This month is special to me and my wife, Ann. It was on May 26, 1972, that we stood in the presence of family, friends, and our heavenly Father and there pledged to one another to be faithful "till death do us part." So far, so good.
Twenty years! Notwithstanding the ups and downs and those moments of sheer exasperation, they've been twenty good years. I attribute this largely to the fact that, by God's grace, we have indeed been faithful to that initial vow. We've learned that mutual fidelity is crucial to any lasting relationship.
I can't imagine the pain should Ann ever have spurned me for another. I've counseled with countless victims of infidelity. I've seen the damage. Nothing compares with the destructive anguish inflicted by adultery. Broken promises. Broken hearts. Shattered pledges. Unrequited love.
God is no stranger to such pain, for He too has been the victim of adultery. His bride has been anything but faithful, hopping into bed with heresy or perhaps seduced into the arms of another god. The previous issue of Tabletalk was an all-too-painful reminder of that ugly fact.
Husbands whose wives have strayed react differently, as one might expect. Some are consumed with a murderous rage while others simply shake their hands in naive disbelief. The out-come is hard to predict. Some, tragically, look for an excuse to file for divorce. Others separate; some even reconcile.
God's reaction, though, is unique. But then, that should come as no surprise. God's bride, the church, has committed spiritual fornication. Idolatry, indifference, theological compromise, empty formalism, avarice, are all acts of religious adultery. It would seem that the Lord has grounds for divorce.
His initial response to the moral infidelity of His bride is jealousy. Yes, God does get jealous! James addresses the unfaithful church with these stunning words: "You adulterous people, don't you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. Or do you think Scripture says without reason that the Spirit He caused to live in us longs jealously [for the full affection of our hearts]?" (James 4:4–5).
God will brook no rival suitors. He insists on being the sole object of His bride's love and devotion. When she strays, He is roused to anger at the breach of the marital bond. Whereas human jealousy is often the product of insecurity, envy, and resentment, divine jealousy is holy and reflects the commitment of God to the welfare of His bride. Calvin expressed it this way:
God very commonly takes on the character of a husband to us. Indeed, the union by which He binds us to Himself when He receives us into the bosom of the church is like sacred wedlock, which must rest upon mutual faithfulness (Ephesians 5:29–32). As He performs all the duties of a true and faithful husband, of us in return He demands love and conjugal chastity. That is, we are not to yield our souls to Satan, to lust, and to the filthy desires of the flesh, to be defiled by them.… The more holy and chaste a husband is, the more wrathful he becomes if he sees his wife inclining her heart to a rival. In like manner, the Lord, who has wedded us to Himself in truth … manifests the most burning jealousy whenever we, neglecting the purity of His holy marriage, become polluted with wicked lusts (Institutes, II, viii.18).
God's jealous love for His bride and His determination to win her affection is illustrated in the familiar Old Testament story of Hosea and Gomer. Hosea was a prophet, Gomer a prostitute (or, as some insist, would soon become one). He was to represent God, she Israel. "Go," said God to Hosea, "take to yourself an aduterous wife and children of unfaithfulness, because the land is guilty of the vilest adultery in departing from the Lord" (Hosea 1:2b).
The children of this remarkable union were themselves illustrative of Israel's sin. The firstborn was a son, Jezreel, which means "God scatters," a reference to the judgment that would befall Israel. The second child was a daughter, Lo-Ruhamah, which means "not pitied." And the third child, another son, was called Lo- Ammi, "not my people."
Religious harlotry provokes a jealous love in our heavenly Husband. But it is a jealousy that disciplines rather than destroys, a love that woos and restores and renews. God will not ignore or treat lightly the sins of His people, but neither is divorce an option. God is determined to win back His bride, to heal the wound and to reconcile with His estranged lover: "I will betroth you to Me forever; I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, in love and compassion. I will betroth you in faithfulness, and you will acknowledge the Lord" (Hosea 2:19–20).
Thus, when it seemed that God would forever forsake, indeed divorce, His wife, His faithfulness to the covenant vow and loyal love for her prevailed. Once more God said to Hosea, " 'Go, show your love to your wife again, though she is loved by another and is an adulteress. Love her as the Lord loves the Israelites, though they turn to other gods and love the sacred raisin cakes.' So I [Hosea] bought her for fifteen shekels of silver and about a homer and a lethek of barley. Then I told her, 'You are to live with me many days; you must not be a prostitute or be intimate with any man, and I will live with you' " (Hosea 3:1–3).
Moreover, the threats implied in the names of the children were graciously transformed into blessings: Jezreel now means "God plants" (Hosea 2:22), Lo-Ruhamah became Ruhamah, "pitied," and Lo-Ammi became Ammi, "My people."
We are stunned by such love, such loyalty! Notwithstanding the offense of her spiritual adultery and the anguish of her fornication, God loves His church with a relentless and irresistible zeal. Ours is a fickle affection, a love that often wanes with time. But God's passion for His people is everlastingly intense, for "as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so your God will rejoice over you" (Isaiah 62:5).
Ann and I are looking forward to the next twenty years together. With God's help, we intend to fulfill our vow of fidelity. But we both realize there are no infallible guarantees.
Of this, however, we may all rest assured, that God will never forsake His beloved. Though she may wander, He will pursue His bride with an inexhaustible love. For in dying it was Christ's purpose "to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the Word, and to present her to Himself as a radiant church without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless" (Ephesians 5:26–27).