Did God divorce Israel?
Question: "Did God divorce Israel?"
Answer: One of the ways in which God assures His people of His love for them is to describe Himself as their husband. For example, the prophet says to Judah, “Your Maker is your husband—the LORD Almighty is his name—the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer; he is called the God of all the earth” (Isaiah 54:5; cf. Jeremiah 3:14; 31:32).
Israel often proved to be an unfaithful spouse, committing spiritual adultery by worshiping false gods and forsaking the Lord. In fact, it was due to idolatry that God spoke this word:
“I gave faithless Israel her certificate of divorce and sent her away because of all her adulteries. . . . Because Israel’s immorality mattered so little to her, she defiled the land and committed adultery with stone and wood. In spite of all this, her unfaithful sister Judah did not return to me with all her heart, but only in pretense” (Jeremiah 3:8–10).
In this passage, God warns Judah against making the same mistakes that Israel, their neighbors to the north, had made. In their idolatry, Israel had polluted the land and broken their covenant with God. Due to the enormity of their sin, God punished Israel, and He illustrates that punishment like this: He “divorced” Israel and sent them away—a reference to the Assyrian invasion, which resulted in Israel’s removal from their homeland (see 2 Kings 17:5–7). Even given the example of Israel’s “divorce,” Judah remained unfaithful, as if daring God to mete out a similar punishment on them.
Having just cause, God, the faithful Husband, “divorced” Israel, His unfaithful wife. To make matters worse, God had asked, “If a man divorces his wife and she leaves him and marries another man, should he return to her again?” (Jeremiah 3:1). The answer, according to the Mosaic Law, was “no”; a man who had divorced his wife could not later remarry her (Deuteronomy 24:1–4). According to God’s metaphor, Israel seems to be in a hopeless situation: she has been divorced by God, and, according to the law, she can never be accepted back.
But then comes a surprising twist: God’s mercy intervenes:
“‘Return, faithless Israel,’ declares the Lord,
‘I will frown on you no longer,
for I am faithful,’ declares the Lord,
‘I will not be angry forever’” (Jeremiah 3:12).
In the same passage in which God sets up a scenario of hopelessness for Israel, He invites His people to “return” to Him and promises that His anger will end. Could it be that God’s love is stronger than His people’s rebellion? The Lord doubles down on His invitation:
“‘Return, faithless people,’ declares the Lord, ‘for I am your husband. I will choose you . . . and bring you to Zion” (Jeremiah 3:14).
God promises to do what the Mosaic Law could never do: restore the broken “marriage.” It was unthinkable that a human husband would take back his unfaithful wife, but God is greater than that; He can and will forgive His wayward people when they repent of their sin and seek Him again (Jeremiah 3:13).
God used the shocking illustration of a “divorce” of Israel to stress their guilt before Him. But God never cut Israel off unilaterally for all time. He only asked that they return to Him and experience His goodness. In fact, after God says that He “divorced” Israel, He commands them three times to “return” (Jeremiah 3:11, 14, 23).
The apostle Paul explains, “Did God reject his people? By no means! . . . God did not reject his people, whom he foreknew. . . . At the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace. And if by grace, then it cannot be based on works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace. . . . Again I ask: Did they stumble so as to fall beyond recovery? Not at all! . . . And if they do not persist in unbelief, they will be grafted in, for God is able to graft them in again” (Romans 11:1–6, 11, 23).
Another illustration of God’s amazing goodness is found in the story of the prophet Hosea. God actually commanded Hosea to marry a prostitute (Hosea 1:2). She did not remain faithful to Hosea. Then, while his wife was living in immorality, the Lord commanded Hosea to find her and buy her back. God’s purpose was to show the greatness of His grace: “Love her as the Lord loves the Israelites, though they turn to other gods” (Hosea 3:1).
Hosea’s grace toward his unfaithful wife is a model of God’s grace toward His unfaithful people. Israel had been chosen and loved by God, yet they were unfaithful to Him by way of idolatry. In Jeremiah 3, God gives them a “bill of divorcement,” but then He pleads with them to come back. In Hosea, God pursues and redeems His estranged “wife” and seeks to continue His relationship with her. Both stories provide an unforgettable picture of God’s strong, unending love for His covenant people.
How can a divorced wife return and be restored? The law forbade it, but “mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13), and God still has a plan for Israel. God’s grace in the New Covenant provided restoration for all who would believe in Christ.
Once, the incredulous disciples asked Jesus, “Who can be saved?” Jesus assured them that salvation is based on God’s power and grace, not man’s efforts: “What is impossible with man is possible with God” (Luke 18:27).
Recommended Resource: Faith of Israel, 2d ed.: A Theological Survey of the Old Testament by William Dumbrell
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Did God divorce Israel?