else for a night or weekend, then divorce them on paper, and get remarried right away to your original spouse again. Don’t think this kind of thing hasn’t happened before; just remember all the “open marriages” that are far too common today. You see, if divorce and remarriage was too easy, promiscuity and one night stands could be tolerated under the strict letter of the law. You could argue that you weren’t even committing fornication, being with someone for a short time that was technically on paper your spouse at the time. But Deuteronomy 24 protects against this sort of thing. It basically points out here that if it looks at all like adultery, then it is adultery.

In other words, to sum up this passage: divorce is not commanded or forbidden according to this specific passage. There is the implication, however, that in the old covenant divorce would be tolerated within the parameters given here. The parameters here limit what is tolerated. Even here, you can’t divorce your wife just because you feel like it; there has to be some uncleanness that you’ve found in here; whatever that might specifically mean. Then you can’t just send her away; you had to issue a formal written certificate of divorce. That would protect her should you later accuse her of adultery if she got remarried; she could pull out her paperwork to prove you divorced her. And then what is proactively advocated here is the prohibition against remarrying your divorced spouse after they subsequently been remarried.

Of course, in God’s good wisdom, he has given us more light on this subject of divorce and remarriage. Jesus tells us in the Gospels that adultery is the only reason why you can biblically divorce your spouse. But, of course, Jesus says this really isn’t any new revelation. It should have been clear from the first two chapters in the Bible. Jesus says this should have been clear from the earliest revelation on marriage. But the new light of Jesus’ revelation makes this all the more abundantly clear to us. Jesus goes on to say that to remarry in the case of an unbiblical divorce is nothing less than adultery. Paul in 1 Corinthians 7 also adds some important light on the subject. It talks about what you should do if your non-Christian spouse wants to leave you. Paul basically says that if they divorce you, then you personally are free at that point from your marriage commitment. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7:15 that you are not under bondage in such a case. In other words you’re freed from your marriage commitment by the sinful divorce of your non-Christian spouse.

What I’d like to do now is to spend a few minutes reflecting on this passage in light of Jeremiah 3. Go ahead and turn there in your Bibles. While you’re turning there, let me mention the context of Jeremiah chapter 3. Basically, God is lamenting Israel’s unfaithfulness to him. He describes Israel’s relationship to him in terms of a marriage that has ended in divorce. But Jeremiah chapter 3 begins this thought by referencing our passage today from Deuteronomy. Look at verse 1 of chapter 3. Jeremiah 3:1, “They say, ‘If a man divorces his wife, and she goes from him and becomes another man’s, may he return to her again?’ Would not that land be greatly polluted?”

Jeremiah opens up this chapter by pointing back to this passage in Deuteronomy. It’s presented as sort of rhetorical question. In other words, Jeremiah expects that his audience would agree with Deuteronomy. When asked about remarrying a divorced wife who had subsequently got remarried, he expects a clear answer from them. He expects they would give a hearty, “Of course he can’t return to his wife. Of course that would be defiling.” I’m sure he received that expected response. In other words, on paper, they would agree with Deuteronomy 24:1-4. But then Jeremiah turns it back around on them. The chapter goes on to say that Israel is the unfaithful wife who has been divorced by God who had been her husband. She has gone off polluted herself with other lovers. The next few verses spell this pollution out explicitly. Based on Deuteronomy 24, would it make sense that she could then return to God, her original husband? Jeremiah is basically pointing out how that would be defiling. It would be polluting if Israel was reunited to God. Should Israel even want to return to God her first love, this would be defiling in light of Deuteronomy 24. The very hypothetical idea of Israel returning at this point comes out as an almost ludicrous proposition.

Just to make the point abundantly clear, you have Jeremiah 3:8. There God is described as having sent Israel away with a certificate of divorce. Again, the language of Deuteronomy 24 is in mind here. This just brings out the supposed permanency of the divorce between God and Israel. And yet what is so amazing as you read this chapter is that it becomes clear that God is in fact willing to take her back. God is willing to have Israel return to her as his bride.

I can’t help but see a bit of tension here. Wouldn’t that be defiling for God to have her back, now after he has divorced her, after she has adulterated herself so many times. Now can he have her back? Wouldn’t that be defiling, unclean, impure? How do you resolve this tension? If a human ought not to engage in such defilement, how could the all holy God?

Well, let me tell you the answer. It’s Christ. Christ solves our impurity. He cleanses our defilement. He washes us and cleanses us so that this reunion can happen. Ephesians 5:25 describes this with a similar analogy between Christ and the church. Using the language of betrothal and marriage, Ephesians 5:25 says that, “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.” It would be wrong for God to receive us back to himself as long as we are in our defilement. But Christ has cleansed true believers, and he is continuing to prepare us so that on the day of consummation, we will be a bride united to God in all purity and holiness.

And so my call to all today: put your faith in Jesus. On your own, God says you are defiled. Yet God is calling you today to be cleansed and united to him. If you turn from your sin to Christ in faith, you will be cleansed. Today, I urge you, repent of your former ways of sin, and find cleansing in Christ. Believe in Jesus, trust your life to him, endeavor to live in purity by his grace, and you will be saved. You will be cleansed. This of course, is where we should always have been; united to God; not separated or divorced from him and his love. Sin separates us from God. Christ deals with our problem of sin that we could be reconciled with God. Let us turn to Christ and find our Husband-God who loves us. That we might delight together with him for all eternity. That we might be united with the one who makes our hearts glad and happy in him.

This brings us then to the contrast of verse 5. In one sense, this is a completely different subject than the first four verses. And yet they share some things in common and in contrast that are significant. They both talk about the subject of marriage in general. Verses 1-4, however, talk about the dissolving of marriages. Verse 5 talks about the starting of a marriage. Verse 5 is a small snapshot of the goodness of marriage. It’s describing how in the old covenant they were to allocate time for newlyweds to especially focus on their marriage. The husband is to use this time, it says, to make his wife happy. For those of us who are married, most of us look back fondly on our honeymoons. Probably for most of us, we could probably only afford to get away for a week or two. Honeymoons usually never seem long enough. A year long sort of honeymoon would have especially been nice. Yet think about this in light of eternity. Think about this in light of our union with God as the bride of Christ. I just said it a moment ago. We look forward to eternity where Christ will spend forever with us, making us happy and glad. Not just a night, or a weekend, or a week or two, or even a year. We go to be with our Husband-Lord for eternity. An eternity of the greatest joy and bliss we can ever imagine.

As we close out our message for today, I’d like to apply all of what we’ve talked about today in terms of contentment. Biblical contentment. This passage has in its background a question of contentment. Again, compare verses 1-4 with verse 5. The context in verse 1 was a husband who was not content with their wife, for whatever the reason. Verse 1 finds a husband not happy with his wife. Verse 5, describes a husband making his wife happy. It’s a content husband looking to bring real contentment to his wife. It’s a picture of them together enjoying one another. And so my point is that behind this passage is a question of contentment, presented and contrasted with the example of marriage. Will a husband and wife be content with each other? Will they find biblical contentment? This is a question that applies to all of us, married or not, in any and all circumstances God places us in.

You see, in all things, we have to ask ourselves, what is the source of our contentment? Well, we’ve already said it. We should have been permanently cast away from God, but he made a way for us to be reunited to him. He solved our defilements that we had heaped on ourselves. The foundation for our contentment should be in this great salvation. We should be content because God has found a way to be united with us, and he is now is at work in us, making our hearts glad for eternity. What can we really be unhappy about if we have the love of God working inside us, gladdening our hearts? This calls for faith. This is a perspective that calls for faith in the midst of the things we face in life, doesn’t it? This reason for contentment is true now, not just when we get to heaven. Christ is with us right now making our hearts glad. We are united to Christ even now. This is the reason to be content now, and even into eternity.

Brothers and sisters, we need to recognize this. We need to live by this. Satan will want to rob you of the contentment that is yours in Christ. Just like how Satan wants to break into our earthly marriages and make people discontent with each other. Satan especially wants to tempt you to not be happy with God. Discontentment can run deep in our hearts. We can be unhappy, discontent, people. It can eat away ourselves and affect our relationships. We can point the finger at others, or our circumstances, or our God, but we really should start with ourselves. Stop looking for contentment in the wrong places. Stop saying, I’ll only be happy, “If…” My call to us today is really make who we are in Christ the source of our contentment. Let us in faith be content in Christ.

This is biblical contentment. Nothing in this world can shake it. This kind of contentment affects all our life circumstances. If you are married, it should affect your marriage. You should both look to make your spouse glad, in light of how Christ makes us glad. We should mimic what Christ has done for us, in our earthly marriages. This doesn’t mean our marriages will be easy. It doesn’t mean we won’t have disagreements. The reality is that sin will exist in our marriages; we will sin against each other. But if the real source of our contentment runs deeper than just in our earthly spouse, you can maintain biblical contentment, even when your spouse sins against you. So many in the world give up on their marriages for just this reason. They say, I’m just not happy anymore. I can be happier if I leave my spouse. But God knows the way of real happiness. Real contentment doesn’t come when we disobey God. Sin works in the opposite direction from the real contentment that Christ gives us. And so, if your ultimate source of contentment is in Christ, then when your spouse wrongs you, you still have a foundation to offer them forgiveness and grace. You still have a foundation to show them true love. And when both spouses are doing this, you can experience a measure of earthly contentment that reflects that contentment we have in Jesus. It’s a tremendous blessing.

And yet, if you are sitting here single today, don’t think this message doesn’t apply to you. Of course, sometimes if you are single, being content in your singleness is one of the hardest things. Some people are more than content to be single. Others are hoping and praying that God will change their status. Only you know your heart and where you are at. But in either case, you can still find biblical contentment. When you are single and looking for a spouse, the danger is that you can make finding a spouse your condition for real contentment. You can end up praying to God in a way that basically makes it sound like you can only be truly happy if you find a mate. And yet look at how prominent divorce is today. I think this shows us that just finding a spouse doesn’t solve your problems of contentment. Surely many people get married thinking they’ll finally be content in life, only to find that isn’t the case at all. This is a temptation of course we have to avoid. Getting married hopefully is a great thing for you, but your spouse can never be your real source of biblical contentment. We’ve already said that our life in Christ is that source.

Of course if you are single and aren’t looking to be married, you might think you are very content in that. However, if your contentment in that state is because you don’t have to worry about pleasing anyone else other than yourself, then you should reassess your contentment. Paul in 1 Corinthians 7 praises singleness because it means you can be all the more devoted to Christ. There’s a sense in which the truest contentment can be experienced in this life as you learn to be fully devoted in the best sense to your union with Christ. Paul says that singleness can be a vehicle for that. That’s what we should aspire for if we are single, even if only for a season in your life. We must be on guard from finding contentment in our singleness merely for selfish reasons. Whether married or single, our source of contentment must be in Christ. Finding contentment in any human or even in just yourself is not enough.

Rather, as Paul says in Philippians 4:4, “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again, I will say, rejoice!” Rejoice in the Lord. Always. Whether married or single, let us rejoice. Even in our trials, let us rejoice. Even if another human rejects us, or divorces us, let us rejoice. If our finances come crashing down, let us rejoice. If we lose our jobs, or even loved ones, let us rejoice. Can you rejoice in such times? Don’t get me wrong. These things will cause us heartbreak. We’ll mourn during those times. But, even while you mourn, even when you have times of sadness, can you still find joy in the Lord? May we never lose that inner source of joy in knowing Christ, and in being known by Christ. This is a peace that transcends human understanding. Let us keep our eyes fixed on Christ who makes us truly happy, now, and into eternity. Amen.

Copyright © 2010 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.


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