EXPOSURE OF FLAGRANT SIN SHOULD LEAD TO HEARTBROKEN REPENTANCE
Expression of remorse over conviction of sin is not a popular theme in our day. We tend to take sin lightly and to minimize any emotional reaction of deep distress and anguish and contrition. Ezra was a godly leader and a man of the Word. He understood God’s commands and was very familiar with Israel’s repeated pattern of apostasy in the face of God’s mercy and faithfulness. Here we see him begin to address the needed reforms in the land – beginning with the problem of marriages to foreigners and the consequential religious idolatry. His humble prayer of heartbroken repentance should still serve as a model for us today.
Gary Smith: Ezra’s strong negative reaction to this sin suggests that he thought God would deal very seriously with the people and might destroy the nation for this sin. Ezra’s lamenting response also got the attention of those around him and demonstrated to them that he was very upset by this news. Ezra 9:4 says that “all who trembled at the words of the God of Israel came and sat” with Ezra. It was important that Ezra not be alone in his opposition to this sin. There is no indication of the size of this group of like-minded individuals who strictly interpreted and followed the law of Moses (10:3). Their reporting this problem to Ezra shows they opposed this trend of intermarriage, but they did not have the political or religious stature to change the way some Jewish leaders were acting. Ezra solidified this group’s opposition to this unfaithfulness, and his boldness empowered them to take a stand against the broad-minded acceptance of the intermarriage practices of other Jews. Their united public opposition did not directly address the offending parties, but the sincerity of their sorrow and the compassion of their prayers touched the hearts of those who listened. They took the problem to God first, instead of gossiping to their friends about the sins of others.
Derek Kidner: Something of the devotion and insight of the man praying can be sensed in this confession. His involvement with those for whom he spoke comes through at once, in the swift transition from ‘I’, in the first sentence, to ‘our’ and ‘we’ for the rest of the prayer. Ezra could have protested his innocence, but like the servant in Isaiah 53:12 he was impelled to reckon himself ‘numbered with the transgressors’, more deeply ashamed of the national guilt than any of them, and thus more fit to be their spokesman in confession. Secondly, he could not forget the havoc they had suffered—and deserved (7)—especially in their loss of freedom (note the words captivity (7), bondage (8, 9), bondmen (9), and the decimation of their numbers, stressed in the recurrence of the word remnant: 8, 13, 14, 15). In other words, he had a high sense of the glory they had betrayed, and he could not be reconciled to what they had become. But thirdly, he was acutely conscious of God’s mercy. The very fact that any remnant had survived was proof of it (8), for even their punishment had been mercifully light (13), and verses 8 and 9 use vivid terms—characteristically concrete — for God’s many-sided loving-kindness. At the same time, it was a mere shadow of what God could do and give—a little reviving (8), some reviving (9)—and it was in jeopardy already, after this brief moment (8) of grace; for even the eighty years since Cyrus were no more than that in God’s perspective.
Breneman: Ezra and Nehemiah constantly turned to God in prayers of worship, confession, praise, petition, and thanksgiving. They show us the importance of an implicit trust in a personal God and that God’s work depends on the prayer of his people. Prayer founded on biblical theology assumes that God is omniscient and hears each prayer. It also assumes that God acts in historical events in response to the prayers of his people.
I. (:1-4) EXPOSURE OF FLAGRANT SIN
A. (:1-2) Shocking Apostasy Reported — Involving Flagrant Sin of Foreign Marriages
1. (:1) Summary Report of Flagrant Sin = Union with Foreign Abominations
“Now when these things had been completed, the princes approached me, saying, ‘The people of Israel and the priests and the Levites have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands, according to their abominations, those of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and the Amorites.’”
Fensham: “when these things” — Ezra needed some time to deliver the orders of Artaxerxes to the satraps and governors. . . Between Ezra’s arrival on the first of the fifth month (8:33) and the twentieth of the ninth month we have more than four-and-a-half months. This long period between the arrival and discovery of the marriages to foreigners poses a problem. Was he not aware of this fact? If he stayed for more than four months in Jerusalem, one would expect that he would have become acquainted with this phenomenon. . . Ezra had travelled extensively after his arrival to bring his credentials from the Persian king to the attention of the high officials of the Persian empire who lived close to Judah. Then the above-mentioned phrase of 9:1a can be interpreted as referring to 8:36. This is a more acceptable solution, but at the same time we must confess that the situation is not at all clear. . .
The reason for this attitude [prohibition of marriage to foreigners] had nothing to do with racism, but with a concern for the purity of the religion of the Lord. Marriages with foreigners, especially when those foreigners were in an important position as in the time of Ezra, were fraught with problems for the Jews. The influence of a foreign mother, with her connection to another religion, on her children would ruin the pure religion of the Lord and would create a syncretistic religion running contrary to everything in the Jewish faith. In the end it was a question of the preservation of their identity, their religious identity.
Loken: Since the meeting of elders described in 10:9 takes place more than four months after Ezra’s return, the question of the scribe’s ignorance of this situation must be addressed. Surely he would have become aware of the problem if he had spent any amount of time among the people. The solution lies in the fact that Ezra evidently did not remain very long in the city of Jerusalem after his arrival. The final verse of chap. 8 reveals that Ezra delivered the king’s edicts to the satraps who were on the southwestern side of the Euphrates River (“beyond the River”). The plurality of the word “satraps” indicates that Ezra delivered these documents to satraps in several different provinces. This obligation would naturally have taken several months, especially if the provinces in northern Africa are included. It was only upon his return from this mission that he learns of the apostasy of the Jews.
MacArthur: The reason for this exclusiveness was to keep the people pure. In the first settlement, Israel was warned not to make covenants with the nations, which would result in intermarriages and inevitably the worship of foreign gods (Ex 34:10-17; Dt 7:1-5). To a great extent, the continual violation of this precipitated the 70-year exile from which they had just returned. Ezra found out it had happened again and called for immediate repentance. Nehemiah (Ne 13:23-27) and Malachi (Mal 2:14-16) later encountered the same sin. It is unthinkable that the Jews would so quickly go down the same disastrous path of idolatry. Neither wrath from God in the exile to Babylon, nor grace from God in the return was enough to keep them from defecting again.
Andrew Swango: Canaanites… Amorites. The Canaanites (Hittites, Perizzites, Jebusites) and others were conquered by the Israelites when they first settled in the Promised Land under Joshua. We know that the nations were not wiped out by the Jews, but were more thoroughly wiped out by the Assyrians and especially the Babylonians. It is amazing that remnants of these people, at least, remnants of their religions are still around in Ezra’s day. It appears that some of their cultures still linger. There is absolutely no mention of these cultures after the time of the Greeks, the empire after Persia. The Greek conquered with their culture as well as their weapons, all these nations were probably assimilated into the culture of the Greeks.
2. (:2) Specific Disturbing Aspects of Such Flagrant Sin
a. Nature and Repercussions of the Sin
1) Nature of the Sin = Mixed Marriages
“For they have taken some of their daughters
as wives for themselves and for their sons,”
2) Repercussions = Mingling the Holy with the Profane
“so that the holy race
has intermingled with the peoples of the lands;”
b. Nobility Leading the Way in This Apostasy
“indeed, the hands of the princes and the rulers
have been foremost in this unfaithfulness.”
Rata: It was especially distressing that even the priests and the Levites compromised themselves by disobeying the very Law they were supposed to uphold and teach. Not only were these leaders compromised, but the text suggests that some took the lead role in this grave disobedience. The end of verse 2 clearly states that “in this faithlessness the hand of the officials and chief men has been foremost” (Ezra 9:2).
Derek Thomas: It looks as though there is more going on than even what we read here in the ninth chapter of Ezra. Malachi, who is a contemporary prophet to Ezra, records in his second chapter (the final book of the Old Testament) what looks like a sermon in which he is castigating the people not only because they have married outside of the faith, but some of them have divorced their wives in order to do so. These are probably not so much those who have returned with Ezra, but those who had returned on the first wave, under Zerubbabel. These now would be their sons and possibly even their grandsons that are being spoken of here. And perhaps for economic advancement, perhaps for political gain, perhaps for strategic influence within certain communities, it appears as though they have divorced their wives in order to marry outside of the faith.
It’s distressing news, by any standard. It’s distressing news. They have flouted the express commandment of God. They have married Yahweh – Jehovah, the God of covenant – to Baal…to a false god. There’s an inevitable consequence that will emerge from these marriages.
Now imagine the scenario here. These are folk who have come back from Babylon. They’ve made a home for themselves in Jerusalem, the city of God. They have witnessed — or at least, their parents or grandparents have witnessed — the rebuilding of the temple. They have seen the hand, the favor of God upon them, and still they have flouted the express commandment of God. They were to separate themselves from unbelief. They were to separate themselves from false gods. And what Ezra has discovered as he’s preached the word and expounded the word is that the Old Testament church in Jerusalem was no different than the world. There was no holiness about the church. There was no separated-ness about the Old Testament church. They were not living as the holy people of God. It’s distressing news. It’s distressing news because priests are involved, and Levites — temple workers — are involved; men who should have known better; men who could not argue that they didn’t know about this. It’s distressing news that in the very heart of the city of God with all of its favors, with all of its revealed religion, there was sin — and flagrant sin.
Loken: The Jews who were involved in this sin were probably those who had returned to the land prior to Ezra’s arrival. Welch is of the opinion that only those who returned with Ezra participated in this sin. However, there does not seem to have been enough time for this type of wholesale corruption to have taken place.
B. (:3-4) Shameful Humiliation = Reaction over Conviction of Flagrant Sin
1. (:3) Personal Humiliation over Conviction of Flagrant Sin
“And when I heard about this matter, I tore my garment and my robe, and pulled some of the hair from my head and my beard, and sat down appalled.”
MacArthur: An outward expression of a grieving, disturbed spirit over sin (cf. 2 Ch 34:27) characterized Ezra as he saw the people returning to their old ways which would bring judgment again.
Gary Smith: Ezra was outraged at this irresponsible act of sin and its potential repercussions. . . The repetition of words of “trembling,” “shocked,” “appalled,” and “outrage” demonstrate that Ezra and his followers were totally baffled and amazed beyond belief at this callous, sinful behavior by the leaders and priests. The emotional response was strong, and it resulted in a trembling desire to seek God’s help. How could these acts of unfaithfulness have happened?
2. (:4) Corporate Humiliation over Conviction of Flagrant Sin
“Then everyone who trembled at the words of the God of Israel on account of the unfaithfulness of the exiles gathered to me, and I sat appalled until the evening offering.”
Andrew Swango: What would all this look like? Here is Ezra, the new governor of the Persian province of Judah. A few leaders come up to him and tell him that many of the leaders have taken the lead among the people in marrying foreign wives and are tolerating, accepting, or participating in the detestable practices of the nations who lived there before the Israelites even settled in the Promised Land. Ezra, who expected nothing like this, tears his clothes, the usual response when in great remorse and repentance, and is so devastated that he also pulls out his own hair like a mad man. He falls to the ground and just sits there. Many godly men also join Ezra, probably in tearing their clothes also, and sit with him until evening. They could be exposing their underwear, but they sit there in silence until evening.
II. (:5-15) CONFESSION OF HEARTBROKEN REPENTANCE
A. (:5) Transition to Prayer of Confession
1. Rising Up in Shameful Humiliation
“But at the evening offering I arose from my humiliation,
even with my garment and my robe torn,”
2. Falling Down in Contrite Humiliation
“and I fell on my knees
and stretched out my hands to the LORD my God;”
B. (:6-7) Testimony of Historic Pattern of Corporate Apostasy
1. (:6) Expression of Solidarity
a. Personal Contrition
“and I said, ‘O my God, I am ashamed and embarrassed
to lift up my face to Thee, my God,”
b. Corporate Confession – 2 Metaphors of Drowning in Sin and Guilt
1) Drowning in Sin
“for our iniquities have risen above our heads,”
2) Drowning in Guilt
“and our guilt has grown even to the heavens.’”
MacArthur: Ezra’s priestly prayer of intercession and confession is like Daniel’s (Da 9:1-20) and Nehemiah’s (Ne 1:4-11), in that he used plural pronouns that identified himself with the people’s sin, even though he did not participate in it. The use of “we,” “our” and “us” demonstrates Ezra’s understanding that the sin of the few is sufficient to contaminate the many.
McConville: Ezra’s prayer contains four primary characteristics:
• readiness to change,
• and faith in God’s mercy.
Fensham: The structure of this prayer is as follows: It starts with a confession of sin (vv. 6–7a); proceeds to the punishment on the sins (7b); to the favor of the Lord and his influence on the Persian kings on behalf of the exiles (8–9); to another confession of sin and a reference to the marriage with foreigners (10–14); and it concludes with a doxology to God (15). Confession of sin stands in the center of the whole prayer.
In these verses we have Ezra’s striking confession of sin, pictured with strong metaphors. The two metaphors concern the iniquities which increased until they were higher than their heads and the guilt that had risen as high as the heavens.
2. (:7) Enormity of Israel’s Historic Pattern of Apostasy
a. Timeline of Historic Pattern of Apostasy – Great in Time
“Since the days of our fathers to this day”
b. Tremendous Guilt – Great in Guilt
“we have been in great guilt,”
c. Sin Lies at the Heart of Shame and Humiliation – Great in Sin
“and on account of our iniquities”
d. Tragic Consequences of Sin and Guilt = Painful Oppression – Great in Effect
1) National Defeat
“we, our kings and our priests
have been given into the hand of the kings of the lands,”
2) Nihilistic Destruction
“to the sword,
and to plunder
and to open shame,”
e. Today’s Crisis – Great in Impact
“as it is this day.”
C. (:8-9) Testimony of God’s Grace and Covenant Lovingkindness
1. (:8) Testimony of God’s Grace
“But now for a brief moment grace has been shown from the LORD our God, to leave us an escaped remnant and to give us a peg in His holy place, that our God may enlighten our eyes and grant us a little reviving in our bondage.”
MacArthur: “a peg in His holy place” – A figure of speech that indicated permanence and prominence.
Guzik: In those days, houses didn’t really have cupboards or storage closets as we think of them. Things were stored on pegs set up all around the room. If something was on its peg, it was safe and secure, stored properly and ready for use at the appropriate time.
Constable: The temple and the returned exiles were the first small beginnings of a larger establishment in the land that would hopefully follow, as the pounding in of a tent peg is the first step in erecting a tent. It was “a foothold.”
Loken: The result of this foothold was twofold. First, the return to the land served to “enlighten” the “eyes” of the nation. This phrase literally refers to the immediate sense of physical revival that nourishment can bring following a period of hunger and thirst (Williamson, 136). This idea is vividly demonstrated in the account of Jonathan in 1 Sam 14, where this same phrase occurs two times. In this passage, Jonathan unwittingly broke his father’s command against eating food when he ate some honey after a long day of battle. Immediately after eating the honey, Jonathan had his “eyes brightened” (v. 27). He later adds, “See now, how my eyes have brightened because I tasted a little of this honey” (v. 29). In the same way, the initial returns gave the nation of Israel an immediate sense of physical revival. Second, the return to the land served to demonstrate a “little revival” in the midst of the nation’s bondage. The author evidently considered the nation dead during the exile and in need of reviving (cf. Ezek 37:1–14).
Although the nation was still subservient to a foreign power, the various returns were the initial signs of the resurrection of Israel.
2. (:9) Testimony of God’s Covenant Lovingkindness
“For we are slaves; yet in our bondage, our God has not forsaken us, but has extended lovingkindness to us in the sight of the kings of Persia, to give us reviving to raise up the house of our God, to restore its ruins, and to give us a wall in Judah and Jerusalem.”
Andrew Swango: Ezra knows that God was right and just in doing all those terrible things by the hands of the Assyrians and Babylonians to the Jews because of their sins. He recognizes that God did not have to preserve a remnant of the people to live on. It was by God’s merciful grace that He has allowed a remnant of Jews to survive and has re-given them the land of Judah and even had them rebuild the temple. Ezra recognizes that everything the Jews have now is not by their own works but it is all because of God’s mercy and grace.
Guzik: quoting Trapp — They had the fence of the king of Persia’s favour. They had also God’s providence, as a hedge or wall of fire round about them.
Williamson: A metaphorical interpretation is by no means impossible in the present context, where several of the phrases have already been seen to fall into this pattern, and indeed two considerations make it more probable. First, the qualifying phrase “in Judah and Jerusalem” would be very odd if the reference were merely to the city wall. Second, the word used here is not at all the normal word for a city wall. It usually refers to a wall or fence around a vineyard or along a road. Only in one other passage could it even possibly mean “city wall” (Mic. 7:11), and even there it is not completely certain that this is what is meant. In any event, the writer was more concerned in a prophecy of restoration, to use a term that refers to the enclosure of a vineyard, a traditional metaphor for Israel in their enjoyment of a healthy relationship with Yahweh.
D. (:10-12) Transparency of Divine Communication – No Confusion or Misunderstanding
1. (:10) Clear Apostasy
“And now, our God, what shall we say after this?
For we have forsaken Thy commandments,”
2. (:11) Clear Danger
“which Thou hast commanded by Thy servants the prophets, saying, ‘The land which you are entering to possess is an unclean land with the uncleanness of the peoples of the lands, with their abominations which have filled it from end to end and with their impurity.’”
3. (:12) Clear Warning with Promise of Potential Rewards
1) Avoid Foreign Marriages
“So now do not give your daughters to their sons
nor take their daughters to your sons,”
2) Avoid Political Alliances
“and never seek their peace or their prosperity,”
b. Potential Rewards
“that you may be strong”
“and eat the good things of the land”
“and leave it as an inheritance to your sons forever.”
E. (:13-15) Total Abandonment of Any Defense or Right to Continue to Exist
1. (:13) No Justification for Our Continued Existence
“And after all that has come upon us for our evil deeds and our great guilt, since Thou our God hast requited us less than our iniquities deserve, and hast given us an escaped remnant as this,”
Fensham: (:13-15) — The Jews were punished to a certain extent for their sins. They were exiled and nearly wiped out. In the times of the Persian kings, however, the Lord saved a remnant, who returned to the Holy Land. They were there as a token of his love and grace. And now, if these exiles committed evil deeds and heaped guilt on themselves, the remnant came into danger of being destroyed—and then nothing would be left. It is this kind of reasoning which we have in these verses. But there is still hope. If the exiles confess their sins, the Lord will grant forgiveness through his love.
2. (:14) No Defense for Our Continued Apostasy
a. Our Apostasy Makes No Sense
“shall we again break Thy commandments and intermarry with the peoples who commit these abominations?”
b. Your Mercy Makes No Sense
“Wouldst Thou not be angry with us to the point of destruction, until there is no remnant nor any who escape?”
Gary Smith: Notice that Ezra had not yet asked for forgiveness; his focus was on getting the people to see the seriousness of their sin. He had to get them to see their sins as a terrible affront to the holiness of God and as a threat to their continued existence as a people. True confession must come first. People can come to God to receive mercy and forgiveness only after they realize that God hates sin and will punish them for their sins. Some may try to seek his mercy without confessing their sins first, but their petition will not be heard or answered while sin blocks their relationship to God (Isa 59:1–2).
Breneman: The Old Testament passages mentioned earlier warn that God’s anger will be kindled if his people disobey him. God is not capricious like human beings; his anger is his just reaction to disobedience and evil. Ezra recognized the seriousness of their condition. They had been punished for disobedience and had experienced God’s mercy in reestablishing them. Therefore, to commit the same sins like intermarriage with pagans would demand renewed punishment. Grace ought to result in obedience (Ps 130:4; Rom 12:1; 1 Cor 6:11). Believers must learn how serious it is to go back to the evils from which God has delivered and cleansed them.
3. (:15) No Recourse Apart from God
a. No Fault of God
“O LORD God of Israel, Thou art righteous,”
Williamson: This little phrase [“Thou art righteous,” v. 15] thus constitutes the highest form of worship: an acknowledgment of God, even though at the same time it accepts that the worshiper has forfeited his or her right to live before God. God is thus praised solely for who he is, and not merely for what the worshiper hopes to gain from him.
b. No Other Hope
“for we have been left an escaped remnant, as it is this day;”
c. No Excuses
“behold, we are before Thee in our guilt,
for no one can stand before Thee because of this.”
MacArthur: All were reckoned guilty and had no right to stand in God’s presence, yet they came penitently seeking the grace of forgiveness.
Derek Kidner: The prayer ends with clear recognition that God has every reason to wash his hands of this community, as he had once threatened to do with an earlier generation (Exod. 32:10). This was no exaggerated fancy. There were other Israelites scattered abroad, through whom the promises could be fulfilled. Ezra had not even the heart to plead, as Moses had, that God’s name would suffer in such a case. His prayer was naked confession, without excuses, without the pressure of so much as a request.