For perhaps the first four months of his return to Jerusalem, rather than hang in the city, Ezra visits all of the neighbouring towns, issuing the king’s decree. So it’s not until he returns to Jerusalem that he discovers that there are some serious problems that are compromising the people of God.
There are three things that we ought to take note of as we read through Ezra chapter 9. First, we must come to acknowledge that the professing people of God can be very disappointing. Second, we must come to include ourselves in that number. Third, having included ourselves among the guilty, there are times when the only right thing to do is to down tools and tremble before a Holy God who may or may not extend his mercy to this generation.
After these things had been done, the officials approached me and said, “The people of Israel and the priests and the Levites have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands with their abominations …they have taken some of their daughters to be wives for themselves and for their sons, so that the holy race has mixed itself with the peoples of the lands. And in this faithlessness the hand of the officials and chief men has been foremost.” (Ezra 9:1-2)
The problem here is one of sanctification. The people had not “separated themselves from the peoples’ of the land. And the problem is extensive since even the leaders and their sons are implicated in the defilement.
It was the old problem of intermarriage with unbelievers. This problem dates back to Noah’s day in Genesis chapter six when the Sons of God took for themselves the daughters of man. The consequence is always the same.
When the people of God lose their distinctiveness, they cease to be His people in any real, tangible or visible way. The church must always be a different people – they can never – they dare never – fit in this world the way the world would like them to. The church is not a Multicultural Society. We are a monoculture.
The issue produces a violent reaction in Ezra (Ezra 9:3-4). He tears his clothes, rips out his own beard and sits appalled, devastated.
Ezra is beside himself, and for good reason. He knows where this could very well lead. But he is not alone. Others, seeing Ezra’s violent reaction, are convicted, and so they join Ezra in his grief over God’s
people before the Lord.
All those who trembled at the words of God over Israel gathered with Ezra. Note that this trembling is precisely what God wants from His people.
On this one will I look; on the one who is afflicted and stricken in spirit; who trembles at My Word. (Isaiah 66:2)
This is the posture of the church. Trembling at sin. Our discomfort with Ezra’s over-the-top violent response says more about us, sadly than anything else. Unlike Ezra, we go to great lengths to hide the way we feel. Why do we do that? Sometimes, we just give a sober nod, and a tut-tut at sin. And then it’s back to work on Monday, and life goes on as usual, to our shame.
In Ezra 9:5-15, Ezra prays a prayer of confession. Let’s survey what this prayer of confession covers.
First, the immensity of the guilt. Ezra does not conceal its quantity (Ezra 9:6b). The sins are huge in number, and there is no point pretending otherwise. Secondly, this prayer covers the history of their guilt. Their guilt is longstanding, and Ezra does not conceal its history. The people of God have a shocking reputation for sin.
Third, we have the infectious nature of the guilt. The sin is their sin – our sin. Not somebody else’s. Ezra puts himself in the same camp as those who have defiled themselves. Their uncleanness is his uncleaness.
This is hard for us to grasp because we are immersed in an individualistic view of life. How do you respond to the sins of God’s people? Do you point and say, “look at that”, or are you willing to stand with God’s people as guilty?
In Ezra 9:8-9 we discover a man who truly is a man of the book. Who understands grace not only by observation but through experience. What does Ezra say about grace in verses 8-9?
He tells us that God has left us an escaped group. It is a grace of survival. He has given us a peg in this place – an anchor to hold onto. It is a grace of security. Ezra prays that God may give light to our eyes and give us a little reviving in our slavery. It is a grace of encouragement. God has not forsaken us but has been with us all along. It is a constant flow of grace.
For we are slaves. Yet our God has not forsaken us in our slavery but has extended to us his steadfast love before the kings of Persia, to grant us some reviving to set up the house of our God, to repair its ruins, and to give us protection[a] in Judea and Jerusalem. (Ezra 9:9)
All of the drama and history of Ezra 1-6 is packed into this verse. It is a grace of providence. What do we make of all of this? The immensity of the guilt is matched only by the immensity of the grace.
Ezra then proceeds to ransack the Hebrew vocabulary in order to make plain the extent of their impurity in this matter, and verses 11-12 summarise the message of the prophets. Now, after all of this grace, what can we possibly say in the face of our persistent wickedness?
Not only must they not inter-marry, but there must be open hostility toward the culture and influence of the world – particularly when it comes to making covenants, like marriage, with them. This is Israel’s only hope of purity. She must maintain her borders.
Israel must not bargain her soul for the world, for, in the end, she will lose.
Never think that you can make a compromise without it having drastic, long-term and often permanently damaging effects. These are the compromises that destroy us.
In Ezra 9:13-14, Ezra here asks the question… “Will we sin away our day of grace?” Will we be so stubborn?” Ezra acknowledges that God has every reason to wash His hands of these people.
This is no exaggeration. There are other Israelites scattered abroad who could be turned by God to fulfil His purposes. Yahweh is righteous; we are guilty. What hope can there possibly be?
The message to the churches in the book of Revelation is no different. God is under no obligation to persevere with a faithless generation. If we refuse to serve, refuse to obey His commandments: If we marry unbelievers and wink at others who do the same. If we forsake His laws and do not join as one people in repentance…
Then God may simply wash His hands of us and seek a generation who will serve Him, who will reject and see as an enemy to be hated anything in the world that would come between himself and His
Ezra’s message is not just a message to those who do the sinning. His message is to those of us who stand by and say or do nothing.
Whether the compromise is with your relationships, your work, your family or whatever, if you have embraced the compromise, then you are guilty, and we are guilty with you.
Notice that the prayer ends with a level of suspense.
O Lord, the God of Israel, you are just, for we are left a remnant that has escaped, as it is today. Behold, we are before you in our guilt, for none can stand before you because of this. (Ezra 9:15)
There is no particular plea made by Ezra and no particular resolution offered by God.
When we look back at the history of God’s people, we must wonder that there is any remnant at all, given the enemies that hate us and the sins that we love. All Ezra can do – and does do – and teaches us to do also – Is throw himself literally into the hands of God and hope that their might still be some mercy left.
Sometimes, that’s all you can do. Sometimes that’s exactly what we ought to do. Leave the whole thing suspended in mid-air and watch and wait and see if God will have mercy