The opening verses of this chapter contain that permission which the Pharisees erroneously referred to as a precept (Matt. 19:7), when they said, “Moses commanded to give a writing of divorcement.” It was not so! Our Savior reminded them that Moses only allowed divorce because of the hardness of the Israelites’ hearts – lest, if they had not had the liberty to divorce their wives, they would have ruled them with rigor instead, and possibly have been the death of them. However, Moses did give some rules concerning these divorces. First, a man might not divorce his wife unless he found some “uncleanness” in her (verse 1). It was not enough for him to merely say that he did not like her, or that he liked another better; he had to show a reason for his dislike – something that made her disagreeable and unpleasant to him, although it might not make her so to another. This “uncleanness” must have meant something less than adultery; because for that, the penalty was death. But whatever was meant by it, it was doubtless something considerable, because the Jewish doctors of the law erred when they allowed divorce for every trivial matter (Matt. 19:3). Second, these divorces were not to be done by word of mouth, for that might be spoken hastily; but rather by writing, put into proper form, and solemnly declared before witnesses – which would obviously take time and leave room for consideration, so that it might not be done rashly. Also, it would be hoped that the husband would reflect upon his actions and change his mind during that time. If the husband did proceed with the divorce, he was to give this writing into the hand of his wife; and he was to send her away with proper provision, which would make it possible for her to marry again. Being thus divorced, allowance was made under the law of Moses for her to remarry; however, if her second husband died or divorced her, her first husband could never take her again. Perhaps this was intended to encourage men to be content with their situation, and prevent their rashness in putting away their wives; for changes in life that are made by discontentment often prove to be for the worse. And by the strictness of this law, God illustrated the riches of His grace in His willingness to be reconciled to His people who had gone astray from Him (see Jer. 3:1). As part of the Bride of Jesus, we may be comforted to know that He will never put us away! (Mal. 2:16)
All this being said, let it be very well remembered that the Lord’s plan for marriage is one man and one woman for life! In the Garden of Eden, divorce was not an option; there was no other man or woman for Adam and Eve to marry if they separated from one another. Jesus’ own words on this topic are pretty straightforward: “What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder… Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so!” (Matt. 19:6, 8) And in cases where the Providence of God has allotted to a Christian a trial instead of a helpmeet, let us pray for the Lord’s grace to provide support and comfort under this cross.
Provision was made, in verse 5, for the preservation and confirmation of love between newly married couples; for divorce would likely be prevented if their affections to each other were well-settled at the beginning of their marriage. If the husband was away for a long time from his wife during the first year, his love to her would be in danger of cooling; and therefore, his service to his country in war, embassies, or other public business that would call him away from home was dispensed with. It is of great importance that love must be kept up between husband and wife, and that they must carefully avoid everything which might put distance between them.
This chapter provides a law against man-stealing (verse 7). The stealing of property was not punished by death, but to steal away a person was a capital crime; for a person is of infinitely greater value than a mere sheep (Matt. 12:12).
The laws concerning leprosy were to be carefully observed (verses 8, 9). The plague of leprosy was usually a particular mark of God’s displeasure for sin; and so a person in whom the signs of it appeared was not to conceal it, nor ignore it, nor go to a physician for relief. Rather, he was to go to the priest and follow his directions. Similarly, those who feel their consciences to be under guilt and wrath must not cover them, nor endeavor to shake off their convictions. Instead, by repentance, prayer, and humble confession, they must take the Lord’s appointed way to obtain peace and pardon.
Orders were given here against the taking advantage of poor people who were in debt. Also, magistrates were enjoined to exercise justice in their administrations, and commands were given to masters to be just and kind to their servants. Israel had formerly been slaves in Egypt, and so they knew what a grievous thing it was to be oppressed by a taskmaster. Therefore, in tenderness to those who were servants, and in gratitude to God (Who had set them at liberty and settled them in a country of their own), they were not to oppress a servant.
The rich were commanded to be kind and charitable to the poor in many ways. But the particular instance of charity that was here prescribed was that they should not be greedy in harvesting all their corn, grapes, and olives. Rather, they must be willing to overlook some, and let the poor have these gleanings. Boaz ordered handfuls of corn to be left behind on purpose for Ruth, and we see how greatly the Lord blessed him. All that is left behind is not lost.
It is not hard to prove that purity and piety, justice and mercy, and fair conduct and kindness to the poor and needy are pleasing to God, and most fitting to see in His redeemed people. Let us ask Him for grace to live in this manner!
Jesus, we thank You that You will never give us a writing of divorce, although we are unworthy of Your love; for You have said that we shall be Yours forever! Amen.
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