LESSONS ON DIVORCE AND REMARRIAGE FROM THE BOOK OF EZRA by Jonathan Macon


It is very unfortunate that the Old Testament sometimes doesn’t get the attention and study that it deserves.  In 2 Timothy 3:15, the holy scriptures that Timothy had known from a child obviously refer to the Old Testament scriptures.  Timothy was told by the inspired Apostle Paul that those Old Testament scriptures were able to make him wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.  From what Timothy was told, we can see that it is essential for us to study the Old Testament and learn lessons to build our faith in the New Testament teachings of Jesus Christ.  Though we are not under and are not to follow the Old Testament law (Col. 2:13-17; Gal 5:1-4), the Old Testament consists of far more than the Law of Moses.  The Old Testament contains a record of God’s judgments and principles which are still as valid and true today as they ever were because they were given by the God of Heaven who never changes.  The law has changed.  God and His nature, principles and judgments have not.  Of Himself, God says in His word, “For I am the LORD, I change not” (Mal 3:6).  And James 1:17 describes God as “the Father of lights with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.”  Of the Son of God, Jesus Christ, the Bible says, “Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and today, and forever” (Heb 13:8).  What God has spoken in the Old Testament reflects His eternal, unchanging nature.  Therefore, in the New Testament God has taught us to study the Old Testament because it is for our example and admonition (1 Cor 10:6-11); for our learning, patience, comfort and hope (Rom 15:4); and, as we saw earlier, to make us wise unto salvation.  The flip-side of that, which God clearly implies, is that ignorance of the lessons of the Old Testament will result in our being foolish and, ultimately, can cause us to be damned.  And certainly that is the case with the subject we want to examine in this article: Christ’s teachings on divorce and remarriage.  This article is not designed to be an exhaustive study of this subject and all of the issues involved in it, but let us go to the Book of Ezra and study three lessons there that have application to Christ’s teachings on the subject of marriage, divorce and remarriage in the New Testament.

In Ezra 9, the princes of Israel came to Ezra reporting the fact that the people of Israel had been entering into marriages with the heathen nations around them.  Israel had mixed with the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and the Amorites (9:1-2).  Ezra was astonished and rent his clothes and literally pulled his hair out at the news (9:3).  Ezra’s reaction reflects the magnitude of the sin of the people.  Israel had transgressed God’s law which he gave through Moses in which He had forbidden them to marry people of those very nations, by name.  Ezra mentioned that law they had broken in his prayer to God in verses ten through twelve, where he quotes God: “Now therefore give not your daughters unto their sons, neither take their daughters unto your sons.”  This is from Deuteronomy 7:1-4 where the Lord said, “When the LORD thy God shall bring thee into the land whither thou goest to possess it, and hath cast out many nations before thee, the Hittites, and the Girgashites, and the Amorites, and the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, and the Hivites, and the Jebusites. . . neither shalt thou make marriages with them; thy daughter thou shalt not give unto his son, nor his daughter shalt thou take unto thy son.  For they will turn away thy son from following me, that they may serve other gods: so will the anger of the LORD be kindled against you, and destroy thee suddenly.”  Therefore, the marriages the people had entered into were sinful, unscriptural marriages!  Though the Law of Moses no longer applies, Jesus teaches that certain marriages are also unscriptural under the New Testament.  Christ said in Matthew 19:9, “And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery.”  Thus, two categories of people are now forbidden by God to marry: 1) those who have divorced their mate for any reason other than fornication, and 2) those who have been divorced for any reason.  This law applies to “whosoever,” which includes both Christian and non-Christian.  None are exempt from that law, and those who break it are guilty of adultery.  Not just one-time adultery, either.  In this verse, the present, active indicative form of the verb “moichatai” (to commit adultery) in the Greek gives it a continuous action meaning.  It means those who enter an unscriptural marriage in the New Testament “keep on committing adultery” as long as they remain in that relationship!

The first lesson from the Book of Ezra that we want to understand is God’s definition of repentance, particularly as it applies to the sin of having an unscriptural marriage.  This is extremely important to understand since no adulterer will enter heaven (1 Cor 6:9-10).  Ezra 9:5-10:1 records Ezra’s prayer to God confessing Israel’s sin.  The people wanted to turn away “the fierce wrath” which God had towards them for their sin (10:14).  Again, God doesn’t change, and, therefore, He has always had the same requirements for those guilty of sin, in order to turn away His anger and obtain mercy.  In Proverbs 28:13, God said, “He that covereth his sins shall not prosper: but whoso confesseth and forsaketh them shall have mercy.”  True repentance requires 1) confession, and 2) forsaking, or turning away from the sin (not doing it anymore).  In Ezra 10:11, Ezra told the guilty ones to do just that: “Now therefore make confession unto the LORD God of your fathers, and do his pleasure: and separate yourselves from the people of the land, and from the strange wives.”  In this Old Testament example, those who married ones whom God had forbidden them to marry had to repent of that sin by separating from the mates whom they had been forbidden to marry in the first place.  That is what was “God’s pleasure,” because separation was the only way to forsake the sin.  Not separating would have meant continued living in that sin.  It would not have been sufficient for the ones under the Old Testament to merely have said, “Lord, we confess that we shouldn’t have married these people.  Our marriages are sinful, and we sure are sorry.  In the future, if any of us ever have the opportunity to commit the same sin again by marrying someone else that we shouldn’t, we won’t do it again.  But we will just stay with the ones we are already with whom we were forbidden to marry.  We will remain in these unscriptural marriages we already are a part of.”  No, that was not sufficient then.  AND IT IS NOT SUFFICIENT TODAY for those who are in marriages forbidden by Christ!!  Many today are saying that those who have entered into unscriptural marriages before becoming a Christian can be forgiven by truly being sorry that they entered into the marriage in the first place and by determining never to repeat the mistake if they ever have opportunity to do so.  Others say that such will clear any guilty party whether they entered their unscriptural marriage before becoming a Christian or after.  Though men are saying such things, God does not teach that.  In fact, we see that God teaches against that in the Book of Ezra.  And, as the Lord teaches in Hebrews 2:2-3, if “every transgression and disobedience received a just recompense of reward” in the Old Testament, then the punishment for neglecting the teachings of the Son of God Himself in the New Testament will be more severe.  (Note the same point in Matthew 11:20-24; 12:41-42, and Hebrews 12:25.)  God has certainly not lessened His requirements of repentance in the New Testament.  He has not lowered His standards.  And especially when it is taken into consideration that an unscriptural marriage in the New Testament is defined by Christ as being adulterous, then we understand that those who break Christ’s law are worse off than those we read about in the Book of Ezra.  So if the New Testament sin is worse because it is 1) against Christ’s word, not “just” the Law of Moses, and 2) it is adultery, then certainly our unchanging God requires a true, genuine repentance of the greater sin in order to forgive it.  Anything less falls short of God’s changeless requirements for repentance.  Anything less constitutes living in (“keeps on committing”) adultery, and no adulterer will be saved (1 Cor 6:9-10)!  God requires separation from the unlawful mate!

The second lesson, or example, we see in this passage in the Book of Ezra is the irrelevance of the prevalence of a sin to the commands of God.  We especially need to note how that fact applies to the sin of an unscriptural marriage.  Many today, even in the Lord’s church, are falsely teaching that the current widespread practice of divorce means that we must now accept the practice which Christ condemned.  A typical example of this view can be seen from an article entitled “Religious groups try to reconcile Bible, reality of divorce” which appeared in The State newspaper of Columbia, South Carolina on August 2, 1993.  It said, “The Bible speaks clearly about divorce.  It’s not in favor. . . but with an estimated 47 percent of U.S. marriages ending in divorce (45 percent in South Carolina), religious groups are reassessing how they view divorce.  For some denominations, the statistics–and the people behind them–demand that they soften their historical positions.”  And it also said, “Because of the times in which we’re living, there’s a great tolerance for people who have been in relationships that are not compatible.”  The only question that matters is, Does God teach that if a sin becomes common and widespread enough, then He will no longer condemn it?  Of course, the answer is a resounding “NO!”  In Ezra 10:14, it says, “But the people are many. . . for we are many that have transgressed in this thing.”  The transgressors included the priests, the Levites and “the people” in general  (Ezra 9:1), “yea, the hand of the princes and rulers hath been chief in this trespass” (Ezra 9:2).  If ever there was a sin so widespread that God would have decided to overlook it or ignore it, this was it.  It permeated the population from the leaders all the way down.  But God had the same requirement as if it had only been one or a few souls who were guilty.  Sin was still sin, and repentance was still required.  And notice that the people did repent.  They did separate from the ones they were forbidden to be with!  Yes, as the newspaper article said, the divorce rate in the U.S. is about 50% and, consequently, millions are wrongly remarried and living in adultery, but nevertheless, God still commands repentance and repentance is possible!

The final lesson we want to take note of is how serious the sin of an unscriptural marriage is in God’s sight.  Though men often take sin lightly, God does not.  And though so many take lightly the sin of an unscriptural marriage, God certainly does not.  In Ezra 10:14, it says God had “fierce wrath” over this matter.  Furthermore, verses 18 through 44 contain a veritable “hall of shame.”  There God recorded the names of the guilty for posterity.  He did so for a reason.  We need to understand the lesson taught there.  The fact is, God hates sin (Deut 25:16; Prov 6:16-19; Zech 8:17) and, therefore, He hates it when a person marries someone He has forbidden them to marry.  As we have noted, it is an even worse offense under the Law of Christ.  So when someone marries a person who has divorced their spouse for any reason other than fornication or when they marry a person who has been divorced for any reason, it is adultery and God hates it and will eternally punish those who do not truly repent and separate from the ones they have been forbidden to marry.

In 1 Corinthians 10:6, the Lord tells us that the punishment inflicted upon the children of Israel in the Old Testament when they lusted after evil things are “our examples, to the intent we should not lust after evil things, as they also lusted.”  Some of the specifics as to what is evil and thus forbidden to be “desired” have changed from the Old Testament to the New since the law has changed, but the principle has not changed.  Desiring evil things, whatever that happens to be, always has been and always will be a sin.  By the same token, in Ezra 10 and Matthew 19 the specifics of what is an unscriptural marriage have changed from the Old Testament to the New.  But how to repent from an unscriptural marriage has not changed.  True repentance required separation then and it does now.  Also, the number of offenders had no bearing on what was acceptable then and it doesn’t now.  God didn’t tolerate sin in the face of its widespread practice then and He doesn’t now.  And the way God views this kind of disobedience is also the same.  God hated it then and He hates it now.  Let us be like Timothy and learn these lessons of the Old Testament well so that we also might have a greater faith in the words of Christ and grow wise unto salvation.  And, specifically, let us learn the lessons in the Old Testament that teach us to pay strict attention to what Christ has commanded concerning marriage, divorce, and remarriage so that we ourselves do not lose our souls along with all the other adulterers, and also that we might teach others the truth on this subject so they don’t lose their souls either.

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