During Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, He addressed the topic of divorce. He stated that “it has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery” (Matthew 5:31–32).
According to the law, these certificates of divorce provided a means for a husband to annul his marriage (Matthew 5:31; Deuteronomy 24:1–4). The process of obtaining this legal document took time. A priest or Levite produced the certificate, and there was likely a return of the wife’s dowry (“Certificate of Divorce,” www.freebiblecommentary.org/special_topics/divorce_certificate.html, Bible Lessons International, 2014, accessed 6/19/23). Witnesses were also present to provide accountability (Henry, M., Commentary on the Whole Bible). This process prevented a husband from divorcing his wife rashly or out of anger. Rather, husbands had to intentionally pursue divorce through legal processes. This increased the chances of reconciliation between husband and wife.
The certificate of divorce Jesus speaks of appears in several places throughout Scripture (Deuteronomy 24:1–4; Isaiah 50:1; Jeremiah 3:8; Matthew 19:7; Mark 10:4). When Joseph was contemplating a divorce from his betrothed, Mary, in Matthew 1:19, his action would have required a certificate of divorce, because the betrothal contract was as binding as marriage. Certificates of divorce are usually mentioned in two different contexts: adultery between husband and wife and Israel’s unfaithfulness to God. It is not difficult to comprehend a certificate of divorce between a husband and wife. However, a certificate of divorce between God and His people seems unexpected and alarming.
It was lawful for a husband to divorce a wife due to her unfaithfulness, and the Mosaic Law prevented the husband from remarrying the wife. This seems disheartening when we read in Jeremiah that God “gave faithless Israel her certificate of divorce and sent her away because of all her adulteries” (Jeremiah 3:8a). Israel was repeatedly unfaithful to God, and He had every right to “divorce” Israel and never return to her. However, God, being rich in mercy, chose to remain faithful to Israel and redeem her for all eternity! Despite her repeated unfaithfulness to God, He asks Israel to return (Jeremiah 3:12).
In Matthew 19:8, we see how God’s design of the permanence of marriage was tainted by sin. Jesus says, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning.” God created marriage covenants to last until death. Sadly, sin hardened our hearts, and divorce entered the world. The good news is that with heartbreaking divorce comes immeasurable grace and mercy, and this is true both for Israel and for husbands and wives. God’s overwhelming faithfulness to His people reminds us that the marriage between Christ and His bride, the church, will never end (Revelation 19:7–9).