Let us unravel the mystery of polygamy that was practiced in the Old Testament; and let us see why it was done, and why God allowed it, and why He still took them and used the patriarchs to proclaim His name.
For example, look at Jacob. Jacob was the worst among the Patriarchs, most cunning. Jacob was the son of Isaac, and Isaac was the son of Abraham. God, throughout Scripture, has been declaring—“I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob” (Exodus 3:6; Mark 12:26).
In Genesis, we have the story of Jacob recorded. He had four wives and 12 sons from all his wives (See Genesis 29, 30, 49). His sons are important because they are the 12 tribes of Israel who have the covenant promise. These 12 children were from the same father but from 4 different mothers!
In Revelation chapter 21 we see John beholding New Jerusalem in heaven, and he describes the holy City. He writes:
Having the glory of God: and her light was like unto a stone most precious, even like a jasper stone, clear as crystal; And had a wall great and high, and had twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and names written thereon, which are the names of the twelve tribes of the children of Israel: On the east three gates; on the north three gates; on the south three gates; and on the west three gates. And the wall of the city had twelve foundations, and in them the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb. (Revelation 21:11-14)
In heavenly Jerusalem there are 12 gates, and on each gate a name is written. The names are those of the children of Jacob, the 12 tribes of Israel! On the foundations of the wall are the names of 12 apostles of the Lamb. (Of course Mathias replaces Judas. And one of the children of Israel, Dan, is also replaced by one of the sons of Joseph, Manasseh, for apostatizing).
The names inscribed there convey the gospel message of how God saves!
This city of God has been there from ages past. When did God write these names? Surely not after the Jacob’s children were born, or after the 12 apostles were selected. It was there from the beginning. Talking about the city, Jesus said:
In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also. (John 14 2:3)
He did not go to build mansions; He went to prepare a place in those mansions that were previously there. All the names on the gates and on the foundations were already there, obviously!
Angels would have looked at the gates and the foundations, and at the names, and probably would have wondered and asked God as to whose names they were? None of the angels would have had these names (as all have a unique name, I am sure). None of the intellectual creatures of the other worlds have these names too. God would have answered these inquiring minds thus—“Hold on, it is the mystery of the gospel that has been hid since the foundation of the world!”
It was getting unfolded slowly. When Jacob’s 12 sons were born, and when he was naming them, one by one, by the inspiration of God, the angels would have immediately realized that these are the people! And they would have looked at God and said—“Now we understand!”
They would have watched closely the lives of these 12 men and the life of Jacob and his 4 wives—and would have been puzzled! God was actually unfolding the gospel to them (and to us).
He was trying to say to them, “I am going to save people who have spoilt their names, who have a terrible history, whose parents have had great faults”. God was trying to teach, through symbolism, how He is going to save people in His kingdom.
When we look at Jacob and his children, we might feel like questioning God—“How could You accept Jacob and his children and write their names in heaven’s gate?” And God would reply—“That is the way I am going to save people; that is the only way!”
Look at the father of faith, Abraham, for instance. He had two wives initially—Sarah and Hagar. We know their story as recorded in Genesis Chapter 16. Look at how the great apostle, Paul, connects the two wives of Abraham and their children to the spiritual level.
For it is written, that Abraham had two sons, the one by a bondmaid, the other by a freewoman. But he who was of the bondwoman was born after the flesh; but he of the freewoman was by promise. Which things are an allegory: for these are the two covenants; the one from the mount Sinai, which gendereth to bondage, which is Agar. For this Agar is mount Sinai in Arabia, and answereth to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children. But Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all. For it is written, Rejoice, thou barren that bearest not; break forth and cry, thou that travailest not: for the desolate hath many more children than she which hath an husband. Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are the children of promise. But as then he that was born after the flesh persecuted him that was born after the Spirit, even so it is now. Nevertheless what saith the scripture? Cast out the bondwoman and her son: for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the freewoman. So then, brethren, we are not children of the bondwoman, but of the free. Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage. (Galatians 4:22 to 5:1)
Paul calls it an “allegory”. It was symbolizing something to come. You see, even the patriarchs marrying more than one wife—Abraham marrying Sarah and Hagar in this instance—were a shadow of the Gospel, of how God was going to save people!
All of us have had bad histories. If we question God regarding the patriarchs and their family lives, God would plainly tell us—“If I didn’t accept them, neither can I accept you! For all have sinned!”
“God so loved the world”, the Bible says. But that does not mean He loves the things people in the world do. The names of the children of Israel on the gates of Heavenly Jerusalem is the mystery of the gospel of how God saves people—in spite of their terrible backgrounds, their evil histories, and even though some are born into the world in not the pattern that God willed. Yet God accepts them when genuine repentance is seen. Jesus told Nicodemus:
For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. (John 3:17, 1 8)
The whole world, without Jesus, stands condemned. But with Jesus, whatever the history, does not matter. “Whosoever believeth in Him shall not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16). That soul that believes is not condemned. His history does not make a difference. The blood of Jesus cleanses it all! God accepts them as His own sons. Paul wrote:
For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God. (Romans 8:14)
Jacob, His wives, His sons, and all those who have lived such lives were not condemned; not that their acts were accepted, but when people turn to God He accepts them because there is no one righteous, no not one.
We should be thrilled and happy to know that we serve the God of Jacob! Jacob means a deceiver, a cheat. But Jacob got converted. Remember him wrestling with the divine Being? God testified of his conversion:
And he said, Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed. (Genesis 32:28)
Jacob then said:
For I have seen God face to face and my life is preserved. (Genesis 32:30)
That is where God changed his name from Jacob to Israel. When we come to Him God does not chase us away, He accepts us just as He accepted Jacob. He is not calling the righteous, but sinners to repentance. That is the gospel. Jesus said:
All that the Father giveth me shall come to me; and him that cometh to me I will in no wise cast out. (John 6:37)
All these patriarchs and prophets were human beings just like us, having strange complications. Their histories were no better. James, talking about Elijah the great prophet of the Old Testament, wrote:
Elias was a man subject to like passions as we are. (James 5:17)
They were just like us, they faulted greatly, but they bounced back.
All sins can be forgiven except the blasphemy of the Holy Ghost. (See Matthew 12:31). Murder, adultery, idolatry or breaking of any of the Ten Commandments is not the unpardonable sin. Polygamy is also not an unpardonable sin. The scar remains nevertheless; it cannot be revoked. If a person steals, he has to restore and ask for forgiveness. But if one kills, life cannot be restored; and that is where God also forgives when genuine repentance is seen.
Abraham, Jacob, Solomon and many others had more than one wife. They had to go through all the consequences of their mistakes. Imagine the heart of Abraham beating for Hagar and for his son Ishmael when quarrel erupted in his peaceful family because of the two wives (see Genesis chapter 16). Similarly Jacob also had a lot of problems. But God still accepted them because it couldn’t be undone.
He wrote the names of the twelve tribes on heavenly gates just to show us that He is saving people from all backgrounds of life, even though people commit certain things that cannot be undone! He says, “I am the God of Jacob”, most of the time in the Bible, because we are all like Jacob. He wants to give us hope!