Promises Count - Malachi 2:10-16
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
This morning, through the lens of the prophet Malachi, we are going to be looking at what can be called high fidelity. I am not talking about sound systems with tweeters and woofers (whatever they are) or a John Cusack movie, but about that which undergirds the well-functioning of any society and which is integral to a relationship with God, namely, being faithful to the promises we make; ensuring that our fidelity in our dealings with one another and with God are set at the highest possible standard- having a high fidelity. And in so doing we are going to be touching on a subject which will be immensely painful to many of us here- the subject of divorce.
So what is it that concerns God and what response is he looking for from us when it comes to promise keeping?
First, God through his prophet tells us that we must be true to our promises. When you think about it, much of what happens in everyday life is dependent upon making and keeping promises. Take our financial system. There is a piece of paper which has printed on it a very important promise. It reads, ‘Bank of England. I promise to pay the bearer on demand the sum of ten pounds.’ Without that promise, the paper is simply that- paper. Or take marriage. The man is asked in the wedding service, ‘Will you take this woman to be your wife? Will you love her, comfort her, honour and protect her, and forsaking all others be faithful to her as long as you both shall live?’ And he answers, ‘Maybe, it all depends’. No he doesn’t. He answers, ‘I will’- not as in Hollywood ‘I do’, but ‘I will’ for it is a promise which looks to the future. Promises are vital for relationships because they ensure predictability – the contract has been made and both parties undertake to keep to the details- and so you can have a fair degree of certainty- all things being equal- that what has been agreed will be delivered. That is the way it certainly used to be. Have you ever come across the saying ‘My word is my bond’? No contract was needed, the promise was enough. But now, everything has to be contractual, because our words have come to mean so very little and the only people who seem to benefit from lack of trust today are the lawyers.
Well, things were not that much different in Israel when Malachi arrived with his burden- his oracle- around 450 BC. Promise breaking, rather than promise keeping, had become the new national past time, v10, ‘Do we not all have one Father? Did not one God create us? Why do we profane the covenant of our ancestors by being unfaithful to one another?’ In whichever direction you would care to look, breaking faith was rampant- everyone was doing it.
First, it was happening in the religious sphere. As we have been seeing over the last few weeks, Judah was called to have a special relationship with the LORD Almighty by entering a contract called a ‘covenant’. And one of the many ways of keeping that covenant fresh and alive was by engaging in genuine worship. But this had been exchanged for begrudging worship; a dull routine had replaced a devoted relationship and God was expected to be satisfied with that. In so doing of course, they were breaking the contract.
But secondly, this spilled out, as it always does, into the moral sphere in two ways. In the first place as we read in verse 11, men were marrying ‘daughters of foreign gods’, that is pagans, or in our language, Christians marrying non-Christians. In the second place they were going for easy divorce, v14, ‘You have broken faith with the wife of your youth’. Now this is always the pattern. Once the vertical relationship with God is set aside, our relationships with each other begin to crumble, which is what lies behind verse 10, ‘Do we not all have one Father? Did not one God create us?’ If God is to be treated lightly as being of no consequence, then why should we be so concerned with treating each other with any respect? More to the point if there is no ‘one God’ who created us, and so no one to whom we are accountable and provides a basis for morality- which includes promise keeping- then why not rip one another off it is to our advantage? Who is to say what is right and what is wrong, the only thing we can be sure about is the way we feel and if I feel an attraction to one person at the expense of another person, why not go and sleep with them- what have words written down on a piece of paper got to do with it? Well, as we shall see they have everything to do with it.
So just how do we betray our promises to God and to one another? Here we come to the next point Malachi makes, that we are to be concerned with our purity, vv 11-12, ‘Judah has been unfaithful. A detestable thing has been committed in Israel and in Jerusalem: Judah has desecrated the sanctuary the LORD loves by marrying women who worship a foreign god. As for the man who does this, whoever he may be, may the LORD remove him from the tents of Jacob --even though he brings an offering to the LORD Almighty.’
Don’t misunderstand what is being said here. There is no underlying racism or xenophobia. Even in the Old Testament we have the wonderful story of Ruth, the grandmother of King David and so ancestor of the Lord Jesus Christ, who was from Moab and married a Jew. But the point was she converted to faith in Yahweh, she was, if you like, a born again believer. The problem here was that no such conversion was being deemed necessary, and you can see why. If religion is compartmentalised, so that all that mattered was going through the routine of worship on a Sabbath in the temple, ticking the right boxes, then it didn’t matter what you did the rest of the week or who you did it with. If religion is essentially a ‘private matter’, then of course I can worship my god in my way and my wife can worship her god in her way, so ‘live and let live.’ That’s what was taking place. But God knows better than we do- he knows that we can’t live out our lives in watertight compartments- each area affects the other. The values of one partner introduced into a marriage will affect the other partner. That is why the same principle is taken up in the New Testament that marriage for a Christian must be ‘in the Lord’ i.e. Christians are only to marry Christians. This is because being a believer in the one true God is not just a matter of what you do on a Sunday -it is a complete surrender to God’s Lordship in Christ- he is Lord of all. And so a Christian will say that living for the next world takes priority over living for this world and this has consequences for what we do with our time, money and education. The non-Christians obviously won’t believe that, and so straight away you are introducing into your marriage a tension at the most basic level, especially when it comes to passing on values to your children. Who is going to have the final say? Whose example will the children follow, the Christian or non-Christian parent? It just messes things up from the start. And as Israel’s history proved time and time again, the drift away from God towards other idols and false gods is nigh on irresistible- and so to put yourself in the way of marrying an unbeliever who is sold on different ‘gods’ is as foolhardy as an alcoholic going into a pub for a drinking party. Yes, I know of stories whereby God’s grace people have been converted by their Christian spouse, but I can multiply counter examples of those who have been pulled away in the opposite direction. And God so loves us, that he says, ‘Don’t do it! It isn’t worth it.’ Obviously if it happens that you do marry an unbeliever, or you get converted while married to an unbeliever- then you remain faithful to that marriage and work at it all the more-you have to- because that promise takes priority.
Which leads to the next point, be faithful to your marriage partner, vv 13-16. And here we come to the really vexed and painful subject of divorce. Obviously we don’t have time to say everything that the Bible has to say on the subject but we can say some important things.
Casting your eye over verses 13-16 reveals what was really going on in Malachi’s day, and as is often the case it was the women who suffered (as well as the children) by the behaviour of the men. These Jews were treating divorce as casually as a man might trade in an old car. They were breaking ‘faith with the wife of their youth’, not only by not keeping to the promises they had made to their wives to be faithful, because marriage by definition is a covenant or agreement between a man and a woman to be permanently committed together, sealed by sexual union (v15) with the purpose of having godly offspring (v16)- but also breaking faith with God before whom they had made their promises-v 14. And then, surprise, surprise, they couldn’t understand why God wasn’t blessing them, why things were not working out well in their lives as symbolised by the temple worship-v13.
And is this not a word for us today? Let me read to you an extract from the magazine New Woman, written by John and Nancy Adam, ‘Your marriage can wear out. People change their values and lifestyles. People want to experience new things. Change is part of life. Change and personal growth are traits for you to be proud of, indicative of a vital, searching mind. You must accept the reality that in today’s multifaceted world it is especially easy for two people to grow apart. Letting go of your marriage-if it is no longer good for you-can be the most successful thing you have ever done. Getting a divorce can be a positive, problem-solving, growth orientated step. It can be a personal triumph.’ You know what, I am pretty sure that the Jews in Malachi’s day would have agreed with that. And looking at figures that at least four out of ten marriages will end in divorce and one in four children seeing their parent’s divorced before they reach 16 in the UK, then the upbeat, go for it, hang loose attitude of John and Nancy- the ‘Adam’s family’ is obviously being taken on board- even by Christians.
But God says, ‘I hate it.’ And he does so with good cause.
First, because it is one of the most blatant ways we try to dethrone God-v15. Goodness knows what the translators of the new NIV thought they were doing, for the older one was nearer the mark, where it reads, ‘Has not the LORD made them one. In flesh and spirit they are his.’ This takes us back to Genesis 2:24, something reiterated by Jesus in Matthew 19:4ff, ‘Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh ? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” The joining of a man and woman in marriage, consummated in sexual union, is an act of God and so for human beings to come along and destroy that is a wanton act of vandalism towards our Maker.
Second, it is related to violence, v16, "The man who hates and divorces his wife," says the LORD, the God of Israel, "does violence to the one he should protect," says the LORD Almighty. So be on your guard, and do not be unfaithful.’
Divorce has the opposite effect of marriage. In marriage the husband protects his wife and enhances her wellbeing, but divorce, (certainly in Malachi’s society), left the woman exposed and vulnerable- with no social security, and open to the advances and prey of other men. In short, divorce hurts. And it hurts because it is a tearing of a personal unity- one flesh. It can crush self-confidence, arouse anger and promote insecurity-especially with the spouse who has been cheated against.
But the ‘violence’ of divorce also shows itself in the effect it has upon our health. Back in 1991 Dr Jack Dominion published a paper which showed that those divorced were at greater risk than married people in a variety of areas: men aged between 25-50 were twice as more likely to die prematurely if divorced and seven times more likely to be admitted to a mental hospital.’ One UK divorce lawyer has written, ‘the financial cost… and the emotional cost of marriage decay are so great that if society in our country is to survive, it is necessary to revive marriage as the foundation’. (G. Brown). No matter how amicable the arrangements may be, divorce hurts and scars and that is another reason why God hates it because it hurts us.
But there is another ‘violence’ associated with divorce, a violence perpetrated towards children. God wants good marriages because he wants ‘godly’ children-v15. If children experience the trauma of divorce, they are seeing adults breaking promises and so are in all likelihood going to become cynical when it comes to promises in general. And that will include their view of God who makes promises- covenants. If their parents, who are the nearest things on earth to a model of the ideal parent-God- break their promises to each other, it will only be a small and understandable step towards them thinking God is like this too, so who can trust him? Then it becomes a hurdle to the Gospel, do you see?
But the ‘violence’ the children may experience can be much more personal. Here is Polly Toynbee, humanist and one time feminist and no lover of Christianity, ‘The research pours out showing that the children of divorce tend to do badly in terms of health, education and happiness. The effects last into later life, and they are more likely to suffer depression, commit suicide, drink heavily and get divorced themselves.’ The report commissioned by Cambridge University a number of years ago, ‘The National Child Development Study’ showed that it was easier for a child to cope with the death of a parent than the divorce of a parent.
Now why do I say these things?
It is not to make more difficult what is already hard for those amongst us who have been divorced. I know what some of you have been through and it has been quite heart breaking, especially those of you who are left having to raise the children more or less by yourself. And in no way is this meant to add to your burden, heaping on unnecessary guilt or causing worry about your children’s future, because, as we shall see in a moment, there is much cause for hope especially from the God who does care about those to whom violence, in whatever form, has been done by broken promises.
But friends, in an age of the great Lie, it is vitally important that we face up to reality and the truth about the effects of sin in this fallen world of ours if we are going to see any change for the better and appreciate the glory of the gospel. The lies peddled by people like John and Nancy Adams about the possibility of divorce being the ‘best thing you have ever done’, need to be exposed for what they are in the light of the painful evidence. God hates unfaithfulness in marriage and the divorce that may occasion because he loves the creatures he has made and wants only that which is for our flourishing. Unfaithfulness and divorce don’t deliver. The teaching of the prophet may be hard to our ears, as it was to his original audience, but that is only because we, like they, have so moved away from what God has laid down for our well-being, namely having high fidelity.
I said that this is not all that the Bible teaches on the subject. Yes, divorce is permitted by God for a number of reasons, and yes, I believe remarriage is possible under certain circumstances, but it is never the ideal, and it is far better to fight like mad to keep the marriage, even when confronted with marital unfaithfulness, than to walk away from it. But, there are times when it is the best option, but it should be the least option.
And how can we say that? Because of the example of God himself. Look at what God says is the deep solution to the problem in verse 16, ‘Guard yourself in your spirit, and do not break faith.’ The real battle ground is internal. It is ensuring that we don’t put ourselves in vulnerable positions with members of the opposite sex where we might be tempted to break faith. It means nurturing that love for the wife or husband of our youth and remembering the promises made. Most of all it means being committed to the faithful God, so that we don’t break faith with him.
And it is here that we come to the ground of any hope that we might have as well as the solid basis for all our reasoning for marital fidelity and any other fidelity when we have made promises- because this is what God is like. He was determined to keep his marriage with Israel going when it kept hitting the rocks. While his people would often walk away from him, he would never walk away from them. What is more, it was in eternity God planned that there should be such a thing as marriage between men and women which would be a symbol of the relationship he was going to establish for his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. For God the Father decreed that there would be a Bride for his Son, and she is called the church. She would be made up of failing, fallen people, messed up people in so many ways, yes, divorced people, broken people and quite unlovable people like you and me. He would set his love upon them, with this husband dying for his bride on a cross, rising from the dead and working in her by his Spirit so that one day at the wedding ceremony to end all wedding ceremonies she will be presented to him radiating love and purity and they shall live together in heaven for ever. Now that is marital faithfulness!
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.