“The Marriage Metaphor,” Ensign, Jan. 1995, 22
The scriptures are a veritable smorgasbord of symbolism. But we miss the feast if we aren’t familiar with the symbolic figures of speech used. One intriguing and appealing symbol, which may be called the marriage metaphor (although the scattered references taken together actually comprise an analogy), is found repeatedly throughout the scriptures. Beginning early in the Old Testament, this metaphor is woven throughout the saga of the house of Israel like a colorful thread in a tapestry. The marriage metaphor testifies of the great love the Savior feels for all mankind and of the blessings that await those who accept his invitation to become his spiritual sons and daughters.
It comes as no surprise that marriage in Israel was contractual in nature, involving covenants and oaths, generally proceeding in a strict and formal manner. Covenants and oaths were, after all, the means by which the Israelites committed to one another, to family, to tribe, and to God. Marriage consisted of two separate ceremonies. First, there was a betrothal—an engagement ceremony at which covenants between the bride and groom were formalized.
“The Jews regarded the betrothal as absolutely binding. For one year the couple were regarded as man and wife but without the rights of marriage itself.”1
Following the year of betrothal, the solemnization of the wedding vows took place, accompanied by a degree of feasting commensurate with the social standings and income levels of the parties involved. However, “the betrothal ceremony … was a more important celebration than the nuptial,” a biblical scholar reports. “The betrothal was considered to be more than the promise of marriage similar to our engagement. Engagements could be broken off, a promise might be set aside, but the betrothal was considered binding because it was entered into by a sacred oath and covenant.”2
After the Exodus, the Lord employed familial metaphors to explain the unique position of the house of Israel among the nations of the earth and the position of the tribe of Ephraim within the house of Israel: “Thus saith the Lord, Israel is my son, even my firstborn” (Ex. 4:22); “When Israel was a child, then I loved him, and called my son out of Egypt” (Hosea 11:1); “For I am a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn” (Jer. 31:9). More commonly, the Lord referred to himself as a bridegroom or husband of the house of Israel: “For thy Maker is thine husband; the Lord of hosts is his name” (Isa. 54:5); “For I am married unto you” (Jer. 3:14); “I was an husband unto them” (Jer. 31:32).
This symbolism continues in the New Testament, the Book of Mormon, and the Doctrine and Covenants. For example, John the Baptist called himself the “friend of the bridegroom” (John 3:29) or, to use a contemporary term, the best man. Obviously Christ is the Bridegroom of whom John the Baptist spoke. Paul also understood the metaphor. In his epistle to the Ephesians he referred to Christ as the husband of the Church (see Eph. 5). John the Revelator spoke of “the marriage of the Lamb” (Rev. 19:7).
The reality that the God of the Old Testament is also the God of the New Testament is confirmed by the marriage metaphor. Jehovah covenanted with the bride in symbolic betrothal; Christ will accept the bride at the nuptials. Elder Bruce R. McConkie writes: “Whatever the world may imagine, whatever any of the … sects of Christendom may attempt to expound relative to Jehovah, whatever the wisdom of men may suppose, the plain, unalterable fact is that the Lord Jehovah was the promised Savior, Redeemer, Deliverer, and Messiah, and that he is Christ.”3
The original symbolic wife or bride of Jehovah was the house of Israel, sometimes called lineal or blood Israel: “I sware unto thee, and entered into a covenant with thee, … and thou becamest mine” (Ezek. 16:8). One biblical scholar has noted: “It almost seems as if the relationship of Husband and Bride between Jehovah and His people, so frequently insisted upon, not only in the Bible, but in Rabbinic writings, had always been standing out in the background. Thus [a] bridal pair on the marriage-day symbolized the union of God with Israel.”4
It was through the bloodline of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob that redemption was to come to mankind, as typified by the Hebrew wedding. But Isaiah tells of the time when all others—the Gentiles—would participate in the blessings of the Abrahamic covenant. “The Lord God which gathereth the outcasts of Israel saith, Yet will I gather others to him, beside those that are gathered unto him” (Isa. 56:8; see also 3 Ne. 21:14, 22–25).
No one who is obedient to the Lord will be denied the blessings of the Abrahamic covenant. The day when others would be gathered is foreshadowed in the account of Naaman the Syrian and the story of Ruth (see 2 Kgs. 5:1–14; Ruth 4).
In keeping with the Abrahamic covenant, whenever an individual who is not a lineal descendant of Abraham accepts the gospel of Jesus Christ he becomes an adopted member of the house of Israel, regardless of his actual lineage, because he becomes an heir to the blessings of the covenant. Further, a literal descendant of Israel may lose his spiritual heritage if he does not accept the gospel.
Israel, therefore, has more than one meaning. There is no divine discrimination except with respect to righteousness, which is the key to being one of the Lord’s chosen. While lineal Israel was initially the Lord’s betrothed, by the time the marriage takes place, many will have lost their birthright. Others, not Israelite by birth, will have been adopted in with full family status. The symbolic bride, then, will consist of those individuals who have accepted the Lord by individual covenant.
“For behold, I say unto you that as many of the Gentiles as will repent are the covenant people of the Lord; and as many of the Jews as will not repent shall be cast off; for the Lord covenanteth with none save it be with them that repent and believe in his Son, who is the Holy One of Israel” (2 Ne. 30:2).
Collectively these are sons and daughters of Abraham, the father of the faithful, who share in the blessings of the Abrahamic covenant. These are they “arrayed in fine linen, clean and white” (Rev. 19:8). These are they who have on the “wedding garment” (Matt. 22:11–14). These are they who have forsaken spiritual Babylon and prepared themselves to “go forth to meet the Bridegroom” (D&C 133:5, 7, 10, 14). These constitute the house of Israel, clean, pure and worthy at the time of the nuptials (see Rev. 19:7–8; Rev. 21:2; Isa. 49:18; 1 Ne. 21:18; D&C 109:73–74).
The symbolic betrothal of the bride (the house of Israel) to the Bridegroom (Jehovah) took place in the Sinai wilderness after the Exodus. There, characteristic of Hebraic betrothal, the Lord entered into a covenant relationship with Jacob’s descendants. Jehovah renewed the Abrahamic covenant with the children of Israel and laid this proposition before them: “If ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people: for all the earth is mine:
“And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation” (Ex. 19:5–6).
The people accepted. “And [Moses] took the book of the covenant, and read in the audience of the people: and they said, All that the Lord hath said will we do, and be obedient” (Ex. 24:7).
What the Lord offered the children of Israel was the opportunity to become a Zion people in the mold of the societies of Enoch and Melchizedek. Their spiritual immaturity prevented it. Though they had accepted by covenant the Lord’s invitation to be a “kingdom of priests, and an holy nation,” they defaulted through the hardness of their hearts (see D&C 84:14–28). Instead, they were given a lesser law, the Law of Moses, also by covenant (see Ex. 24).
But even if they didn’t fully comprehend what had been lost, the children of Israel should have been impressed with the magnanimous terms of the betrothal covenant. Through Moses, Jehovah promised: “If ye hearken to these judgments, and keep, and do them, that the Lord thy God shall keep unto thee the covenant and the mercy which he sware unto thy fathers:
“And he will love thee, and bless thee, and multiply thee: he will also bless the fruit of thy womb, and the fruit of thy land, thy corn, and thy wine, and thine oil, the increase of thy kine, and the flocks of thy sheep, in the land which he sware unto thy fathers to give thee” (Deut. 7:12–13).
But in return for wealth, health, and power over her enemies, the Lord asked from his bride absolute fidelity: “But thou shalt remember the Lord thy God: for it is he that giveth thee power to get wealth, that he may establish his covenant which he sware unto thy fathers, as it is this day.
“And it shall be, if thou do at all forget the Lord thy God, and walk after other gods, and serve them, and worship them, I testify against you this day that ye shall surely perish” (Deut. 8:18–19; see also Lev. 26; Deut. 28).
The covenants were in place; the betrothal was concluded.
The wedding is equivalent to the second coming of the Lord, when the Bridegroom shall appear in glory and accept the bride. There will be no time for belated preparations. The Bridegroom will come and the marriage take place at an unexpected hour. Those who are wise, as were five of the virgins in the parable, will be ready; those who have not prepared themselves for the event will find the door shut. “Watch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh” (Matt. 25:13).
The basis for Jesus’ claim that he had purchased us with His suffering is evidence that he wanted us with him for his happiness. This is an insight into the statement that Jesus is a Bridegroom and the Church is like his bride, who he takes with him back into the presence of the Father.
Paul explained that the relationship between the Lord and his bride, or Church, is a model of the proper relationship between husbands and wives:
“Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord.
“For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body.
“Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing.
“Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it;
“That he might sanctify and cleanse it. …
“For we are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones.
“For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall be joined unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh.
“This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church” (Eph. 5:22–26, 30–32).
There is no question but what a righteous patriarchal order is being described by Paul. Where righteousness is not central in a marriage it is “only too easy for the patriarchs to become arrogant, dictatorial, self-righteous, and oppressive. The gospel sets absolute limitations beyond which patriarchal authority may not be exercised—the least hint of unkindness acts as a circuit-breaker. ‘Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man’ (D&C 121:37). Without that sacred restraint, patriarchal supremacy has ever tended to become abusive.”5 The righteous, correct pattern is set forth in the marriage metaphor.
Moses repeatedly warned the Israelites about the dangers of associating with the inhabitants of Canaan and, more specifically, counseled them on the consequences of violating their sacred covenants (see Lev. 26; Deut. 28). But “the memory of Moses outlived the counsel of Moses. While some were faithful, the curse of idolatry, with all of its attendant evils, clung to Israel generation after generation.”6
At the death of King Solomon, the familial nation of Israel divided politically into the Northern Kingdom (Israel) and the Southern Kingdom (Judah). Both, following the wicked examples of their leaders, adopted the religious customs, rites, and practices of their pagan neighbors.
Eventually, even as the Lord had warned through Moses and others, Israel was conquered by Assyria, and Judah by the Babylonians. The ten tribes of Israel became the “lost” tribes in that they have not been identifiable as a recognized people since. But their identity will eventually be revealed, and they will bring their spiritual treasures with them (see D&C 133:25–35).
In Judah, those who survived Nebuchadnezzar’s invasions, save for the very poor, were exiled to Babylonia. Thus the Bible chronicles both the apostasy and the dispersion of the house of Israel, when idolatry replaced the worship of Jehovah among the Lord’s covenant people.
Many prophets wrote of the sin of idolatry and the effect it had on the children of Israel (see Hosea 4:6; Hosea 9:1; Isa. 57:7–8; Jer. 3:20). Ezekiel notes that Judah had played the harlot, or worshipped the gods of every nation with which she had commerce. Numerous idols dotted the land, not idols which pagan neighbors built and worshipped but which Judah herself worshipped, having forgotten the covenants she had made with the Lord. She had even fallen so low as to commit murder, sacrificing her children in idolatrous ritual. Ezekiel also likens Israel and Judah to two sisters who, because of their whoredoms, were given over to their “lovers”—that is, the nations with whose gods they had become enamored (see Ezek. 16; Ezek. 23). The language in these chapters is graphic, but within the context of the marriage metaphor, the message is very clear.
In consideration of the gross infidelity of the unrepentant bride, the Bridegroom finally set aside the betrothal covenants with a humiliating and symbolic public divorce of the Northern Kingdom (Israel)—the Assyrian conquest of Israel. But Judah did not learn a lesson of fidelity from her sister’s humiliation.
“Hast thou seen that which backsliding Israel hath done? she is gone up upon every high mountain and under every green tree, and there hath played the harlot.
“And I said after she had done all these things, Turn thou unto me. But she returned not. And her treacherous sister Judah saw it.
“And I saw, when for all the causes whereby backsliding Israel committed adultery [or idolatry] I had put her away, and given her a bill of divorce; yet her treacherous sister Judah feared not, but went and played the harlot also” (Jer. 3:6–8).
For their wickedness the Jews also were divorced publicly, as it were, via the Babylonian captivity. The gods, or symbolic lovers, to whom they turned for help did not come to their aid: “All thy lovers have forgotten thee; they seek thee not” (Jer. 30:14; see Jer. 30:10–17); “Among all her lovers she [Judah] hath none to comfort her” (Lam. 1:2). Recalling the former ardor the Israelites had for him, the Lord says: “I remember thee, the kindness of thy youth, the love of thine espousals, when thou wentest after me in the wilderness” (Jer. 2:2). And reaffirming his fidelity, the Lord tells the house of Israel, “You only have I known of all the families of the earth” (Amos 3:2).
Patiently and with great love, the Lord vowed to win back his bride. Though the betrothal had been temporarily suspended, this “divorce” was not to be permanent. There was to be a separation, so to speak, for a time, but the door was left open for reconciliation in the day that the bride experienced remorse and repented of her adulterous ways.
What were the effects of the Babylonian exile on the Jews? They were there for seventy years before the Persians, who subjugated Babylonia, allowed many Jews to return to Judea and rebuild Jerusalem. “The students and writers of Jewish history almost universally agree that the Jews never returned to image worship after the captivity. … Forever after, idolatry in the usual sense ceased to exist. … The nation as a whole accepted the verdict that God’s wrath had been poured down upon them for the sin of image worship.”7
Isaiah, who saw in revelation the glorious ending of the saga, told the house of Israel in simile, “Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool” (Isa. 1:18); and in metaphor, “The Lord shall have washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion, and shall have purged the blood of Jerusalem from the midst thereof” (Isa. 4:4). The betrothed bride had been spiritually barren “as a woman forsaken and grieved in spirit, and a wife of youth, when thou wast refused. …
“For a small moment have I forsaken thee; but with great mercies will I gather thee.
“In a little wrath I hid my face from thee for a moment; but with everlasting kindness will I have mercy on thee, saith the Lord thy Redeemer” (Isa. 54:6–8; see also Isa. 54:1–10). But a moment to the Lord is not as a moment to man. The sanctification process takes time.
Ezekiel prophesied that Israel and Judah “shall be no more two nations, neither shall they be divided into two kingdoms any more at all:
“Neither shall they defile themselves any more with their idols … : but I will save them … and will cleanse them: so shall they be my people, and I will be their God. …
“Moreover I will make a covenant of peace with them; it shall be an everlasting covenant. …
“My tabernacle also shall be with them: yea, I will be their God, and they shall be my people.
“And the heathen shall know that I the Lord do sanctify Israel, when my sanctuary shall be in the midst of them for evermore” (Ezek. 37:22–23, 26–28).
Jeremiah foresaw the return of the Jews and the tribes of the Northern Kingdom to their respective lands of inheritance: “Behold, I will gather them out of all countries, whither I have driven them in mine anger. …
“And I will make an everlasting covenant with them, that I will not turn away from them” (Jer. 32:37, 40). “They shall go, and seek the Lord their God … saying, Come, and let us join ourselves to the Lord in a perpetual covenant that shall not be forgotten” (Jer. 50:4–5).
Today, centuries later, the prophecies of a repentant bride and a loving, forgiving husband are coming to fruition. Reconciliation has taken place, and the wedding is at hand. As the bride awaits the coming of the Bridegroom, she continues to make herself ready. Under the direction of the Lord, “the people will be so perfected and purified, ennobled, exalted, and dignified in their feelings and so truly humble and most worthy, virtuous and intelligent that they will be fit, when caught up, to associate with that Zion that shall come down from God out of heaven.”8
Since the sacred institution of marriage was well understood by the Hebrew people, the marriage metaphor appealed to their tradition of commitments by covenant and oath, and the metaphor further stressed the seriousness with which the subject was being approached. The point was underscored when the Lord reminded Israel that they were a chosen people who had committed themselves to him by covenant just as married couples commit to each other by covenant.
The Bridegroom or the Lamb in the book of Revelation is the Bridegroom spoken of by Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea and other prophets of the Old Testament. Those who covenant with the Bridegroom, and then remain faithful to those covenants, will be prepared to receive great blessings at the wedding, the second coming of the Bridegroom.