He who seeks the welfare of God’s people must expect trial and sorrow on his way. In those who have just returned to Jerusalem there is humility, fasting, and supplication. In Jerusalem, however, they find a very different mind. Their coming is the occasion of the revelation of sin that has found entrance. This is what we see in this chapter.
Believers may look for a place where the church gathers as Scripture indicates. When they have found such a place, it may sometimes turn out that there is the confession and the outer form, but that the hearts are not turned toward the Lord Jesus. Sometimes they have to notice that there are those who are less spiritual and less zealous for the Lord than some of those they have had to leave behind.
Then the test of the truth of God’s Word must be applied. When the truth is ministered, it will become clear whether there is only a confession or whether there really is a desire to come together as a church according to Scripture. In this and the next chapter we see that Ezra applies the truth of God’s Word to the situation that has arisen.
1 - 5 Ezra Hears of Mixed Marriages
1 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. 2 For they have taken some of their daughters [as wives] for themselves and for their sons, so that the holy race has intermingled with the peoples of the lands; indeed, the hands of the princes and the rulers have been foremost in this unfaithfulness.” 3 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. 4 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. 5 But at the evening offering I arose from my humiliation, even with my garment and my robe torn, and I fell on my knees and stretched out my hands to the LORD my God;
As soon as Ezra has arrived in Jerusalem, he is confronted with the evil that has entered. He is told how things are with the people (cf. 1Cor 1:11). The arrival and actions of the new remnant bring the evil to light. The law has been broken by entering into marriages forbidden by law (Exo 34:12-16). These forbidden marriages are a picture of friendship with the world (Jam 4:4; cf. 2Cor 6:14-15).
The nations mentioned are all nations that should have been conquered in the days of Joshua (Deu 7:1-6). The people are outwardly close to God, but inwardly they are far from Him. Not only the common people, but even priests and Levites have sinned. This evil will only be unmasked as evil when faithful people come who have God’s Word as their standard. Among those who confess to come together in the Name of the Lord Jesus, the greatest evil can manifest itself if there is no walk with Him. Faithful people in the local church will expose that evil.
The princes and rulers have even been the first in unfaithfulness (verse 2). By their bad example they have brought many on the path of sin. Those who are very conscientious not to connect with the world as a church, sometimes do so in their business or even in their marriage. The present remnant has gone out of Babylon with their bodies, but the spirit of Babylon is still in them.
Their connections do not directly represent personal connections for us, but mainly principles that are opposed to the “holy race”. Legalism, for example, is such a strange wife. The Galatians have made such connections, as many Christians still do today. Through his letter to them, Paul wants to persuade them to expel this strange wife. In the letter to the Corinthians we see these ‘strange women’ for example in the use of wrong building materials (1Cor 3:12-17), in which we can see the use of strange methods in the (re)building of the church.
Ezra is appalled (verse 3). Is it possible that this remnant, torn from the fire by God, has forgotten the hand of Him Who set them free, that they marry daughters of strange gods? Ezra is a man who lives in fellowship with God. He feels like no other the seriousness and depth of sin. He alone can identify with the sin of others, as we also see with Daniel, Nehemiah, Moses.
Ezra humbles himself personally, carrying the sin of the people as his own. When sin becomes manifest in the midst of God’s people, we are called upon not primarily to act, but to humble ourselves. Ezra expresses his humility by tearing his garment and robe and pulling hair from his head and beard. He beats himself first instead of going directly to the guilty to punish them. So he sits down.
Through Ezra’s behavior the conscience of others is exercised. After the personal humiliation of Ezra more people join him in this (verse 4). They “tremble at the words of the God of Israel” (cf. Isa 66:2b), which indicates that they too mourn about the condition of the people. Through the open horror and grief at sin shown by Ezra, others come to him. The grief over “the unfaithfulness of the exiles” unites them in humility before the LORD. A breach in the faithfulness to the LORD is a great evil. Unfaithfulness in a relationship is extremely painful and hurtful to the person being harmed. Ezra and the others feel this with God’s grief. They also acknowledge that God’s wrath must come upon them for this.
At the time of the evening offering, Ezra pours out the deep sadness of his heart before God. On the one hand he is deeply saddened by the sin of the people. On the other hand, he seizes the power of the evening offering – that is, the daily evening burnt offering – to approach God in view of the committed sins (cf. 1Sam 7:9; 1Kgs 18:36; Dan 9:21; Acts 10:3). This shows us in the picture that one is lifted above the failure of the whole when Christ and His work for God are placed before the heart. Confession of sin in the light of Christ’s offering is the basis for God to pass over the sin of His people.
By the time the evening sacrifice is brought, Ezra rises up out of humiliation (verse 5). He has a broken heart because of the sin of the people. He also knows where only help can be found. The evening offering is the only ground on which God can endure the unfaithfulness of His people. The evening offering speaks of the offering of Christ, Who at the time of the evening offering, the third hour, received no answer from God because He was made sin (2Cor 5:21). Because He received no answer, God can answer Elijah and Daniel and Ezra to their prayers.
The noun “ humiliation” appears in the Bible only here with Ezra. It is the expression of experiencing evil in God’s people in a way that is consistent with Who God is. Someone who feels evil in this way can be used by God as His instrument for the benefit of His people. In that mind Ezra bows his knees and spreads his hands unto the LORD his God to pray for the people. What a moving example for us! How far we often are from that. May it be our desire to become more like Ezra in this.
6 - 15 Prayer of Ezra
6 and I said, “O my God, I am ashamed and embarrassed to lift up my face to You, my God, for our iniquities have risen above our heads and our guilt has grown even to the heavens. 7 Since the days of our fathers to this day we [have been] in great guilt, and on account of our iniquities we, our kings [and] our priests have been given into the hand of the kings of the lands, to the sword, to captivity and to plunder and to open shame, as [it is] this day. 8 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. 9 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. 10 “Now, our God, what shall we say after this? For we have forsaken Your commandments, 11 which You have commanded by Your 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. 12 So now do not give your daughters to their sons nor take their daughters to your sons, and never seek their peace or their prosperity, that you may be strong and eat the good [things] of the land and leave [it] as an inheritance to your sons forever.’ 13 After all that has come upon us for our evil deeds and our great guilt, since You our God have requited [us] less than our iniquities [deserve], and have given us an escaped remnant as this, 14 shall we again break Your commandments and intermarry with the peoples who commit these abominations? Would You not be angry with us to the point of destruction, until there is no remnant nor any who escape? 15 O LORD God of Israel, You are righteous, for we have been left an escaped remnant, as [it is] this day; behold, we are before You in our guilt, for no one can stand before You because of this.”
Ezra unites with the people and speaks of “our iniquities” and “our guilt” (verse 6), despite the fact that he has only been with them for about a week. Therein lies the secret of his spiritual power and is he a true priest before God for the benefit of God’s people. By making himself one with the sins of the people, he eats, as it were, the sin offering (Lev 6:26). Only in this way can we also come before God with the things that are not good in the midst of the believers with whom we meet.
Ezra goes far back to find the root of present sin (verse 7). The whole history of God’s people is a history of sin. The kings and the priests have played a great, negative role in it. They have preceded the people on that path of sin. Think of Solomon with his many wives and their idols he lovingly clung to. With him we see how much loving strange women also means love for the idols of these women (1Kgs 11:1-2,4a).
Often the people were given into the hands of hostile kings, who brought sword, imprisonment, looting, and open disgrace upon them. This is still the case when Ezra humbles himself and makes his confession. The same is true for the church. In the beginning, the first love was left and the church as a whole never returned to it.
After the acknowledgment of God’s discipline because of the sins of the people, Ezra speaks about the grace of God (verse 8). That grace is clearly present in the revival that God has given His people. In the way Ezra speaks to the LORD about it, we hear great modesty. There is no sense of pride, as if the revival was deserved or due to one’s own efforts. No, God has given the opportunity for “escape”. He has given His people a peg in His holy place. The “revival,” which Ezra says is “a little revival,” is the result of God’s gracious work. This modesty can be heard here.
If we are allowed to experience a revival in the local church, it will, if it is good, also be experienced by us as a great grace that God gives. There is no right to another revival. However, we may pray that we experience more revival in our personal life of faith. This will go hand in hand with diligent study of God’s Word and a life in which Christ and His will are central. If this happens in our personal lives, it will undoubtedly have an impact on the local church.
Ezra is aware that he and God’s people are slaves of the nations (verse 9). God had to give them that position because of their unfaithfulness. Ezra does not rebel against this, but acknowledges its righteousness and bows down to it. It is good that he can also say that God did not leave them in that position of slavery. We cannot change the circumstances, but we can involve God in our circumstances so that we can go through them with Him.
With gratitude he reminds us of the lovingkindness of God that He has shown His people with the pagan rulers. This mercy is not that God freed His people from slavery, but that He gave a little revival “to raise up the house of our God, to restore its ruins and to give us a wall in Judah and Jerusalem”. Ezra’s heart is full of God’s house, God’s land and God’s city, despite the wretched circumstances.
After speaking of God’s grace, he speaks again of the sin of the people, which is all the more serious against the background of the grace shown. He does not know what to say (verse 10). He can only mention concretely what he and the people have sinned in. The summary is that the people have forsaken the commandments of God. Disobedience to what God has said is the origin of sin. Through disobedience to God’s commandment, sin came into the world (Gen 2:17; 3:6; Rom 5:19a).
Unfamiliarity with God’s commandments cannot be used as an excuse. God, through His servants, the prophets, warned the people of the dangers of the land they were about to take possession of (verse 11). The emphasis is on uncleanness. The word ‘unclean’ or impurity is mentioned several times in this one verse. Uncleanness by dealing with the world and taking possession of the ideas of the world causes a diminishing awareness of God’s holiness. If we do not keep ourselves pure from the world (Jam 1:27), we will adapt to the world and become friends with the world.
God has told His people not to marry the Gentiles (verse 12). They may not even strive for prosperity or good for those nations forever. There is an eternal separation between God’s people and the world. Only by maintaining that separation will we receive three glorious blessings:
1. We will be strong,
2. eat the good things of the land and
3. leave it as an inheritance to our children forever.
Unfortunately, God’s people then and many of God’s people now have lost their spiritual power through wrong connections – for us: with the world. They no longer enjoy the good food of the land and also lose possession of the land for their descendants. Their children have no appreciation for an inheritance, a stay in the land.
Ezra acknowledges once again that the great guilt that has come upon them has been caused by their evil deeds (verse 13). At the same time, he sees the great grace of God, that He has not completely given them up to their iniquities. God in His wrath has remember mercy (Hab 3:2). He has given a possibility of “escape” from captivity, which has been used by a remnant. By this Ezra means both the first exodus from Babylon and his own exodus from Babylon.
The light of that great mercy that God has shown in spite of all and ever recurring unfaithfulness of His people shines into the soul of Ezra. In that light, shouldn’t it be impossible, says Ezra, to break God’s commandments again and again intermarry with the peoples who commit these abominations (verse 14)? That’s sinning against grace. When that happens, God’s judgment must come to its full extent over the remnant, without there being any escape for a few.
Ezra justifies God in His dealings with His people (verse 15). He expresses it in this verse, but his whole prayer breathes that spirit. God’s righteous action also includes allowing the opportunity for escape, as in the case of Ezra and his people. God’s grace is always based on righteousness. He does not condone sin, but forgives and justifies it on the basis of the work of His Son.
The place of confession is always the place both of spiritual strength and of restoration. Ezra is not only impressed by the sin of the people, but also by the great grace and mercy of God. We listen to both aspects in the question to the “LORD the God of Israel” to see them in their guilt before Him. That only says someone who is fully convinced of his guilt and at the same time is fully convinced that he is dealing with a God of complete forgiveness. No sinner can stand or exist before God, except he who comes to Him with a confession of guilt (Psa 130:3-4).