One of the tensions we experience in the exchanging of any kind of vow is that they belong under law, whereas we have been given a dispensation of grace. As it relates to marriage, grace is a subset of love. Law begins where love fails, so that as long as love is active, it is not necessary to invoke a marriage partner’s vow in response to damaging or hurtful behavior.
“Love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Pe. 4:8).
It only becomes necessary to confront a marriage partner with the specifics of their vows when 1) said partner has broken it, and 2) the offended partner withholds grace. If we do not understand the specifics of how God gives or withholds grace, we will not understand marriage, or the meaning of its vows.
Jesus told Peter, “Whatsoever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatsoever you lose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
He was talking about sins. Peter was to determine when grace applied to a person’s offenses, and when it didn’t, because he understood grace well enough to judge. If I forgive (loose) all my wife’s sins toward me, will God hold them against her? I think not.
The Lord used Hosea as a type of God’s grace when vows are broken. Under the marriage vow and under the law, a man could have his wife stoned for adultery after one offense, but that is not what Hosea did. Gomer had three illegitimate children while married to Hosea, providing three “witnesses” to her unfaithfulness.
The Lord is forgiving by nature. He calls judgement his “strange act” and his “alien task” (Is. 28:21-11). There are numerous examples of this from the OT. For example, David was slow to judge his officers and sons for their crimes, and he did not execute his political enemies personally; instead, he asked Solomon to do it when he became king.
Israel tested the Lord ten times in the wilderness before judgement fell upon them. Even then, a way was provided for forgiveness and healing if they would repent.
Even Adam was not executed when the penalty for eating the forbidden fruit was death on the same day. It was not a metaphor for 1,000 years as a single day before the Lord either. The Lord sacrificed innocent animals to make skins to cover Adam and Eve, and because the innocent died in their place, Adam and Eve were given probationary status in which they could repent and be forgiven. I fully expect to meet them in heaven, as they were faithful going forward.
The Lord also gave Cain sufficient warning before he slew Abel, and protected his life from revenge afterward by the placement of a mark upon him. Cain got the same probationary grace Adam did, even though we see no indication of repentance.
In like manner, Hosea was slow to judge Gomer for her prostitution after they were married, because he knew he was a sign to Israel of the way the Lord treated them when they went after foreign gods. Did he love Gomer? This is an interesting point, because he might have done it only to please the Lord, feelings aside. The biblical meaning of love is not a feeling, but the way we speak and act toward others. If we treat our enemy with courtesy, fairness, and kindness, we have fulfilled the command to love, even when we feel hurt or angry.
Based on this definition of love Hosea did love Gomer, for he never moved to have her stoned. She was eventually taken to debtor’s prison because she was unable to sustain her profligate lifestyle, and when she could not pay her debts she was sold at the slave market to work them off. Who bought her? Hosea did. Under law, she was now his slave, but under grace he restored her to her position as his wife, with only the requirement that she remain faithful going forward.
How does the story of Hosea and Gomer help us to understand grace in wedding vows?
Jesus said Moses permitted divorce in the law because their hearts were hard, but in the beginning it was not like that. Marriage was intended to cause a man and woman to become one person, inseparable except by death. The disciples replied, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry” (Mt. 29:10).
But they did not have the benefit of Paul’s teaching on marriage and the Church at that time. All they knew was that divorce was never intended for people who love. It was only given under the law for the benefit of the unrepentant, and the unforgiving.