Examples of Divorce and Remarriage in the Old Testament

By Jerry Fite

Examples illustrate. They form salient points to which the mind connects for a clearer understanding of truth. Examples are helpful sign posts pointing the observer in the right direction. While the Old Testament sign posts of divorce are not pleasant to look upon, they do give proper direction to the godly mind. While we are not under the Old Testament Law, the following examples will help us grasp hold of principles that do pertain to marriages today, under the law of Christ.

Metaphorically, God was Israel’s husband. With the death of Solomon, Israel became a divided kingdom. Jeroboam led the northern ten tribes into idolatry, that perpetuated throughout its two hundred nineteen year history. The prophets Isaiah, Amos, Hosea and Micah pleaded for reform to no avail. Finally, in 722 B.C. God’s patience gave way to his justified wrath, and he dispersed the northern kingdom into Assyrian captivity. By sending Israel away, God metaphorically divorced his wife.

Reflecting on this divorce, Isaiah speaks, “Thus saith the Lord, Where is the bill of your mother’s divorcement, whom I have put away? Or which of my creditors is it to whom I have sold you? Behold, for your iniquities have ye sold yourselves, and for your transgressions is your mother put away” (Isa. 50:1). Isaiah assures the children of Israel that this divorce was not caused by a capricious husband. He was not a husband who, on a whim, placed the bill of divorcement in his wife’s hand to send her away. There was cause for this divorce, but only on the part of Israel.

Later, when Judah was following in the steps of her unfaithful sister, Jeremiah says, “And I saw, when, for this very cause that backsliding Israel had committed adultery, I had put her away and given her a bill of divorcement, yet treacherous Judah her sister feared not; but she also went and played the harlot” (Jer. 3:8). God looked at Israel’s idolatry as adultery, and for this cause sent her away with the bill of divorcement.

These metaphors reflect the mind of God. First, his desire is not to divorce. He asks Israel, where is the bill of divorcement that reveals my desire to be rid of you forever? Second, God sees adultery as a just cause for divorce. God tells Judah that he put Israel away because of her adultery. In the first metaphor, Isaiah implies that there is no bill of divorcement, for there is no desire on God’s part to divorce. In the second example, Jeremiah says that there is a bill of divorcement because there is just cause – adultery.

In 458 B.C., Ezra led a group of Israelites back to Jerusalem. Hearts, buoyed with joy and anticipation, were soon deflated when Ezra learned that God’s people had taken foreign wives (Ezra 9:1-2).

The “holy seed” of Israel was not to mingle with “the people of the lands.” In taking the daughters of these foreigners for wives, they violated a clear command of God (Deut. 7:3). The sons and nephews of the high priest, the Levites, one singer, four porters of the temple, and other Israelites were guilty. They were all in unlawful marriages.

In the midst of the rainy season, the solution was clear. They “must put away all the wives and such as are born of them” (Ezra 10:3). Despite human opposition (Ezra 10:15), the arduous task of examining the matter began. Within three months, 114 unlawful marriages were settled (Ezra 10:16-17).

Ezra commanded the people to confess their sin (Ezra 10:11). The priests offered a sacrificial lamb for their guilt (Ezra 10:19). However, God was not pleased until they separated themselves from the people of the land and the foreign women (Ezra 10:11). The marriages were unlawful, therefore the men had to put away their foreign wives.

Ezra reveals that “some of them had wives by whom they had children” (Ezra 10:44). But this did not change the divine solution. Remember, they were also to 44 put away” those “born” of the unlawful marriages (Ezra 10:3).

The Israelites of Ezra’s day knew that if a relationship were sinful, the relationship must end. No one was excused. A confession and a sin offering were not enough to please God. Each man also had to put away his foreign wife. An unlawful marriage had to end, even when the union produced offspring.

Approximately twenty-five years later, Nehemiah and the prophet Malachi faced the same sin of Israel marrying foreign women. Horror stories ensued. Their mixed marriages produced children who spoke a mixed language, adulterating the language spoken by the Jews (Neh. 13:24). One of the high priest’s sons married a daughter of Sanballat the Horonite, an enemy of God’s people (Neh. 13:28; cf. 2:10,19). No sweet savor arose from the altar, for the tears, weeping and sighing of the divorced Hebrew wives extinguished the sacrificial flame before God (Mal. 2:13). The tragedy was not just the trespass against God in marrying foreign women (Neh. 13:27), but the treacherous act of divorcing one’s wife.

Malachi stresses that marriage is a covenant witnessed by God, and divorce is the act that shows one not keeping his promise. “Jehovah hath been witness between thee and the wife of thy youth, against whom thou hast dealt treacherously, though she is thy companion, and the wife of thy covenant” (Mal. 2:14).

Malachi seeks to awaken the godly spirit. True, marrying foreign women was unlawful, but what about the prior act of divorcing one’s wife? One had not been unfaithful to a mere acquaintance, but he had turned his back on his companion from youth – his wife. Is there not a residue of God’s spirit left in anyone? If so, one will surely not “deal treacherously against the wife of his youth” by divorcing her (Mal. 2:15). If one is still slumbering in ambivalence, Malachi echoes a cry from heaven, “I hate putting away, saith Jehovah” (Mal. 2:16).

While Nehemiah spoke out against unlawful marriages, Malachi cried out against divorce. Our generation today needs to hear the same balanced teaching. Many are quick to decry the unlawful second marriage, but are not as equally adamant against the first divorce. Tuned with God, you will hate divorce. Just calling it unfortunate will not suffice. Like God, you will regard divorce as unfaithfulness, and accurately call it treachery.

The last Old Testament example of divorce and remarriage is found in the New Testament. Herodias left her husband Herod Philip and married Herod Antipas (Mk. 6:17). John the Baptist went to prison because he told Herod Antipas, “It is not lawful for thee to have her” (Matt. 14:4). For a while Herod Antipas kept the righteous John safe (Mk. 6:20), but finally Herodias took advantage of her daughter’s pleasing dance (Matt. 14:6), Herod’s rash promise (Matt. 14:7), and succeeded in having John’s head on a platter (Matt. 14:8,10-11).

The Law of Moses stated, “Thou shalt not uncover the nakedness of thy brother’s wife: it is thy brother’s nakedness” (Lev. 18:16). Since Herodias was Herod’s “brother Philip’s wife” (Matt. 14:3), some consider this to be merely an incestuous sin. However, we need to also stress that it was not incestuous because one had married his brother’s daughter, for Philip married his niece Herodias, but that Herod had married his brother’s wife. Actual divorce, and remarriage did not change the fact that Herodias belonged with Philip.

John was cast into prison because he “had been saying” (NAS) that Herod had no right to Herodias (Matt. 14:4). The imperfect tense probably indicates that John spoke repeatedly against his unlawful union. John’s persistence in driving home the point that the marriage of Herodias and Herod was unlawful, drove John into prison.


There are no easy solutions to unlawful marriages. If Herod and Herodias could have apologized before God with godly sorrow, while being allowed to remain married, surely they would have so opted. But as in Ezra’s day, the only remedy for unlawful marriages is separation. Unwilling to change their unlawful relationship, they silenced their accuser.

These Old Testament examples provide firm footing in the midst of emotional times. God does not look upon putting away one’s mate in the same light as separating oneself from an unlawful marriage. While God hates divorce (Mal 2:16), he demanded that his people “put away” their foreign wives (Ezra 10:3). While one may not fathom how God could tolerate the tears resulting from disrupting a second marriage, Malachi reminds us that God felt the sorrow resulting from the first divorce (Mal. 2:13). Where was the abhorrence for tears then? God did demand that unlawful marriages end, even when the unions had produced children (Ezra 10:3,44). Following God’s example as a husband, the godly mind will never initiate divorce (Isa. 50:1), except the cause of adultery (Jer. 3:8). Finally, a godly man persistent in crying out against an unlawful marriage (Matt. 14:4), being silenced only by death (Matt. 14:10).

Guardian of Truth XXXIV: 1, pp. 23-24
January 4, 1990