According to Jesus in Matthew 19:4, the essence of marriage is that a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to — or, cleave in the King James Version — to his wife. Where does Jesus get that idea? He gets it from Genesis 2:24: Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife. The phrase “hold fast to,” or “cleave to,” is the essence of marriage, and in Hebrew the phrase literally means to be glued together. This expression is used to express the making of a covenant.
We don’t use the word, or even concept of, covenant much anymore in Western society. The closest we come is a contract. But there are fundamental differences between a modern-day contract and a biblical covenant. A covenant is (much) more intimate and personal than a business relationship. So for us to better understand the marriage as covenant we need to understand what makes a covenant different from a contract. Here are four differences between a contract and a covenant.
1. Person-oriented vs. Thing-oriented
The purpose of a contract is the benefits each party expects. It is thing-oriented. By contrast, the purpose of a covenant is an increased measure of intimacy between the parties. It is person-oriented.
2. Gifting vs. Getting
In a contract parties arrive at a mutual agreement that satisfactorily benefits both parties. It is grounded in negotiation. By contrast, in a covenant there is no need for negotiation since the stronger party is offering help to the weaker party. It is grounded in “gift.”
3. Loyalty to Relationship vs. Fulfillment of Terms
In a contract there is obligation, but the requirement is fulfillment of the terms. It is for a specified period and ends when the terms are finally met. By contrast, in a covenant there is also obligation, but it is loyalty to the relationship. It is considered binding forever.
4. Quality vs. Quantity
A contract is broken when the checklist of terms is broken. By contrast, while a covenant can be broken, the break is less clear because the focus is not on stipulations but on the quality of relationship.
So, biblically speaking, marriage is a covenant, not a contract.