Chapter 13: Dependence in Marriage
Dependence in Marriage
We have by now worked our way through the various aspects belonging to marriage. The Form now draws to a close, and brings up yet four matters that all drive home the dependence of the bridal couple on the Lord God. Each of these four points in their own way stress again how much the Lord is part and parcel of marriage.
The Marriage Vow
The celebrant asks the bridegroom and the bride a series of questions. To the groom he says:
____________, do you declare here before the Lord and these witnesses that you take as your lawful wife ____________, here present? Do you promise to love and guide her faithfully, to maintain her, and to live with her in holiness, according to the holy Gospel? Do you also promise never to forsake her, but to be true to her always, in good days and bad, in riches and poverty, in health and sickness, for as long as you both shall live?
What is your answer?
With his hand firmly in her hand, the bridegroom replies, I do.
To the bride the celebrant says:
____________, do you declare here before the Lord and these witnesses that you take as your lawful husband ____________, here present? Do you promise to love and obey him, to assist her, and to live with him in holiness, according to the holy Gospel? Do you also promise never to forsake him, but to be true to him always, in good days and bad, in riches and poverty, in health and sickness, for as long as you both shall live?
What is your answer?
With her hand firmly in his hand, the bride replies, I do.
Just what is the weight of those two little words, “I do”? Are they just that: two little words, with no real significance?
It needs to be noted that those two little words are spoken distinctly and explicitly in the presence of holy God. The officiating minister asks both groom and bride in his opening question whether they “declare here before the Lord” that they take the other as spouse. Though the word of a Christian is always to be reliable, we understand well that speaking a word consciously in the presence of God has more moral weight than a word on the street. A word spoken in the presence of God has the weight of a vow or an oath. The God in whose presence we speak knows and searches the heart to determine whether we speak truthfully, and He will punish if in fact we speak falsely. As the Lord said to Israel, “This is what the LORD commands: When a man makes a vow to the LORD or takes an oath to obligate himself by a pledge, he must not break his word but must do everything he said” (Numbers 30:1,2). Again: “If you make a vow to the LORD your God, do not be slow to pay it, for the LORD your God will certainly demand it of you and you will be guilty of sin. But if you refrain from making a vow, you will not be guilty. Whatever your lips utter you must be sure to do, because you made your vow freely to the LORD your God with your own mouth” (Deuteronomy 23:21-23; see also Lord’s Day 37.102).
In the vow of marriage, bridegroom and bride pledge before God to be for each other the spouse God wants them to be, irrespective of good weather or bad. They consciously speak in God’s presence, and so are bound to fulfill their promise. There is simply no place for backing out without bringing upon oneself the judgment of God.
Yet the oath-before-God is more a commitment to be the spouse God wants one to be. For the same God who holds sinners to the vows they make in His presence also gives these sinners the wherewithal to fulfill the vow. The Lord has poured out His Holy Spirit upon His people, and in the Spirit enables His people to image again what God is like. As God is faithful to His promises, so His people can again be faithful to their promises. “LORD, who may dwell in your sanctuary? Who may live on your holy hill?” (Psalm 15:1). To put the question in New Testament terms: who may enter the New Jerusalem? David’s inspired answer is: “He whose walk is blameless and who … speaks the truth from his heart…, who keeps his oath even when it hurts” (Psalm 15:2,4). Yet salvation is not by works but by the grace of God – and God’s grace is so complete that those washed by Jesus’ blood are also renewed by Jesus’ Spirit, so renewed that one “keeps his oath even when it hurts.”
The Form had earlier reminded the marrying couple that they would face many troubles in the married state and so experience difficulties and afflictions. Yet, the Form had assured them, “they may also believe the promise of God that they, as heirs of the grace of life, will always receive His aid and protection, even when they least expect it.” When they now say their “I do” in the presence of God, they do not vow to stand tall and faithful on own strength in the storms of married life, but they express their conviction that the God who united them in holy wedlock will supply the strength they need. Their vow is not so much a promise of what they will themselves do as a confession of dependence of the God who brought them together. In His strength they will be true to each other for as long as both shall live.
After the bridegroom and bride have both voiced their vow to God concerning each other, the officiating minister utters these words:
I now pronounce you husband and wife. The Father of all mercies, who by His grace called you to this holy state of marriage, bind you together in true love and faithfulness, and grant you His blessing. Amen.
By the law of the land, it is the government that entitles the minister to make this pronouncement. Yet at the end of the day this pronouncement from the officiating minister is more than a statement concerning a new legal reality (the two are now officially Mr and Mrs) recognized in the capital cities of the nation. Rather, the minister’s pronouncement is a pronouncement from God. The Form had earlier said that “we … believe that the LORD also today gives husband and wife to one another.” In His providence the Lord has led the lives of this young man and this young woman in such a way that they should meet, learn to love, and now voice before God their oath of commitment to each other. In the ceremony of marriage the Lord Himself now joins the two on holy matrimony. From this point on the two are “one flesh” before God, one in being, one in purpose, one in spirit.
For the young couple this pronouncement-from-God through the mouth of the officiating minister is a source of enormous encouragement. For if it was the Lord who brought the two together, will He not continue to guide and uphold them in time to come? The psalmist was confident: “The LORD will fulfill His purpose for me” (Psalm 138:8). The young couple may be equally confident of the Lord’s unchanging faithfulness. That is why the minister in turn can follow his pronouncement with those encouraging words: “The Father of all mercies, who by His grace called you to this holy state of marriage, bind you together in true love and faithfulness, and grant you His blessing.” He is faithful, and so will preserve the couple “in good days and bad, in riches and poverty, in health and sickness, for as long as [they] both shall live.”
We understand: God relates to His people according to the structure of the covenant. He promises much, but also gives His people obligations. The young couple shall not experience that God binds them together in true love and faithfulness if they insist of living in disobedience and unbelief.
Kneeling and Prayer
With the ceremony nearing its completion, the minister verbalizes how dependent every marrying couple is on the Lord God.
Bridegroom and bride, since we cannot expect anything from ourselves, you shall kneel before the Lord and we shall pray with you and for you that He may enable you to fulfill your vows and grant you His blessing.
That the bridegroom and bride now kneel is not simply quaint ceremony, but is rather confession of humility and dependence. The captain of fifty mandated to arrest Elijah “fell on his knees before Elijah. ‘Man of God,’ he begged, ‘please have respect for my life and the lives of these fifty men, your servants!’” (2 Kings 2:13). It’s a picture of personal smallness before the great Man of God. Similarly, the father of a demon-possessed boy “approached Jesus and knelt before Him. ‘Lord, have mercy on my son,’ he said” (Matthew 17:14). Kneeling conveys homage, a recognition of the other’s greatness in the face of own dependence. So, when Darius agreed to throw into the lions’ den anyone who prayed to any god or man other than to King Darius, Daniel “got down on his knees and prayed…” (Daniel 6:10). Again, when Dorcus died Peter “got down on his knees and prayed,” and then instructed her to arise from the dead (Acts 9:40). Both Daniel and Peter acknowledged their dependence on God by a posture of humility.
The newly married couple needs so very much the grace and blessing of God upon their marriage. As they set themselves to pray, they get down on their knees – and therein make confession of their smallness before God and their dependence on God. With their public deed they acknowledge that the God of their marriage is the only One who can hold their marriage together and make them prosper.
The prayer that follows has the same message. Its first paragraph consists of praise to the Lord for His gift in this marriage.
Almighty and heavenly Father, You have said from the beginning that man should not be alone. We thank and praise You that You have given this brother and sister to each other in marriage, that they may be one.
We pray You, grant them Your Holy Spirit that they may live together according to Your will in true faith. Help them to resist the power of sin, and to live in holiness before You. Lift up Your countenance upon them, and guide them in prosperity and adversity by Your fatherly hand. Grant them Your blessing according to the covenant promises given to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. If it should please You to give them children, confirm Your covenant to them and to their seed; and grant that they may nurture these children in the fear of the Lord, to the glory of Your Name, and to the edification of the church.
Let them live in communion with Your Son Jesus Christ, in the harmony of true love, and to the benefit of their neighbour. Cause them to look forward with all the church to the great day of the marriage feast of the Lamb. Hear us, merciful Father, for the sake of Jesus Christ, Your beloved Son, who with You and the Holy Spirit, the only true God, lives and reigns for ever, Amen.
Its second and third paragraphs constitute a row of petitions to the “almighty and heavenly Father”, seeking His blessing on the two people now united in holy wedlock. It revisits several of the topics covered earlier in the Form, this time laying the promises and obligations before God’s throne of grace for His blessing. In so doing this prayer acknowledges the couple’s dependence on God. They seek His help precisely because they need it so much – and He promised it.
We also understand that attitude expressed in the kneeling and the prayer is not to be limited to the wedding day. Marriage involves not just two parties, the bride and the groom, but three, with God being the center of the marriage. As long, then, as the Lord God gives life to both parties, they do well continually to humble themselves together before God’s throne of grace and implore Him for His aid and blessing. Jesus taught His disciples “that they should always pray and not give up” (Luke 18:1), and Paul commanded the saints to “pray continually” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). In the face of human weakness and Satan’s attacks, this injunction is valid specifically when two sinners become and remain one flesh.
After prayer the officiating minister raises his hand over the newly weds to lay on them the Lord’s blessing. The Form specifies the words:
Brother and sister ________, our Lord God bless you richly and grant you a long and holy life together in all godliness, love, and unity. Amen.
The concept of raising the hand in relation to blessing comes from such passages of Scripture as Leviticus 9. On the day the Lord first inaugurated worship in the newly erected tabernacle, He had Aaron and his sons ordained to the office of priest. “Then Aaron lifted his hands toward the people and blessed them. And having sacrificed the sin offering, the burnt offering and the fellowship offering, he stepped down” (vs 22). This was not a once-off event, but a practice the priest had to do in Israel time and again. We find the actual words of the blessing elsewhere: “The LORD said to Moses, ‘Tell Aaron and his sons, This is how you are to bless the Israelites. Say to them:
“The LORD bless you and keep you;
the LORD make His face shine upon you and be gracious to you;
the LORD turn His face toward you and give you peace” (Numbers 6:22-26).
That God’s face shines upon the people is to say that God’s face smiles when He looks at His people. Despite their sins there is for them not a frown from God but a smile, and that’s to say that His favor and His grace rest on them. Again, that the Lord turns His face towards His people indicates that there is from God no anger against His own; instead of judgment there is place for peace. The grounds for such favor is, of course, the gospel as proclaimed in the sacrifices daily happening in the tabernacle, where an animal dies in place of the sinner. The outstretched hand of the priest over the people communicates the transfer of the blessing from God (through the priest as His representative) to the people. Given this wealth as caught in the priestly blessing, we can understand well that the pious of Israel delighted to go to the temple of the Lord (Psalm 84, 122).
Through His work on the cross of Calvary, our Lord Jesus Christ fulfilled the sacrifices of the Old Testament tabernacle and so reconciled sinners to God. As High Priest of the new covenant it was fitting that He should then also lay the blessing of God upon the people of God. Luke records the event: “When He had led [His disciples] out to the vicinity of Bethany, He lifted up His hands and blessed them. While He was blessing them, He left them and was taken up into heaven. Then they worshiped Him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy” (Luke 24:50-52). Notice: Jesus’ ascension occurred while Jesus was engaged in the act of laying God’s blessing on the disciples. That’s to say: Jesus’ work of blessing His people continues still – and understandably so for He through His sacrifice has restored His people to God. This blessing of the Lord Jesus Christ continues today in the blessing the minister extends over the people of God at the end of the weekly church services. The content of that blessing remains today the same as it was for Israel long ago: God’s smile rests upon His people!
This glorious blessing, however, is not to be limited to the weekly church services, as it is not true for other times or occasions. The blessing of the ascending Christ extends to God’s people in all of life, including marriage. It is fitting, then, that when two children of God are united in holy wedlock “in the name of the Lord,” His gracious blessing should be laid on them too. That is what happens in the Benediction at the end of the Form. As this brother and sister embark on the road of married life, with its joys and its sorrows, and its promises and its obligations, they are reminded of the blessing the Lord Jesus Christ has laid on His people of all times and places – and so are reminded that God’s favor rests on them. All the promises of the covenant as the Lord has laid them out in Scripture over the centuries are for them also! In the words the officiating minister is to use: “our Lord God bless you richly and grant you a long and holy life together in all godliness, love, and unity.”
With what confidence may the young bridegroom and bride now face the challenges before them! They acknowledge their dependence on God’s grace, and this favor is assured! Here is a glorious send-off as the newly-weds embark on their honeymoon, and then settle together into the new life the Lord has given them together. All the brokenness of this life is, by God’s grace, trumped by the gospel of His mercy in Jesus Christ!
This publication began with a reference to the assault on marriage as we find it in our world today. Let there be no mistake: the institution of marriage is under severe attack from multiple angles.
The child of God, though, need not fear the demise of the holy married state. What God has ordained men cannot destroy. Though rulers on this earth and persons of influence conspire together against what God has ordained, the Christian may be confident that the Lord’s work continues. Shall young people, sinners both, dare to enter the holy married state? Shall they do so in a climate that’s hostile to marriage? Shall they be faithful to each other in every way, and bring forth children in a world that scoffs at such ‘rigidness’? In faith the child of God indeed shall proceed into the married state, convinced that the God who created marriage will preserve and strengthen in times of stress. For the child of believes that the gospel of Jesus Christ trumps all the brokenness of this fallen life.
And soon the Lord of marriage will return on the clouds of heaven. When He comes marriage itself shall be no more (Matthew 22:30), for in its place will come the great Marriage of the Son of God and His bride, the church (Revelation 19:7,9). Then the focus of every sinner-become-saint will be so fully on the heavenly Bridegroom that marriage itself has been fulfilled. How that might all be is more than the human heart and the human mind can today comprehend. This, though, is the promise of the Lord, and with that promise we are content.