The Marriage Covenant from the Biblical Perspective
Dr. Steve Highlander
Marriage has been a social institution in just about every society since the earliest times. Marriage traditions and customs differ greatly from culture to culture, but nearly every culture has them. Have you ever wondered why marriage was culturally relevant; even in primitive societies? Though the ages men and women of all races and religions have chosen to single out a time and place to “unite in marriage.” Customs guide it; laws govern it; society respects it. Why is that it is that only within the past few decades has traditional marriage been set aside or rejected all together?
One reason is the moral laxness that pervades the United State since the 1960’s. Sex outside of marriage is no longer considered sinful, even by many people that go to church. “We love each other, that is all what really matters,” is the mantra of the post modern generation. The prevailing wisdom of this group says, “We don’t need a piece of paper to make it right.”
Another reason is that in the past 30 years our society has lost a sense of what marriage really is. Having “divorced” marriage from its cultural and biblical moorings, it is left to drift on the uncertain current of personal opinion.
Why is marriage important? Why do we take vows and what is their significance? Is a “piece of paper” really important? Does the Bible require marriage? Does marriage have any benefits to those who choose to engage in it? These are important questions to consider.
In almost every culture marriage has two cornerstones: vows and sexual intercourse. In fact it is both of these that legitimize and legalize a marriage. In the western world it is the vows that form the legal commitment and sex that “consummates” those commitments. In most states a marriage that is not consummated with intercourse can be annulled. Divorce dissolves a marriage, but annulment voids the marriage completely, as if it never happened.
It is interesting that marriage vows and sex are so closely associated. Biblically speaking it is considered morally wrong for a couple to have sex even one minute before a wedding ceremony and totally acceptable, and even expected, that they would after the ceremony. What takes place in the ceremony that legitimizes sexual intercourse?
Marriage has two parts, one is legal and one is spiritual. Both are activated by the vows. Legally, the vows form a verbal contract to become one; sharing property, debt and other privileges and responsibilities. This is why a couple can not just get “unmarried.” They have to go to the court system and have a judge legally terminate the marriage. Spiritually the vows create what the Bible calls a “covenant.” A covenant is a spiritual agreement, governing the relationship. Because of the vows, couples are united, both in the eyes of the society in which they live and before God which spiritually joins them together. Just as a legal agreement can not be broken without consequences, so a covenant can not be broken without consequences.
Consider what God had to say about this covenant and the spiritual consequences in Malachi 2:13-15 (the last book of the Old Testament).
“And here’s a second offense: You fill the place of worship with your whining and sniveling because you don’t get what you want from GOD. Do you know why? Simple. Because GOD was there as a witness when you spoke your marriage vows to your young bride, and now you’ve broken those vows, broken the faith-bond with your vowed companion, your covenant wife. GOD, not you, made marriage. His Spirit inhabits even the smallest details of marriage. And what does he want from marriage? Children of God, that’s what. So guard the spirit of marriage within you. Don’t cheat on your spouse. “I hate divorce,” says the GOD of Israel. …. I hate the violent dismembering of the ‘one flesh’ of marriage.” So watch yourselves. Don’t let your guard down. Don’t cheat” (The Message Bible. Emphasis mine.)
This portion of scripture was written about 400 years before Jesus Christ was born, at a time when the nation of Israel was in moral decline. Even though they remained outwardly religious, they had moved away from the true
worship of God and their moral obligations. Adultery and divorce was rampant. It was not uncommon for a man to divorce his wife and get a new one. Our society today is much like that of ancient Israel when God spoke these words.
Notice the emphasis placed on the vows and the covenant. God says He was witness to the marriage vows. You might also note the consequences of their covenant-breaking (adultery and divorce). These people were worshipping and praying, but they were not getting answers to their prayers. God points out that the reason is breaking their marriage vows. God is serious about the vows we take and the covenants we make. Spiritual things happen when we make covenants. Spiritual things happen when we break them too.
When a couple trades vows before God, the Bible tells us that God unites them. That is why Jesus said, “what God has joined together, let no man put asunder.” This article is not about the evils of divorce, but rather the power of the wedding vows and the covenant that was created before God and man.
Covenant is the central theme of the Bible. In fact the Bible is divided into the Old Testament (covenant) and the New Testament (covenant). The word covenant actually means “cutting” and when two people or two groups of people make a spiritual agreement it was called, “cutting covenant.” In the Old Testament an animal was slain and divided in two (hence the idea of cutting) and the parties making the covenant passed between the two pieces of the animal signifying the seriousness of the covenant. In effect they were saying, only death can end this covenant and if I break it you can kill me. The familiar strains of “until death do us part,” in the traditional marriage vows probably came from this concept of cutting covenant, because this is exactly what the couple does.
Another interesting aspect of the marriage covenant was sexual intercourse. Sex was the seal or bond of the covenant. As we mentioned earlier, a marriage that is not consummated by sexual intercourse can be voided as if it never happened. Since covenant had an element of the shedding of blood involved, so the consummation of the marriage covenant also has the shedding of blood. In the best case scenario a woman is supposed to be a virgin when she gets married. The first time she has sexual intercourse the hymen is broken and blood is shed. It could well be that this ‘seal of purity’ was God’s way of ratifying the marriage covenant.
We’ve looked at what a marriage covenant is in a spiritual sense and even some of the consequences for breaking our marriage covenant. Now let’s look at the benefits of the covenant relationship.
When a couple exchanges wedding vows they are creating a moral, legal and spiritual commitment to each other. Those vows are meant to hold them together in tough times. They were promises made to each other. “For better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health.” These pledges were meant to be a comfort to the spouses; a promise that someone would walk with them through the difficulties of life and not bail out as soon as things got tough. Since both parties were going to make a long term ‘investment’ in the relationship spiritually, emotionally and financially it is only fitting that some sort of guarantee is offered.
“To have and to hold; Forsaking all others and keeping only to your spouse,” were promises particularly related to the sexual union. A couple vowed to each other before God and man to remain sexually pure with each other. What a concept. Very few people want to marry a person that they know will cheat on them. It was this part of the covenant vow that legitimizes the sexual union.
Another reason God requires a covenantal relationship to guard sex is that children are the natural result of marriage. God told Adam and Eve to, “be fruitful and multiply.” God wanted children to be brought up in a loving stable environment. The hard truth is that the devastating effects of single parent families have impacted our society in ways we can not imagine. It does make any difference if the parents were never married or if they were divorced, children most often pay the price emotionally and socio-economically. (Please note I am not condemning people in either situation. I am only stating that the result has been catastrophic to modern society in terms of emotional turmoil and economic impact, not to mention the problems related to education, discipline, sexual abuse and more.)
God wanted parents to stay together, work out problems and provide emotional and moral foundations for their children. When the family is a cornerstone of society, the world is a better place.
The bottom line is that marriage is about commitment. Commitment forms the basis of the moral, legal and spiritual privileges and responsibilities associated with marriage. It is precisely this issue that cause many couples to live together, rather then get married.
What is the big deal about a piece of paper? It is easy to see that the piece of paper is not the real issue; it is the moral, spiritual and legal commitments that govern the relationship that are the heart and soul of marriage and family. Couples want the benefits of marriage: companionship, sex, financial advantages (they don’t have to rent to apartments and pay double bills) and other things, but do not want to make the commitments that have traditionally defined marriage in almost every culture for over 6000 years.
A couple may say they are committed, but until that commitment takes on moral, legal and even spiritual ramifications it is really no commitment at all. In God’s economy it is the loving, self-sacrificing commitment of covenant that legitimizes marriage, not the fleeting emotion of love or desire. If a couple is committed to one another there is no reason at all that they should not be willing to say the words in public and enter into a covenant relationship.
God placed His blessing on marriage and children. He promised to listen to the unified prayers of the Christian couple and bless their children. In the turbulent uncertainty of the 21st century, having God’s blessing might be a really good idea.