Ezra was an Israelite, but he was also a government official. Now, here he is, throwing sophistication and decorum to the wind as he mourns the sins of his people. All of this has brought a crowd of
sympathisers into the arena. Men, women and children were gathering to share in Ezra’s grief.
What follows is a reminder of the major role that seemingly minor men can play in the Kingdom.
First, a man called Shecanaih steps up to strengthen Ezra.
And Shecaniah, the son of Jehiel, of the sons of Elam, addressed Ezra: “We have broken faith with our God and have married foreign women from the peoples of the land, but even now there is hope for Israel in spite of this.
Therefore let us make a covenant with our God to put away all these wives and their children, according to the counsel of my lord and of those who tremble at the commandment of our God, and let it be done according to the Law.
Arise, for it is your task, and we are with you; be strong and do it. (Ezra 10:2-4)
Shecaniah admits Israel’s’ guilt – the word he uses is treachery. And yet, he calls for hope. Look at the shape of this hope. It’s not some vague optimism. The hope he is clinging to is more than wishful thinking. It has substance.
Sustaining hope for Shecaniah means returning to the Covenant that God had made with them – it means repentance. And the repentance is equally clear.
They are to put away – separate – themselves from – those wives and their children who remain outside the Covenant.
The road to hope is the road of clear-cut repentance. Hope is often hard hope. It involves a clear observable turning from disobedience to obedience. It’s more than stepping away from sin. It involves a radical turn of faith toward God.
Then, in verse 4, Shecaniah places the responsibility for the work on Ezra but, at the same time, promises to stand by him in encouragement and support. Remember the name: Shecaniah. A minor character with a major role in all of this.
As much as we need an Ezra in our church, we need a Shecaniah more so. It’s one thing to go about commanding people to repent. It’s quite another to pull up alongside them and encourage them through the process.
It’s one thing to sit in church and give our amen to the minister. It’s quite another to pull up alongside him and support him with encouragement when the time comes to say a few hard words.
What follows is an Outline of those hard words.
First, in Ezra 10:5, Ezra succeeds in getting the leadership to enter into a renewal of the Covenant. They are not making a new covenant here but restating and renewing the terms of the one they had broken.
Non-participation in this Covenant renewal would mean ex-communication from Israel.
If the cost of repentance was high, then the cost of non-repentance was going to be equally high. What’s more, acceptable repentance is repentance done according to God’s law. God sets the terms of repentance.
Notice also how the road to repentance is spelled out in Ezra 10:10-14. In Ezra 10:10, there is an accusation: “You have been unfaithful”. In Ezra 10:11, we have a demand: Make confession and separate. In Ezra 10:12, we have the response of the people: Promises are made.
Then, in Ezra 10:13, we see the compassion: It’s raining, there are so many of us, let’s go slow and do this one family at a time. Also, let the local leaders participate since they know the families involved.
The proposal was that the offenders appear one family at a time and that local leaders – those who know the families are to participate.
This is a reminder to all of us that in the Kingdom of God, you cannot remain anonymous, even in a crowd. You may sneak about for some time, but having come into the light, in time, your true condition will be laid bare, not for the sake of punishment but for the sake of hope and healing.
This last point about local leaders representing families is very important. The people wanted a fair investigation. This was not a witch hunt. It was repentance.
The goal was restoration with the one whom they had offended – God, not vengeance on those who had fallen by the way. The goal was not to punish people with guilt manipulation and other tactics but to ensure a fair and upright investigation.
The design was to turn away the fierce heat of God’s wrath, not make people feel bad.
There is a kind of approach to sin that some people take that does nothing helpful. It doesn’t strengthen anyone to be more faithful, it just makes them want to keep away from you.
This is the approach that seeks to somehow punish or punish with manipulation. it’s an approach that is perhaps used in an effort to gain man’s favour.
Note here that the reason for the separation was not the ethnicity of the women and children. The separation was necessary because these women would not come into the Covenant. They wouldn’t convert or repent.
This was not to be a heartless execution of justice. The questions had to do with Covenantal faithfulness. If the issue was simply being a foreigner, then there was no need for an investigation. The investigation was designed to establish something more important than ethnicity.
Ezra 10:2 literally says, “We have broken faith with our God and have married, “strange” women.
This word – strange – is important and helps us to understand the nature of the investigation. None Jewish people – strangers – had earlier been welcomed, so why not these? The expression “strange women” means more than a foreigner. It refers to pagan and seductive women – the kind of woman who will attempt to turn your heart toward another God.
We have another example of this expression in King Solomon. (cf. 1 Kings 11:1, 8) These are the ones who turned his heart away from the Lord.
So, what might have appeared to be a cold disregard for life, is actually the process of repentance and separation from idolatry. It is conceivable, considering the care is taken in the investigation that at least some of these families could have repented.
The investigation took about three months, with only one or two cases a day. This would certainly suggest that some – if not many – pagan wives had come to repentance and been converted to Judaism. It certainly suggests the possibility that many of these women were declared innocent themselves from pagan practices and remained intact.
With a population of around 50,000, only 111 had been found guilty. It’s important to remember the exact nature of the case. The problem here was that the people of God had united in Covenant with unbelievers.
People who had come to Covenant relationships with each other yet had remained unbelievers toward God. There had been no conversion.
Like many today, they didn’t wait for conversion and then hook up. They hooked up and then – if at all – hoped for conversion. So the question for us is: “Could this be a model for the church to follow?”
What follows is my attempt to answer that question.
Is there a model here for the church? Principally, yes. What we see in Ezra 9-10 is Exodus 34:11-16, and Deuteronomy 7:1-5 applied in a new post-exilic situation.
Do those texts still apply to the church? Yes. These texts are what lies behind Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians 7:39. Marriage within the covenant people is regulated by the word of God because there is always a concern for the seed, for godly seed (Malachi 2:15).
Ezra’s action in these chapters could be viewed as a corporate application of Matthew 5:29-30. The principle of separation as evidence of faithfulness stands. Whether it’s your eye, your limbs or your girlfriend, it’s not dependent on your experience or circumstance.
Particularly, no. The problem in Ezra involves covenant people contracting marriages with pagans.
If this occurs in a new covenant context, i.e., in the church, such Christians should be in accord with Matthew 18:15-20, admonished and commanded to repent of such deliberate, blatant sin. If there is repentance, would that require divorce or ex-communication? Wouldn’t Ezra 9-10 point that way?
Not necessarily. Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 7:12-15 about continuing on in marriage with unbelieving spouses encourages us to see Ezra 9 and 10 as descriptive, not prescriptive.
What’s imperative is the principle. What’s at stake is the Holiness.
In Ezra we meet with a leader who is willing to be counted among the sinners. But he cannot prevent sin and needs another to uphold him.
Ezra teaches the church what it means to be called out by God.
It means to be made visible, to be persecuted, disciplined and blessed. And it will ordinarily mean being brought by God into public view.