THE MEANING OF THE EXCEPTION CLAUSE IN MATTHEW 19:9

But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery” (Mt. 5:32).

And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immoralityand marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery.” (Mt. 19:9). 

Biblically and historically speaking, a divorce granted permission for a subsequent marriage (Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels: A Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship; Joel B. Green, Scot McKnight, I. Howard Marshall p. 193). The Jews would naturally have understood that a divorce authorized the right of remarriage because divorce and permission to marry another were inseparable (The Gospel of Matthew, R. T. France, p. 212). This is the way it had always been and this is the Jewish context in which Jesus speaks. According to Instone-Brewer, the wording on a standard, rabbinic divorce certificate was as follows:

 “You are allowed to marry any man you wish.’ This wording can be traced through Jewish divorce certificates and marriage certificates that have survived from as far back as the fifth century B.C.E., and it can then be traced through Babylonian marriage certificates and law codes back as far as the fourteenth century B.C.E. This would fit all the known facts. This document would be needed by women, but not men, because men could marry more than one woman in any case. It would have been a most valuable document for a woman to possess because it gave her the right to remarry” (Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible, Instone-Brewer, p. 29).

When considering the evidence, one cannot properly argue that Jesus was only giving permission to divorce in Matthew 5:32 and Matthew 19:9, but not permission to marry another. There would have been no other way the Jews would or could have understood this.

This view harmonizes with the linguistics, the immediate context of the gospel accounts and the context of the Old Testament. Divorce was common in the Jewish culture (and the world). This can be seen in Scripture and in secular antiquity at that time. Divorce for fornication had always been allowed. Unfortunately, the Jews were divorcing for just any reason that they could come up with. Marriage and divorce was merely a game to most that wasn’t taken seriously.

The Pharisees asked Jesus if it was lawful to divorce for just any cause (Mt. 19:3). The topic under consideration was divorce for just any reason. Jesus replied by explaining the importance of covenants and God joining man and woman in marriage (Mt. 19:4-6; Mal. 2:14-16; etc.). From the beginning, divorce and division were not part of God’s plan. However, when sin entered the world the world changed. Even God is seen as “divorcing” physical Israel in order to make a new covenant with the church (spiritual Israel).

Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them, says the Lord” (Jer. 31:31-32).

Jesus explained that the Jews were hardhearted and that man is not to separate what God has joined together for just any reason (Mt. 19:1-3). Jesus then gives the exception to this rule allowing one to divorce their spouse lawfully if the marriage covenant is breached by fornication (Mt. 19:9).

Some argue that it would be a contradiction for Jesus to say that man is not to separate what God has joined together while going on to give an exception. This is a weak argument for the very fact that an exception is, well, an exception. Some argue that all divorce was hardhearted, however, Jesus was speaking of careless and unlawful divorce (Mt. 19:3). God divorced Israel and established a New Covenant with Christians. Did this make God hardhearted? Exceptions do not negate rules, they give provisions for rules.

Others argue against this position claiming that if fornication automatically breaks the covenant, that would mean one would have to divorce their spouse if their spouse committed fornication because a covenant would no longer be intact. However, this is a false assumption. Fornication doesn’t dissolve the covenant, it violates it. Fornication doesn’t automatically make the covenant itself invalid, but it does give the right, to the one not guilty of fornication, to lawfully end the covenant according to Matthew 19:9.

There is a difference in violating a covenant and dissolving a covenant. Jesus taught that when one violates the covenant through fornication, the spouse innocent of fornication has a right to lawfully dissolve the marriage covenant (Mt. 19:9; Hosea 2:1-4, 14, 16). Just as God ultimately divorced Israel for “her” unfaithfulness (Jer. 3:8) and made a new covenant (Jer. 31:31-32), so God gives permission to lawfully divorce for fornication and made a new covenant.

In conclusion, Jesus provided an exception to His marriage and divorce law in Matthew 5:32 and Matthew 19:9. Another interesting read is by William A. Heth. You can click here to read it. He was one of the leading proponents and scholars of the “no divorce for any reason view” at one time. He has since changed his mind and wrote about why he changed.

– Kevin Pendergrass

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