If a husband or wife walks out of a marriage, no matter how forgiving and conciliatory the remaining spouse may be, it spells the end of that union. Samson had this experience with his first wife who, unbeknownst to him, was given to another man during a time of absence (Judges 14:20). When he returned to his wife, he found out that she had already been remarried to someone else (Judges 15:1, 2).
Paul, in 1 Corinthians 7, speaks of a similar concept when he addresses divorce on the grounds of abandonment. He limits the circumstance to a marriage between a believer and an unbeliever, a situation that arose when an individual was converted after marriage but their spouse was not. According to Paul, by no means should the believer end the marriage (vv. 12, 13). However, if the unbelieving spouse decides to leave, despite the believer’s best efforts at marital bliss and harmony, there is not much else that can be done (v. 15).
In the final analysis, a marriage is a union between two individuals, both of whom need to be consenting to the union for it to continue and thrive. When one party obstinately refuses to remain in the union, then the marriage is broken.
This has been and continues to be God’s challenge with His people. He likens His covenant with Israel to a marriage covenant (Jer. 31:31), but His wife has insisted on committing adultery with false gods (Jer. 3:1–10). For a married person to leave their partner and join themselves to another person in that most intimate of interactions communicates most forcefully that they do not value their marriage and they devalue their spouse. In the metaphorical case of Christ’s covenant relationship with His bride, Israel, she has not only joined herself to another, but to multiple others (Jer. 3:6b).
If ever a being had grounds for divorce, God is one who has every right to throw in the towel on His relationship with humanity. As Creator, He has every right to receive our devotion, and as Redeemer He has claims on our affections. He invests in humanity whether they acknowledge Him or not (Matt. 5:45) and places special care over those who have accepted His offer of salvation (Deut. 32:10). After all that God has done for all human beings, and more so for those who identify themselves with Him, it is no wonder that He would file for a divorce in the face of their adultery (Isa. 50:1). Unlike our human relationships, where no party is ever completely guiltless, God has only ever been faithful to His covenant (cf. Ps. 89:1). This only heightens the feelings of betrayal He must experience!
When your spouse has so vehemently communicated through their actions that they do not love you and they do not want to be with you, how humble would you have to be to still seek to win them back? It is one thing to pursue new love with the promise of bliss in coming days, but it is quite another to pursue someone who has already hurt you. Yet this is precisely what God does (Jer. 3:7). What wondrous love is this!
No matter how earnest and persistent God is in His pursuit, however, He cannot force humanity to love Him. Moreover, when someone has already tasted the unparalleled joys of a covenant relationship with God but rejects it, what other enticements could be used to draw them back in (Heb. 6:4–6)? God granting a divorce is only Him acquiescing to the determined will of the one He loves. He does not stop loving. He simply loves enough to let go.
Jesus intimately understands the pain of divorce. When He says that “He hates divorce” (Mal. 2:16), we must not see an aloof judgmental deity who is out of touch with the realities that lead to divorce. No, He gets it. He has often been rejected by the one He loves and has entered a covenant with. When He grants only one possible permission to seek a divorce, He knows what it’s like to be married to a partner who is not fully invested in the relationship. He even knows the experience of staying married to a partner who has been unfaithful. He has never asked us to do anything that He Himself has not done before (1 Pet. 2:21). In the midst of the brokenness of our relationships, we can trust fully the leading of a God who cares: “For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:15, 16).