Ezra was a priest and scribe of the high priestly line of Zadok. He was a spiritual leader of the exiles who had returned from Babylonian captivity. He was not only a scribe but a disciplined student of God’s law. He was qualified to teach, preach, and interpret the scriptures. When Ezra arrived in Jerusalem with the articles for the temple, he also came to establish God’s laws and the laws of Persia. Judah would be under Persian control. One of Ezra’s first reforms was to confront the sin of the Jews intermarriage with non-believers. Later the city walls would be rebuilt, and Ezra would lead the people to obey God’s law more fully. Ezra had humbled himself before the Lord before they began their journey from Babylon to Jerusalem. Now he humbled himself before the Lord for the sins of the Jews unholy marriages, and when he gathered those who had to divorce their unbelieving wives. One of the things we see about Ezra is that he always recognized that God’s gracious hand, not his own ability or wisdom, enabled good things to happen. He was a teacher and a servant leader, not a self-important official who lorded it over other people. Ezra’s piety and dedication through prayer and fasting put his reforming zeal in proper spiritual perspective. He set the pattern for life in postexilic Judah and Jerusalem, making God’s Word and worship their central priorities.
When Ezra arrived in Jerusalem he was horrified at the practices of God’s people, in particular the priests and Levites. These were the men who were to lead the people in matters of faith, and they had already gone astray. He immediately went into mourning, tearing his clothes. He also puled hair from his head and beard. This act of Ezra’s is unique in scripture. And Nehemiah will show us a very different response. When confronted with the same issue of intermarriage, Nehemiah pulled out the hair of the offenders! Intermarriage with pagan foreigners was dangerous because the Israelites could end up worshiping other gods and accepting the detestable practices of other religions. Ezra goes so far as to say the holy race has been polluted. Literally the holy seed has intermingled itself. Because Israel was a holy covenant nation it was not to be involved with pagan practices. As a result, the Israelites were to avoid marriages with those who could be a bad influence and cause them to embrace such pagan practices. Once this began to happen the unique identity of God’s people would be lost. The caution about marrying foreigners goes all the way back to Deuteronomy 7:1-6. The sin was not that they married people from other races or countries. It was that they married people committed to other gods. Moses had married a Cushite and we see Rahab and Ruth the Moabite, but these women had embraced the God of Israel.
The marriage covenant is sacred, but it was even more important for Israel to remain faithful to the Lord’s covenant with them as a people. Mixed marriages would produce children who were not fully committed to Israel’s faith, having been introduced to their mother’s idolatrous beliefs. In this society the children stayed with their mothers until they were twelve. At that point, the boys were considered men and they went about with their fathers. Because the majority of the pagan marriages involved women who were pagans, it was believed that the influence the woman would have on their children until they were twelve would result in these children being taught pagan practices. This compromise would lead the Israelites right back to where they were before the exile, to wholesale unfaithfulness to God and a wholehearted embracing of false religions. Ezra’s solution is not prescriptive for today’s believers. In the new covenant under Christ, the faith of a believer sanctifies his or her marriage and children, so marriage to an unbeliever does not threaten the identity or purity of God’s people. But we read in 2 Corinthians 6:14 these words. “Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness?” Paul speaks of not being yoked with unbelievers…don’t do it! Does this person pursue God in the same manner as we are? We need to find someone on the same page as us. This might be the New Testament version, but Ezra is saying the same thing.
Ezra tore his clothes and sat down. He was in shock at the leader’s behavior. He sat there until the time of the evening sacrifice, which is 3:00 p.m. At that time, he stood up and then fell to his knees in prayer and supplication. He lifted his hands up to the Lord and prayed. His prayer here is a great model of intercessory prayer. It included confessing sins, remembering God’s past grace, admitting the people have ignored God, and recognizing their unworthiness. Ezra was not the one who had sinned, but he personally identified with his people. He was brutally honest in his assessment of the people’s past history. The people had sinned and were justly punished. And the effects of Israel’s punishment were still evident in Jerusalem at this time. Ezra recognized that God had shown abundant grace and unfailing love to His people and that should affect how people respond to Him. After all God had done for the remnant, it was shameful that they were so ready to betray Him again.
Ezra recognized the kings of Babylon and Assyria had treated them badly, but the kings of Persia had returned them to their homelands. Keep in mind, God had been more than clear about what he expected from His people. If they were faithful and obedient, they would prosper and know great blessings. But if they were disobedient and unfaithful, they would not prosper and they would not know the wonder of the blessings of the Lord. The choice was theirs and they did not do well in making choices. In his prayer, Ezra asked the Lord if His anger would be enough to destroy His people. And then Ezra reminded God that He is just. He recognized God’s people had no right to stand before Him and they were little more than a remnant. In other words, they were small and powerless. His genuine mourning in response to his people’s sin caused many of the people to join him. Shecaniah was the first to publicly admit he had been unfaithful to God. But admission of guilt gives the hope of forgiveness for sin. By divorcing their pagan wives who they had inappropriately married, they were taking the first step back to being in God’s good graces. Taking this action would renew their commitment to the Sinai covenant. The solemn oath taken served two purposes. It was a promise to take action and a self-imposed curse for failure to do what was promised. Of all the Israelites there were only four dissenters to the command to divorce foreign, pagan wives. Unfortunately, even with the overwhelming support Ezra received from the people it wouldn’t be long until the same problem rose again.
Although the guilty may not have fully realized the gravity of their offense, they had no excuse. The scriptures plainly set forth God’s standards on marriage. All of this may sound harsh. But God wants our total reliance, our total dependance, our total attention and being. In the commandments we read that our God is a jealous God. He does not want to share us with anyone or anything else. Considering the many blessings, He has given us and the gift of eternal life in His son Jesus Christ, what He is asking of us may seem insurmountable. But in the scheme of things we should be moved to give Him all we have.
In His Grip
Pastor Matt W