Malachi on Divorce, Godly Offspring, and the Gospel

Two months ago I responded to an article posted by Tim Challies. He developed a few points made by Christopher Ash, in Married for God, arguing that it is sinful for married couples to deliberately not have children (you can see my brief response here). Another arrow in the quiver of those who are convinced married couples must at least attempt to have children is found in Malachi 2. With our home groups working through the post-exilic prophet, I have enjoyed much time for reflection on the book of Malachi. The ESV reads, “Did he not make them one, with a portion of the Spirit in their union? And what was the one God seeking? Godly offspring. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and let none of you be faithless to the wife of your youth” (2:15). In case you missed it: God desires children from marriage.

Duccio di BuoninsegnaHowever, a few comments are necessary before concluding what this passage might say. Firstly, the Hebrew is messier than a two-year-old’s attempt to write out a physics equation. In his technical commentary, Douglas Stuart admits: “It is not at all clear what point(s) three-fourths of verse 15 is making.” The only clause that is not disputed is the last, “Do not be unfaithful to your childhood wife.” This disagreement over rendering becomes apparent when comparing the ESV (above, similarly NIV) with the NET, “What did our ancestors do when seeking a child from God?” The ESV makes God the subject of the verb ‘to seek,’ whereas the NET makes Israel’s forebears the subject. Douglas Stuart confirms this ambiguity, offering: ‘Israelites who divorced and remarried were (vainly) seeking godly offspring,’ as another potential rendering. Considering just how contested this text is, we would do well to treat it cautiously and not dogmatically.

Our second consideration is the larger context of this verse. Nearly every commentator agrees that it belongs to the larger section of 2:10-16, where Israel is being castigated for its faithlessness (2:10, 11, 14, 15, and 16). This faithlessness is expressed in two sections: firstly, intermarriage and spiritual syncretism (2:10-12); secondly, divorce without good reason (2:13-16). Our embattled verse falls into the latter. Therefore if we decide to go with the more traditional rendering of the 2:15 (ESV and NIV), which says God desires godly offspring, we must locate it within Malachi’s reproach for those who are divorcing. We could then give the general sense of our verse like this: ‘Don’t divorce because God is seeking godly offspring.’ This would mean that the emphasis is not so much on God desiring children from marriage as much as it highlights to the spiritual devastation divorce does to the effected children.

This line of thought fits with the explicit purpose God ascribes to marriage in the New Testament (Ephesians 5:22-33), though undoubtedly consistent with the Old Testament (Hosea). Marriage is an expression of the gospel. Christ’s self-giving love and unconditional love for the church is an expression of Yahweh’s faithfulness to the covenant Israel repeatedly broke. The gospel is pictured in unbroken marriages, kept vows and selfless love. God hates divorce because it is antithetical to that purpose; marriage is driven by grace while divorce in some ways denies it. A repeated contrast in Malachi is between Yahweh’s faithfulness and Israel’s faithlessness. Divorce is not merely an indication of Israel’s moral collapse; it is detrimental to their children’s picture of God’s faithfulness, his grace and the gospel.

Graham Heslop
I have an insatiable appetite for books, occasionaly dip into theology and am presently serving full time at Christ Church Umhlanga in Durban. Most often found on the beach, a soccer field, or my couch
  • George Athas

    The verse is notoriously difficult to interpret. The Greek also presents variants. For example, it seems to have read אחר (other) for אחד (one), which is the classic confusion of the two most similar letters in Hebrew. But even if we hold to the traditional rendering, we must remember that these words were written within and to people in the old national covenant, for whom having offspring was a national duty. In the new covenant, this is simply not the case, because the new people of God are not a country with citizens inheriting holy land from the previous generation. Those national elements are no longer part of the framework for how we operate as God’s people. As such, if someone posits that everyone needs to try to have children, they would need to do so on other grounds.

    In addition to this, the fact that some people marry later in life beyond childbearing years demonstrates that children are not the ultimate end of marriage. However, there should always be an openness to welcoming children within marriage. This is different to commanding having children. Children are not a necessity to marriage, and ultimately God is the one who decides whether to give children or not. However, marriage is not just about companionship either. It is about the forming of family and a new identity centred around the biological complementarity and potentiality of a male and a female. And biologically, the ‘normal’ (for want of a better word) course of marriage is to engender children. In other words, children are a normal, natural result of marriage, and the couple need to be aware of this normal, natural expansion of the family unit they begin. But this is not a command for couples to have children. Children are not a necessity in marriage, but they are the normal, natural result of marriage. This is why sex is tied to marriage, and marriage only. This means the couple must be open to having children within their family unit. They may decide not to have children, but if God decides to give them children, they need to welcome children into the family. Without this openness to welcome children, you don’t have a family unit—you just have a co-operation.

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