The Corruption of Covenantal Unfaithfulness

Though the verses considered in this lesson highlight the unfaithfulness of the people, particularly as manifest in the issue of marriage, the problem is much larger and relates immediately to the failure of the priesthood to give the people true instruction in the law of God. Without the constant discipline of revealed truth, human sinfulness will always run off the rails into a deep bog of destruction. Eventually, the problem is traced back to the native depravity of man

I. Chapter 2:1-11 – The Fundamental problem of Priestly Unfaithfulness

A. Verses 1-3 – A Warning to the Priests:

1. For their failure to give honor to the name of the Lord of hosts. The chief end of God’s creation of the world is the honoring of his name by a great host of intelligent beings, including angels and men. God had just said, “My name will be feared among the nations.” (1:14). The priests, however, indicate no reverential fear, and thus no heart for worship.

2. Because they have not entered into their blessed task of pre-figuring the sacrificial atonement to be made by the Lord, Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah, that office which could be the greatest of blessings to a sinful mortal will become a cause for more severe punishment. They are heaping up wrath against the day of wrath for their continued failure to “take it to heart.” Their great privilege and opportunity for blessing has become the occasion for a more aggravated curse, probably both here and hereafter.

3. They have become like the most unclean part of the sacrificial ritual that was taken outside the camp to be burned (Exodus 29:14; Leviticus 4:11; 8:17). He will consider both them and their offspring unclean and spread, symbolically, the dung of the sacrifice on their faces, and like the dung of the sacrifice, they will be taken away and discarded, unfit for appearance in the presence of God at the time of sacrifice. It seems that by this particular action God indicates that their sin is not covered by the sacrifices that they themselves are the most instrumental in offering.

4. These correspond to the warnings Jesus gave against blasphemy in regard to the clear operations of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 12:29-32). Perhaps not to the same degree, but in kind, these priests have dealt with the most intense and sublime aspects of messianic reality and have unmoved hearts.

B. Verses 4 – 6 – The Covenant with Levi

1. The Levites put to the sword those that worshipped the golden calf (Exodus 32:26-29) upon the command of Moses for each to “kill his brother and his companion and his neighbor.” Three thousand were slain in this way and Moses said, “Today you have been ordained for the service of the Lord, each one at the cost of his son and of his brother, so that he might bestow a blessing upon you this day.” They saw clearly the infinite seriousness of this violation of the worship of God and as a reflection of the holiness of God Himself, who did not spare his own Son in the execution of justice, did not spare even their sons.

2. In Numbers 25:6-15, Phinehas, the grandson of Aaron, ran through with a spear a Jewish man and a Midianite woman who was his consort and a worshiper of Baal of Peor. The man was Zimri the head of a Simeonite household and the woman was the daughter of a tribal chief of Midian. Because Phinehas had a burning zeal for the honor of God, he was commended by God gave him “a covenant of peace, and it shall be to him and to his descendants after him the covenant of a perpetual priesthood.” Malachi noted this covenant of peace. It also was a covenant of fear, for “He stood in awe of my name.”

3. God considered these actions as fully consistent with the impression he wanted the Israelites to have of his immutable holiness, his hatred of sin, and the certainty of death for transgressors of his law. The actions of the Levites and Phinehas “turned many from iniquity” and gave true instruction concerning God.

4. There was no partiality in these actions of execution of the wrath of God against transgressors. The Levites did not spare family and Phinehas did not consider the status of either the Jewish man or the Midianite woman as exempting them from divine judgment.

C. Verses 7-9 – A Failure in the most basic function of the Priest: The people should expect true instruction from the priest as the messenger of the Lord, but they had corrupted the covenant of life and peace by showing partiality in their instruction. Unlike the Levites at Sinai and Phinehas at Shittim they regard their own comforts and the (false) sense of well-being on the part of their constituency as more important. They have thus “caused many to stumble by their instruction.” So it is with many of the highly popular positive-thinking “Christian” celebrities of our day.

II. Verses 12-16 – The resultant Corruption of the Nation

A. Verses 10-12 – The choice of idolatrous relations over the one true God

1. This series of questions points to the special calling of Israel as a nation. I think the “one father” in the first question is Abraham who received the promise from God (e.g. Genesis 15:12-15). That God has created them refers not to the doctrine of the creation of the heavens and the earth but the creation of the nation through the sons of Jacob and their rescue from Egypt by the strong hand of God (Exodus 12:40-42). Now, though they have received special privileges and promises they are profaning the very things that have marked them out as a kingdom of priests. They did not maintain the sense of wonder at being the nation upon whom God had placed special favor through its offices and prophetic rituals.

2. They now were doing that which God has specifically forbidden them to do as they initially entered the land, that is, invite a situation in which a foreign god would be tolerated (Exodus 23:32, 33). Now they were establishing marriage covenants with the “daughter of a foreign God” with no sense of violating the purity of the worship of God. The “One God” had made them a nation and now they give place to another, or other, gods.

3. The descendants of those that did this were to be “cut off” by the Lord from Israel.

B. Verses 13-15a – Divorce as an indicator of their complete hardness to the covenantal purpose of God.

1. Their separation of religious ritual from devotion of heart and life is seen in their emotion at God’s disregard for their offering. They wanted the appearance of religion without one of the basic tests of its penetration into the deepest part of life, faithful devotion to their wives with a reverence for the purpose of marriage. Many had begun to divorce the wives they had taken when young  with no regard for the idea that “she is your companion and your wife by covenant.”

God had established marriage as the first human relationship and had sanctified it by establishing the singularity and the perpetual nature of the relationship—Eve for Adam, taken from his side, as a help fit for him, establishing a one-flesh relation.

God had illustrated his faithfulness and the intended faithfulness incident to marriage in the story of Hosea with the applicatory words, “I will betroth you to me forever. I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love and in mercy. I will betroth you to me in faithfulness. And you shall know the Lord” (Hosea 2:19, 20).

Marriage thus foreshadowed the invincible determination of Christ to have the church as his bride. In the miracle of the new birth Christ has sanctified and cleansed her with the purifying power of the word and will present it to himself “in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might by holy and without blemish.”

In short, their sacrifice of the covenant of marriage in pursuit of their own supposed satisfaction and pleasure had profound spiritual significance for the eternal purpose of God and demonstrated deep spiritual ignorance and perversity of heart.

2. Verse 15a – They also failed to grasp the spiritual union involved in marriage. It was not only their choice that established marriage, but a seal to marriage comes in the Holy Spirit’s giving of union to their spirits. The Holy Spirit uses marriage to give the married couple a single heart of love for God and joint desire to do his will and honor him as a haven of unity, love, faithfulness, harmony, and unconditional acceptance in this fallen world. Their divorce capitulated to the corrupting and destructive power of sin and death. They have followed the thief that has come to steal, kill, and destroy rather than choose the path of the possession of truly abundant life (John 10:10).  Matthew Henry noted, “Married people should often call to mind their marriage-vows, and review them with all seriousness, as those that make conscience of performing what they promised.”

C. Verse 15 b – They had no regard for the purpose of God in providing a stable home environment for children. From marriage, from the beginning, God was seeking “godly offspring.”

1. Even with Adam and Eve, faithfulness to God’s covenant would have produced godly offspring in the ultimate sense. The obedience of Adam and Eve would have sealed and made perpetual and immutable the godliness of themselves and their eventual posterity. Instead, their disobedience brought corruption and death to themselves and to all their offspring throughout all generations. They produced ungodly offspring (Romans 5:12-14; Genesis 4:8; 6:5-8). Their failure, however, did not change the purpose of the original intent of child-bearing within the family unit.

2. Marriage is bound up with the events of creation and carries the divine design for the population of the world. .Since the fall has given an intrinsic disposition of carnality and rebellion, an environment of faithful marriage places curbs around that. A married couple intent on godliness sets in place several hindrances to carnal expression and inserts positive instruction in the fear of God.

Regulation of life and action

Manifestation of ones relation to authority and the revelation of a rebellious spirit

Presentation of unconditional faithfulness to a pledge and a person

Instruction concerning the claims of God on our lives.

If we complicate the natural propensity to sin by the indecency and corruption of our own lives and thus fail to provide curbs, but merely add further provocation to resident rebellion, we can expect deeply disturbed and destructive individuals, rather than disciplined and upright people, to emerge in families. See verse 16: “For the man who hates and divorces, says the Lord, the God of Israel, covers his garment with violence.”

The family unit cannot give the new birth, that is a gift of the new covenant and dependent on the call of God (Acts 2:39), but it can provide a foundation of “true instruction” as a foundation for the Spirit’s call if, in God’s wise providence and sovereign grace, he so grants that blessing.

3. With such profound issues involved in the union of a man and woman in marriage the “messenger of God” exhorted, “So guard yourselves in your spirit, and let none of you be faithless to the wife of your youth.”

III.  Verse 17 – With the deepest hypocrisy and irony, they accuse God of partiality

A. The accusation against God as a God of true justice is typical of persons whose hearts are already snarling against his legitimate and holy claims to exclusive devotion.

B. This accusation also betrays a self-righteous spirit in that those so fuming against God for his seeming preference in giving his blessings think that they are more deserving of the favor of God than others. He distributes his gifts of all sorts to persons according to his own sovereign pleasure owing no man anything and may always do with his own as he sees fit. The diversity of gifts and favors in this world and the call to the eternal joy of the next arise from his own wisdom and perfect knowledge of what gives him glory and will be the greatest display of his joy-in Himself and has nothing to do with a violation of the rights of one person in preference to another. None of God’s actions are unjust and no person is treated with less dignity or less favor than he deserves.

C. God soon will show them the God of justice.

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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