Your God Will Be My God

Then she arose with her daughters-in-law to return from the country of Moab, for she had heard in the fields of Moab that the Lord had visited his people and given them food. So she set out from the place where she was with her two daughters-in-law, and they went on the way to return to the land of Judah. But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go, return each of you to her mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. The Lord grant that you may find rest, each of you in the house of her husband!” Then she kissed them, and they lifted up their voices and wept. 10 And they said to her, “No, we will return with you to your people.” 11 But Naomi said, “Turn back, my daughters; why will you go with me? Have I yet sons in my womb that they may become your husbands? 12 Turn back, my daughters; go your way, for I am too old to have a husband. If I should say I have hope, even if I should have a husband this night and should bear sons, 13 would you therefore wait till they were grown? Would you therefore refrain from marrying? No, my daughters, for it is exceedingly bitter to me for your sake that the hand of the Lord has gone out against me.” 14 Then they lifted up their voices and wept again. And Orpah kissed her mother-in-law, but Ruth clung to her.

15 And she said, “See, your sister-in-law has gone back to her people and to her gods; return after your sister-in-law.” 16 But Ruth said, “Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. 17 Where you die I will die, and there will I be buried. May the Lord do so to me and more also if anything but death parts me from you.” 18 And when Naomi saw that she was determined to go with her, she said no more. – Ruth 1:6-18 ESV

The book of Ruth takes place during the time of the judges, a three-century-long period of spiritual darkness marked by unfaithfulness and apostasy. In the book of Judges, the people of Israel are repeatedly portrayed as stubborn, rebellious, and unrepentant. And, as the author of Judges points out, their track record of unfaithfulness to God was persistent and pervasive.

And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD and served the Baals. – Judges 2:11

That condemning statement is made at least seven times in the book of Judges. And each time the people of Israel turned their backs on God, He would bring judgment upon them in the form of the Canaanites, who would plunder the Israelites until they called out to Him for help. Then God would send a judge who would deliver them from their enemies. But eventually, when that judge died, the people would turn back to their former ways, worshiping the false gods of the Canaanites. And the cycle would begin again.

In the midst of all this sin, suffering, sorrow, and salvation, the book of Ruth provides a much-needed respite. It appears as a parenthetical pause, offering a refreshing glimpse into the life of a single Israelite family and their struggle for survival in those turbulent times.

Yet, the book of Ruth opens up on a remarkably sad note, revealing the fate of an Israelite woman named Naomi, whose entire world has cratered in around her.  She is living in the land of Moab, having fled with her husband from Bethlehem in an effort to escape a devastating famine. But rather than finding relief in Moab, Naomi loses her soul mate. Elimelech, her husband, dies suddenly and unexpectedly, leaving her a widow in a foreign country. Fortunately, her two adult sons are with her. And in an effort to make the most of their time in Moab, her two sons marry Moabite wives and settle down. But Naomi’s fate seems to be cursed. Ten years later, both of her sons also die, leaving Naomi and her two Moabite daughters-in-law to fend for themselves.

The scene is set. The actors in this divine drama stand on the stage, poised to reveal the plot devised by God from eternity past. What we have here is more than just a story of the life of Naomi and a Moabite woman named Ruth. It is a glimpse into God’s sovereign plan of redemption for sinful mankind. This small book seems to chronicle the life of a single Moabite woman, and yet, within its pages, it reveals the providential outworkings of a gracious, omnipotent, and omniscient God. Every single aspect of this story is God-ordained, from the famine in the land of Canaan to Elimelech’s decision to move his family to Moab. The deaths of Elimelech and his sons did not catch God by surprise. At no point in this story is God portrayed as wringing His hands with worry or fretting over the unfortunate circumstances surrounding Naomi. While she had every right to wonder where God was in the midst of all her suffering, at no point does she question His love or sovereignty. In fact, she exhibits a remarkable degree of peace and patience in the face of overwhelming loss.

Her husband and sons gone, Naomi has little reason to remain in Moab. A widowed Israelite woman, she has little hope of finding a husband among the Moabites. And she has no means of providing for herself and her recently widowed daughters-in-law, so she makes plans to return home. And at this point in the story, just when things are looking impossibly dark, a glimmer of light appears. While searching for food in the fields of Moab, Naomi hears the rumor “that the Lord had visited his people and given them food” (Ruth 1:6 ESV).

The famine had ended. It was safe to return home. But this fortunate news should not be received as some form of good luck or blind fate. This is a sign of God’s divine timing. At just the right time, God brought an end to the famine, so that Naomi could return to her native land of Judah. She would be going back to her hometown of Bethlehem, a small village whose very name means “house of bread.” God was going to provide for her needs, and in ways, she could never have imagined.

And little did Naomi know that all her losses would actually result in blessing, not only for her but for the people of Israel and the nations of the world. The dark cloud overshadowing her life’s story was going to have a silver lining that would have global and eternal ramifications.

As Naomi prepared to make the long journey home, she encouraged her daughters-in-law to remain in Moab. They were both young enough that remarriage was a distinct possibility and the most logical solution to their problem. There was no future for them in Judah. And Naomi graciously pronounced a blessing on both of them.

“May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me. The Lord grant that you may find rest, each of you in the house of her husband!” – Ruth 1:8-9 ESV

Naomi had not lost her trust in God. She still believed He was there and that He cared, despite all that she had endured over the last ten years. And she lovingly asked that God would bless her two daughters-in-law with husbands, health, and happiness.

Initially, both women refused Naomi’s request that they remain in Moab. They each expressed their intention to stay by her side, refusing to forsake her in her time of need. But with further coaxing from Naomi, one of the women, Orpah, decided to return to her own people. But Ruth, unwilling to leave her mother-in-law alone, refused Naomi’s advice and boldly proclaimed her unwavering pledge of faithfulness.

“Don’t ask me to leave you and turn back. Wherever you go, I will go; wherever you live, I will live. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God. Wherever you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord punish me severely if I allow anything but death to separate us!” – Ruth 1:16-17 NLT

These verses have a familiar ring to them because, over the centuries, they have become a common feature of innumerable wedding ceremonies. Tens of thousands of brides and grooms have repeated these words to one another as a pledge of their commitment to marital fidelity and solidarity.

But when Ruth uttered these words to Naomi, she was expressing her willingness to leave all that she knew behind. She was stating her intention to walk away from her family and ancestral home. She would be moving to a land in which she would be a foreigner and an outsider. As a Moabitess, her chances of remarriage in Judah would be drastically reduced. And she was taking on the weighty responsibility of providing for her widowed mother-in-law, for as long as God gave her breath.

This amazing expression of faithfulness should not be taken lightly. It stands in stark contrast to the blatant unfaithfulness and infidelity of the nation of Israel as portrayed throughout the period of the judges. This was a time in the life of Israel when each man “did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 17:6 ESV). And yet, here was Ruth, a woman from Moab, who was willing to put the needs of her mother-in-law ahead of her own. And don’t miss this often-overlooked aspect of Ruth’s commitment. She was even willing to give up her god.

While the people of Israel were busy forsaking Yahweh, their covenant-keeping God, here was Ruth the Moabitess, making a covenant commitment to switch her allegiance to Him. Whether she realized it or not, Ruth was forsaking her false god for the one true God. And her decision was going to have eternal ramifications that would influence the nation of Israel and the entire world.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

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God’s Godless People

1 Woe to her who is rebellious and defiled,
    the oppressing city!
She listens to no voice;
    she accepts no correction.
She does not trust in the Lord;
    she does not draw near to her God.

Her officials within her
    are roaring lions;
her judges are evening wolves
    that leave nothing till the morning.
Her prophets are fickle, treacherous men;
her priests profane what is holy;
    they do violence to the law.
The Lord within her is righteous;
    he does no injustice;
every morning he shows forth his justice;
    each dawn he does not fail;
    but the unjust knows no shame. Zephaniah 3:1-5 ESV

God has issued His warnings of judgment against the nations that surrounded Judah. But now He addresses His own chosen people, revealing the sorry condition of their spiritual state. And this comes immediately after His indictment of Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire.

“This is the exultant city
    that lived securely,
that said in her heart,
    “I am, and there is no one else.” – Zephaniah 2:15 ESV

God used the city to describe the state of the people who occupied it. They were characterized by pride and arrogance, viewing themselves as invincible and without equal. That magnificent city, renowned for its beauty and splendor, was filled with people who were enamored by their own power and prominence. But God warned them that they, like their city, would one day find themselves the brunt of everyone’s jokes, rather than the envy of the world.

“But now, look how it has become an utter ruin,
    a haven for wild animals.
Everyone passing by will laugh in derision
    and shake a defiant fist.” – Zephaniah 2:15 ESV

Yet, the great city of Jerusalem, the capital of Judah and the former royal residence of the great King David was also in for a rude awakening. Once again, God uses the city as a proxy for the people who lived within its walls. He describes Jerusalem as “rebellious and defiled” (Zephaniah 3:1 ESV). In Hebrew, these two words are rich in meaning, carrying a much deeper significance that gets lost in translation.

First, God describes Jerusalem as mara’, a word that can mean “filthy” or “lifted up.” It can also convey the idea of maltreatment of another through whipping or beating. This latter definition seems more fitting because God describes Jerusalem as an “oppressing city” (Zephaniah 3:1 ESV). The city is defiled because it is characterized by the oppression of its own people. The Hebrew word for “defiled” is yanah, which means “to suppress” or “maltreat.” The very name of the city means “possession of peace,” and yet the description given to it by God reveals the true nature of its inhabitants. They were marked by injustice, immorality, and rebellion. And yet, God had given them clear instructions regarding the kind of behavior He expected of them.

He has told you, O man, what is good;
    and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
    and to walk humbly with your God? – Micah 6:8 ESV

The prophet Micah goes on to record God’s further indictments against the inhabitants of Jerusalem.

What shall I say about the homes of the wicked
filled with treasures gained by cheating?
What about the disgusting practice
of measuring out grain with dishonest measures?
How can I tolerate your merchants
who use dishonest scales and weights?
The rich among you have become wealthy
through extortion and violence.
Your citizens are so used to lying
that their tongues can no longer tell the truth. –
Mi
cah 6:10-12 NLT

But along with these accusations of injustice and corruption, God provides four pieces of evidence or proof of Jerusalem’s guilt and well-deserved judgment. First, He states that “She listens to no voice” (Zephaniah 3:2 ESV). In other words, she is disobedient, having refused to hear and obey the commands of God. And it is not as if God had been silent. Over the centuries, He had spoken through His prophets, calling the people of Jerusalem to repent and return to Him. But God’s people had rejected His messengers and their message. This leads to His second indictment: “she accepts no correction.”

The people of Judah had a long track record of rejecting God’s correction.

“…but they did not listen or obey. They stubbornly refused to pay attention or accept my discipline.” – Jeremiah 17:23 NLT

“My people have turned their backs on me and have refused to return. Even though I diligently taught them, they would not receive instruction or obey. – Jeremiah 32:33 NLT

As the proverb states, “the LORD reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights” (Proverbs 3:12 ESV). But rather than accept God’s discipline, His people repeatedly rejected it, choosing to live according to their own standards, rather than His.

And this refusal to accept His loving discipline stems from a lack of trust, which God makes painfully clear: “She does not trust in the Lord.” In spite of all that God had done for them, they doubted His goodness, grace, mercy, and power. And their distrust was evidenced by their propensity to place their hope in false gods. When times got tough and they found themselves in difficulty, they would turn to nations like Egypt or Assyria to come to their aid. And their actions revealed that their God was not enough. He was insufficient to meet their needs and incapable of solving their problems.

And this lack of trust in God led the people to distance themselves from Him. Sadly, we read the sobering words, “she does not draw near to her God.” This is not simply a statement of distance or disconnectedness. It conveys their refusal to seek God’s counsel or advice. They had reached the point where they were turning to other sources for guidance. They neither desired or sought input from Yahweh. In a sense, He was out of sight, out of mind.

And this growing distance from God had led to an ever-increasing degree of godlessness among them. Zephaniah pulls no punches when describing just how bad things had gotten in the city.

“Its leaders are like roaring lions
    hunting for their victims.
Its judges are like ravenous wolves at evening time,
    who by dawn have left no trace of their prey.
Its prophets are arrogant liars seeking their own gain.
    Its priests defile the Temple by disobeying God’s instructions.” – Zephaniah 3:3-4 NLT

Greed, avarice, and injustice were prevalent – from the halls of government to the inner recesses of the temple. Everyone was out for themselves. The rich took advantage of the poor. Judges no longer dispense justice. Prophets, posing as messengers of God, spoke lies rather than truth. All for personal gain. The city had become a cesspool of self-indulgence and selfishness.

And yet, Zephaniah provides a much-needed reminder: “The Lord within her is righteous; he does no injustice” (Zephaniah 3:5 ESV). God has not vacated the premises. He has not yet abandoned them. He was still there, in all His glory and exhibiting all the facets of His character, including His unwavering, undiminished righteousness. So, they were without excuse.

Zephaniah contrasts God with the unrighteous inhabitants of the city, stating, “every morning he shows forth his justice; each dawn he does not fail; but the unjust knows no shame” (Zephaniah 3:5 ESV). There was never a day that God failed to display His righteousness and justice. Under no circumstances could they ever point a finger at God and accuse Him of being unjust or unfaithful. And His coming judgment of them would be well-deserved and fully justified. He had every right to be upset with them. He had shown them mercy time and time again. He had spared them from destruction more times than they could remember. He had put up with their ingratitude and infidelity. The only reason they still existed as a nation was because God was faithful to keep the covenant He had made with Abraham.

Their continued existence had nothing to do with them. They were undeserving of His grace and mercy. Their actions were no more righteous than those of the Cushites, Moabites, Ammonites, or Philistines. In fact, they stood before God as more guilty and deserving of His righteous indignation because they had been the beneficiaries of His unmerited favor and then had chosen to disobey His commands, reject His correction, withhold their trust, and ignore His counsel.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

   

 

I Will…

1 The word of the Lord that came to Zephaniah the son of Cushi, son of Gedaliah, son of Amariah, son of Hezekiah, in the days of Josiah the son of Amon, king of Judah.

“I will utterly sweep away everything
    from the face of the earth,” declares the Lord.
“I will sweep away man and beast;
    I will sweep away the birds of the heavens
    and the fish of the sea,
and the rubble with the wicked.
    I will cut off mankind
    from the face of the earth,” declares the Lord.
“I will stretch out my hand against Judah
    and against all the inhabitants of Jerusalem;
and I will cut off from this place the remnant of Baal
    and the name of the idolatrous priests along with the priests,
those who bow down on the roofs
    to the host of the heavens,
those who bow down and swear to the Lord
    and yet swear by Milcom,
those who have turned back from following the Lord,
who do not seek the Lord or inquire of him.” – Zephaniah 1:1-6 ESV

To understand a book like Zephaniah, you have to establish the historical context. Any attempt to read it without first determining the identity of his original audience, and the unique circumstances in which they lived, will leave its content obscure and its application impossible.

The book was most likely authored by the man whose name it bears: Zephaniah. There is debate over the exact meaning of his name. It has been translated as “Jehovah has treasured” and “whom Jehovah hid.” Along with the obscurity of his name, we are given little in the way of details concerning Zephaniah’s background. In the opening verse he describes himself as “the son of Cushi, son of Gedaliah, son of Amariah, son of Hezekiah.” This would make him the great-great-grandson of Hezekiah, one of Judah’s former kings. Which means he had royal blood pulsing through his veins.

Zephaniah’s royal lineage provides a unique link between Judah’s past and the present circumstances in which the prophet is living. He acts as a kind of human bridge between two different eras of the nation’s history. The very mention of King Hezekiah’s name provides a link to his reign. He is one of the few kings of Judah who, upon death, received a positive statement regarding his time on the throne. The book of 2 Chronicles states, “he did what was good and right and faithful before the Lord his God” (2 Chronicles 31:20 ESV). And it adds, “every work that he undertook in the service of the house of God and in accordance with the law and the commandments, seeking his God, he did with all his heart, and prospered” (2 Chronicles 31:21 ESV).

What makes Hezekiah’s reign especially significant is that he inherited the throne from his father, Ahaz, one of the most wicked and immoral kings in Judah’s long history. And Zephaniah, the great-great-grandson of Hezekiah provides a bridge between this godly king and the current king of Judah, Josiah.

King Hezekiah had been a godly outlier in the long line of unrighteous and disobedient kings of Judah. The book of 2 Kings provides a flattering description of this man reveals the one-of-a-kind nature of his reign.

He trusted in the Lord, the God of Israel, so that there was none like him among all the kings of Judah after him, nor among those who were before him. For he held fast to the Lord. He did not depart from following him, but kept the commandments that the Lord commanded Moses. And the Lord was with him; wherever he went out, he prospered. – 2 Kings 18:5-7 ESV

Josiah had been a reformer, spending the majority of his reign attempting to correct all the immoral excesses of his father. He had reopened the temple and reinstated the Levitical priesthood. He destroyed all the pagan altars and temples, removing all vestiges of idol worship from the land of Judah. He even reestablished Passover as a national holiday in Judah. Under his leadership, the nation experienced a spiritual renewal and revival.

But after his death, the nation would find itself headed back into apostasy. Hezekiah was succeeded by Manasseh, who ascended to the throne at the young age of 12 and promptly led the nation into another season of spiritual rebellion. Sadly, he is described in less-than-flattering terms: “he did what was evil in the sight of the Lord” (2 Kings 21:2 ESV). This young man undid all that his father had done, returning the people to a state of idolatry and apostasy.

“…he rebuilt the high places that Hezekiah his father had destroyed, and he erected altars for Baal and made an Asherah, as Ahab king of Israel had done, and worshiped all the host of heaven and served them.” – 2 Kings 21:3 ESV

Upon his death, Manasseh was followed by his son Amon. And this apple did not fall far from the tree. He picked up where his father had left off, leading the nation into further spiritual decline.

And he did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, as Manasseh his father had done. He walked in all the way in which his father walked and served the idols that his father served and worshiped them. He abandoned the Lord, the God of his fathers, and did not walk in the way of the Lord. – 2 Kings 21:20-22 ESV

But this wicked young man did not reign for long. He was assassinated by his own servants and his son Josiah was made king in his place. Amazingly, in spite of his father’s evil influence and example, Josiah proved to be a godly king. The description of his reign bears a striking resemblance to that of Hezekiah.

“And he did what was right in the eyes of the Lord and walked in all the way of David his father, and he did not turn aside to the right or to the left.” – 2 Kings 22:2 ESV

Josiah reigned in Jerusalem from approximately 640 to 609 B.C. And while he was far from a perfect king, he made significant strides in restoring the nation’s spiritual state. In the 18th year of his reign, he ordered the restoration of the temple, which had fallen into a state of disrepair. In the process, the workmen discovered the Book of the Law, the Mosaic Law given by God on Mount Sinai. Hilkiah, the high priest, read the content of the book to Josiah, and “When the king heard the words of the Book of the Law, he tore his clothes” (2 Kings 22:11 ESV). Convicted by what he heard, Josiah repented and called the entire nation of Judah to a time of renewal and rededication to the ways of God.

And the king stood by the pillar and made a covenant before the Lord, to walk after the Lord and to keep his commandments and his testimonies and his statutes with all his heart and all his soul, to perform the words of this covenant that were written in this book. And all the people joined in the covenant. – 2 Kings 23:3 ESV

We are not told when Zephaniah received his calling to be a messenger for God. So, it is impossible to know if he began his prophetic role before or after the reforms of Josiah. All we know is that it was “in the days of Josiah the son of Amon, king of Judah.”

And the opening verses of his book seem to paint a rather bleak picture. While the reign of Josiah would be marked by radical reforms and a renewal of the covenant between God and His people, Zephaniah’s words are far from encouraging or complimentary. The news he delivers is not good. And what makes it worse is that it comes from the lips of God Himself.

“I will utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth…” – vs. 2

“I will sweep away man and beast…” – vs. 3

“I will sweep away the birds of the heavens and the fish of the sea, and the rubble with the wicked…” – vs. 3

 I will cut off mankind from the face of the earth…” – vs. 3

“I will stretch out my hand against Judah and against all the inhabitants of Jerusalem…” – vs. 4

I will cut off from this place the remnant of Baal and the name of the idolatrous priests along with the priests…” – vs. 4

God is not happy. And it really doesn’t matter if these messages from God came before or after the reforms of Josiah. God knew the hearts of His people. He had seen reform and revival before, and He knew that, too often than not, it was short-lived. Restoring the temple, reestablishing the Passover, and renewing the covenant did not mean that the hearts of the people had been changed. God could see into the hearts of His people and He was well aware that external behavior was not always an indicator of internal change.

“These people draw near to Me with their mouths and honor Me with their lips, but their hearts are far from Me. Their worship of Me is but rules taught by men.” – Isaiah 29:13 BSB

“What right have you to recite My statutes and to bear My covenant on your lips?” – Psalm 50:16 BSB

Hezekiah and Josiah act as bookmarks, bracketing a period of spiritual apathy and apostasy in Judah. Hezekiah began a series of reforms, but his efforts were curtailed by Manasseh and Amon. Josiah would pick up the mantel of his predecessor, but he too would find that his reforms lacked staying power. The propensity of the people to act unfaithfully was too strong. In spite of Josiah’s best attempts to restore righteousness in Judah, the people would continue to “bow down on the roofs to the host of the heavens” (Zephaniah 1:5 ESV). And their hypocrisy would be evident as they “bow down and swear to the Lord and yet swear by Milcom” (Zephaniah 1:5 ESV). Milcom was another name for Molech, the god of Ammon. So, in other words, the people of Judah were guilty of worshiping Yahweh while also bowing down to the false gods of the nations of Canaan. They were hedging their bets, attempting to maintain their relationship with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, while supplementing His care with that of the myriad idols available to them in Canaan. 

But God wanted no part of their syncretistic worship. He described it as what it truly was, their abandonment of Him, accusing them as having “turned back from following the Lord” (Zephaniah 1:6 ESV), and of no longer seeking or inquiring of Him.

These opening verses are prophetic in nature, describing a series of future events that will involve not only Judah but the world as a whole. At this point, it is impossible to tell the exact timeline God has in mind here. All of the things Zephaniah has shared lie in the future, but some will take place long before others. When will God “sweep away everything from the face of the earth”? The prophet doesn’t say. When will God “sweep away man and beast” and “cut off mankind from the face of the earth”? Again, we are given no details. But it is painfully clear that God is unhappy with the state of affairs on earth. Things are not as they should be and He is stating His intention to rectify what is wrong. When it will happen is far less important than the fact that it will happen.

God is attempting to gain the attention of the people of Judah. They have become complacent and comfortable. Some are living in obvious rebellion to God, while others feign allegiance and practice their infidelity in secret. But God sees through it all. He is well aware of the true condition of His peoples’ hearts. And He will not tolerate their unfaithfulness and unrighteousness forever. So, as He has done so many times before, God sends His prophet to warn the people about the unavoidable consequences of their actions. And He lets them know that if they continue to what they are doing, He will be forced to act. And He simply states, “I will…”

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

   

 

When Man’s Wishes and God’s Will Collide

1 Now when Jesus had finished these sayings, he went away from Galilee and entered the region of Judea beyond the Jordan. And large crowds followed him, and he healed them there.

And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”

10 The disciples said to him, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” 11 But he said to them, “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. 12 For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.” –  Matthew 19:1-12 ESV

This is a difficult passage that has caused a great deal of contention and confusion over the centuries. And it’s likely that the disciples were left scratching their heads when they heard what Jesus had to say. These 12 verses deal with a topic that remains highly controversial to this day: Divorce among believers. And like so much of what Jesus taught, what He told His disciples seems to run counter to the prevailing sentiments of times in which they lived. Popular opinion would not line up with Jesus’ take on the matter. That’s why the Pharisees brought it up in the first place. They were trying to test or trick Jesus into saying something that could ruin His reputation among the people. Divorce was just as controversial then as it is now. And if Jesus attacked the peoples’ perceived right to divorce, it would alienate Him from the masses.

It could be that they were hoping He would take a similar tact as that of John the Baptist. It was John’s outspoken stance on divorce and remarriage that had resulted in his execution by Herod.

John also publicly criticized Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee, for marrying Herodias, his brother’s wife, and for many other wrongs he had done. So Herod put John in prison, adding this sin to his many others. – Luke 3:19-20 NLT

Matthew opens this chapter by stating that Jesus had traveled into “the region of Judea beyond the Jordan” – an area sometimes referred to as the Transjordan – which fell under the jurisdiction of Herod. The Pharisees were probably hoping that Jesus would speak against divorce as well, bringing down the wrath of Herod on his head.

Their question to Jesus was carefully worded: “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?”

Behind the question was their understanding or interpretation of Deuteronomy 24:1-2:

When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his houseand if she goes and becomes another man’s wife

The Pharisees interpreted this Old Testament passage to mean that God permitted divorce and approved of remarriage. But like so much of the Old Testament Scriptures, the Pharisees tended to read into it the meaning they wanted to get out of it. There were two contemporary rabbinic schools that differed in their interpretation of this passage in Deuteronomy. One group taught that it condoned divorce for just about any reason, while the other group took a more conservative view, stating that divorce was only permissible in the case of sexual immorality.

In His sermon on the mount, Jesus had come down on the conservative side of the debate.

“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” – Matthew 5:31-32 ESV

It would seem that the Pharisees had heard about Jesus’ stance on this issue and hoped to cause a stir among the people by getting Jesus to state His more conservative and less popular view.

The interesting point in all of this is the marked difference between Jesus’ area of emphasis and that of the Pharisees. They came asking a question about divorce. Jesus turned it into a lesson on marriage.

As Jesus was prone to do, He responded to their question with a question: “Have you not read…?” 

This unveiled inference by Jesus would have been like a slap in the face to the Pharisees, who prided themselves on their intimate knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures. But Jesus was about to school them on their understanding of God’s Word, taking them back to the book of Genesis. Paraphrasing the words of Moses regarding the God-ordained institution of marriage, Jesus asked them:

“Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate. – Matthew 19:4-6 ESV

Notice His emphasis: What God has joined together. Marriage is to be seen as a God-ordained union between a man and a woman. And no man is to separate that union. In that day and age, a woman was denied the right to divorce. But the husband was free to divorce his wife and, as many interpreted it, for any reason whatsoever, even for burning dinner.

But from God’s point of view, through the covenant of marriage, a man and woman became “one flesh.” They are united in an inseparable bond, sanctioned by God Himself. Marriage was to carry the idea of complementation, but also completeness. Two individuals, by covenanting together in marriage, were supernaturally bonded by God and made a completed whole. From that point forward, He saw them as one, not two.

But appealing to the words of Moses found in Deuteronomy 24:1, the Pharisees present Jesus with a follow-up question: “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” This was their perceived loophole. In their minds, it appeared that Moses had provided a clear and legal escape clause from the marriage bond. 

But the answer Jesus gave them most likely infuriated them.

“Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. – Matthew 19:8 ESV

Notice that Jesus points the finger of culpability straight at the Pharisees. Even though the words of Moses were spoken hundreds of years earlier, Jesus applies them to the men standing right in front of Him. Their hearts were hardened. They were unwilling and incapable of abiding by God’s will concerning marriage. And Moses had made it clear that “from the beginning it was not so.” In other words, from the day God had ordained the institution of marriage, divorce was not to be an option. No man was to separate what God had joined together.

And it’s interesting to note what the Deuteronomy passage goes on to say about this topic.

…if she [a divorced woman] goes and becomes another man’s wife, and the latter man hates her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter man dies, who took her to be his wife, then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after she has been defiled, for that is an abomination before the Lord. And you shall not bring sin upon the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance. – Deuteronomy 24:2-4 ESV

Notice what Moses said. The woman who has been divorced and remarried is “defiled.” If she were divorced again and her first husband tried to remarry her, he would be committing an abomination before the Lord. It was totally unacceptable.

As usual, the Pharisees were looking for loopholes. They were seeking God-approved grounds for divorce. But Jesus was emphasizing the sanctity and holiness of marriage. Rather than looking for excuses to separate, Jesus wanted them to recognize God’s command to remain one. Moses made a concession for divorce because of man’s inherent sin problem. He was in no way condoning divorce. He was simply conceding man’s inability to do what God had called him to do: Remain in an inviolable relationship with his wife.

And Jesus reinforces the fact that divorce was not in God’s plan. He had not ordained it and would not condone it. But like all sins, it was inevitable. So, when divorce did take place, there was only one scenario that would be considered biblical grounds for divorce.

“…whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” – Matthew 19:9 ESV

And it’s interesting to note that the Pharisees, while quick to quote from Deuteronomy 24:1, seemed to ignore what Deuteronomy 22:22 had to say:

“If a man is found lying with the wife of another man, both of them shall die, the man who lay with the woman, and the woman. So you shall purge the evil from Israel.

This discussion led the disciples to question the whole viability of marriage. If remarriage after divorce was out of the question, because it would leave both individuals guilty of adultery, it seemed to make more sense to never marry in the first place. You can see that their view on marriage had been influenced by the idea of divorce as a potential get-out-of-jail-free card. If the marriage didn’t work out, they could always get a divorce. But Jesus had shut down that option.

Yet Jesus informed His disciples that celibacy was not an easy road to take. It had to be something that God led someone to do.

Jesus described three types of eunuchs. The term “eunuch,” referred to “one naturally incapacitated – for marriage” (G2135 – eunouchosStrong’s Greek Lexicon (ESV) Blue Letter Bible). Some were born eunuchs. Others were made that way, through forced castration. But there was still another group of individuals who chose to remain unmarried. They were essentially eunuchs by choice, or as Jesus put it, “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” He would have been a case in point. Jesus never married, focusing all His energies on fulfilling the will of His Father.

As we will see, Jesus is beginning to set His eyes on the mission objective waiting for Him in Jerusalem. The storyline is quickly moving to its final stages. And Jesus, while teaching the disciples about issues that relate to everyday life, is trying to get them to understand that there are far more important things on the horizon than debates about marriage and divorce or arguments about who is the greatest in the kingdom. The cross looms large in Jesus’ mind. His destiny carries with it the shadow of death, but also the hope of the resurrection.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Not What God Intended

“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. – Matthew 5:31-32 ESV

Jesus follows up his radical statements regarding lust and adultery with a clarification about what the law actually says regarding the topic of divorce. Once again, He opens His remarks with the words, “It was also said.” What follows was not intended to be a restatement of the law, but a clarification of the Jewish peoples’ misunderstanding of what the law actually taught. Jesus was showing them that they had misconstrued the meaning and intent of what was written in the book of Deuteronomy. Here are the actual words:

When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house, and if she goes and becomes another man’s wife, and the latter man hates her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter man dies, who took her to be his wife, then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after she has been defiled, for that is an abomination before the Lord. And you shall not bring sin upon the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance. – Deuteronomy 24:1-4 ESV

Divorce was a problem in Israel. And the reason was that the people had been taught to minimize the moral aspect regarding divorce. Their interpretation of this passage in Deuteronomy centered solely on one thing: The certificate of divorce. In other words, they read this law and saw it as a license for a man to divorce his wife.

It is essential to realize that, in Israel’s ancient culture, women had no rights. They were not free to divorce their husbands. So, this law was aimed at men. And it was not intended as some kind of get-out-of-jail-free card, providing men with an easy exit strategy from an unhappy marriage. But that is what it had become. Divorce had become commonplace. All it required was a written piece of paper, a certificate of divorce. There were no lawyers, courts, or judges involved. And the action was taken with little or no thought as to any spiritual or moral ramifications the decision might entail.

These verses are directly tied to the ones preceding them, where Jesus talked about adultery. Every Jew knew that adultery was wrong. But they had divorced the idea of adultery from divorce. And Jesus wasn’t going to allow them to do so. This is why He states, “I say that a man who divorces his wife, unless she has been unfaithful, causes her to commit adultery. And anyone who marries a divorced woman also commits adultery” (Matthew 5:32 ESV).

In just a few short sentences, Jesus drops the hammer on the Jewish concept of divorce. All the way back in the book of Genesis, at the very point in time when God had made Eve from the rib of Adam, He had said, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24 ESV). God’s intention had been that a man and woman would be joined together as one, for life. There had been no provision for divorce. And, at a later point in Jesus’ ministry, this issue would be raised by the Pharisees, when they asked Him, “Should a man be allowed to divorce his wife?” (Mark 10:2 NLT).

The context of the passage makes it clear that they were attempting to trap Jesus with this question. It was designed to be a no-win scenario. If Jesus said a man was not allowed to divorce his wife, the crowds would turn on Him. A hard-line view on marriage and divorce had gotten John the Baptist beheaded by Herod. So the Pharisees wanted to see what Jesus was going to say, and His response was simple, yet direct. He did what He was so often prone to do. He answered a question with a question: “What did Moses say in the law about divorce?” (Mark 10:3 NLT). And they responded, “Well, he permitted it. He said a man can give his wife a written notice of divorce and send her away” (Mark 10:4 NLT). Now, notice closely what Jesus said to them:

“He [Moses} wrote this commandment only as a concession to your hard hearts. But ‘God made them male and female’ from the beginning of creation. ‘This explains why a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one.’ Since they are no longer two but one, let no one split apart what God has joined together.” – Mark 10:5-9 NLT

C. E. B. Cranfield, in his commentary of the Gospel of Mark, clarifies that the Deuteronomy passage to which Jesus refers…

…is a divine provision to deal with situations brought about by men’s sklerokardia [hardness of heart] and to protect from its worst effects those who would suffer as a result of it. – C. E. B. Cranfield, The Gospel According to Saint Mark

In other words, this was a concession, and not to be confused with some form of divine sanctioning of divorce. It was intended to keep men from following up one sin with another. The certificate of divorce was a legal document that was based on one thing and one thing only: Some proof of “indecency” in the life of the wife. The Hebrew word used in the Deuteronomy passage had to do with actions related to indecency, shamefulness, or dishonor. A man couldn’t just grow tired of his wife and send her packing. He wasn’t free to “fall out of love” with her and produce a piece of paper to get rid of her. There had to be moral reasons for him to divorce her. And, if he did divorce her, he had to deal with the moral ramifications of his decision.

Jesus makes it perfectly clear that, unless the man’s wife was guilty of unfaithfulness, in the form of sexual immorality, he had no right to divorce her. If he did, he was causing her to commit adultery with the next man she married. Because, in God’s eyes, she and her first husband were still one. And if she did remarry and was given divorce papers a second time, the first husband was not free to remarry her, without being guilty of adultery as well. And any husband, after having divorced his wife, who decided to marry a woman who had also been divorced without proper cause, would be guilty of adultery.

Why is Jesus belaboring this point? What is the real issue He is addressing? It is faithfulness. It all gets back to the perception/reality problem. For the Jews, their perception regarding divorce was that divorce was possible under certain conditions. You just had to follow the rules. But with the help of the religious leaders, the rules had been redefined. Divorce had become an accepted norm. But Jesus was out to deal with reality. He blatantly countered that divorce results in adultery. Marriage was intended to be a covenant, a binding relationship between two people, and sealed before God Almighty. And Jesus clarifies the significance of that reality, when He says, “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Mark 10:9 ESV).

Divorce was never God’s intention for mankind. Marriage was designed to be a permanent union, creating a divine bond between two individuals. Divorce was a breaking of the marriage covenant. It was an act of unfaithfulness. And God had stated that the only legitimate grounds for divorce would be based on unfaithfulness. And yet, He was not prescribing divorce as the solution to the problem of unfaithfulness. Jesus made it painfully clear that there was only one reason God made a provision for divorce: “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so” (Matthew 19:8 ESV).

One of the things God has always looked for in His people is faithfulness. God expected the people of Israel, His chosen people, to remain faithful to Him. But He often accused them of spiritual adultery.

“Have you seen what she did, that faithless one, Israel, how she went up on every high hill and under every green tree, and there played the whore? And I thought, ‘After she has done all this she will return to me,’ but she did not return, and her treacherous sister Judah saw it. She saw that for all the adulteries of that faithless one, Israel, I had sent her away with a decree of divorce. Yet her treacherous sister Judah did not fear, but she too went and played the whore. Because she took her whoredom lightly, she polluted the land, committing adultery with stone and tree. Yet for all this her treacherous sister Judah did not return to me with her whole heart, but in pretense, declares the Lord.” – Jeremiah 3:6-10 ESV

Israel had a track record of unfaithfulness to God. They couldn’t keep from wandering after other “lovers.” And the whole point Jesus seems to be making is our unfaithfulness on a horizontal level is a reflection of our unfaithfulness on a vertical level. How are we to remain faithful to God if we can’t remain faithful to our spouse? Our lack of commitment reveals a heart problem, not a compatibility issue.

God’s greatest concern is man’s relationship with Him. Sinful man is divorced or separated from God. Unfaithfulness has created a barrier between man and God. All men and women have proven themselves unfaithful to God. We have gone after other lovers, pursued other gods, and sought other relationships to meet our needs and satisfy our desires. But God, in His grace and mercy, sent His Son as the means by which we might be restored to a right relationship with Him. He wants to end our spiritual adultery and put a stop to our unfaithfulness. And it will only take place if we allow Him to renew our hearts and redeem us from our love affair with sin, self, and Satan.

Jesus is calling the people of God back to God. I love the way the apostle Paul puts it:

And all of this is a gift from God, who brought us back to himself through Christ. And God has given us this task of reconciling people to him. For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. And he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation. So we are Christ’s ambassadors; God is making his appeal through us. We speak for Christ when we plead, “Come back to God!” For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ. – 2 Corinthians 5:18-21 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

A Serious Heart Condition

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell. – Matthew 5:27-30 ESV

Notice what Jesus says here. “Everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” For the average Jew, God’s prohibition against adultery was only referring to the physical act itself. And while the Mosaic Law clearly commanded, “You shall not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:14 ESV), Jesus informs them that God had far more in mind than they perceived. The issue was the heart.

In the Old Testament, God accused the people of Israel of spiritual adultery time and time again. And not just when they were actually worshiping other gods. They could be unfaithful and adulterous, even in the midst of their worship of Him. Consider this stinging criticism He leveled against them:

“These people say they are mine. They honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. And their worship of me is nothing but man-made rules learned by rote.” – Isaiah 29:13 NLT

They had a heart problem, and so did the people listening to Jesus’ sermon on the hillside. They just didn’t know it. They were stuck on the externals, the outward meaning of the law, and their physical adherence to it. As long as they restrained themselves from actually committing the act of adultery, they were good with God, or so they thought.

Jesus uses the Greek word, “lust” (epithymeō), which meansto set the heart upon.” The word could be positive or negative in its meaning. It all depended upon the context in which it was used. But if you set your heart upon another person’s spouse, lust was most definitely wrong. In its negative usage, lust was to strongly seek that which had been forbidden by God. So, what Jesus is really telling His audience is that it’s all about their purity of heart, not the physical act of adultery itself. In other words, it’s all about the motivation that leads up to the act. What would cause someone to set their heart upon something God had forbidden or placed off-limits? And this was not a new concept. Jesus was not introducing something radical here, but simply reminding His listeners of what the Scriptures had always taught about the heart.

Guard your heart above all else, for it determines the course of your life. – Proverbs 4:23 NLT

The human heart is the most deceitful of all things, and desperately wicked. Who really knows how bad it is? – Jeremiah 17:9 NLT

To refrain from committing adultery was not enough. Just because someone has the fortitude to keep themselves from having sex with their best friend’s wife, doesn’t mean they don’t want to and haven’t obsessed about it regularly. That seems to be Jesus’ point here. You can brag all you want to about your commitment to God’s law, and you may impress your friends with your piety, but you won’t fool God. Because He knows your heart. He knows your every thought. God isn’t just interested in outward compliance to His law, He wants a wholehearted commitment to Him and His will regarding righteous behavior.

And Jesus gives a shockingly graphic prescription for handling the problem of lust.

“If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell.” – Matthew 5:29 ESV

That sounds a bit extreme, doesn’t it? Is Jesus really recommending that we pluck out our eyes to keep from lusting? But wait, He’s not done.

“And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.” – Matthew 5:30 ESV

Would cutting off of your hand keep you from sinning? Probably not. And that is not what Jesus is teaching here. He is clearly using hyperbole, the use of over-exaggeration to drive home a point. So, what is His point? To understand what Jesus is saying, it might help to use a real-life event as an illustration. Early on in King David’s reign, we are told that a time came “when kings go out to battle” (2 Samuel 11:1 ESV). It was springtime in Israel, the time of year when nations did battle. But the passage tells us that, while Joab and the forces of Israel went to war, “David remained at Jerusalem.” He stayed behind. And then we’re told:

It happened, late one afternoon, when David arose from his couch and was walking on the roof of the king’s house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing; and the woman was very beautiful. – 2 Samuel 11:2 ESV

David had time on his hands. And notice what it says: “he saw.” David “saw” Bathsheba. The Hebrew word is ra’ah, and it means “to behold, enjoy, look upon.” In other words, he lusted. But his lust was wrong because this woman was not his wife. In fact, the story will reveal that she was the wife of one of David’s soldiers. But notice that, at this point in the story, all David had done was lust. He had looked and enjoyed. But that would prove to be inadequate for David.

So David sent messengers and took her, and she came to him, and he lay with her. – 2 Samuel 11:4 ESV

David “took” Bathsheba. The Hebrew word is laqach, which means “to seize, to take, carry away.” He saw and he took. He used his eyes and his hands. He gazed longingly and wrongly on something that was not his, then he seized what he saw to satisfy his own desires. James makes it quite clear what was going on in David’s heart and life at that moment:

Temptation comes from our own desires, which entice us and drag us away. These desires give birth to sinful actions. And when sin is allowed to grow, it gives birth to death. – James 1:14-15 NLT

David saw with his eyes and took with his hands. His lustful thoughts resulted in sinful actions. But it all began in his heart. D. A. Carson provides us with some helpful insight into what Jesus meant by plucking out our eye and cutting off our hand.

We are to deal drastically with sin. We must not pamper it, flirt with it, enjoy nibbling a little bit of it around the edges. We are to hate it, crush it, dig it out. – D. A. Carson, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount

Our greatest desire should be to live in conformity to the will of God. And anything that might prevent us from doing so should be seen as expendable. A big part of our problem is our inordinate love affair with the things of this world. We lust after, covet, desire, and long for the things the world offers. We seek satisfaction and significance from the things of this world. In essence, we commit adultery with the world in order to satisfy our lustful desires. We see and we take. But James gives us a second word of warning:

You adulterers! Don’t you realize that friendship with the world makes you an enemy of God? I say it again: If you want to be a friend of the world, you make yourself an enemy of God. – James 4:$ NLT

And James wasn’t done.

Wash your hands, you sinners; purify your hearts, for your loyalty is divided between God and the world. Let there be tears for what you have done. Let there be sorrow and deep grief. Let there be sadness instead of laughter, and gloom instead of joy. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up in honor. – James 4:8-10 NLT

There it is again: Purify your hearts. Adultery is a heart issue. Lust is a heart issue. And impurity of heart is the real problem. That is why Jesus said earlier, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8 ESV). Purity of heart has to do with loving God by giving Him every area of your life. It is to “love the Lord your God will all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind” (Matthew 2:37 NLT). Purity of heart is not outward conformity to a set of rules, but integrity or wholeness of life. It is a wholehearted seeking after God that impacts all of life. If you are seeking after God, it will be hard to seek satisfaction and significance elsewhere. If you are busy lusting after God, you will find it difficult to lust after someone or something else. Purity of heart flows out and influences our hands and our eyes.

Remember what Jesus had to say to the Pharisees regarding their man-made laws and regulations:

“For from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, all sexual immorality, theft, lying, and slander. These are what defile you. Eating with unwashed hands will never defile you.” – Matthew 15:19-20 NLT

External behavior is a byproduct of the inward condition of the heart. Adultery is a result of misplaced lust and desire. When we should be seeking all our satisfaction and significance from God, we end up committing adultery in our hearts, proving unfaithful to Him by turning our affections to something or someone other than Him. For Jesus, adherence to the letter of the law was not the point. It was the condition of the heart. He was coming to do radical heart surgery on the people of God. He was trying to get them to realize that their problem with God was not their inability to keep His laws, but their incapacity to love Him faithfully, which kept them from living for Him obediently. Until their hearts were renewed, their affections would remain misplaced. Jesus came to reveal to them just how much God loved them.

Now, most people would not be willing to die for an upright person, though someone might perhaps be willing to die for a person who is especially good. But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. – Romans 5:7-8 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Close, But No Cigar

48 That very day the Lord spoke to Moses, 49 “Go up this mountain of the Abarim, Mount Nebo, which is in the land of Moab, opposite Jericho, and view the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the people of Israel for a possession. 50 And die on the mountain which you go up, and be gathered to your people, as Aaron your brother died in Mount Hor and was gathered to his people, 51 because you broke faith with me in the midst of the people of Israel at the waters of Meribah-kadesh, in the wilderness of Zin, and because you did not treat me as holy in the midst of the people of Israel. 52 For you shall see the land before you, but you shall not go there, into the land that I am giving to the people of Israel.” Deuteronomy 32:48-52 ESV

That very day. Those three simple words are filled with significance. The same day on which Moses delivered the words of God’s song to the people of Israel would be his last. Not only would he be denied entrance into the land of Canaan, but he would exit this life for the next one. Moses is informed by God that he will die alone on a mountaintop somewhere on the eastern side of the Jordan.

The phrase, “close but no cigar” comes to mind. Moses was close enough to see the land, but would never have the joy of crossing over the Jordan and enjoying the fruit of all his labors. From the moment God had called him to deliverer Israel from their captivity in Egypt, Moses had lived with one objective in mind: To lead God’s people to the land He had promised as their inheritance. When God had appeared to Moses all those years earlier, it had been on another mountain top, at Horeb. And God had shown up in the form of a burning bush. On that occasion, God had delivered the news to Moses that He had plans for His people.

“I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey…” – Exodus 3:7-8 ESV

Fast-forward and that is exactly where we find Moses, standing on the edge of a land flowing with milk and honey. Moses could see it with his own eyes. He could look on it longingly, but he would never set foot there. All because he had sinned against God.

And it’s a bit ironic that Moses has just spent a great deal of time addressing the people of God about the need to keep God’s law faithfully and to treat God Himself reverently. He has gone out of his way to stress the seriousness of sin and the danger of disobedience. In a way, Moses had been speaking from personal experience. He knew firsthand what happens when you fail to do God’s will on God’s terms. There was no room for improvisation. God was not interested in seeing their version of His will. He had not asked for their input or allowed them the option of extemporizing on His commands. But that is exactly what Moses had done.

God accuses Moses of breaking faith with Him and of failing to treat Him as holy. But what had he done? What was the crime Moses committed that kept him from entering the land of promise? The story is recorded in Numbers 20. And it began with the people of God complaining about their lack of water.

Now there was no water for the congregation. And they assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron. And the people quarreled with Moses and said, “Would that we had perished when our brothers perished before the Lord! Why have you brought the assembly of the Lord into this wilderness, that we should die here, both we and our cattle? And why have you made us come up out of Egypt to bring us to this evil place? – Numbers 20:2-5 ESV

They were not happy campers. They were thirsty and they were upset. So, Moses took their complaint to God, who provided Moses with very specific instructions.

“Take the staff, and assemble the congregation, you and Aaron your brother, and tell the rock before their eyes to yield its water. So you shall bring water out of the rock for them and give drink to the congregation and their cattle.” – Numbers 20:8 ESV

But what did Moses do? How did he end up enacting the instructions given to him by God? The text is very explicit. Moses and Aaron gathered all the people together and prepared to do what God had told them to do, but with a slight twist.

“Hear now, you rebels: shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” And Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice, and water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their livestock. – Numbers 20:10-11 ESV

You can almost hear the anger in his voice. He is put out with the people of Israel. This was not the first time he had been confronted by their anger and resentment. And it had only been a short time since his sister Miriam had died. He had not even had time to grieve over his loss and now he was having to deal with these ungrateful and grumbling ingrates again. So, he took advantage of the God-given opportunity to put on a show for the people. He struck the rock with the staff. Not exactly what God had told him to do. But his act of anger-induced spontaneity seemed to produce the same results. “Water came out abundantly and the congregation drank, and their livestock.”

But he had not done God’s will God’s way. And God accused Moses of breaking faith and treating Him as unholy. He had let his anger get the best of him. And in doing so, he displayed his lack of faith in God. It is almost as if Moses doubted that God was going to do what He had promised to do. Look closely at the words Moses spoke before striking the rock: “shall we bring water for you out of this rock?”

Notice the emphasis on himself and Aaron, not God. And there is a degree of uncertainty or doubt in his voice as he states, “shall we…?” Perhaps Moses was questioning the ability of God to bring water out of a rock. He seems to be having misgivings about God’s plan. So, rather than speak to the rock as God had commanded, he decided to use the staff to strike the rock. He took out his anger on the rock. And the apostle Paul would later describe that rock as being a symbol or representation of Jesus Himself.

For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. – 1 Corinthians 10:3 ESV

Moses struck the rock. And in doing so, he displayed a lack of faith in God and demonstrated a disdain for the holiness of God. That rock was to have been a symbol of God’s gracious provision. There was no need to beat God into caring for their needs. God did not require coercion or compulsion. But because Moses did what he did, he was denied access to the land of promise. His sin was no different than the generation fo Israelies who refused to enter Canaan due to their fear of the giants in the land. They doubted God and trusted the words of men. And they all died in the wilderness.

Because Moses had failed to treat God as holy, he would fail to enter the land of promise. God is holy and He demands those who bear His name to live their lives in such a way that His reputation is honored by their actions. Moses had been God’s shepherd over the nation of Israel. He was God’s hand-picked leader and all that he said and did reflected on the character of God. He was held to a high standard. He was obligated to live according to God’s will faithfully and to speak God’s Word accurately. And because he didn’t, he was denied access into the land of promise.

For you shall see the land before you, but you shall not go there, into the land that I am giving to the people of Israel.” – Deuteronomy 32:52 ESV

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Guilty As Charged

30 Then Moses spoke the words of this song until they were finished, in the ears of all the assembly of Israel:

1 “Give ear, O heavens, and I will speak,
    and let the earth hear the words of my mouth.
May my teaching drop as the rain,
    my speech distill as the dew,
like gentle rain upon the tender grass,
    and like showers upon the herb.
For I will proclaim the name of the Lord;
    ascribe greatness to our God!

“The Rock, his work is perfect,
    for all his ways are justice.
A God of faithfulness and without iniquity,
    just and upright is he.
They have dealt corruptly with him;
    they are no longer his children because they are blemished;
    they are a crooked and twisted generation.
Do you thus repay the Lord,
    you foolish and senseless people?
Is not he your father, who created you,
    who made you and established you?
Remember the days of old;
    consider the years of many generations;
ask your father, and he will show you,
    your elders, and they will tell you.
When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance,
    when he divided mankind,
he fixed the borders of the peoples
    according to the number of the sons of God.
But the Lord’s portion is his people,
    Jacob his allotted heritage.” Deuteronomy 31:30-32:9 ESV

At long last, Moses delivers the words of the song that God had given him. This powerful piece of poetry is really a prophetic oracle, contrasting the greatness and faithfulness of God with the wickedness and faithlessness of His chosen people. God had told Moses that its words would act as a witness against the people of Israel.

“Now therefore write this song and teach it to the people of Israel. Put it in their mouths, that this song may be a witness for me against the people of Israel. – Deuteronomy 31:19 ESV

Every time they heard or recited its words of themselves, they would be convicted and reminded of the cause of their well-deserved guilt and shame. This poem pulls no punches. It is merciless in its exposure of Israel’s unprecedented treatment of their God. The prophet, Jeremiah, would later declare the absurd nature of Israel’s mistreatment of Yahweh, declaring on His behalf, “Has a nation ever changed its gods
(even though they are not really gods at all)? But my people have exchanged me, their glorious God, for a god that cannot help them at all!” (Jeremiah 2:11 NLT)

This poem contains a powerful indictment of Israel’s response to their gracious, all-powerful God. It paints a startling picture, detailing the shocking nature of their future treatment of Yahweh. And the words of this poem, given to Moses by God Himself, are intended to juxtapose Israel’s former glory as God’s children with their future status as abandoned orphans.

“…they are no longer his children because they are blemished;
    they are a crooked and twisted generation.” – Deuteronomy 32:5 ESV

But the opening stanzas of this poem focus on God. He is hailed for His greatness, described as The Rock, and regaled for the perfection of His work and the justice of His ways. He is a God marked by faithfulness and devoid of any iniquity. He is just and upright in all that He does. And these descriptions are meant to make Israel’s decision to reject God all that more egregious. Why in the world would they choose to disobey and abandon a God as great as Yahweh? And this theme of God’s greatness and Israel’s undeserved status as His children is echoed throughout the Old Testament.

“For what great nation has a god as near to them as the LORD our God is near to us whenever we call on him?” – Deuteronomy 4:7 NLT

“How great you are, O Sovereign LORD! There is no one like you. We have never even heard of another God like you! What other nation on earth is like your people Israel? What other nation, O God, have you redeemed from slavery to be your own people? You made a great name for yourself when you redeemed your people from Egypt. You performed awesome miracles and drove out the nations and gods that stood in their way. You made Israel your very own people forever, and you, O LORD, became their God.” – 2 Samuel 7:22-24 NLT

And yet, the words of the song condemn them: “They have dealt corruptly with him” (Deuteronomy 32:5 ESV). And their treatment of God makes no sense. It is unparalleled in its absurdity and stupidity. What would possess them to turn their backs on a God as good and great as Yahweh? Why would they ever walk away from a relationship that provided them with so many blessings?

Their decision to abandon God makes no sense. There is no reasonable explanation that can justify their actions. Which is why they are described as crooked and twisted. In the Hebrew language, these two words are rich in meaning. They describe someone who is deceitful and perverse in heart. They are crafty and adept at twisting words and modeling behavior that is meant to deceive. They can’t be trusted.

Also, they’re foolish and senseless. Only a fool would turn his back on the one true God. Which is exactly what King David wrote in his psalm.

Only fools say in their hearts, “There is no God.” They are corrupt, and their actions are evil; not one of them does good! – Psalm 14:1 NLT

The Hebrew word translated as “senseless” is actually the word for “wise.” But it can also mean “wily, shrewd, cunning.” In other words, they are marked by human wisdom. But the Scriptures have much to say about such individuals, and none of it is good.

There is more hope for fools than for people who think they are wise. – Proverbs 26:12 NLT

What sorrow for those who are wise in their own eyes and think themselves so clever. – Isaiah 5:21 NLT

The way of a fool is right in his own opinion – Proverbs 12:15 NLT

And these foolish, in all their self-inflated wisdom, have to answer the question: “Is this how you repay the Lord?” (Deuteronomy 32:6 ESV). If they were as smart as they thought they were, would they really want to treat God so flippantly and irreverently?

He is their Father and the one who created them. They owe their very existence to Him. And all they had to do was look back over their long and storied history as a nation to find proof of God’s goodness and greatness. They could ask their fathers and the elders of their people, and they could regale them with stories of God’s mighty acts on behalf of Israel. In fact, if the people of God had been faithful, they would have been sharing the stories of God’s greatness with each successive generation. The psalmist describes this process of cross-generational instruction which was intended to teach the children all the amazing stories of God’s past actions on behalf of His people.

Pay attention, my people, to my instruction!
Listen to the words I speak!
I will sing a song that imparts wisdom;
I will make insightful observations about the past.
What we have heard and learned—
that which our ancestors have told us—
we will not hide from their descendants.
We will tell the next generation
about the Lord’s praiseworthy acts,
about his strength and the amazing things he has done. – Psalm 78:1-4 NLT

But the people of Israel seem to have suffered from both short- and long-term memory loss. They didn’t pass on the stories of God’s mighty acts. They failed to tell the next generation of the Lord’s praiseworthy acts and the amazing things He has done. Which is why the book fo Judges opens up with the sad statement:

…another generation grew up who did not acknowledge the LORD or remember the mighty things he had done for Israel. The Israelites did evil in the LORD’s sight and served the images of Baal. They abandoned the LORD, the God of their ancestors, who had brought them out of Egypt. – Judges 2:10-12 NLT

How easy it is to forget the goodness and greatness of God. How quickly God’s people can find themselves losing the memory of God’s past activity in their lives. And forgetfulness leads to faithlessness. Our failure to recall God’s faithfulness in the past results in a tendency to doubt God for the future. We can even lose the ability to recognize His activity in the here-and-now. And when we do, we begin to act as if there is no God. And, in doing so, we become fools.

As the poem of God points out, the descendants of Jacob were going to forget who they were. They would lose sight of their unique status as God’s chosen people, living in the land He had graciously apportioned to them. Their privileged position as His treasured possession would become a distant memory, causing them to seek and to serve false gods.

But the song is far from over. God’s indictment of His people is far from finished. Their abandonment of Him would be complete, and His discipline for their treachery would be fully justified.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Not Exactly Music to the Ears

14 And the Lord said to Moses, “Behold, the days approach when you must die. Call Joshua and present yourselves in the tent of meeting, that I may commission him.” And Moses and Joshua went and presented themselves in the tent of meeting. 15 And the Lord appeared in the tent in a pillar of cloud. And the pillar of cloud stood over the entrance of the tent.

16 And the Lord said to Moses, “Behold, you are about to lie down with your fathers. Then this people will rise and whore after the foreign gods among them in the land that they are entering, and they will forsake me and break my covenant that I have made with them. 17 Then my anger will be kindled against them in that day, and I will forsake them and hide my face from them, and they will be devoured. And many evils and troubles will come upon them, so that they will say in that day, ‘Have not these evils come upon us because our God is not among us?’ 18 And I will surely hide my face in that day because of all the evil that they have done, because they have turned to other gods.

19 “Now therefore write this song and teach it to the people of Israel. Put it in their mouths, that this song may be a witness for me against the people of Israel. 20 For when I have brought them into the land flowing with milk and honey, which I swore to give to their fathers, and they have eaten and are full and grown fat, they will turn to other gods and serve them, and despise me and break my covenant. 21 And when many evils and troubles have come upon them, this song shall confront them as a witness (for it will live unforgotten in the mouths of their offspring). For I know what they are inclined to do even today, before I have brought them into the land that I swore to give.” 22 So Moses wrote this song the same day and taught it to the people of Israel. Deuteronomy 31:14-22 ESV

There is no way to escape the fact that this is a sad section of Scripture. Moses has finished his address to the people of Israel, having recounted the law and warned them to stand by their commitment to keep it or face the consequences. He has given a copy of the law to the priests and elders, telling them to recite it before the people every seventh year as part of the annual celebration of the Feast of Booths. He has gone into great detail about the blessings and the curses, making sure the people were fully aware of just how serious God considered His covenant relationship with them.

Moses knows he won’t be going into the promised land. God has denied him that privilege because of his own failure to treat God as holy before the people. But, that has not kept Moses from doing everything in his power to prepare the people for their entrance into the promised land, including his selection of Joshua as his successor and their leader.

But as Moses and Joshua make their way into the tent of meeting so that God can commission Israel’s new shepherd, Moses has no way of knowing the news that awaits him. After reconfirming the fact that Moses will die outside the land of promise, God informs the two men that Israel will fail to keep their covenant commitment to Him. And, as a result, they will experience all the curses Moses warned them about.

“…this people will rise and whore after the foreign gods among them in the land that they are entering, and they will forsake me and break my covenant that I have made with them.” – Deuteronomy 31:16 ESV

God didn’t sugarcoat HIs message. He didn’t preface His remarks with a more positive spin, telling Moses and Joshua that there would be a period of relative obedience followed by the joy of His blessing. No, He cut to the chase and delivered the devastating news that Israel will prove to be unfaithful and, as a result, God’s “anger will be kindled against them in that day” (Deuteronomy 31:17 ESV).

As Moses and Joshua stood before the shekinah glory of God, in the form of the pillar of smoke, they must have been shocked at the message they heard. This was to have been a day of gladness and joy as the people prepared to enter the land promised to them by God more than half a century earlier. Moses and the people of Israel had waited a long time to get to this point, and now God was delivering the far-from-encouraging news that their stay in the land of promise would be temporary and would not end well.

God warns that they will experience “many evils and troubles” and be devoured. He will end up forsaking them and hiding His face from them. Why? Because they will forsake Him and break the covenant they made with Him. They will worship false gods.

And yet, when it all happens, they will end up blaming God for all their problems, claiming that He has abandoned them.

Have not these evils come upon us because our God is not among us? – Deuteronomy 31:17 ESV

But in charging God with abandonment, they will be leaving out an important detail concerning their circumstances.

I will surely hide my face in that day because of all the evil that they have done, because they have turned to other gods. – Deuteronomy 31:18 ESV

They will be guilty of having left God, not the other way around. And God’s response will be exactly what He said He would do if they proved unfaithful to Him. This will not be a knee-jerk reaction on God’s part. Their abandonment by God and the destruction they will suffer as part of His judgment of them, will follow the pattern of curses outlined by Moses in this very same book.

And, as odd as it may sound, the text says that God taught Moses a song and instructed him to teach it to the people. What a strange scene this is. God has reminded Moses that he’s going to die. He’s confirmed that the people will prove to be rebellious and be cast out of the promised land. And poor Joshua, who was about to take over the reigns of leadership, had to sit back and hear this dispiriting news. He had to wonder why he was taking over the captaincy of what appeared to be a sinking ship.

To matters worse, God had written a song that would function as a witness against the nation of Israel, every time they sang it. The words of this God-ordained tune would convict and condemn the people, accentuating their personal culpability and God’s justice in bringing His judgment against them.

The rebellion of the people of Israel was assured. It wasn’t a matter of if they would rebel, but only a matter of when. It was inevitable and unavoidable. And God makes that point painfully clear.

“…when I have brought them into the land flowing with milk and honey, which I swore to give to their fathers, and they have eaten and are full and grown fat, they will turn to other gods and serve them, and despise me and break my covenant.” – Deuteronomy 31:20 ESV

Again, think about how this news must have hit Joshua. He hadn’t even officially taken over the leadership role from Moses and he was being told that his efforts would end in failure. Oh, they would make it into the land. They would even enjoy all the fruitfulness the land had to offer, but rather than being motivated to serve and love God out of gratefulness, they would respond to His goodness with unfaithfulness. And God warns that the song He has written will live in the collective memory of their children, long after the nation has fallen prey to their enemies and experienced the full force of God’s righteous judgment.

God knows the hearts of men. And His all-knowing nature allows Him to see the outcome of events before they have even happened. He knew what Israel was going to do. He was not going to be surprised by their rebellion, because He had already planned for it.

“For I know what they are inclined to do even today, before I have brought them into the land that I swore to give.” – Deuteronomy 31:21 ESV

God already knew that, even before the Israelites had crossed the border into the land of promise, they would one day cross it again as captives. They would walk in as free men and conquerors, but years later they would leave as slaves and the conquered. All because they had failed to remain faithful to God.

And this sad section of Deuteronomy ends with Moses teaching the words of God’s song to the people of Israel. We’re not told the words of the song, but they must have mirrored God’s pronouncement of unfaithfulness and future destruction. This poem or song would haunt the Israelites for generations to come. But it was meant to be a memorable song that would stick in their minds and act as a reminder of their need for faithfulness. And, no doubt, it was sung with great gusto over years. But it would not be until the Israelites had failed to remain faithful and fallen to the Assyrians and Babylonians, that the words of this song finally hit home. Only then would the meaning behind the lyrics make sense. But it would be too little, too late. And the singing would be replaced with the sounds of moaning and despair.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Marriage Matters

13 “If any man takes a wife and goes in to her and then hates her 14 and accuses her of misconduct and brings a bad name upon her, saying, ‘I took this woman, and when I came near her, I did not find in her evidence of virginity,’ 15 then the father of the young woman and her mother shall take and bring out the evidence of her virginity to the elders of the city in the gate. 16 And the father of the young woman shall say to the elders, ‘I gave my daughter to this man to marry, and he hates her; 17 and behold, he has accused her of misconduct, saying, “I did not find in your daughter evidence of virginity.” And yet this is the evidence of my daughter’s virginity.’ And they shall spread the cloak before the elders of the city. 18 Then the elders of that city shall take the man and whip him, 19 and they shall fine him a hundred shekels of silver and give them to the father of the young woman, because he has brought a bad name upon a virgin of Israel. And she shall be his wife. He may not divorce her all his days. 20 But if the thing is true, that evidence of virginity was not found in the young woman, 21 then they shall bring out the young woman to the door of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall stone her to death with stones, because she has done an outrageous thing in Israel by whoring in her father’s house. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.– Deuteronomy 22:13-21 ESV

We once again find ourselves in difficult and, this time, delicate territory. In this section, Moses is going to address the God-ordained institution of marriage. As we have already seen, God places a high value on all human relationships, but the one between a husband and wife carry special significance to God. All the way back in the book of
Genesis, we have the record of God’s creation of the first man and woman.

Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib, and he brought her to the man.

“At last!” the man exclaimed.

“This one is bone from my bone,
    and flesh from my flesh!
She will be called ‘woman,’
    because she was taken from ‘man.’”

This explains why a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one. – Genesis 2:22-24 NLT

From the very beginning, God considered the union between a man and a woman to be much more than a physical or biological transaction involving sexual intercourse. And Jesus Himself provides us with important clarification on God’s view regarding marriage. When asked by the Pharisees if a man could divorce his wife for any reason, Jesus replied:

“Haven’t you read the Scriptures?…They record that from the beginning ‘God made them male and female.’” And he said, “‘This explains why a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one.’ Since they are no longer two but one, let no one split apart what God has joined together.” – Matthew 19:4-5 NLT

The marriage union was to be a permanent one. Jesus and His heavenly Father both saw the relationship between a husband and his wife as a mystical comingling of two into one. And the act of intercourse was a part of this union between the two, as each gave to the other the gift of their own body for the purpose of procreation, but also pleasure. That is why Paul warned the Corinthian believers about the danger of sex outside of the marriage context.

And don’t you realize that if a man joins himself to a prostitute, he becomes one body with her? For the Scriptures say, “The two are united into one.” – 1 Corinthians 6:16 NLT

Sex outside of marriage creates an insoluble bond between the two parties. Their physical union was intended to be the consummation of their spiritual union. And God saw their sexual intimacy as a joining together of two souls.

And Paul went on to explain how a husband and wife should view their sexual relationship. The ubiquitous presence of sexual immorality was a constant threat to the sanctity of the marriage bed, so Paul warned that the husband and wife were to view their bodies as belonging to each another, not to themselves. They had no right to share themselves with anyone else.

…because there is so much sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife, and each woman should have her own husband.

The husband should fulfill his wife’s sexual needs, and the wife should fulfill her husband’s needs. The wife gives authority over her body to her husband, and the husband gives authority over his body to his wife. – 1 Corinthians 7:2-4 NLT

Which brings us back to these rather strange rules regarding marriage found in Deuteronomy. In the first case, Moses outlines a situation in which a husband accuses his wife of lying about her virginity. The circumstance seems to involve a newly married couple because the husband states, “I married this woman but when I had sexual relations with her I discovered she was not a virgin!” (Deuteronomy 22:14 NLT).

Basically, the man married the girl, decided he did not really love her, and then spread rumors that she had been sexual promiscuous before he married her. In other words, he was accusing her of adultery, a crime punishable by death. This accusation would not only ruin her reputation, but it would also result in her being stoned to death. And the sense of the passage is that the man was simply looking for a good reason to divorce his wife.

In His sermon on the mount, Jesus had this to say regarding divorce: “But I say that a man who divorces his wife, unless she has been unfaithful, causes her to commit adultery” (Matthew 5:32 NLT). It would have been easy for the man to level this accusation against his wife, providing him with a sure-fire excuse to divorce her. But Jesus would later provide further insight into the topic of divorce. At one point, He was asked by the Pharisees, “why did Moses say in the law that a man could give his wife a written notice of divorce and send her away?” (Matthew 19:7 NLT).

And Jesus replied to them, “Moses permitted divorce only as a concession to your hard hearts, but it was not what God had originally intended. And I tell you this, whoever divorces his wife and marries someone else commits adultery—unless his wife has been unfaithful” (Matthew 19:8-9 NLT). God never intended for divorce to be an option. But the provision was provided for in the case of unfaithfulness.

So, the scenario in Deuteronomy involves a man charging his wife of unfaithfulness based on his claim that she had not been a virgin. But Moses provides a strange but culturally acceptable means by which the woman could prove her innocence. It was a common practice in that day for the parents of the bride to place a special cloth on the couple’s bed the night the marriage was to be consummated. The purpose behind the cloth is simple, albeit a bit graphic. The cloth was collected by the parents after the wedding night and kept as proof of the woman’s virginity, the blood found on it providing evidence of her virginity.

The father of the bride could bring this cloth before the authorities to clear his daughter’s name and spare her from death. If the evidence was accepted, the husband was denied his request for divorce and required to pay a hefty fine to her parents. Not only that, he was obligated to remain permanently married to his wife. One of the things that is obvious in all of this is the young girl’s lack of input in all of this. She seems to have no say in any of it. Even the fine was paid to her parents, not to her. The only benefits she received was the clearing of her name and her release from the death sentence. She was still obligated to remain married to a man whom the text clearly states hated her.

But if the man’s charge against her proved to be true and no evidence was found of her virginity, she was to be stoned to death for the crime of adultery. Moses describes her actions as “an outrageous thing in Israel” and accuses her of “whoring in her father’s house” (Deuteronomy 22:21 ESV). Prior to her marriage, she would have been living at home with her parents. And while under her father’s roof and protection, she would have committed an act of sexual immorality. This was unacceptable behavior under the Mosaic Law and punishable by death.

But what is the point behind all of this? As we have seen before, God had rules that governed virtually every aspect of life within the Israelite community. He cared deeply about their relationships and wanted all that they did to reflect their status as His chosen people. And because marriage was a God-ordained insitutution, He created rules to govern the conduct between a husband and a wife. Virginity was given a high priority by God because of the concept of union. Purity was and still is essential to God. Honesty and integrity are non-negotiable attributes that God demands of His people. This entire scenario involves different aspects of falsehood and deception. Either the husband falsely accusing his wife of adultery or the wife attempting to hide the fact that she was not what she claimed to be when he married her. None of this was God’s way. Marriage was too important. The marriage bed was too precious. The union between a husband and wife was too holy.

But the saddest part of this entire passage is the very fact that Moses even had to address this issue at all. It reveals the underlying nature of mankind’s sin problem. God had set apart the people of Israel as His own, but He was constantly having to put restrictions on their behavior to keep them from following their sinful inclinations.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson