Do we not all have one Father? Did not one God create us? Why do we profane the covenant of our ancestors by being unfaithful to one another?
Judah has been unfaithful. A detestable thing has been committed in Israel and in Jerusalem: Judah has desecrated the sanctuary the Lord loves by marrying women who worship a foreign god. As for the man who does this, whoever he may be, may the Lord remove him from the tents of Jacob—even though he brings an offering to the Lord Almighty.
Another thing you do: You flood the Lord’s altar with tears. You weep and wail because he no longer looks with favor on your offerings or accepts them with pleasure from your hands. You ask, “Why?” It is because the Lord is the witness between you and the wife of your youth. You have been unfaithful to her, though she is your partner, the wife of your marriage covenant. Has not the one God made you? You belong to him in body and spirit. And what does the one God seek? Godly offspring.[d] So be on your guard, and do not be unfaithful to the wife of your youth. “The man who hates and divorces his wife,” says the Lord, the God of Israel, “does violence to the one he should protect,” says the Lord Almighty. Malachi 2:10-16 NIV
Throughout the Bible we see God working toward an extremely high standard for our broken world and fragile relationships: shalom (peace) – His kingdom coming to earth – He does so through covenantal relationships between Himself and people and between people. While God is absolutely Holy, the people He works through are fragile and flawed. Covenants are relationships that embrace God’s holy standards and our weaknesses.
I won’t pretend to be an expert on the differences between a contract and a covenant. However, I believe the gist is this:
A contract is a legal agreement that is broken when the rules are broken by parties to it.
A covenant is a pledge meant to be maintained even if the parties to it violate their commitments.
Like the relationship between God and his people, marriage is a covenant designed to endure for the long haul and to withstand stress, and even become stronger with testing.
What does this mean for us as we work toward God’s holy standards through the messiness of our marriages? There are no easy answers or neat lists of techniques for understanding how we are to live within the covenant of marriage. One thing is certain, that understanding requires a level of wisdom that can’t be found by reading books or successfully having navigated other types of relationships. Fools rush in where angels fear to tread – I’m going to propose some explanations but am not posing as an expert!
Covenants keep the long term in mind: While contracts are fairly black and white, covenants are designed for long term relationships and are able to tolerate more ambiguity. Every misstep is not grounds for termination/divorce.
Covenants mean our actions matter: While covenants are better able to handle missteps and mistakes, the parties’ actions still matter. It is clear from the passage in Malachi that God detests unfaithfulness to covenants. A covenantal relationship like marriage is not something one party can take for granted, leaving all the burden of maintaining the commitment on the other — both parties need to be committed.
Covenants — Are they perpetually valid? This is a subject that is way beyond my pay grade. We know that God has extremely high standards for covenantal relationships, but there are grounds for breaking them. In what circumstances does the Bible allow divorce? Is adultery the only permissible way out of a harmful marriage? Is it enough for only one spouse to be all in in a marriage? Or do both have to take responsibility for being “all in”?