By Danni Moss
Copyright protected, all rights reserved
Originally published Sept. 10, 2009
Malachi 2:16 For the LORD, the God of Israel, saith that he hateth putting away…
This verse is frequently translated “God hates divorce” and this is probably the single most often-quoted snippet in Christianity on the subject of divorce. “Everyone” knows that phrase and will tell you it’s in the Bible. Usually, the phrase is understood to mean, “since God hates divorce it is not, and cannot be, God’s will for any Christian to be divorced.”
First off, let me state the obvious. The Bible doesn’t say, “since God hates divorce it is not, and cannot be, God’s will for any Christian to be divorced.” But could it possibly mean that? Since the Bible does not actually say this, it is a fair question to ask whether that is really what it means.
Again, stating the obvious, it is reasonable to assume that God “hates” divorce, in the sense that He doesn’t like it. He isn’t dumb and any thinking person hates divorce. It is painful and it is not the way God intended marriage to be. So, of course, He doesn’t like it.
But is it also correct to assume that “God hates divorce” means divorce is an abomination to Him and absolutely forbidden?
In Isaiah 50:1 and in Jeremiah 3:8 God specifically states that He divorced Israel. I have discussed this in more detail in What the Bible Says About Divorce, III. It is important to remember that human marriage is symbolic of the spiritual reality, not the other way around. If anything, God’s example in marriage would carry more weight than the reverse.
Also, Ezra 10 tells of a time when God commanded the Israelite men to get divorces. I have discussed this passage in more detail in What the Bible Says About Divorce, IV. How could God possibly command the Israelite men to divorce their wives if, in fact, “God hates divorce” means that divorce is an abomination to God and absolutely forbidden?
Then in Matthew 5:32 and 19:9 Jesus gives a very specific exception clause when He answers the Pharisees’ questions regarding the allowance of divorce. Obviously, Jesus did not say that all divorce is an abomination to God and absolutely forbidden.
Let me ask another obvious question. Wouldn’t it have been easier for Jesus to just say, “God hates divorce” when probed by the Pharisees, if God meant that all divorce is an abomination and forbidden? But instead of quoting the definitive “God hates divorce” Jesus went into detail in an entirely different direction. Why did He do that if Malachi 2 establishes the primary precedent for God’s view of divorce?
In the church what we hear most of the time is “God hates divorce” – and yet, that statement is never reiterated in the New Testament – or anywhere else in the Bible for that matter. “God hates divorce” is the most repeated phrase in the church on the subject of divorce but appears only once in the Bible. Why is this true if this one phrase is of such profound significance?
Would it be logical to believe that the words of Jesus are probably the most accurate reflection of God’s heart on the subject of divorce, since He was directly asked for God’s perspective? So why did Jesus speak as He did? I have addressed Jesus’ teaching on marriage and divorce in response to the Pharisees in the article, What the Bible Really Says – Don’t Put Asunder. For the sake of not straying from the point of this article, I’m not going to go into it here. But what Jesus said was important – and He quite noticeably did not say “since God hates divorce it is not, and cannot be, God’s will for any Christian (or follower of God, since He was talking to the Pharisees) to be divorced.”
It is necessary for us, as believers, to understand this issue, since the phrase “God hates divorce” is commonly being used in the church in an unbiblical manner and the result is a great deal of harm. It may not seem like a big deal for those who have not been faced with divorce or with marriages in violation of the Word, but the inaccurate handling of the Word is being used to keep people in bondage and also to cause added condemnation and rejection to people whom God has neither condemned nor rejected. Additionally, there are many who say they aren’t condemning or rejecting – but the effect is virtually the same since it is putting a burden of “wrong” on the shoulders of people for whom God has not a single shred of approbation – even without condemnation or rejection.
So what is Malachi saying?
Let’s first take a look at how several translations handle Malachi 2:16. This is very revealing.
King James Version
For the LORD, the God of Israel, saith that he hateth putting away: for one covereth violence with his garment, saith the LORD of hosts: therefore take heed to your spirit, that ye deal not treacherously.
New King James Version
“For the LORD God of Israel says
That He hates divorce,
For it covers one’s garment with violence,”
Says the LORD of hosts.
“ Therefore take heed to your spirit,
That you do not deal treacherously.”
New International Version
“I hate divorce,” says the LORD God of Israel, “and I hate a man’s covering himself with violence as well as with his garment,” says the LORD Almighty.
So guard yourself in your spirit, and do not break faith.
American Standard Version
For I hate putting away, saith Jehovah, the God of Israel, and him that covereth his garment with violence, saith Jehovah of hosts: therefore take heed to your spirit, that ye deal not treacherously.
Holman Christian Standard Bible
“If he hates and divorces [his wife],” says the LORD God of Israel, “he covers his garment with injustice,” says the LORD of Hosts. Therefore, watch yourselves carefully, and do not act treacherously.
English Standard Version
“For the man who does not love his wife but divorces her,says the LORD, the God of Israel, covers his garment with violence, says the LORD of hosts. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and do not be faithless.”
Now, let’s dig into this.
First of all, let me acknowledge that there are many people who believe the King James Version (1611 version specifically) is the only accurate translation. This version says God hates putting away. Without getting into any debate regarding the veracity of various translations, let me take this statement alone.
If, in fact, the King James Version is completely accurate, it is important to note that it does not say “God hates divorce.” It says God hates putting away. In the context of Malachi 2 it is clear God is directing His statements to men who have been unfaithful to their first wives and put them away in order to take heathen wives. God speaks repeatedly of their treachery. God’s focus is on their treachery – this is what He is condemning – not divorce.
This fact is the key to the entire passage. God’s eyes are not on the legal documents these men obtained. It is on their treacherous hearts. God condemns the treachery that led to the divorces – and this fact is plainly communicated in the context. These men “put away” their wives and divorced them. The putting away of their wives was a fact of their treacherous hearts, and it led to divorce. But the treachery of their hearts was the real problem.
Would God have said it was OK if they had mistreated their wives but had just taken second wives instead of divorcing their first ones? They were allowed to have multiple wives so taking additional wives would not have been a problem. However, the answer is still a resounding NO! In fact, this would still have left these men in the position of the men in Ezra, whom God commanded to divorce their heathen wives, thereby making it obvious His issue is not with divorce but with the heart condition of the people involved. In Malachi, His focus is on their treachery – not on the legal documents that resulted from the treachery.
Another substantive point to note about God’s viewpoint on the treachery of these men in Malachi 2 is that He treats the two treacherous acts as separate offenses. He condemns their treachery in taking heathen wives. Then He condemns their treachery in putting away their first wives. The two are both treacherous acts, separate and distinct from one another. This is an important detail because we need to remember that the second act was not treacherous because of the first, nor vice versa. Each was treacherous independently — two distinct violations.
In Malachi 2, the focus on these men’s treachery is directly reflected in what Jesus said when confronted by the Pharisees. The root problem in both places is the heart of putting asunder – not the legal document of divorce. Putting asunder is a direct violation of God’s original plan and instructions regarding marriage in Genesis. And putting asunder is something that happens in the heart long before a legal document is issued by a court.
With this understanding, we also see the Word is speaking a consistent message. The problem in Malachi 2 is the same as Jesus outlined in the New Testament. And we know God is consistent! He doesn’t change His mind here and there, being double-minded and condoning divorce in one place while condemning it in another.
All that said, there is more to be seen in these translations. Notice specifically the wording in the Holman Christian Standard Version and the English Standard Version.
Holman says, “If he hates and divorces [his wife],” says the LORD God of Israel, “he covers his garment with injustice…”
ESV says, “For the man who does not love his wife but divorces her,says the LORD, the God of Israel, covers his garment with violence…”
Why do these two translations use such significantly different verbiage here? This change makes a serious difference in the meaning of the passage – especially considering the frequency with which “God hates divorce” is quoted in the church.
Before getting into the particulars, I think it would bear noting the pedigree of these two translations. In looking into this issue I corresponded with Barbara Roberts, the author of the book Not Under Bondage: Biblical Divorce for Abuse, Adultery and Desertion. She has an entire chapter (Chapter 8 ) devoted to this phrase in Malachi 2.
In the course of our correspondence, Barbara said, “The ESV is heavily promoted by Crossway, which is a major publisher of complementarian material. The Holman Christian Standard version was produced by the Southern Baptist denomination. So would-be-objectors from the conservative ranks need to sit up and take note.” I found this point interesting, since these translations are supported by conservative Christianity, yet this pivotal passage has not been seriously visited by the church systems which promote the translations.
But, let’s get back to the variance demonstrated here. There is actually a specific reason for such a substantive disagreement. Barbara goes into it in detail in her book, with extensive footnote documentation. Without reprinting the entire chapter here (you really need to read the book; it is exceptional) let me quote one relevant part here:
In Malachi 2:16, the subject of the verb “hates” is not explicit: the Hebrew does not read “God hates” or “the husband hates.” All we know from the verb is that the person who hates is third person masculine singular (“he” or “one”), just like “covers.” It is certainly not the first person “I hate.”
Now we come to our main point. Most Bible translations have taken the subject of the first verb to be God (God hates) and thereby changed he hates to the first person I hate. This is unfaithful to the Hebrew text and it creates an awkward grammatical shift between I hate and he covers…
Some translations try to overcome the grammatical disjunction between the different subjects of I hate…he covers by translating the passage as I hate divorce…it covers… We need not resort to such a solution. The subject of “hates” is third person, not first, and we should only depart from the plain sense of a text if compelled by something in the text. Nothing here compels such a departure.
It makes sense to maintain the same subject (the divorcing husband) for both verbs. Since 1868 at least eighteen scholars have said that “he hates…he covers” is the most faithful way to render the Hebrew, with “he” being the divorcing husband.
Just in the past couple days I heard a preacher whom I greatly respect say, “God doesn’t condemn divorcees; He condemns divorce.” This concept is quite common in the church. But in reality it is inaccurate. God got a divorce, He commanded people to get divorces, and Jesus gave a specific circumstance under which divorce was appropriate. So God cannot possibly be condemning divorce.
What God does condemn is treachery that results in divorce. God condemns putting away or putting asunder. There is a huge difference between the statement that “God condemns divorce” and “God condemns the treachery of putting asunder in marriage.”
While I do not have ill feelings toward the person who said this, knowing he is speaking out of a place where his paradigm of truth has never been challenged, this kind of teaching is causing a great deal of hurt in the body of Christ. It is necessary, I would even say vital, for this error to be corrected so that people in the church can be accepted and loved according to truth.
Here is the bottom line. No matter how you look at Malachi 2, it is critical to understand the passage neither states nor implies “since God hates divorce it is not, and cannot be, God’s will for any Christian to be divorced.” This understanding is important because this passage is a lynchpin in church teaching on divorce and it is being persistently misused. And this misuse is causing significant pain and even alienation of believers who are victims of treachery in marriage and who most need the love and support of the church.
[In this article I have not addressed the subject of if/when Christians are allowed to divorce. I have addressed this elsewhere in other articles (see What Does God Really Say? Series What the Bible Says About Divorce, Series, and THE Biblical Grounds for Divorce) and will continue to write on the subject, since I have not yet covered every Scripture about it. The purpose of this piece is not to make any commentary on the parameters of divorce for Christians. My goal here is solely to explore the phrase “God hates divorce” in Malachi 2.]