by A.E. Knoch

HUMAN TIES exist in order to reveal the bonds that bind us to God. Creation and birth, slavery and sonship, marriage and divorce, are all used as shadowgraphs or illustrations of God's relation to the human race. These stations in life help us to realize our relationship to God. They are of great value also in regulating our conduct so as to please Him. We are not only connected to the rest of creation, but also to the Creator. Today the saints are the beloved children and chosen sons of God, our Father. Israel was the wife of Jehovah, was divorced, and will yet return to Him as the bride of the Lambkin. His doings reflect their light upon our earthly relationships, which are regulated and varied, so as to reveal His heart.

In our booklet "On Baptism" we have shown how doctrine varies to accord with divine relationship. In this study we will seek to show that conduct also differs to agree with God's attitude. This is clearly shown in the matter of divorce, which changes its grounds in succeeding administrations to accord with the character of God's dispensations. In each case it harmonizes with the divine dealings. When hardhearted Israel, enslaved under the bondage of the law, failed so fearfully in fulfilling its conjugal duties as the wife of Jehovah, so that He was compelled to divorce her, a man could send away his wife for any fleshly reason (Deut.24:1-4; Matt.19:3-9). Our Lord, in his ministry to Israel, altered this to correspond to His more merciful mission. The nation was forgiven everything except unfaithfulness to God, and so a man could not put away his wife except for this single cause. Under the more gracious ministry of Paul a spiritual distinction is made between believers and unbelievers. As no separation is possible between the saint and God, so there is none between a man and his believing wife. But, as there is no close union between God and an unbeliever, the bond between a saint and a sinner may be broken by the latter, since no bond binds him to God.


Moses could issue the challenge: "What great nation is there that has God near to it as Jehovah, our God, in all that we call to Him? And what great nation is there that has statutes and judgments as just as all these laws which I set before you this day?" And we must agree that, in the main, the Mosaic law is the most just that has ever been given. But there are parts of it which do not appear so to the unspiritual mind, and one of these is the law concerning divorce (Deut.24:1-4). It seems one-sided. The man has all the rights, the woman all the wrongs. There was no provision that, if she should be unfavorably impressed by his physical imperfections, she could get rid of him! Neither was there any mediator between them. The man was constituted judge, jury, and witnesses. He could easily become a tyrant with so much power, as the woman had no right of appeal. How shall we discover the justice of this arrangement?

There can be no question that the grounds laid down for divorce by Moses were changed by our Lord. It was not, indeed, that the law allowed a divorce for every, or any, cause, as the Pharisees put it, but only because of some "nakedness," as the Hebrew idiom has it, probably some physical defect not visible when clothed. The Greek version used by our Lord and His hearers has the word "indecency" here. This the hard-hearted law breakers made a pretext, so that they could get a "legal" divorce for any cause. But what was the real, spiritual ground for granting this concession? Was it not because, at that time, they were under the law, in the flesh? A physical defect in a wife would correspond to sin in Israel. God was demanding perfection in the flesh, and put Israel away because they did not come up to His standard, as well as for leaning on other lovers. Only the man could divorce. The wife had no such privilege. This seems unjust until we see that the man represents Jehovah, and the woman His erring people.

Only in the high court of Jehovah will we be able to see the transcendent righteousness of this procedure. We are concerned primarily with the welfare and happiness of husband and wife during their sojourn on earth. If we had our way we would give them a free ticket to heaven immediately. That is a false mirage. It is not God's object during the wicked eons. As a divine institution, marriage is a medium by which God reveals Himself. The nation of Israel, under the very law in which we find this statute, was related to Jehovah as a wife to her possessor. The man had to picture the place of Jehovah. The legal contract was with Israel in the flesh, and it demanded perfection in the flesh. Hence it was that a woman could not cover up any physical defect without invalidating the contract, any more than Israel could fail in the flesh and still remain in the house of Jehovah.

In those days a man did not get to see his wife until the marriage veil was lifted after the wedding ceremonies. So it was that Jehovah gradually lifted the veil from Israel and revealed what she really was in the flesh. That is the burden of the Hebrew Scriptures. In the wilderness and in the land, under the judges and under the kings, by means of priests and prophets, we behold the corrupt flesh of the chosen nation, and do not wonder that Jehovah would not have her. Surely no one could insist that He keep her in his house forever! Therefore it is that, at the conclusion of this long period of unveiling, Isaiah (50:1) asks: "Where is the scroll of divorce of your mother, with which I sent her away?" This seems to have been for Israel's sins, her physical defects, as it were. But Jeremiah (3:8) cites another cause why Israel (the ten tribes) were cast off, that is, unfaithfulness.

Perhaps we can see the justice of this procedure more easily if we consider the case of Jacob. He was brought to Leah and was deceived. So the sons of Israel pretended to be and do all that Jehovah demanded. It took centuries to unmask the nation, before Jehovah divorced her. The law of divorce portrays this situation. The nation was taught, not only by precept, but by continually recurring examples, that Jehovah would break His covenant if they did not keep the law.

The custom of marrying sight unseen seems to be practiced still in some parts of the Orient. I met a man in Jerusalem whose home was in Egypt. He told us that it was far safer to buy a slave than to marry a wife. He had arranged for a wife once, and she turned out to be old and ugly, so he divorced her. I saw many veiled women in Palestine. At first I thought it a pity that their features should be hid from view. But later I changed my mind. By some inadvertence, on several occasions, the veil was thrust aside and I got a glimpse of the face beneath. I can only say that they looked much better veiled than otherwise! And so it was with Israel. The exposure that we have of them in God's Word has not enamored us. Israel in the flesh, under the law, was no pleasant sight for Jehovah!

A woman, divorced under Moses' law could, after another marriage, never go back to her first possessor. This, again, seems hard to reconcile with modern brands of justice. But when we see its spiritual counterpart, then it is understandable and imperative. Israel has failed under the first covenant and can never be under it again. Only the election in it who sought shelter under sacrifice, and was true to Him, will be included in that newborn nation that will make the new covenant. Jeremiah (3:1) refers to this prohibition, yet Jehovah invites them to return to Him. The reason given is not the law, but Jehovah's kindness. Again Jeremiah (3:14) says: "Return, sons of backslidings, avers Jehovah, for I possess you, and I will take you, one of a city, and two of a family, and I will bring you to Zion." An election shall return to Him. Is not this a foretaste of the ministry of our Lord?


Changed spiritual conditions led our Lord to alter the grounds of divorce in His day. He said, "Now it was declared: whoever should be dismissing his wife, let him give her a divorce. Yet I am saying to you that everyone dismissing his wife (outside of a case of prostitution) is making her commit adultery, and whosoever should be marrying her who has been dismissed is committing adultery."

When our Lord came, He made it very clear that He had not come to demolish the law or the prophets, but to fulfill them. He declared that not one iota or one serif should pass from the law till all should be occurring (Matt.5:17). Yet it is evident that He did not mean by this that it all continued in force. He set a limit when He said that the prophets and the law prophesy till John the baptist (Matt.11:13). Moreover, in His Kingdom code, He has no hesitancy in altering the law of Moses! So that there should be no doubt about this, He actually quotes Moses and makes a new and different statute. This is very striking, and certainly shows that one cannot use the law for a rule of life, without qualification. In the question of divorce we are certainly through with it. Now that we know the fact, the question arises, Why did He change the law?

Once again, the key lies concealed in Jehovah's new relationship to Israel. The coming of Christ introduced a vast change. The law through Moses was given, grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. The law had revealed Israel's unfitness in the flesh, so they were divorced. That lesson had been thoroughly demonstrated. The law seemed to carry the implications that they could keep it. Christ came because they could not keep it. He did not try to get them to obey, because they had shown that they would not. This proved the need of a Saviour. He did not herald law, but repentance, and He gave Himself as their Sacrifice. God's relation to Israel changed. They had been divorced. They could not return under law. But they could become His again under a new covenant, calling for faithfulness to Him. That is why the conditions of divorce were altered by our Lord. The old would be misleading, as Jehovah is through with the old contract, and wants to make an entirely different one, in which the flesh is no longer the determining factor.

But, even in His declaration on this subject, there is a startling difference between the accounts in Matthew and those in Mark and Luke (Matt.5:32; 19:9; Mark 10:2-12; Luke 16:18). In both passages in Matthew, unfaithfulness is given as the one exception, the only ground on which a divorce is possible. Yet in Mark and Luke no exception whatever is made. Why is this? In Mark it seems almost as if our Lord contradicts His own utterances in Matthew. He explains that Moses allowed divorce because of their hardheartedness, which was not only true of them individually, but of the law which they represented. Then He goes back to the original institution of marriage and shows that God made of them one flesh, and enjoins them not to separate what God has joined. It is not necessary to "reconcile" these apparent "discrepancies." We need only examine their spiritual background, and then we will see that both fit in their own particular sphere.

Matthew differs from the other accounts of our Lord's life in many matters. It has caused much confusion when Matthew is combined with the others, or even if it is used to check them. It can only be understood by itself, in the light of its special character. Most of us have heard that it portrays the King, while Mark shows us the Servant, Luke the Man, and John God's Son. But how little have we profited by it! All is characterized and colored by the Kingdom in Matthew. It cannot be understood in any other light. It continues the testimony of the prophets concerning Israel's dominion in the earth. Even as Christ is the King, so the outlook is predominantly national, rather than individual. This we have shown elsewhere, so need not go into details. It alone will explain the difference in the grounds for divorce.

Israel was still unfaithful as a nation, and divorced from Jehovah on account of it. This cannot be changed, nationally, notwithstanding the mission of Messiah, until the kingdom is taken away from them, and given to a nation, producing its fruits (Matt.21:43). As a nation, the Jews of our Lord's day will have no part in that coming kingdom and the new covenant, when Israel becomes the bride of the Lambkin. Only for individuals is this done away, for these disciples were not unfaithful. So, to the unbelieving nation divorce is allowed, for it pictures their own relationship to Jehovah. But to the individual disciple, who is not cast out by Jehovah, but who is joined to Him through Jesus, the Christ, there is nothing said as to divorce on the grounds of unfaithfulness.

Let anyone compare our Lord's words in Matthew with the eighth chapter of John's account. Once more we have the Pharisees, who thought they kept the law, and wanted to use it to destroy a fellow sinner. They bring to Him an unfaithful woman, hoping to show that He opposed the law which demanded her death. Under Moses she was doomed. Even now, had He assumed His place as the Son of David, the King, He would have allowed her to be stoned. The Pharisees did not realize that they were guilty of this very sin in God's sight, and that they were doomed not to enter the kingdom because of their unfaithfulness. The woman was saved because He dealt with her as Jehovah, the Saviour, and she acknowledged her guilt, recognizing Him as her Lord. He did not reject the law. All he asked was that the first stone be flung by a sinless one. So the Pharisees condemned themselves.

We must differentiate between Matthew's presentations and the rest. In fact, we must keep each account of Messiah's ministry separate, and seek to understand it in the light of its own characterization of our Lord, and of the accompanying conditions. What, at first sight, may seem to be contradictions will turn out to be local coloring, appropriate to the peculiar circumstances. Once we see it, there is a fine harmony in allowing the hardhearted Pharisees and the unforgiven and unforgiving bulk of the nation to go on divorcing their unfaithful wives, seeing that Jehovah was doing this to them, and, at the same time, teaching His individual disciples, who themselves had been taken back into God's house, because their sins were forgiven, to treat their wives as Jehovah had dealt with them. Where there is so great a difference, there should not be uniformity, but discrimination. Let us never read anything from one account of our Lord's life into another. The resulting composite will not help, but hinder.

The complex position of our Lord's real disciples, who also belonged to the unfaithful nation, may be illustrated by the course of Caleb and Joshua. They alone, of all Israel, it would seem, had faith in God to enter the promised land. Did Jehovah immediately send them in? They deserved to go. But no, as a part of the faithless nation, they must share the wilderness wanderings. For thirty-eight long years they had to wait before their entry into the land. But they did not fall in the wilderness, as all the rest of their contemporaries, and they did enter when the Jordan was crossed. Such will be the lot of our Lord's disciples. Even those who died will enter by resurrection when the Kingdom comes, whereas the rest will not enjoy it at all. The false disciples are to be reckoned with the unfaithful nation.


Differentiation is still more important between our Lord's ministry to the nation of Israel, including His Jewish disciples, and Paul's mission to the other nations after his separation. In his epistles we have a body of truth resting upon the repudiation of Israel, according to the flesh, and basing relationship to God entirely upon spirit. In it we find the nations brought into much closer and more permanent union with God than ever was the case in Israel. Husbands are exhorted to love their wives as their own bodies, because the present ecclesia is not represented as the wife or bride of Christ, but as His body. Who would ever think of divorcing his own body (Eph.5:25-29)? In Paul's perfection epistles, divorce is outside the orbit of truth.

Before the full force of the favor which is ours in Christ Jesus was revealed in Paul's later epistles, the whole question of the married state was briefly touched upon in the first letter to the Corinthians. In contrast to previous revelations, and to be kept entirely distinct from them, husband and wife are put on an equal footing (1 Cor.7:2-7). There is now no further need to give the man a place corresponding to Jehovah, and the wife to Israel, for these are temporarily out of the picture. As far as the flesh is concerned, all reverts to the original state when both were created, plus much loving consideration of each for the other.

The position of a married couple, both saints, in this day is positively and fully stated in one brief paragraph as follows (1 Cor.7:10,11): "Now to the married I am charging, not I, but the Lord: A wife is not to be separated from her husband. Yet if she should be separated also, let her remain unmarried or be conciliated to her husband. And a husband is not to leave a wife."

This is not only the will of the Lord, but it is in fullest harmony with our relationship to God. Nothing can separate us from Him or Him from us, and there is no other bond possible. Just as God will never leave us, so we must not leave each other. Conciliation should reign. Divorce is simply out of the question.


When one is an unbeliever, Paul says (1 Cor.7:12-15): Now to the rest am I speaking, not the Lord. If any brother has an unbelieving wife, and she approves of making a home with him, let him not leave her. And a wife who has an unbelieving husband, and he approves of making a home with her, let her not leave the husband. For the unbelieving husband is hallowed by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is hallowed by the brother, else, consequently, your children are unclean. Yet now they are holy. Yet if the unbeliever is separating, let them separate. A brother or a sister is not enslaved in such a case.

When only one of a married couple is a believer, the matter is entirely different. In Israel it was a physical defect that was a ground of separation, because they were God's chosen people according to the flesh. But the saints today are not united to God by fleshly bonds, even if they belong to the Circumcision, hence divorce is not based upon the physical, but the spiritual. Moreover, the saints should never seek separation. Rather, they should endeavor to win the unbeliever. Only the unbeliever may separate and leave, which is practically a divorce, and may be legalized as such. This sets the believer entirely free. The bonds are broken, but in such a way that no dishonor comes upon the name of God, or upon His saints.

The law is spiritual (Rom.7:14). Its enactments are adjusted to a divine standard of righteousness, far beyond human ideas of justice and equality. But it was only a temporary expedient, whose purpose was accomplished before the advent of the Saviour. Hence He readjusted the law to accord with new conditions in Israel and among His disciples. The nations never were under law (Rom.2:14), and are not put under law, but under grace (Rom.6:14). Hence there must be another, more radical revision of the rules of behaviour. Conduct that pleases God varies to accord with the mutual relationship between Him and His creatures. That which is right under law may be abhorrent under grace.

Under the law there were two grounds for divorce: physical imperfection and unfaithfulness. This was reduced to one under the ministry of Christ to Israel in the flesh. And it was changed to none for those who became united to Him in spirit. Corresponding to this, in Paul's ministry there is one, in the case of an unbeliever, but none for the saints. It all depends on relationship to God. His plans and purposes are the arbiters. If we do not see how He has changed in His dealings with mankind, then it will be impossible to really understand divorce or any other divine regulation for our conduct in this era of transcendent grace, and we will continue to grovel in the outdated enactments which were given to expose human depravity.

In the great social movements of the present day we have glaring examples of the effect of godlessness on the institution of marriage. Whole nations have been plunged into moral cesspools by their failure to recognize God as God. There are places in the United States in which the number of applications for divorce exceed those for marriage. Is this one of the great "social gains" on which the country prides itself? Rather it is the just retribution for the rejection of God, which will nullify all the devices men are inventing in order to find satisfaction and pleasure while divorced from the Deity. Not being united to God, the unbeliever is subject to the lax laws of man, and suffers all the baneful consequences of his spiritual condition.

May his saints ever enjoy the near and dear place which is theirs in Christ, and may they reflect His grace in their conduct, not only toward their wives, but toward all others who are bound to them with spiritual bonds, so gracious and so strong that nothing on earth or in heaven will ever be able to destroy them.

These various and seemingly contradictory revelations as to divorce have been the cause of much confusion because, instead of leaving each regulation in its own proper place in accord with God's dealings at the time, the saints have pitted them against one another, or mixed them into an insoluble mess. When correctly partitioned they are clear and illuminating. So is it with many other lines of truth. As God alters His administrations, man must change his conduct to conform to them. We may "obey the Bible" and live according to the law, or the sermon on the mount, but we cannot do both at the same time, because they differ. We may strive to conform to any era before Paul's transcendent revelations to the nations, and still be far astray, though buttressed by the Bible. It is only when we grasp the glorious grace revealed to the apostle of the nations that we can understand God's different dealings at other times, and enjoy the celestial spiritual blessings which belong exclusively to us today. Only by raising the lowest and least to the highest and best can God display the exceeding riches of His grace.

Many questions arise in our daily walk which cannot be settled by a definite passage in God's Word. Then it is that we can obey Paul's injunction, "become, then, imitators of God, as beloved children" (Eph.5:1). If we are fully aware of God's present plan in this secret administration of transcendent grace, we will never be at a loss for light to guide our steps aright. Those who pick up a passage at random in any part of the Bible will, alas, be led astray by the very torch in which they trust. We should be so suffused with the spirit of God's present operations that we intuitively act in harmony with them. This should show the immense practical value of a clear and correct knowledge of present truth. It is especially important to grasp the heights and depths of God's grace, for it alone can give us the power to turn it into practice. May we never appeal to a lower standard, as exhibited in other administrations! May we always walk in accord with the greatest and highest revelation of God's love, as it has been revealed to us only in Paul's epistles to the nations! Only so can we please Him in our walk and praise Him in our worship!

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