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Divorce & Remarriage
Last edited, October 2014
I. Divorce & Remarriage Is Adultery
Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her. And if a woman divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery. (Mark 10:11-12)
Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced from her husband commits adultery. (Luke 16:18)
Jesus describes divorce and remarriage as an act of adultery. Even though there may be official paper work involved (e.g. Deuteronomy 24:1, "certificate of divorce"), when a man or woman divorces their spouse and remarries another, this is an immoral act. They have committed adultery, and this is radically serious; because,
Marriage is honorable among all, and the bed undefiled; but fornicators and adulterers God will judge. (Hebrews 13:4; see also 1 Corinthians 6:9-10; Revelation 21:8)
Even in cases where there is an "innocent party" involved (i.e. where the woman does not want the divorce), if this "innocent person" remarries, she has committed adultery. As Jesus said, "whoever marries her who is divorced from her husband commits adultery" (Luke 16:18), and in Matthew 5:32 He says, "whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery." If the man divorced his wife because she was sexually immoral, then the woman would have already committed adultery. But, if she was not sexually immoral, and the man divorced her, and then she remarried, she would then be committing adultery; and her husband who divorced her is the one who caused her to do so (Matthew 5:32). Divorce and remarriage equals adultery (Mark 10:11-12; Luke 16:18).
II. Divorce Does Separate Nevertheless
Some may think, because of Christ's words on divorce and remarriage, a divorce does not really separate the marriage of a husband and a wife. After all, Jesus calls it adultery if a man divorces his wife and then marries another. Doesn't it follow then, that in the eyes of God, even though they have been divorced, they are still viewed as married; and this is why Jesus calls divorce and remarriage adultery?
No, speaking in the context of divorce Jesus said,
what God has joined together, let not man separate (Matthew 19:6).
Men do "separate." Men do divorce (separate from their wives).
Even though Christ declared divorce and remarriage adultery, He also nonetheless recognized that divorce does separate a husband and a wife. Divorce does separate the one flesh of marriage (Matthew 19:5-6). Malachi calls it "violence" and treachery (Malachi 2:14-16).
1 Corinthians 7 testifies to this as well.
Now to the married I command, yet not I but the Lord: A wife is not to depart from her husband. But even if she does depart, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband. And a husband is not to divorce his wife. (1 Corinthians 7:10-11, see also verse 27 "loosed from a wife")
Here a woman who departs from her husband (i.e. divorces her husband) is said to be "unmarried."
Also, note Deuteronomy 24.
When a man takes a wife and marries her, and it happens that she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some uncleanness in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house, when she has departed from his house, and goes and becomes another man's wife, if the latter husband detests her and writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house, or if the latter husband dies who took her as his wife, then her former husband who divorced her must not take her back to be his wife after she has been defiled; for that is an abomination before the LORD, and you shall not bring sin on the land which the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance. (Deuteronomy 24:1-4)
In Deuteronomy 24 God calls it an abomination for a woman to return to her first husband, after she has been married to another.
III. The Exception Of Sexual Immorality
Are there any exceptions to Christ's statement? Yes, Jesus also said,
And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery. (Matthew 19:9)
Here in Matthew 19:9 Jesus gives an exception to his statement made in Mark 10 and Luke 16. If a man divorced his wife because she was unfaithful (sexually immoral), and then married another woman, such a situation would not be a case of adultery. Why the Lord does not consider it adultery is not spelled out. But nonetheless, He does say such a set of circumstances does not constitute adultery. He does not say it is right or OK to divorce under these circumstances (as some believe, see below). He only addresses whether adultery is being committed or not.
Some might argue, "The reason divorce and remarriage in the case of sexual immorality is not considered adultery is because, under the law of Moses, an adulterous was to be killed (Leviticus 20:10). Therefore, death would be involved in such a case. Thus theoretically, the marriage bond would be broken via death under the law." This kind of argument may sound good, but Jesus said no such thing.
First of all, if the woman was killed under the law, there would be a death not a divorce. Second, Scripture illustrates sexual immorality being committed by the woman and no death penalty given (e.g. Hosea 1:1-3; 3:1-3; Matthew 1:19; John 8:3-11).
IV. Men And Women Are Not The Same
Matthew 19:9 gives the exception of a man divorcing his wife because of sexual immorality. It does not address a woman divorcing her husband because of sexual immorality. In fact, both passages that give the "exception clause" (i.e. Matthew 5:32 & 19:9) end stating adultery has been committed if a divorced woman is married.
. . . and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery. (Matthew 5:32)
. . . and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery. (Matthew 19:9)
Scripture does not give a woman permission to divorce her husband. Even under the law, it was the men who were permitted to divorce their wives (Deuteronomy 24:1; Matthew 19:8), not the women. Some might argue that a woman has the right to divorce her husband if he is sexually immoral. Scripture nowhere says any such thing. Jesus said no such thing.
Moreover, the very passages that would most likely be used to justify such a conclusion (Matthew 5:32 & 19:9), end stating any one who marries a divorced woman commits adultery. Therefore, Scripture teaches that a divorced woman involves herself in adultery whether her husband was sexually immoral or not. Because, Jesus says repeatedly (three times, Matthew 5:32; 19:9; Luke 16:18) marrying a divorced woman constitutes adultery.
In marriage, women are not viewed in the same way as men are. For example, in the law, if a married man (or unmarried man) had sex with a virgin who was not betrothed, he would simply have to marry her or at least pay the bride price (Exodus 22:16-17). This act is never called adultery, even though he had sex with another woman. If a married woman had sex with any man other than her husband (Numbers 5:20), if it was concealed and there were no witnesses against her (Numbers 5:12-13) she would be cursed (Numbers 5:27). If there were witnesses against her (Deuteronomy 17:6; 19:15), she would be killed, along with the man (Leviticus 20:10). Scripture calls it defilement (Leviticus 18:20; Numbers 5:13, 20) and adultery (Leviticus 20:10) when a married woman has sex with a man other than her husband, whether the other man is married or not. For the married man, it is only viewed as adultery if he has sex with a married or betrothed woman (Deuteronomy 22:22-24, note verse 24 "wife"). If he had sex with a virgin who was not betrothed, this is not called adultery (Deuteronomy 22:28-29). It is evident, in the law, that marriage for the woman is not exactly the same as marriage for the man.
Moreover, in Romans 7:2-3 Paul writes,
For the woman who has a husband is bound by the law to her husband as long as he lives. But if the husband dies, she is released from the law of her husband. So then if, while her husband lives, she marries another man, she will be called an adulteress; but if her husband dies, she is free from that law, so that she is no adulteress, though she has married another man.
Here we have a case in which a woman is married to two men. There is no divorce in this passage. It is simply the case of a woman having two husbands. This is called polyandry, and it is clearly depicted as evil; because such a woman would rightly be called an adulteress (Romans 7:3). No such teaching is given for the man.
On the contrary, a man could have two (or more) wives, yet he would not be committing adultery. Polygyny (a man having more than one wife) is never condemned in Scripture. Polygamy for the man is never described to be an adulterous relationship. Polygamy for the woman is (Romans 7:2-3). Polygamy for the married man in the law, under certain circumstances, was actually commanded (Deuteronomy 22:28-29; 25:5-10; see our report on Polygamy). Polygamy for the woman is strictly forbidden (Romans 7:2-3).
For a man, if he were to divorce his wife and remarry another woman, he would clearly be committing adultery (Matthew 5:32; 19:9; Mark 10:12; Luke 16:18). But, if he did not divorce his wife, and married another woman, keeping his first wife as well, Scripture never calls this adultery; because polygamy, for the man, is never condemned. Therefore, it is not the sexual intercourse with another woman, in and of itself, that makes divorce and remarriage, for the man, adultery. It is the divorce (the breaking of the covenant), along with the remarriage, that makes this adultery. If the divorce is removed from this equation, no adultery has been committed, even though he has married another woman. This is true for the man, but not for the woman.
Moreover, when the Lord declares divorce and remarriage adultery (Matthew 5:32; 19:9; Mark 10:12; Luke 16:18), He leaves the man, who is divorced by his wife, uncondemned. No mention of adultery on the man's part is mentioned. Christ simply says,
And if a woman divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery. (Mark 10:11-12)
She is the one who commits adultery. Christ is silent about the man. Thus, if a man were divorced by his wife, and he were to remarry, there is nothing in Scripture that would identify him as one who committed adultery (as long as he did not marry a divorced woman). But, for the woman, Christ clearly declares,
whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery. (Matthew 5:32)
If a man divorces his wife, he causes her to commit adultery. If a woman divorces her husband, the man is not declared to be under any such curse. So, for the woman, being divorced by her husband is worse than for a man to be divorced by his wife. [See also Scriptural View Of Men & Scriptural View Of Women.]
V. The Exception In Christ
Further exceptions to Christ's teaching about divorce and remarriage (Matthew 5:32; 19:9; Mark 10:11-12; Luke 16:18) are given to believers in 1 Corinthians 7. In 1 Corinthians 7:8-9 Paul writes,
But I say to the unmarried and to the widows: It is good for them if they remain even as I am; but if they cannot exercise self-control, let them marry. For it is better to marry than to burn with passion. (1 Corinthians 7:8-9)
In this passage, Paul addresses believers who are "unmarried." This would include anyone who is not married, even divorced believers, because this same term is used for a divorced woman in 1 Corinthians 7:11. Therefore, for the unmarried, who lack self-control, Paul tells the church to, "let them marry."
Later in this chapter Paul discusses the state in which one is found when they came to Christ. Paul encourages the believers "to remain with God in that state in which" they were called (1 Corinthians 7:17-24). In this context Paul writes,
Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be loosed. Are you loosed from a wife? Do not seek a wife. But even if you do marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin marries, she has not sinned. Nevertheless such will have trouble in the flesh, but I would spare you. (1 Corinthians 7:27-28)
Here Paul clearly declares that a man who is divorced from a wife (i.e. loosed), and then remarries, has not sinned. If he has not sinned, then he has not committed adultery. Therefore, for those who come to Christ in a state of having been divorced (loosed), Scripture gives them the freedom to marry.
How can this be? Jesus said, "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery" (Luke 16:18). Yet, Paul says, "let them marry" (1 Corinthians 7:8-9) and "you have not sinned" (1 Corinthians 7:26-28). It seems Paul is contradicting Christ, but he is not; because,
if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new. (2 Corinthian 5:17)
This is true of both males and females (Galatians 3:28). A person who comes to God in truth (Psalm 145:18; Isaiah 55:6-9) has a clean slate with the Lord (Isaiah 1:8; Psalm 51:7; 103:11-13, 17-18). He has died (Galatians 2:20) and his life is hidden with Christ in God (Colossians 3:3). Christ makes him a new creation, and indeed the old things have passed away, and all things have become new (2 Corinthians 5:17). A divorced person who repents and comes to the knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4) has been given a new start. All things have become new. Therefore, such a man or woman could remarry, in the Lord (1 Corinthians 7:39; 2 Corinthians 6:14), and not be guilty of adultery. The old wicked person has died, and now the person lives anew in Christ (Romans 6:6; Galatians 2:20; 5:24).
Furthermore, if a person were divorced by their unbelieving spouse after they came to Christ, this one would also be free to remarry without committing any sin. Under these circumstances, God would not view this as adultery, even though a divorce and remarriage has taken place; because the Lord does not regard such people as still bound by the marriage law.
But if the unbeliever departs, let him depart; a brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases. But God has called us to peace. (1 Corinthians 7:15)
In case some wondered whether this verse truly gives the OK for such a person to remarry, simply note that Paul clearly says they are "not under bondage." The only "bondage" in the context is the bondage of marriage. Also, just a few verses later Paul writes, "you have not sinned" if you, who are loosed from a wife, should marry (1 Corinthians 7:27-28).
Now, what if an unbelieving spouse departs from their believing spouse and they neglect or refuse to file for a divorce? Is the believer still under bondage in such a case? 1 Corinthians 7:15 says no.
1 Corinthians 7:12-13 deals with an unbeliever who is "willing to live with" the believer and the instruction in this case is to not divorce. 1 Corinthians 7:15 deals with the opposite situation in which the unbeliever is not willing to live with the believer (i.e. they depart). Thus, Paul says, "let them depart." Therefore, it would not be wrong to file the divorce papers, that is, if the unbeliever neglected or refused to do so. Even though the believer may be the one filing for the divorce, the unbeliever is the one to blame for the divorce. The unbeliever is the one who has separated what God had joined together (Matthew 19:6) by refusing to live with their spouse.
VI. Unholy Unions?
Now, under these last two sets of circumstances (already divorced, or divorced by your unbelieving spouse), some might think that it would be better to remarry the ex-wife or husband, if at all possible. After all, they were your marriage partner before and wouldn't it be good to reconcile with your ex? No, it would not. It would actually be sin to do so, because the Lord commands,
Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness? (2 Corinthians 6:14; see also verses 15-7:2 and 1 Corinthians 7:39).
The believer is to live a holy life (1 Peter 1:15-16), and part of this holiness includes not being tightly knit together with unbelievers. Marrying an unbeliever, whether they are a former spouse or not, is sin. It is a move toward an unholy life, and without holiness, no one will see the Lord (Hebrews 12:14). Therefore, it would be ungodly to remarry an unbelieving ex-spouse.
Someone might wonder then, "What about a man (or woman) who comes to Christ while they are married and their spouse does not repent as they have? Now they are married to an unbeliever. Isn't such a marriage suddenly an unholy union?" No,
the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband; otherwise your children would be unclean, but now they are holy. (1 Corinthians 7:14)
The believer can continue being married to the unbeliever, without having to be concerned about any lack of holiness.
VII. Sexual Immorality Does Not Make Divorce OK
Some teach that sexual immorality gives the believer the right before God to divorce their spouse and remarry another (e.g. John MacArthur, The MacArthur Study Bible, footnotes for Matthew 5:32, 1 Corinthians 7:11 & 15), but this is a lie. It is a very destructive lie (2 Peter 2:1), because it encourages the destruction of a family. It encourages people to disobey the Word of God (1 Corinthians 7:10-13). And, it encourages unforgiveness, which, if continued, leads to hell (Matthew 6:14-15; 18:21-35; Mark 11:25-26).
This destructive lie comes from a twist and perversion of Christ's words in Matthew 5:32 and Matthew 19:9.
And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery. (Matthew 19:9)
Notice, Jesus does not say, "If sexual immorality is committed, it is OK in the sight of God to divorce your spouse for such an act," or anything like this. Jesus addresses the issue of adultery, and how this is being committed in divorce and remarriage. He does not address when it is right, or OK, in the sight of God to divorce your spouse. He answered this issue earlier in verse 6 with, "what God has joined together, let not man separate" (Matthew 19:6). In other words, it is not right in the sight of God to divorce your spouse. The command from Christ is basically, "Do not get a divorce." Any man (or woman) who separates a marriage is going directly against the words of Christ (Mark 10:9).
When a divorce is enacted because of sexual immorality, and the person remarries another in such a case, the person has not committed adultery in the sight of God (Matthew 19:9). The Lord makes this clear. Why it is not considered adultery in God's sight, He does not explain; but nonetheless, adultery has not been committed in such a situation. But, has the person who divorced their spouse done that which is pleasing in the eyes of God (Ephesians 5:8-10)? The answer to that is an emphatic, NO!
VIII. God Hates Divorce
"For the Lord God of Israel says that He hates divorce, for it covers one's garment with violence," says the Lord of hosts. "Therefore take heed to your spirit, that you do not deal treacherously." (Malachi 2:16)
God hates divorce. It is treachery to divorce one's spouse (Malachi 2:13-16), as Jeremiah 3:20 illustrates.
"Surely, as a wife treacherously departs from her husband, so have you dealt treacherously with Me, O house of Israel," says the Lord. (Jeremiah 3:20)
God calls it treachery and violence. Why? To begin with, it rips apart flesh.
But from the beginning of the creation, God made them male and female. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh; so then they are no longer two, but one flesh. (Mark 10:6-8)
Marriage creates a union between a male and a female so that they are no longer two, but one flesh. When divorce hits, it violently rips this union apart, a union that is designed to die only when one of the partners dies (e.g. Romans 7:2-3; 1 Corinthians 7:39).
Moreover, divorce does violence to the vow before God, that is, the marriage commitment (see Proverbs 31:2, "son of my vows"; Malachi 2:14, "wife by covenant"). Marriage is a commitment for life (Genesis 2:24; Romans 7:2-3; 1 Corinthians 7:39), and when the spouses are still alive, yet divorced, the commitment has been violated; and the person who divorced their spouse is manifested to be both unfaithful and hateful (Titus 3:3).
Finally, divorce typically leads to adultery, as Christ said, "whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery" (Matthew 5:32).
So, if divorce is so bad, then why did God allow for it under the law of Moses? In some cases, no divorce was allowed (Deuteronomy 22:13-19, 28-29), but in those cases that were allowed (e.g. Deuteronomy 21:14; 24:1), Jesus said, it was because of the hardness of their hearts.
Moses, because of the hardness of your hearts, permitted you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. (Matthew 19:8)
The Israelites were so down-right wicked and hard-hearted that the Lord chose to deal in this way with such a throng of snakes (Psalm 140:3; Romans 3:13; Luke 3:7). The Lord made room for their evil, but He in no way liked it (Malachi 2:14-16). The Lord hates divorce.
IX. God's Divorce
Why then did the Almighty divorce Israel, if He Himself hates divorce?
Thus says the Lord: "Where is the certificate of your mother's divorce, whom I have put away? Or which of My creditors is it to whom I have sold you? For your iniquities you have sold yourselves, and for your transgressions your mother has been put away." (Isaiah 50:1)
The Lord divorced Israel because of their extreme harlotry (idolatry) and unfaithfulness against Him.
Then I saw that for all the causes for which backsliding Israel had committed adultery, I had put her away and given her a certificate of divorce; yet her treacherous sister Judah did not fear, but went and played the harlot also. (Jeremiah 3:8)
Was this divorce permanent? For those God killed, it was (e.g. Deuteronomy 28:63; Hosea 4:5; 9:12-16; Amos 9:1-4, 10). But, in the very passage in which the Lord says he had "given her a certificate of divorce," He also says,
"Return, O backsliding children," says the Lord; "for I am married to you. I will take you, one from a city and two from a family, and I will bring you to Zion." (Jeremiah 3:14)
In the midst of saying He has divorced them, He also says He is married to them. In verse 8 the Lord speaks of having "put her away," but then in verse 14 of the same chapter He says, "I am married to you." God did utterly destroy the sinful kingdom, Israel (Amos 9:8; Hosea 1:6), yet, at the same time, He did not completely forsake His people (Psalm 94:14); and He will again bring them into their land (Amos 9:14-15). He will again be married to Israel (Hosea 2:16-20).
God's marriage and divorce is an illustration of both God's wrath and His mercy to the children of Israel. If someone was to use this as an excuse for their own divorce, they would not be justified in this before God. Besides the clear declaration of Malachi 2:14-16 and 1 Corinthians 7:10-13, the book of Hosea parallels God's dealings with Israel, and in this is found a man, Hosea, who stays faithful to his wife through and through and does not forsake her, even though she commits radical sexual immorality. The Lord never instructs Hosea to divorce his "wife of harlotry," or even intimates that it is OK if he does. The Lord commanded him to marry a woman who was already exceedingly sexually immoral, a woman who already had children as a result of her prostitution (Hosea 1:2), and then, after Hosea has been married for some time, she continues in her immoral ways as she lives in adultery (Hosea 3:1). Yet, in the midst of this, without any repentance indicated on her part, Hosea is instructed to love her. Hosea tells her she is going to stay put and not play the harlot (Hosea 3:1-3). He displays some serious command with his adulterous wife. If you are looking for an example to follow, here it is. If you want to follow God's divorce instead, who are you going to kill as He did?
X. Godly Divorce
There is such a thing as godly divorce found in Scripture. The first one is found in Genesis 21.
So the child grew and was weaned. And Abraham made a great feast on the same day that Isaac was weaned. And Sarah saw the son of Hagar the Egyptian, whom she had borne to Abraham, scoffing. Therefore she said to Abraham, "Cast out this bondwoman and her son; for the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son, namely with Isaac." And the matter was very displeasing in Abraham's sight because of his son. But God said to Abraham, "Do not let it be displeasing in your sight because of the lad or because of your bondwoman. Whatever Sarah has said to you, listen to her voice; for in Isaac your seed shall be called." (Genesis 21:8-12)
Abraham obeyed Sarah's voice because of God's command and "sent her away" (Genesis 21:14). The Hebrew word גָּרֵשׁ (gârêsh) Sarah used when she said, "Cast out" in verse 10 means exactly that, but it is also translated "divorced" in Leviticus 21:7, 14; 22:13; Numbers 30:9 and Ezekiel 44:22. The Hebrew word יְשַׁלְּחֶהָ (shallechehâ) used in verse 14 for "sent her away" means exactly that, but is also translated "divorce" in Deuteronomy 22:19, 29; 24:4 ("divorced"); Jeremiah 3:1 ("divorces") and Malachi 2:16. When it comes to dealing with one's wife, casting out and sending her away equals divorce (see also Deuteronomy 24:1, 3; Isaiah 50:1; Jeremiah 3:8). The language here is definitely that of divorce. Abraham divorced, sent away, cast out, his wife, Hagar (Genesis 16:3), and this was all done by the direct command of God. Was this a godly divorce? Yes it was. Abraham obeyed God.
Why did the Lord command Abraham to do this? The two answers Scripture gives is: One, because "in Isaac your seed shall be called" (Genesis 21:12). The Lord wanted Ishmael and his descendants to be distant from Abraham so that Abraham's name would carry on only in Isaac and his descendants.
The second reason given for Abraham's divorce of Hagar is that Sarah and Hagar and their children were symbolic of the two covenants God made with the children of Israel (Galatians 4:21-31). The casting out of the bondwoman is a major piece of the pie in the symbolic representation of the "Jerusalem which now is" and the "Jerusalem above" (Galatians 4:25-26).
Another godly divorce, actually a massive godly divorce, is recorded in Ezra chapters 9 and 10 (see also Nehemiah 13:23-30). These two chapters document how the Israelites, who came back to the land from their captivity, married foreign women in direct defiance of Deuteronomy 7:1-3. The Lord calls this kind of action an abomination in Malachi 2:11-12. When Ezra was made aware of it, he commanded them to repent, do God's will (Ezra 10:11), and separate themselves from the pagan wives and their children (Ezra 10:3-5). In other words, he instructed them to divorce their pagan women. Shechaniah indicates that this action was "according to the law" (Ezra 10:3), and the assembly rightly believed God's wrath was upon them because of their disobedience against Deuteronomy 7:1-3 (Ezra 10:14). From what is described in Ezra 10:14, they believed the way to turn God's wrath away from them was to carry out this mass rejection of their pagan wives and their children. So, here in this case, this large scale divorcing appears to have been pleasing to God.
XI. Ungodly Divorce Is Disgusting
We noted earlier how divorce covers one's garments with violence (Malachi 2:16) and how it is treacherous (Malachi 2:14-16; Jeremiah 3:20). Yet, for some, it would seem that divorce is almost a virtue or reward. The practice of divorce is quite common today both in the secular world and the realm that falsely calls itself Christian. Whether it's a secular divorce or a "Christian" divorce, Psalm 119:158 well describes a godly perspective on the matter.
I see the treacherous, and am disgusted, because they do not keep Your word. (Psalm 119:158)