So how do you clean up a big mess? In particular, how do you clean up a big mess that you have created in your life? What do you do when you realize you have made a big mistake? This is what Ezra the priest walks into. In Ezra 7-8 we see Ezra leading a group of people from Persia back to Jerusalem to participate in working on the temple. The good hand of God was with him as he devoted himself to studying God’s law, doing God’s law, and teaching God’s law (Ezra 7:10). But as he comes back to Jerusalem to do the work of restoring the temple and restoring the hearts of the people to God, he learns that there is a big mess that must be dealt with. Open your copies of God’s word to Ezra 9 and notice the problem that is recorded in the first two verses.
The Problem (9:1-2)
The people of Israel, the priests, and the Levites have not separated themselves from the people of the land and are practicing all the detestable, idolatrous practices that the locals practice. In a matter of 60 years the people are back to sinning in the same way for which they were deported from the land by God in the first place. Rather than being separate from the people and their practices, they are just like the people of the land and practicing the same things. Not only this, in verse 2 we read that the people were marrying the surrounding people. Now it is important to understand that this was a command to Israel under the Law of Moses. When the people came into the land they were not supposed to marry the people who lived in the land of Canaan (Exodus 34:16; Deuteronomy 7:3). Now that the people have returned to the land, in these last 60 years they are doing what God said not to do in marrying the people of the land. If this was not bad enough, you will notice at the end of verse 2 that we are told that the leaders of the people were the ones who led the way in this sinning.
Ezra’s Response (9:3-15)
Ezra is outraged when he hears this news. He tears his clothing. He pulls some hair from his head and beard, and sits down appalled at what has happened. These are visible acts of distress and grief. As Ezra sits in outrage, some who trembled at the word of the Lord gather around Ezra. But Ezra sits in distress all day. Then, at the time of the evening sacrifice, he gets on his hands and knees and prays. Ezra begins his prayer about how ashamed and humiliated he is because of the people’s sinful deeds. Our guilt has risen as high as the heavens. Ezra confesses the sins of their past that led them into Babylonian slavery. I love the beauty of what Ezra says next. In verses 8-9 Ezra acknowledges the grace of God. God has shown us his grace, enlightening our eyes, and granting us life. But what have we done with God’s grace? In verse 10 Ezra says that we have abandoned the commands of the Lord. We violated the very commands that God told us to keep. Ezra even quotes those commands in verses 11-12. Now listen to verse 13 where Ezra says that the Lord had punished them even less than they deserved for their prior sins. We have received less than we deserve but have broken God’s commands again! As a remnant we do not deserve to exist as we stand before you. “We are before you in our guilt, for none can stand before you because of this” (9:15). What a prayer that Ezra offers! God, you are righteous and just. We are sinful and our sins go all the way to the sky. We are worthy of being wiped and up to this point we have received far less than we deserve. Please notice that there is no request by Ezra. He just simply places their sins and their lives in the hands of God. Ezra intercedes by confessing the sins of the people.
The People’s Response (10:1-5)
Notice what is happening while Ezra is praying. Ezra 10:1 tells us that while Ezra prayed, made confession, cried, and threw himself on the ground, a great assembly of Israel comes to him also crying bitterly. One of the people that we know nothing about, Shecaniah, stands up and makes a declaration. We have broken faith with our God and have married foreign women. We have been unfaithful to our God in what we have done. But listen carefully to what he says next at the end of verse 2. “But even now there is hope for Israel in spite of this.” What could the people possibly do?
Listen to what he says in verses 3-4. We will make a covenant with God to put away all of these wives with their children. Let it be done according to the Law. We will be with you, Ezra, to help us do this. Be strong and take action. Notice that Ezra does not get up in verse 5 and say that this is a ridiculous idea. He does not get up and say that this is an unbiblical idea. Ezra gets up and makes the priests, Levites, and all of Israel take an oath that they would do this very thing. So they all take an oath that this is what they will do.
The first thing I want you to see is that they are self-motivated. Ezra does not get up and tell them that this is the response they need to take. The people are cut to the heart. They are truly moved by the grace of God and their sinning in the face of God’s grace. They are the ones who are seeking to do what is right. They want to get right with God. They determine that this is what they must do. They are looking to truly repent.
The second thing I want you to see is what Shecaniah and Ezra note. Shecaniah says that they will put away these wives and it will be done according to the Law (10:3). Where did the Law of Moses say that this was the response for marrying foreign women? Where do the scriptures specifically teach that this is the response for sinful marriages? The Law does not say this anywhere. So where did they get this idea? Why did Ezra agree to it since he has devoted his life to studying the Law, doing the Law, and teaching the Law? Why is this action being done according to God’s law when God’s law does not say to do this?
The answer becomes clear. A person cannot continue in sin thinking that grace will continue. If a marriage is unlawful to God, then the solution is not to stay in that marriage. Now let me ask you something. If there was another solution, do you suppose that these people would want to do that instead? Of course they loved their wives and their children. This was not a bunch of people who wanted to get out of their marriages. But they understand that there is not another option. Their only hope is to stop the sin which meant they needed to end these marriages. If it was unlawful to get married, then it was unlawful to stay married. Putting away their wives was what the Law required.
The Challenge of Obedience (10:6-44)
In verse 6 we see Ezra still mourning and interceding on behalf of the people. A proclamation was made throughout Judah and Jerusalem that all the exiles needed to gather at Jerusalem. So all the people gathered in Jerusalem in the freezing rain, trembling. Ezra declares in verse 10 that the people have broken faith with God with these unlawful marriages. Ezra then says that the answer is to confess their sins and separate themselves from the peoples of the land. The people respond in agreement to do just as Ezra has said to do.
But notice what else the people say in verse 13. The people are many and this is not a matter that can be taken care of in a day or two because we have sinned greatly. Let everyone in our towns who have married foreign women come at appointed times with the elders and judges of the town until this matter is properly dealt with (10:14). Ezra and the people agree to these terms. Two people are named as not agreeing with this solution, seeming to identify their unwillingness to do what is necessary to repent. Verses 16-17 tell us that on the first day of the tenth month they sat down and began investigating each case until they made it through all the people months later. The rest of the book names all the men who had married foreign women and had children with them.
Now it is important that we ask another question. Why did it take months to go through this process? Why did the people need judges to sort out these situations? Isn’t the situation easy to figure out? Did you marry a foreign woman or not? If yes, then put her away. If not, then you are fine. Why do we need leaders and judges? Why do we need time? Why does it take months? I think it is not hard to see that the issue is not about determining if someone sinned by marrying a foreign woman. The challenge is trying to figure out how to unravel this sinful situation. It would have been ungodly to just leave these women and children in the streets, unable to care for themselves and unable to be cared for. These children are still their children. They have made homes and families. This is terribly complicated. Spiritual judges would have been needed to determine how to separate from this sin while still maintaining the commitments that were made to these women and children. Spiritual wisdom was needed to sort out how to follow God’s will in ending the unlawful marriage while also following God’s will to do right by these women and children. There was nothing easy about this solution. But this was the right solution to follow by God’s will.
Friends, we need to have compassion on those who come to Jesus and come to understand that they are in a sinful marital situation. We need to understand and have compassion that it is going to take time to unravel these complicated situations. We need to hold fast to the truth that there are sinful marriages and that we cannot remain in sinful marriages. We must also hold fast to the need to be compassionate and wise as we help people work through those circumstances as they move through that process. We must heed Jesus’ warning that as we follow God we do not neglect mercy and justice.
Responding To Broken Faith
What we see presented to us in these final two chapters are pictures on how to properly approach God when we are confronted with our unfaithfulness and sins. First, we see Ezra showing great humility. Ezra tears his clothes, mourns, and prays to God over the sin. Second, confess the glory and the grace of God. God has been so good to us. God has been so gracious to us to bring us to this moment to see our sin. Third, confess our failure and sinfulness. There are not excuses offered by Ezra or the people. We simple confess that we are wicked people whose sins are as high as the heavens. Fourth, we desire to do right. The people want to do right. They want to right the wrongs they have committed. So they have a conviction to seek righteous, godly solutions. Fifth, we follow through on our conviction to do right. We do not let the moment of conviction fade away. We follow through on doing what is right in the days and months ahead. Finally, we need to understand that repentance is a process. Repentance can take time to move through. So we go through the process of repentance, doing right before God and right by others, as we seek to live according to God’s will.