GOD’S DIVORCE DECREE IN REVELATION (5)

PMW 2020-013 by Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr.

This article continues an eight-part series on the seven-sealed scroll in Revelation 4–5. This scroll occurs early in Revelation: it opens the plot-line of Revelation.

So now let us note that in the Old Testament economy God’s prophets function as his lawyers. They prosecute Israel’s breaches of God’s covenantal law by bringing his legal case (riyb) against them. Just as God was married to Israel at his throne (Ex 24:10), so her divorce issues from his throne.

In Isaiah 1:2 the heavens and earth are called as witnesses against Israel, as per the Mosaic example (Dt 4:26; 30:19; 31:26, 28). In Isaiah 3:14 the Lord “enters into judgment with the elders and princes” (cp. Isa 41:21; 43:26; 45:21). In Micah 6:2 we read: “Listen, you mountains, to the indictment of the Lord, / And you enduring foundations of the earth, / Because the Lord has a case against His people; / Even with Israel He will dispute.” The passage in which Micah 6:2 appears is “an elaborate representation of a legal case ‘Yahweh v. Israel,’ in which God brings a grievance against his people” in this “covenant lawsuit.” In Jeremiah 30:13–14 the Lord speaks through Jeremiah stating “there is no one to plead your cause” for “all your lovers have forsaken you.”

The prophet Hosea is a classic example of God’s “lawyer” bringing a lawsuit against his unfaithful wife. He writes that the Lord “has a case against the inhabitants of the land” (Hos 4:1) and “has a dispute with Judah” (Hos 12:2). Hosea 2 is especially compelling. His “use of the key word rib (“to contend, accuse,” 2:4[2]; 4:4; ‘lawsuit,’ 4:1; 12:3 [2]) clearly indicates that his proclamation of the divine word is modeled after the legal procedure in the city gate.”

In addition, one Old Testament commentator notes: “Hosea likens the relationship of Yahweh to Israel to a marriage, a metaphor which he combines in chapter 2 with the image of a trial. Yahweh is the husband who accuses his wife, Israel, of infidelity. The ‘trial’ thus suggests the form of a divorce proceeding.” God pursues formal divorce, even though she has left and married another: “she is not my wife, and I am not her husband” (Hos 2:2b); she says “I will go back to my first husband” God (Hos 2:7c).


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Clearly then, another scholar observes that “the prophets had spoken as God’s covenant prosecutors bringing God’s charge and stating God’s verdict.”

In that marriage is a legal covenant, it can only be set aside on sufficient grounds and by means of court proceedings issuing forth in a divorce certificate (Dt 24:1–4). Because of the marital relationship existing between God and Israel, God’s Old Testament lawyers (the prophets) can speak of his issuing a “bill of divorce” against her when she sins against him, thereby justifying her temple’s destruction and her Babylonian captivity:

“Thus says the Lord, / ‘Where is the certificate of divorce, / By which I have sent your mother away? / Or to whom of My creditors did I sell you? / Behold, you were sold for your iniquities, / And for your transgressions your mother was sent away.’” (Isa 50:1)

And I saw that for all the adulteries of faithless Israel, I had sent her away and given her a writ of divorce, yet her treacherous sister Judah did not fear; but she went and was a harlot also. (Jer 3:8)
Another scholar points out that God’s covenant “established a legally defined relationship” the “marriage exists under a marriage-law. Israel is charged not merely with having been deficient in love and affection, but with having violated distinct promises. She is legally guilty.”

Jeremiah 2–3 is a very interesting passage in this regard. Chapter 2 speaks of Israel’s sin, while chapter 3 calls her to repentance from it. “The whole [second] chapter has strong reminiscences of a legal form which was well known in the secular world, the so-called rib pattern. . . . Israel is, as it were, in the law court being arraigned by Yahweh in a lawsuit (rib).” After reminding Israel of “the love of your betrothals” (Jer 2:2), God calls her to listen (Jer 2:4–5), “contends” with her (Jer 2:9), and calls heaven as witness (Jer 2:12). He is effectively asking her in a court of law to explain what led her astray from him.

In that God is bringing a lawsuit against her, he appeals to the Mosaic law as the standard of justice. A Jeremiah commentar argues that in Jeremiah 3 “the opening verse contains a much condensed paraphrase of the legislation pertaining to marriage, divorce, and remarriage in Deut 24:1–4”: “God says, ‘if a husband divorces his wife, / And she goes from him, / And belongs to another man, / Will he still return to her? / Will not that land be completely polluted? / But you are a harlot with many lovers; / Yet you turn to me,’ declares the Lord. We must note that he not only specifically mentions “divorce” and alludes to the Mosaic divorce legislation, but that he also repeatedly calls her a ‘harlot’ (Jer 3:1–3, 6, 8–9) while once again reminding her of her youthful betrothal to God (Jer 3:4; cp. Hos 2:15).”


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In Isaiah we learn of the importance of a bill of divorce. In Isaiah 50:1 God calls upon Israel to produce her bill of divorce. Why? As Alexander puts it: “That we may see the cause of her repudiation.” This is necessary in that the people are complaining that God lacks a just cause for turning from her: “Zion said, ‘The Lord has forsaken me, / And the Lord has forgotten me'” (Isa 49:14). But he argues in court that he did repeatedly call to her, yet she did not answer (Isa 50:2; cp. Jer 7:13). Jeremiah’s prophecy notes the same type of problem: Israel does not ask for God (Jer 2:6), nor did her priests (2:8). This disinterest in the Lord, this refusal to come back to him reminds us of Israel in the New Testament (Jn 1:11; Mt 10:6, 15–20; 15:7–9; 22:1–7; 23:37).

Jerusalem is the City of God wherein God dwells in his temple (2Ki 23:27; Ps 68:29). So when Jerusalem is destroyed in the Old Testament Babylonian Captivity, and her inhabitants are cast out, they are effectively cast out of the house, away from the God’s presence:

“For because of the anger of the LORD this happened in Jerusalem and Judah, that He finally cast them out from His presence.” (2Ki 24:20; Jer 52:3)

“And now, because you have done all these things,” declares the Lord, “and I spoke to you, rising up early and speaking, but you did not hear, and I called you but you did not answer, therefore, I will do to the house which is called by My name, in which you trust, and to the place which I gave you and your fathers, as I did to Shiloh. And I will cast you out of My sight, as I have cast out all your brothers, all the offspring of Ephraim.” (Jer 7:13–15)

In 1 Kings 6:11–13 God promises to live with Israel in this house if she would remain faithful (cp. Dt 12:10–11 and his earlier promise to live in his tent with her, Ex 25:8; 29:44–45). Thus, when she becomes unfaithful God issues his covenantal wife a divorce decree before he “sends her out from his house” (Dt 24:1), destroying her temple and sending her off into captivity (cp. Jer 15:1–2): “I have forsaken My house, / I have abandoned My inheritance; / I have given the beloved of My soul / Into the hand of her enemies” (Jer 12:7). In Jeremiah 11:15 he complains against Israel’s attempts to come to the temple while rebelling against him with strange gods: “what right has My beloved in My house?”

God is not simply abandoning Israel without warrant. He is suing her in “court” with just cause, proper witnesses, and legal evidence. He even calls her by pagan names to demonstrate the enormity of her unfaithfulness to him. In several places he calls Israel “Sodom” (Isa 3:8–9; Jer 23:14; Lam 4:6; Eze 16:46, 48–49, 55–56; Am 4:11), just as does John in Revelation 11:8 (cf. Mt 10:15; 11:23–24).

In the Ezekiel 16 passage the prophet is dealing with Israel as a harlot. Even the wicked Philistines are embarrassed at Israel’s evil conduct (Eze 16:27). The destruction of God’s temple speaks of his abandoning Israel for disobedience (1Ki 9:6–9; Jer 22:5; Lam 2:7; Mic 3:12; Bar 2:26; T. Levi 15:1; 1 Enoch 89:56; Pesiq. R. 138a; 146a), for “the temple [is] a symbol of the rise and fall of God’s people according to their moral, ethical and spiritual condition.” The land’s desolation also speaks of Israel’s troubled marriage (Isa 62:4). In the first century the Qumran community denounces Jerusalem as a hated wife (4QLam 179).

By the grace of God, later in the Old Testament period Israel eventually returns to her land from deportation (Ezr 2; Neh 7:6ff; 11:1ff) and rebuilds God’s house (Ezr 5:14–15), though on a smaller scale than Solomon’s original. Centuries later Herod greatly expands and magnificently adorns it (Jn 2:20) making it “the biggest structure of its kind in the ancient Near East,” “the largest, grandest, and shortest-lived of the Jerusalem temples.” This refurbished temple is God’s “house” which Christ and the apostles visited.

To be continued.

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