For better, for worse? - Malachi 2:10-16

This is a sermon by Nathan Buttery from the morning service on 23rd March 2003.

Click here to read the bible passage. Click here to use larger text.

The true story is told of a slave in America who made a contract with his owner three years before the Emancipation Proclamation came in releasing slaves from service. The contract was to the effect that this slave was permitted to buy his freedom by paying so much per year to his master for his body. This way in a few years time he would have paid the full amount to his master which would buy him his freedom. The agreement was that while he was paying off the master, the slave could work for whoever he wanted, wherever he wanted. Well after a while the slave found that he could get a better wage in Ohio, so he left his master in Virginia and travelled north to Ohio. Well a few years later, the Emancipation Proclamation was announced, and all slaves were released from their masters, and given their freedom. At this point this Virginian slave was still $300 short of paying the full amount agreed for his body in the original contract three years before. So, although the Emancipation Proclamation had said that any debts to previous masters were wiped out, yet this slave walked all the way back from Ohio to Virginia, a considerable distance, and placed the last few dollars including interest in the hands of his old master with whom had made the agreement. When this slave was asked why he had done this, although he was legally free from all debts, he replied that he knew he did not have to pay the debt, but that he'd given his word to his master, and he had never broken his word. He felt he could not enjoy his freedom until he had fulfilled his promise. For a promise is a promise.

Promises are vital to any sort of relationship. If a person's word cannot be trusted then it is extremely hard to have an open and honest relationship with that person. But sadly in our society, promises are becoming increasingly cheap commodities. Thirty years ago, it would have been possible in the city of London to close a deal on the stock markets and in business simply with a word of promise. Millions of pounds would be pledged to someone else on a man's word. But that is not the case now. No-one in their right mind would risk millions of pounds on a man's word. When it comes to buying a house, how many of us have been told one thing by a seller with a verbal promise only to be rung up the next day and told that the deal is off because they've got more money from someone else? A person's word is no longer enough. And in realm of marriage, we don't need to be told that marriage vows are increasingly being held cheaply. We all know the statistics that Britain is the divorce capital of the world. One in three marriages that take place this year will end in divorce, two in three in London. And every year over 160,000 children become the victims of their parents' divorce. And of course the figures never tell of the hurt and pain behind every one of those statistics. Promises are cheap today and if ever someone says, 'You have my word' we think they are either from a different world or else naive and deluded.

And the prophet Malachi, whose messages we're studying together these morning services, was writing in a time when promise keeping was a dying art. In fact, promise breaking in Israel was almost a national pastime. Malachi, you remember was writing to a people suffering from a spiritual cancer called complacency. They were apathetic about their relationship with God and they were content with mediocrity. They were giving God the fag ends of their devotion and the worst thing was they couldn't see the problem with it. And last week we saw that it was the priests, the spiritual leaders of the nation, who were leading the people down this line. They were supposed to teach the people the law and lead them faithfully, but they had failed. For the leaders too were suffering from this cancer, this complacency which had gripped the land. And when the leadership lose the plot, is it any surprise that the people follow suit? And that's the link with the previous passage and what Malachi will say today. Because the priests had failed in their promises to God to serve him faithfully and teach the people, so it was no surprise that the people were following suit. They too were failing in their promise keeping, to God, one another and in their marriages. And the words which keep coming up in this passage are the words 'breaking faith'. Five times in seven verses Malachi says this is what they have done. And that's his concern in these verses. The problem of breaking faith. And we'll see that this breaking faith, this breaking of promises, begins with their relationship with God. Because how they conducted their relationship with God affected the way they conducted their relationship with others. Their lax and complacent attitude to God led to a lax and complacent attitude to others, including their wives. And that is always the way. The strength of our vertical relationship to God affects our horizontal relationships with others. So let's look at this passage under three headings, three areas in which are in danger of breaking faith:

1)Breaking Faith with One Another (V 10)

2)Breaking Faith with God (Vv 11-12)

3)Breaking Faith in Marriage (Vv 13-16)

1)Breaking Faith with One Another (V 10)

So first then, breaking faith with one another. In verse 10, Malachi reminds the people what God has done for them. 'Have we not all one father? Did not one God create us?' One of Malachi's concerns in his book is to remind the people of God what kind of God their God is. In chapter 1 v 2 we were reminded that God is a God of great love. In 1 v 14, we saw that God is a great king. Well here Malachi reminds his hearers that God is their Father and Creator. God is the one who brought the people into being. He is the one who cared for them like a father cares for his children. He set his love upon his people simply because he chose to love them. And he is their creator. This probably refers to the beginning of the nation of Israel when they received the law on Mount Sinai. For there, God said to his people that he brought them out of Egypt to be his treasured possession. They would be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. God was their Father who loved them, their creator who brought them into this world as a nation. And God had made a promise to them that he would be their God and they would be his people. That was his covenant with his people. And Malachi's point is that they are bound to God by this special relationship.

And it's worth us pausing to remember how incredibly privileged we are as the NT people of God. The OT people were privileged. They had the law and the promises, and yet we as God's NT people are even more privileged. God is our father in a way the OT people could never imagine. We are actually sons of God, adopted into his family and able to call God father. We have an intimacy of relationship that the OT people longed for. And God is also our creator not simply in the sense of, but also of giving us new birth. God has done wonderful things for us through Jesus Christ. And it means we too are brothers and sisters in Christ.

And so the people of God are a family. And that is why any breaking faith within the church family is so destructive and painful. Verse 10b: 'Why do we profane the covenant of our fathers by breaking faith with one another?' If there is only one Father and one Creator of the people of God, then it is terrible if there is disunity and mistrust between the people of God. They are breaking faith with one another. We'll see in a moment that a specific way in which they were breaking faith with one another was in terms of marriage. But there were probably many ways- mistrust, lying, deceit, selfishness, jealousy, and the like. They were mistreating each other in the body. And why does that happen? Well surely it all stems from forgetting the God who is their father and creator. When God is sidelined, as he was in Malachi's day, when spiritual apathy sets in, is it any surprise that human relationships suffer, not least in the church? It was happening in Malachi's day. God was being sidelined, and it had an effect on the people. They were breaking faith with one another. For if God is ignored, if God is treated as a tin pot deity, then why does it matter how we treat each other? Our priorities become warped.

And this often seen even in churches today. When we lose our focus on God and his glory, his priorities, his gospel, then the danger is that we fall into bickering and getting at each other. If spiritual apathy sets in on a church, then it's no surprise to find human relationships fragmented and broken. Petty jealousies arise, selfish gain is uppermost rather than the gospel, my own personal needs before those of others. The antidote is to remember who we are in God's eyes. Loved and cherished children of God, brothers and sisters in Christ. For it is vital that Christians in a church such as ours learn to live together in harmony and love, as children of the one God. It is vital not just for ourselves, but the glory of God who is our father and creator. For breaking faith with one another is so painful, and we need one another to help us live God's way.

Emperor penguins live in the Antarctic and the temperature there gets as low as -40 degrees Celsius. Also for much of the year the sun doesn't shine. So how do emperor penguins survive? Well what they do is very cunning. During the dark season, which lasts for several months, they all stand in a huge circle close together. The penguins on the edge of the circle get very cold, so they keep moving round, so when you have done your stint on the outer ring, you move to the warmth of the inner circle. And they do this for months on end, living off their fat reserves until the sun shines again. Now if you were a renegade Emperor penguin and thought, 'Oh these other penguins are useless. They're not like me!' and you went off to make it through the winter on your own, you would die. And it's the same for the Christian. We need to encouragement of one another to keep going. So let us put minor differences aside and make it our aim not to break faith with one another. Rather let us put our God and his gospel first. Let us remember that he is our father and creator, and so we are brothers and sisters in Christ. Don't break faith with one another.

2)Breaking Faith with God (Vv 11-12)

But then secondly Malachi addresses the issue of breaking faith with God. Because breaking faith with each other is only the symptom of a much deeper disease, breaking faith with the covenant God who has made us and saved us. And the way Malachi's attention is drawn to this issue is through the marriage of Jewish men with foreign wives. Verse 11: 'Judah has broken faith. A detestable thing has been committed in Israel, and in Jerusalem. Judah has desecrated the sanctuary the Lord loves, by marrying the daughter of a foreign god.' And we are left in no way unsure as to how serious this is. Judah has broken faith he says. It is detestable, it's a desecration. So what is so bad about a Jew marrying a foreign woman? Well in his law, God had warned Israel about the dangers of marrying foreign women. Deuteronomy 7 v 3 says of other nations: 'Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons, or take their daughters for your sons, for they will turn your sons away from following me to serve other gods, and the Lord's anger will burn against you and quickly destroy you.' So the problem was that intermarriage with foreign woman would lead the hearts of the people astray. And that is exactly what happened. Solomon, the greatest king Israel ever had, was led astray by foreign wives to worship other gods (1 Kings 11 vv 1-6); and the exile of Israel into Babylon had been attributed by God to their idolatry and rampant paganism. And one of the most important reasons for the people's apostasy was in marriage with foreign wives.

Now it's important for us to see that God is not being racist. In fact sometimes in the OT we do see Jewish men marrying foreign women, but only on the understanding that they become worshippers of Yahweh. Ruth is a case in point. She was a Moabitess who worshipped her people's gods, but when she came to Israel, she realised that Yahweh was the true and living and worshipped him before she married Boaz. But such cases are rare. Rather God makes it clear that his people were not to marry foreign wives because they would lead them astray. It's a religious reason, not a racial one.

And as God had warned, they were led astray. So when it starts to happen all over again after the exile, you can see why God is so worried about it can't you? The people are falling into exactly the same sins again. They haven't learnt their lesson. And Ezra, (who is a contemporary of Malachi) tells us that even the leaders are doing it too! (Ezra 9 vv 1-2). And so God's people who are meant to be pure, who are meant only to worship the true God, are marrying foreign women who will lead them astray. And Malachi is so keen that we get it that he calls these women 'daughters of foreign gods'. They worship another god, a false god. These couples are married in body but not in spirit. There is a fundamental disharmony in their marriages. And ultimately it means these men are breaking faith with God. They are more concerned about their love lives than with God. They are more concerned to sow their oats with the local girls than to obey God. And that is why it is detestable. The sanctuary of the Lord, the people of God, is being contaminated. God's holy people are joining in matrimony, the deepest union two people can make, with worshippers of pagan gods. And it's detestable to Lord. And these men don't care a jot. Because they have no concern for God and his law. So what will God do? Verse 12: 'As for the man who does this, whoever he may be, may the Lord cut him off from the tents of Jacob, even though he brings offerings to the Lord.' God is warning that the men who do this will be cast out of God's people. He'd done it once already in the exile. And he's quite prepared to do it again, if they people don't repent. They are breaking faith with God.

So what is Malachi's message to us as we look at this passage some 2500 years later? Well we need to be careful about making direct applications to our situation. For in one very important sense the people of Israel were in a very unique situation. They were God's people like us, and yet they were a complete nation in the world. So as God's people they had to be distinct and holy, set apart from the world around them. For it was through this nation of Israel that the rescuer Jesus would come. Any contamination of that nation may have endangered God's rescue mission. So it was vital the people remained pure in marriage, and to guard themselves from being taken in by other gods.

But for us as Christians, we find ourselves as a huge multitude from every nation scattered across the world, and inevitably some Christians find themselves in mixed marriages. Some might become Christians after they married, others might become keener Christians after marriage. What are such Christians to do? Well certainly the NT says they shouldn't divorce their spouses simply because they have become Christians. Rather they should pray for their non-Christian spouses and gently witness to them by the quality of their lives. 1 Peter 3 is a good example of this where Peter urges Christian wives of non Christian husbands to be godly and to win their husbands over by their godliness. They should not badger their husbands to come to Christ. I remember hearing a true story of one woman who was so excited about her faith and so desperate that her husband become a Christian that she did all sorts of bizarre things to get him to convert. She would leave tracts under his pillow, put Bible texts on his birthday cake, and talk endlessly to him, until one day he blurted out that it was like being married to Billy Graham. Well she became so worried that she went to her pastor, who advised her to simply be a kind and godly wife, to go back to make herself look attractive and beautiful, since she mistakenly thought it was godly to be dowdy and to be the wife he wanted, as well as to pray for him and invite him occasionally to something. And eventually that man did become a Christian. Of course it's not always that straight forward, so the first application for us as a church is to support and encourage spouses who find themselves in this situation. They need our encouragement and our support as they seek to witness to their non-Christian partners. And if you are in that position then be encouraged. God knows exactly how you feel and will strengthen you and uphold you.

But having said all that, the NT doesn't encourage mixed marriages. So if you are a single person, God's word for you is not to marry a non-Christian. Paul talks in 2 Corinthians 6 about the dangers if being yoked together with unbelievers, and in 1 Corinthians 7 he urges widows and widowers, if they wish to re-marry, to marry others who are in the Lord, that is Christians, a principle which could be extended to all. Of course, we might be tempted to think that we could convert them, which under God does happen. But sadly experience shows it's far more often the Christian who is led astray. It's like one person who is standing on a chair trying to pull another up onto the chair. Almost always, the person on the chair falls off. And here's where the OT principle stands. That the reason God forbade mixed marriages in the OT was the fear of religious apostasy by his people, which did in fact happen. It imperilled the nation. And so in the NT believers marrying non-believers also endangers their faith. And so once again the application for us as a church is surely to encourage men and women to stand firm and have the courage to resist marriage with non-Christians and to help them in making godly decisions. For at the end of the day it's our spiritual health that is at stake. And that's why God's word is clear. So what seems like a situation only for Malachi's day can actually be applied in principle in our own. And the danger for them is our danger too, the danger of breaking faith with God.

3)Breaking Faith in Marriage (Vv 13-16)

But there is a third way in which these Israelites were breaking faith. Not just with each other and with God in their pagan alliances, but also with their wives through divorce. It seems as if the issue was that these Jewish men had got tired of their wives they'd married some years before. They'd seen some nice newer model, younger, perhaps more attractive, some attractive young Egyptian girl down the street, and they'd dumped the first wife, like an old used car, and gone for the better model. And God says he hates it! 'I hate divorce, says the Lord.' But do you know the worst thing? These men didn't think there was anything wrong! Verse 13: 'Another thing you do: You flood the Lord's altar with tears. You weep and wail because he no longer pays attention to your offerings or accepts them with pleasure from your hands. And you ask, 'Why?'' These men happily kept going to their worship services, perfectly happy to divorce their wives one day, marry the pagan Egyptian girl down the road the next, and then worship God at the Temple on the Sabbath. They saw no connection between their relationship with God and their relationship with others. And their contemptuous attitude to God led to a contemptuous attitude to their spouses. So when they come to worship, God is not interested. He won't answer their prayers! Why? Verse 14: 'It is because the Lord is acting as a witness between you and the wife of your youth, because you have broken faith with her, though she is your marriage partner, the wife of your marriage covenant.' And God's verdict on their actions is: 'I hate divorce.'

So what is about marriage that makes God hate divorce so much? Well first there is the nature of marriage in verse 15: 'Has not the Lord made them one? In flesh and spirit they are his.' Marriage is a permanent joining of a man and woman in relationship to one another for life. They are joined together not just physically but spiritually as well. Jesus in Matthew 19 v 6 says that a married couple are 'no longer two but one.' He echoes the Genesis blueprint for marriage which says that a man will leave his mother and father and be united to his wife and they will become one flesh.' So Malachi says they are partners. The Hebrew word suggests a deep fellowship and partnership together. And so at a wedding today, couples make serious promises to one another to love and cherish each other to death parts them. And Malachi reminds us that this covenant, these promises made to one another were not made just in front of the vicar or the couple's friends and family, but also before God. He is a witness in verse 14 of this joining together. So marriage, Malachi tells us is a joining together of two people in a solemn marital covenant before God.

But there's another aspect of marriage that Malachi reminds us of and that is the place of children, in verse 15. 'God was seeking godly offspring.' It most likely that what the prophet is referring to here is that marriage is the proper context for children. Godly parents are to bring up godly children, and it is God's creation blueprint that children be brought up in a loving family where there is a committed mother and father. So can you see then why Malachi shows us God's hatred of divorce? He actually calls it violence in verse 16: 'I hate a man's covering himself with violence as well as with his garment.' Divorce always causes pain because it destroys a covenant made before God that was meant to be for life. Two people joined together in the very deepest way human beings can be are torn apart. And God hates it. It's goes against his plans and it is always horribly painful. Many of us will know from experience perhaps personally or through friends and family the terrible pain of divorce. And where there are children involved it is even worse. Around the time when Debbie and I got married a few years ago, four couples who are friends of ours got married as well, all Christians, but sadly all four are now divorced for various reasons. And it's very painful. And God hates it.

But if God hates it, why then does he allow it? In the NT we find Jesus and Paul allowing for divorce for two specific reasons: Sexual immorality and a spouse leaving his or her partner. Well sometimes divorce is the lesser of two evils, and God allows it as a concession in a sinful world in very limited situations. But it is a divine concession, not a divine command. And if it does occurs, God still doesn't like it. He knows only too well the pain involved. It goes against his creation plan. But it does need to be said that though God hates divorce, yet he does not hate divorcees. It is not an unforgivable sin, and as we'll see in a moment, God longs to forgive and clean us up. He longs to have us back and heal our brokenness. And we as a church need to be in the business of supporting and encouraging those who are going through such difficult times.

But the sad fact is that we live in a society where divorce and marital unfaithfulness are so common. It is almost expected that pre marital agreements will be made in the eventuality of divorce. In fact, I read recently that in America in 1996 150 'Quick Court' kiosks were unveiled in Arizona, USA. The idea was that with one press of a button, your divorce papers could be printed, and then all you needed was the rubber stamp of a judge. That's the society we live in. So how are we Christians to live in such a world? What preventative action can we take? Well Malachi gives us some help. In fact he tells us twice in verses 15 and 16: 'Guard yourself in your spirit and do not break faith with the wife of your youth.' If we are to stand true to our marriage vows, then we need to guard ourselves, for no-one not even church leaders are immune from danger. Surely in the first place that means guarding our time with our spouses. The fact is we all live busy lives, but we must guard our marriages and guard our time with our spouses. Surely sacrifices will have to be made. Babysitters will have to be paid for, phones will have to be disconnected, and the TV will have to be switched off. But is anything more important than time with our spouses? However long we've been married, we must guard our time with our spouses. But Malachi tells us also to guard ourselves in our spirits. One application of this must be to our thought lives. It is often said that adultery begins in the mind. Pray that God would give you the strength to resist temptation in the mind. Don't feed your mind with ungodly thoughts or images from TV or the Internet or films or magazines. Feed it with the word of God. Confess adulterous thoughts to the Lord and ask him for the power to overcome in this area. Don't put yourself in situations where you know there will be temptation. Or ask God to remove it if it is not something you yourself can remove. But thirdly to guard our spirits must be to see what marriage is in God's eyes. Understand what marriage is. It is a permanent joining of two people before God where two become one. And we men, who were the problem in Malachi's day, must love our wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her. The cross is to be the model for our marriages- complete self-sacrificial giving, selfless love for one another. And the cross is the best place for us to finish this morning. Because it is on the cross that Jesus died for all our sins, including sins committed in marriage. There is always forgiveness for those who will come to the cross. And God will never turn a repentant sinner away. He is powerful enough to heal the broken hearted, the love the unloved, to save the sinner. For whilst we so often break our promises, to each other in the church, to God and to our spouses, yet God's promises to us remain unbroken. For he is someone who always keeps his word. With God a promise is a promise.

Copyright information: The sermon texts are copyright and are available for personal use only. If you wish to use them in other ways, please contact us for permission.