God’s plan for marriage is for a man and a woman to leave their parents and cleave to each other. He joins them together in a permanent one-flesh relationship. However, because mankind (beginning with Adam and Eve) disobeyed God, what was perfect and good became polluted and tragic. Death entered the world as God had promised. Guilt, shame, and heartbreak plagued humankind from that time forward.
As people ignored God through the ages, the ideal marriage became a distant memory. Polygamy arose. Mixed marriages threatened to pull God’s people away from Him. Divorce was as easy to get as the husband telling his wife, “I divorce you!” Marriage breakups and family splits were rampant.
How God’s heart must have ached to see this happen! However, God showed His compassion and mercy by permitting divorce for a time to avoid further misery among His hard-hearted people. He forgave this sin and rebellion in Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. He desired reconciliation with His people. He asked for faithful obedience. But there were limits to His patience. That is why, much as God hated divorce (as in the stories of Malachi and Ezra), He did not approve of any marriage or divorce that led His people away from Him into idolatry. The ultimate disaster was for God’s people to completely abandon Him.
We know God’s marriage ideal and how His people rejected His plan through divorce and other misconduct. But how did God deal with King David, who committed adultery with another man’s wife, had the man killed, and then took the man’s wife as his own? There is probably no better example of God’s graciousness toward disobedience than that of David and Bathsheba. Here we see a striking portrait of how a repentant heart transcends violation of the law in God’s eyes.
David and Bathsheba: God’s Mercy in a Bad Situation
As we learn in 2 Samuel 11, David, king of Israel, took a leave of absence from his armies at war in the field and returned to his Jerusalem palace for rest and relaxation. As he looked out his window one day, his eyes fell upon Bathsheba, the beautiful wife of Uriah, a member of David’s army. As she bathed, David lusted for her. This led him to commit adultery with her. Bathsheba soon discovered she was pregnant.
To escape the inevitable public embarrassment of this situation, David tried to cover his tracks. He arranged to have Uriah come home from the wars, hoping that Uriah would sleep with his wife and think that her child was his rather than David’s. Uriah did come home, but he refused to sleep with Bathsheba in deference to fellow warriors denied the pleasures of home.
Foiled in his first plan, David quickly devised another. He sent Uriah back to the wars with orders to go to the front lines, which meant certain death. The plan worked and Uriah died in the fighting.
After a period of mourning, David did not forget about the lovely Bathsheba. In 2 Samuel 11:27 we learn, “David had her brought to his house, and she became his wife and bore him a son. But the thing David had done displeased the Lord.” God knew what was in David’s heart. He was aware of the entire story of violence in killing Uriah. David had committed adultery, followed by murder. These sins resulted in his taking Uriah’s wife as his own. He violated the sixth, seventh, and tenth Commandments (Ex. 20:13-14, 17). The penalty was death. But how did God handle David’s accountability for these sins?
In 2 Samuel 12 we read how God sent the prophet Nathan to David to let him know that his sin had not escaped God’s notice. When David realized the full weight of his sin, he fell into great remorse and repented. Psalm 51 is an account of David’s reaction to his sin.
Though David repented of his sin and was forgiven by God, there were consequences. Since David used violence in having Uriah killed, violence would plague his own house (2 Sam. 12:10-11). Also, David’s wives would be given to his neighbors to lie with them in broad daylight (2 Sam. 12:11). Finally, the son conceived by his adulterous union with Bathsheba would die (2 Sam. 12:14). But God, knowing David’s heart and that he truly repented, graciously spared his life.
What about Bathsheba? She was taken into David’s home as his wife. God did not require David to put her away because, legally, Uriah’s death freed Bathsheba from her marriage covenant to her deceased husband. From a practical standpoint, she could have been destitute without a husband to provide for her. Would it have been better if God had required David to abandon Bathsheba after taking her as his wife? For whatever the reason (or reasons), God did not ask David to end this relationship. In fact, Solomon was later born from their marriage (Matt. 1:16).
This story understandably troubles many people. Consider, for example, the logical extension of Bathsheba being free to remarry after Uriah’s death. Who caused Uriah to die? David did not stop at adultery — he had Uriah killed! Does this mean that a spouse caught in adultery should kill his or her partner’s mate so the murderer is free to remarry? Certainly not! God poured out His mercy on David’s repentant heart — not on merit, but as an act of His marvelous grace.
We may ask whether it was for David and Bathsheba alone to profit, in essence, from their own sin by continuing their relationship after committing such crimes. We may wonder whether God showed favoritism by sparing David and Bathsheba from death for their actions, when others in the same situation might not have escaped penalty. God did allow David and Bathsheba to continue their relationship while escaping capital punishment. But have we not also benefitted from Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross for our sins and escaped our own death penalty? To deny this would empty the cross of its power. Even so, no one should sin so that grace would abound — and the Bible speaks against this strongly.
Why did God spare David and Bathsheba from the full consequences of their sin? No one can know for sure. Perhaps God spared David from the death penalty because He knew David truly had repented from his heart, as David expressed in Psalm 51. The essence of God’s mercy and grace is to withhold sanctions in instances when our sinful deeds deserve punishment. In His wisdom, God determined it best that David and Bathsheba continue their relationship. We must not second guess His judgments. Instead we rejoice that God, as Creator and sovereign Lord, showed grace to His servant David. His grace transcended the punishments for violations of the law of Moses.
These same mercies extend to us today. Like David, adulterers today escape a physical death penalty. But let’s not take the case of David and Bathsheba beyond its legitimate bounds. This sort of conduct by others will not always bring the same result. God knows more about this situation than we do. We should not tempt Him by sinning in the same fashion.
The Heartbreak of Hosea: God Knows How Divorce Feels
We know about God’s plan for marriage and how He hates divorce. We have seen His graciousness in dealing with those who violate His commands. But does He really know the pain of parties to a broken marriage? Does He truly understand our sorrows? Does He empathize with those facing divorce at all? God’s sorrow and heartache over a broken marriage and adultery is seen in the tragic story of Hosea. Some describe it as the greatest love story of the Bible, second only to the gospel accounts. God shares our pain. He knows our grief as we cope with our own divorces
By virtue of a covenant of faithfulness made with the nations of Israel and Judah, the Lord viewed His relationship with His people as a marriage. Faithfulness in worshiping God alone and obeying His commandments were part of this covenant.
God kept His covenant. He loved His people deeply, as a husband loves a wife. But by the eighth century before Christ, the Israelites had fallen into idolatry. In God’s eyes, this was adultery. The prophet Hosea’s mission was to expose the breach of the covenant and warn of the consequences.
As a visual aid to His people of His suffering with their unfaithfulness, God commanded Hosea to marry an adulterous woman. Hosea did so in taking Gomer as his wife. Three children were born. The first child was a son named Jezreel, meaning “The Lord sows or scatters.” The next child was a daughter named Lo-Ruhamah, meaning “Not loved or pitied.” The last child was another son named Lo-Ammi, meaning “Not my people.” Each of these names expressed the Lord’s feelings toward Israel’s unfaithfulness. He could tolerate her adulteries through idolatry no longer. Hosea felt His pain.
In metaphoric fashion, Gomer left Hosea for a life as a prostitute. In Hosea 2, Gomer’s children pled for her to give up her adulteries. They begged her to return to her husband before she suffered the full consequences of her sin, but Gomer was oblivious to her husband’s provision. She foolishly believed that her lovers would provide her with a better life. But she was cut off from her lovers (Hos. 2:7). When Gomer was alone on the slave auction block and unwanted by others, Hosea purchased her as his own (Hos. 3).
Hosea’s unwavering love for Gomer in the face of such unfaithfulness is an example of God’s love for His people, even as they reveled in idolatry. Just like Gomer, Israel left the Lord to pursue pagan gods of the Midianites and Moabites. At the time of the Exodus, Israel loved God and followed Him through the wilderness. But her faithfulness waned. There were times of complaint and rebellion against God. She forgot about God’s miraculous deliverance of her from Egyptian bondage, the manna from heaven, and many other blessings. Her priests, leaders, and prophets ignored God. Like one abandoning a spring of living water for broken pottery jugs, Israel had forsaken God and replaced Him with false idols in an act of spiritual prostitution. Like a wayward wife, Israel separated from the Lord and gave herself to many other lovers. She had abandoned her marriage to the Lord to marry another — the idols of the nations.
But God pursued His spiritual wife. He used “tough love” to cut off many of the blessings Israel enjoyed. This was necessary because she thought these blessings were the result of idolatrous worship. The Lord hoped that Israel would realize that her other lovers were false and empty objects of worship, and that she would then appreciate who her real Provider was.
Hosea, in expressing God’s own pain, described the nation of Israel as a dying man, a flaming fire, a half-baked cake, a silly dove, a deceitful bow, a pleasureless vessel, and a forgetful servant. Even so, God yearned for her to return for healing and redemption. She arrogantly refused. God cried out for Israel to return to Him as her spiritual husband; but Israel, hardened by sin, rejected God’s final gracious appeal. She stood guilty and defenseless.
Finally, God’s forbearance ended. He gave the Northern Kingdom of Israel a certificate of divorce, as Jeremiah 3:6-10 describes. As a consequence, pagans (Assyria) destroyed her cities in 722 B.C. In the years that followed, the Southern Kingdom — Judah — was even worse than the Northern Kingdom had been. She refused to learn from Israel’s loss and continued in idolatry while merely appearing to return to the Lord. So the Babylonians captured Judah in the sixth century B.C. Nevertheless, God showed a continuing love for His people. He fulfilled His promise of ultimate restoration in the most personal way. His only Son, Jesus, came to seek their return to Him.
Yes, God knows our pain in seeing a marriage partner leave for other lovers. He knows our heartbreak and grief. Some say the book of Hosea is a story of God crying. Yet He models for us an unfailing love despite the unfaithfulness of His spiritual wife, Israel. Only after bearing with adulteries for years on end did God finally divorce His people, much as He hated divorce. His strong statements against divorce in Malachi were more than disappointment. God had personal empathy and compassion for those faithful wives cast aside by husbands chasing after younger pagan women.
How Does God Really Feel About Divorce?
God’s view of marriage, divorce, and remarriage in the Old Testament is clear. A man and a woman desiring to marry are to leave their parents to cleave to each other, joined by God into a one-flesh relationship. This is not a temporary matter — it lasts as long as humankind exists in the flesh. The law of Moses did not change this, and Jesus reinforced its truth for eternity.
When a marriage leads one or both partners to forsake God, in the past He has allowed that relationship to end. Malachi condemned mixed marriages, as did Ezra and Shecaniah — even if it affected children born of those marriages — because it is worse to preserve a marriage at the expense of forsaking God. On the other hand, if a marriage is initially wrong and one or both partners seek God with all their heart, mind, soul, and strength, it would be worse for that marriage to end. More than anything else, this may be why God allowed David to keep Bathsheba. God’s grace sweetly oils the abrasions caused when sin rubs against sin and there is no loving way out of a difficult situation.
Questions for Personal Reflection
Joseph Warren Kniskern is an attorney in Raleigh, North Carolina with more than 32 years of experience, who has been cited in Who’s Who in American Law. This article has been edited and excerpted with permission from When the Vow Breaks: A Survival and Recovery Guide for Christians Facing Divorce (B&H Publishing Group, revised edition copyright @ 2008).