The humiliation of the previous chapter must lead to the removal of evil. That happens in this chapter.
1 - 4 Confessing the Unfaithfulness
1 Now while Ezra was praying and making confession, weeping and prostrating himself before the house of God, a very large assembly, men, women and children, gathered to him from Israel; for the people wept bitterly. 2 Shecaniah the son of Jehiel, one of the sons of Elam, said to Ezra, “We have been unfaithful to our God and have married foreign women from the peoples of the land; yet now there is hope for Israel in spite of this. 3 So now let us make a covenant with our God to put away all the 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. 4 Arise! For [this] matter is your responsibility, but we will be with you; be courageous and act.”
Ezra confesses his guilt in public (verse 1). Thus it will be known for whom he pleads. Those people come to him weeping bitterly. After the confession there is no prophet, as so often has happened, but there is an answer from God in the hearts of the guilty (verse 2). The faithfulness of one man is used by the LORD to awaken others, so that they may see their condition.
Before the arrival of Ezra the conscience of all seems to have been numb. Even Jeshua and Zerubbabel do not seem to have cared about the prevailing sin. Possibly family interests played a role in this. In any case, it seems that family interests have not been subordinated to God’s interests. We see that later in this chapter, when Sechanja takes a stand against his father Jehiel, who is one of the transgressors (verse 26).
The work of God’s Spirit and His intervention in the midst of His people are marked by the removal of all those who do not belong, as they do, to the people of God (verse 3). This can already be seen at the priesthood in Ezra 2. Those who cannot prove it are excluded. It can also be seen at the temple building in Ezra 4. He who does not belong to God’s people is not allowed to help build. Here even women and children who are not of God’s people are to be put away.
One must at all costs separate oneself from that which does not belong to Israel. There must be radical action concerning the workings of the flesh and the worldly influences that hinder us spiritually. It is hard to come back to steps of unfaithfulness and sin. Sometimes bitter fruits of sin remain for the rest of our lives.
The situation and course of action described here applies under the law. Under grace there is no sending away. If in a marriage of unbelievers one of the two comes to repentance and faith, the unbeliever should not be sent away, but is sanctified by the believer (1Cor 7:10-16). This only applies if the marriage has been made, while both partners were still unbelievers. It does not apply to the case where a believer marries an unbeliever. Even then the believer should not be sent away, but the believer commits a sin which he or she must confess (2Cor 6:14).
Shecaniah acknowledges the authority of the Word when he says: “let it be done according to the law”. Only by giving room to God’s Word will what is a blessing be worked out. Then he addresses the word to Ezra, that he shall do what must be done (verse 4). These words must have been beneficial to Ezra. It is an answer to his prayer.
5 - 11 Ezra Calls the People to Confession
5 Then Ezra rose and made the leading priests, the Levites and all Israel, take oath that they would do according to this proposal; so they took the oath. 6 Then Ezra rose from before the house of God and went into the chamber of Jehohanan the son of Eliashib. Although he went there, he did not eat bread nor drink water, for he was mourning over the unfaithfulness of the exiles. 7 They made a proclamation throughout Judah and Jerusalem to all the exiles, that they should assemble at Jerusalem, 8 and that whoever would not come within three days, according to the counsel of the leaders and the elders, all his possessions should be forfeited and he himself excluded from the assembly of the exiles. 9 So all the men of Judah and Benjamin assembled at Jerusalem within the three days. It was the ninth month on the twentieth of the month, and all the people sat in the open square [before] the house of God, trembling because of this matter and the heavy rain. 10 Then Ezra the priest stood up and said to them, “You have been unfaithful and have married foreign wives adding to the guilt of Israel. 11 Now therefore, make confession to the LORD God of your fathers and do His will; and separate yourselves from the peoples of the land and from the foreign wives.”
Humanly speaking, Ezra is almost alone. But God is with him, and so it happens that the hearts of the people bow down before him (verse 5). Then Ezra responds by standing up out of his humiliation (verse 6). His sadness lasts as long as sin remains, because deep within his heart he feels the dishonor that the Name of God has been done to. The secret of spiritual power is to be alone with God.
The work of God’s Spirit also becomes public in the actions of the people. They call on all exiles to come to Jerusalem to discuss the situation that has arisen (verse 7). Discipline, which has been completely neglected and neglected by the spiritual laxity of the people, is now exercised again according to God’s thoughts. Refusal now to listen to God’s Word would prove a hardness of heart and a self-willed spirit that cannot be maintained among the assembly of the exiles (verse 8).
The call finds hearing. All the men of Judah and Jerusalem come to Jerusalem within the appointed time (verse 9). There they gather in the open square before the house of God. They tremble both because of their conscience and the pain and sorrow of having to break the blood ties that have arisen as well as because of the heavy rain. The heavy rain gave them an extra feeling of divine dissatisfaction about their unfaithfulness.
Ezra speaks to the assembled people (verse 10). In his confession in Ezra 9 he has united himself with the sin of the people. There he speaks to God about “we”. This is the true place in relation to God. When he speaks to the people here, he speaks about “you”. Here he speaks in this way, because he wants to touch their hearts and consciences.
There is only one way to prove the sincerity of a confession and that is to get rid of evil. Confession alone is not enough, they must also submit to God’s will. Confession without judging sin is self-deception. Self-judgment and separation from evil are necessary (Pro 28:13). They must abandon their relationship with the nations of the land and send the strange women away. The second is a consequence of the first, therefore this order must be followed. The root of evil must first be judged.
The sending away of women and children will have been a very moving thing, which has been accompanied by a lot of grief and begging. Real repentance is always accompanied by grief and pain over the sin that has been committed.
12 - 15 The People Are Willing to Act
12 Then all the assembly replied with a loud voice, “That’s right! As you have said, so it is our duty to do. 13 But there are many people; it is the rainy season and we are not able to stand in the open. Nor [can] the task [be done] in one or two days, for we have transgressed greatly in this matter. 14 Let our leaders represent the whole assembly and let all those in our cities who have married foreign wives come at appointed times, together with the elders and judges of each city, until the fierce anger of our God on account of this matter is turned away from us.” 15 Only Jonathan the son of Asahel and Jahzeiah the son of Tikvah opposed this, with Meshullam and Shabbethai the Levite supporting them.
Without contradiction or bargaining to get rid of the consequences or soften them, the whole people fully agree with what has been said (verse 12). There is a willingness to live up to the decision of obedience to God’s Word with all their hearts at all costs. If conscience had been so conscientious a few years earlier, what pain and sorrow would they have spared themselves.
Now that the heart is willing to do what is necessary, it is also important to face the actual circumstances. Circumstances appear to be present that stand in the way of an immediate sending away (verse 13). Also, the transgression is too great to get rid of in one day. God is patient and merciful and takes into account what has been decided in the heart. He knows that the guilty do not seek an excuse, but wish to obey.
We must take Ezra’s patience as an example, so that our brothers who have sinned and repented do not lose courage. Evil is too serious to be dealt with in a general way, or lightly and quickly. Each case must be judged independently and thoroughly.
The people suggest that the leasers will accompany the sending away and carry it out step by step (verse 14). They should appoint times when all who have taken foreign women to live with them can come to them. The elders and judges of the city of origin should be present. Unfair treatment should not be given a chance. Any semblance of partiality must be avoided. Everything must be verifiable and recorded so that later claims or objections can be refuted. If they will act in this way, they will ward off the fierce anger of God that lies upon them on account of this matter.
In verse 15 there are four names of men who oppose the exercises of the assembly. Their names are a warning to all. Paul also mentions, in order to warn Timothy against them, some names of opponents of the truth (2Tim 2:17; 4:14). Satan will always make sure that there is opposition to a work of God, but this must not be admitted.
16 - 44 Who Had Foreign Wives
16 But the exiles did so. And Ezra the priest selected men [who were] heads of fathers’ [households] for [each of] their father’s households, all of them by name. So they convened on the first day of the tenth month to investigate the matter. 17 They finished [investigating] all the men who had married foreign wives by the first day of the first month. 18 Among the sons of the priests who had married foreign wives were found of the sons of Jeshua the son of Jozadak, and his brothers: Maaseiah, Eliezer, Jarib and Gedaliah. 19 They pledged to put away their wives, and being guilty, [they offered] a ram of the flock for their offense. 20 Of the sons of Immer [there were] Hanani and Zebadiah; 21 and of the sons of Harim: Maaseiah, Elijah, Shemaiah, Jehiel and Uzziah; 22 and of the sons of Pashhur: Elioenai, Maaseiah, Ishmael, Nethanel, Jozabad and Elasah. 23 Of Levites [there were] Jozabad, Shimei, Kelaiah (that is, Kelita), Pethahiah, Judah and Eliezer. 24 Of the singers [there was] Eliashib; and of the gatekeepers: Shallum, Telem and Uri. 25 Of Israel, of the sons of Parosh [there were] Ramiah, Izziah, Malchijah, Mijamin, Eleazar, Malchijah and Benaiah; 26 and of the sons of Elam: Mattaniah, Zechariah, Jehiel, Abdi, Jeremoth and Elijah; 27 and of the sons of Zattu: Elioenai, Eliashib, Mattaniah, Jeremoth, Zabad and Aziza; 28 and of the sons of Bebai: Jehohanan, Hananiah, Zabbai [and] Athlai; 29 and of the sons of Bani: Meshullam, Malluch and Adaiah, Jashub, Sheal [and] Jeremoth; 30 and of the sons of Pahath-moab: Adna, Chelal, Benaiah, Maaseiah, Mattaniah, Bezalel, Binnui and Manasseh; 31 and [of] the sons of Harim: Eliezer, Isshijah, Malchijah, Shemaiah, Shimeon, 32 Benjamin, Malluch [and] Shemariah; 33 of the sons of Hashum: Mattenai, Mattattah, Zabad, Eliphelet, Jeremai, Manasseh [and] Shimei; 34 of the sons of Bani: Maadai, Amram, Uel, 35 Benaiah, Bedeiah, Cheluhi, 36 Vaniah, Meremoth, Eliashib, 37 Mattaniah, Mattenai, Jaasu, 38 Bani, Binnui, Shimei, 39 Shelemiah, Nathan, Adaiah, 40 Machnadebai, Shashai, Sharai, 41 Azarel, Shelemiah, Shemariah, 42 Shallum, Amariah [and] Joseph. 43 Of the sons of Nebo [there were] Jeiel, Mattithiah, Zabad, Zebina, Jaddai, Joel [and] Benaiah. 44 All these had married foreign wives, and some of them had wives [by whom] they had children.
The opposition of Jonathan and others (verse 15) has no effect on the people. The exiles do not let themselves be stopped by them and do as they promised (verse 16). A commission is formed and a session is organized to investigate the matter. As a result, the sending away must take place in good order. The sending away is not done without an investigation. Everything is done thoroughly, carefully, and without haste. Discipline in the church, too, may only take place after investigation by reliable people.
When it is clear which men have brought foreign women to live with them, they will proceed to send them away. Sending them away must have resulted in heartbreaking scenes. It is all the fruit of abandoning God and acting willfully. After three months – from the first day of the tenth month to the first day of the first month – the matter is settled and the cleansing is completed (verse 17). When finished, it heralds a new period of spiritual prosperity, as we can see from the expression “the first day of the first month”.
The first to be mentioned of those who have transgressed in this matter are the priests (verse 18). Even descendants of Jeshua, who came with the first group out of Babylon, have taken foreign wives. They are most guilty. As priests they have not obeyed the commission as it is written in Malachi 2 (Mal 2:7). However, they confess their sin and promise to cleanse themselves by sending their wives away.
It is a sad and humbling fact that many faithful and devoted servants of the LORD had sons who did not walk in the footsteps of their father. We see this for example with Aaron and two of his sons, with Samuel and his sons, with some of David’s sons, with Hezekiah and his son. This should bring us to much prayer for the families of those who serve the Lord.
The transgressing priests bring a ram as a guilt offering (verse 19). A ram is the animal used in the ordination of a priest when he takes up the priestly ministry (Lev 8:22). By offering a ram as a trespass offering, the priests again consecrate themselves to the LORD. Bringing a trespass offering (Lev 5:14-19; 6:1-7) means that not only sin is acknowledged, but also made good.
We are only free from our guilt when we see that the Lord Jesus is the true trespass offering, Who has put in order with God what we have been guilty of. He has been completely devoted to God in everything on earth (ram) and has always given to God what is His due and much more besides (trespass offering).
The list of names (verses 20-43) is this time very different from previous lists. Earlier lists contained names as an honorable mention for going a way of faith. This list contains names that evoke embarrassment, although these are people who want to submit to God again and therefore appear to be victorious over sin.
On this list are the names of people whose names are to be said: “All these had married foreign wives” (verse 44). Not only were wrong marriages entered into, but “some of them had wives [by whom] they had children”. Those children also have to be sent away. We see here that the more serious the deviation is, the more fruits of that deviation there are, and that as a result at the self-judgment the deeper the grief is.
Nothing and no one escapes God’s eye. “We must all be revealed before the judgment seat of Christ” (2Cor 5:10). It is to be hoped that the last chapter of our lives will also be the best in our history. That means there will be more self-judgment than ever, more appreciation of Christ, more separation to God, more priestly feelings, more suitability for the service of God. Whatever has happened in history, let’s make sure we end up as victors.