We get a lot of emails on relationships, everything from dating, engagement, marriage, and of course divorce and remarriage. This genre of email dominates all the other questions we get. And we get a lot of good push back emails and follow-up questions in search of greater clarity, like this one from a listener named Matthew: “Pastor John, I have a follow-up to you on episode 920 on divorce. Didn’t John the Baptists want Herod to ditch his wife? Because John had been saying to him, ‘It is not lawful for you to have her’ (present tense). See Matthew 14:4. He did not say, ‘It is not lawful for you to have taken her’ (past tense). And we all know how important tense is interpreting the Bible. She is called his wife. So how do you reconcile this seemingly clear call for a married couple to divorce?”
There are at least three things in this passage that are unknown to us and that keep me from using the passage to justify divorce. I admit that sometimes divorce for a faithful believer is inevitable, because Paul says so in 1 Corinthians 7:15 when an unbeliever insists on leaving a believer who does everything he or she can to make the marriage work. You can’t stop an unbeliever from doing that and, therefore, divorce as they carry it through may be inevitable. Remarriage in that situation is another issue. We are not talking about that.
John the Baptist may have been telling Herod “Get out of the relationship,” not “Get out of the marriage.”
So, let’s go back to this text. The text says, “For Herod had seized John” — John the Baptist — “and bound him and put him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because John had been saying to him, ‘It is not lawful for you to have her’” (Matthew 14:3–4). That is a good translation, by the way. “It is not lawful for you to have her.”
1. The first thing that is unknown to me is when Herod married his brother’s wife — or if he actually married her. When John says “it is not lawful for you to have her,” is he definitively saying that they are married? Or only that they are sleeping together or living in some kind of common law situation — kind of a situation that looks like marriage just to avoid legal issues? Most commentators document that they were married, but nobody seems to actually put a date on it in relationship to this event. If they weren’t married, then John is saying: Get out of the relationship. Stop sleeping together. Not, get out of a marriage. I don’t know.
2. The second thing that is uncertain is this: let’s just suppose they were married. The second thing that is uncertain is whether John is actually saying that the marriage should end. He is saying: It is unlawful for you to have her. You sinned in marrying her, if he married her. But it may also be unlawful to throw her out after she had been married to another man and therefore make her destitute on Jewish principle since she can’t go back to that first husband. It is not crystal clear from this text that John is saying ditch her.
3. But now, let us suppose that John was actually saying: end the marriage. And let’s suppose they were married. So, two uncertainties — we will just assume both of them are true. The third thing that is uncertain is whether he is saying this because the unlawfulness of the marriage is owing to the fact that she was married before or at the same time or that she was the wife of his brother which, according to Old Testament law, would make the second marriage incestuous, like marrying your sister or your sister-in-law or your daughter. So, Leviticus 18:16 says, “You shall not uncover the nakedness of your brother's wife; it is your brother’s nakedness.” Or Leviticus 20:21, “If a man lies with his uncle's wife, he has uncovered his uncle's nakedness; they shall bear their sin; they shall die childless.”
Piper: “I don’t think Matthew 14:4 can be used in any ordinary situation to justify divorce.”
Frankly — and this kind of boils down to the practical reality — I have never in all my pastoral life been confronted with a situation in which a man had married his sister or sister-in-law. It is difficult to know what I would say about the ongoing reality and propriety of that marriage. My inclination, not having faced it and not having thought more than a little about it, is that I probably would say the marriage should end, the way I would if the man was found to have married his own daughter. But those are such extraordinary cases that I would be very hesitant to build a case in favor of divorce in general upon them.
So, in view of those three uncertainties at least, I don’t think Matthew 14:4 can be used in any ordinary situation to justify divorce.