We’re coming to the end of Ezra today. And I’m sure you remember that the entire book is in two parts; and the second half of the book is a kind of repetition of the first half of the book. In the first half of the book, we had the king’s decree to let God’s exiled people return to the Promised Land. That was followed by a list of the family names of those who decided to return at that time. And then we read about the trouble they encountered whenever they tried to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. But the Lord enabled them to overcome the opposition they faced and to rebuild the temple.
And the second half of the book began with another decree by another king to allow more of God’s exiled people return to the Promised Land. And then the family names of those who returned at that time were listed for us. And now, in chapters 9 and 10, we again read about the trouble they encountered. But do you remember? I’ve already mentioned this a couple of times before: the trouble they encountered this time originated, not with their enemies, but with themselves. Because of their sin and rebellion they were putting themselves in danger of provoking the Lord’s wrath once again, so that they would once again be sent away from the Promised Land into exile. And so, in today’s reading, we read about Ezra’s reaction to their sin; and we read about the way the people turned from their sin.
That’s what we’re thinking about today. And, of course, since God was revealing through the return from exile his great covenant of grace — by which he promises to deliver his people in every generation from our sin and misery in this present, evil age; and to bring us at last to the new heaven and earth — which is better than the land of Canaan — and to the new Jerusalem, the holy city — which is better than the earthly Jerusalem — since God was revealing his great covenant of grace, then we can expect that the events of this chapter also speak to us of God’s covenant of grace. And, of course, the work of Ezra in this chapter speaks to us of Christ, who is our Great Priest who reconciles us to God.
Verses 1 to 5
Let’s look at these two chapters. And in verses 1 to 5, the sin of the people was reported to Ezra. According to verse 1, after Ezra’s arrival in Jerusalem, the leaders came to him and said:
The people of Israel, including the priests and the Levites, have not kept themselves separate from the neighbouring peoples with their detestable practices.
What that means exactly is spelled out in verse 2, where we’re told that they and their sons had married foreign wives.
Well, when the Lord led the people from Egypt and gave them his law at Mount Sinai, he warned them not to make a treaty with the other nations and not to marry with them, because the other nations did not worship the Lord, and would only lead the Lord’s people astray. And then, years later, when they were about to enter the Promised Land, the Lord again warned them not to marry people from the other nations, but to drive them out of the land, otherwise they’ll lead you astray and the Lord’s anger will burn against you.
But what did Ezra find when he returned to Jerusalem? That some of the people had married foreign wives. And when it mentions their detestable practices in verse 1, it’s referring to the way their foreign wives worshipped and bowed down to idols. God’s people were meant to be wholeheartedly devoted to him. But some of them had married women who did not know the Lord or love him or worship him and who, instead, worshipped false gods.
The problem was not so much that these women were foreigners; and from time to time we read in the Bible about foreigners who joined the Israelites and they became part of God’s people. No, the problem was that these women were unbelievers who didn’t worship the Lord. The Israelites were meant to be God’s holy race. Do you see that in verse 2? They were to separate themselves from the other nations, because God had chosen them to be his holy and obedient people. But now, instead of separating themselves from the other nations, they were marrying them. And as some of the commentators point out, mothers have a very significant influence on how the children are brought up. And so, it’s likely that the children in these mixed marriages would be brought up to worship idols, and not the Lord. And, of course, since the Lord had warned them in the days of Moses that they would only provoke his wrath if they married unbelievers, then the Lord’s people were putting themselves in danger. They were in danger of provoking the Lord’s wrath so that once again he would drive them out of the Promised Land and away from his presence.
And so, when Ezra heard what they had done, he tore his clothes; and pulled hair from his head and beard; and sat down appalled. These are signs of distress and sorrow and mourning. And look: everyone who trembled at the words of the Lord gathered around him. So, he wasn’t on his own, but there were others who cared about the word of the Lord and who mourned with him over the sins of the people.
Verses 6 to 15
And then Ezra began to pray. And his prayer appears in verses 6 to 15. And it begins with confession:
I am too ashamed and disgraced to lift up my face to you, my God, because our sins are higher than our heads and our guilt has reached to the heavens. From the days of our ancestors until now, our guilt has been great.
And after confessing their sinfulness, he acknowledged that because of their sins, they had faced the sword and captivity. So, in the past, God had sent their enemies to punish them; and they were taken away into exile. And they deserved it, because of their sins.
But then Ezra went on to pray about God’s mercy towards them, because the Lord did not destroy them completely, but let a remnant, a small number, return to the Promised Land. Even though they were technically slaves of Persia, the kings of Persia let them return. And they were granted new life, it seemed; and they were allowed to rebuild the temple; and the Lord had promised to surround them with his protection. So, despite their past sins, the Lord had been kind to them.
However: ‘What can we say after this?’ That’s how Ezra puts it in verse 10. ‘What can we say?’, because here they are again, doing it all over again. ‘Shall we again break your commands?’, he asked. ‘Will you again be angry enough to destroy us?’, he asked.
And so, Ezra confessed their sin and he acknowledged their guilt. He knows that the Lord is righteous; and that they are sinners. And so, he knows they are entirely in the hands of the Lord; and what will happen to them because of their sin is up to him to decide.
Verses 1 to 6
While Ezra was praying, a large crowd of Israelites — men and women and children — gathered round him. And one of them spoke up and also confessed their sins. But this person also believed there was still hope for Israel. Do you see that at the end of verse 2? There’s hope for Israel, so long as they turn from their sin. This person proposed to Ezra that they should make a covenant — which was a binding promise — to send away their foreign wives and even the children. Since they had sinned against the Lord by marrying these unbelieving wives, they should now send them away.
I should say that the Bible experts point out that the Hebrew words translated ‘marry’ and ‘send away’ in these chapters are not the normal words for marriage and divorce. And so, it’s possible that they did not regard these marriages as real marriages; and therefore sending them away was not the same as divorcing them. But I should also say that the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 7 makes clear that if a believer is married to an unbeliever, the believer must not divorce the unbeliever. Paul was thinking about the situation where two unbelievers were married. But then, after they were married, one of them is converted to faith in Christ. Should that new believer get divorced from his unbelieving spouse? No, says Paul. They must remain married. The marriage bond is so sacred, so special, that it must not be dissolved even if your spouse does not believe.
That’s what God’s word says to New Testament believers. On this occasion, though, in Ezra 10, the people agreed that the only thing they could do to put things right with the Lord was to send these women and their children away. And Ezra was encouraged to put this proposal into action. And so, according to verse 5, he got up and put the leading priests and Levites and all Israel under an oath to do what had been suggested.
Verses 7 to 17
According to verses 7 to 17, a proclamation was issued throughout the land for all the exiles to assemble in Jerusalem. If anyone failed to appear, they would forfeit their property and be expelled from the people. And so, all the people assembled. And then, Ezra stood before the people and announced how they had sinned against the Lord and that they should confess their sins and do his will, which meant they had to separate themselves from their unbelieving wives. And according to verse 12, the whole assembly agreed with Ezra. Nevertheless, because it was raining and they were all getting soaked, and because it would take many days to sort things out, they proposed that instead of trying to do it all at once, they should do it in stages, town by town. We’re told in verse 15 that a few men opposed what they were doing. It’s not clear whether they opposed the whole proposal to send away the foreign wives; or whether they opposed the proposal to work things out in stages. Probably it’s the latter. In any case, it was all agreed; and certain leaders were selected to oversee the process; and within a few months it had all been dealt with.
Verses 18 to 44
And in verses 18 to 44, the names of the guilty are listed, a list that includes priests and Levites and lay people.
What are we to make of this passage?Let me make three points by way of application. And the first one is one that I’ve mentioned before. The church on earth faces many dangers and troubles and trials. Sometimes these come from outside the church. We saw that when we were studying the first half of this book, because at that time the returning exiles faced opposition from their enemies who did what they could to prevent them from rebuilding the temple. But very often the dangers and troubles and trials we face come from within the church, because of the disobedience of the people.
And that’s what happened here, because the future of God’s people was put in danger because of their own sin. And we too are sinners who are prone to wander from the Lord; and like foolish sheep, we go our own way, instead of walking in the ways of the Lord.
In verse 1 of chapter 9 Ezra was told that some of the people had not kept themselves separate from the neighbouring peoples with their detestable practice. In verse 2 he was told that some of the people had mingled the holy race with the peoples around them. The words ‘holy race’ should really be translated ‘holy seed’, because it goes back to the Garden of Eden and to the time when the Lord announced that there would be two seeds or two kinds of people on the earth: those who belong to him; and those who belong to Satan. There’s the church; and there’s the unbelieving world. And the church is meant to keep itself separate from the unbelieving world, so that we do not become like them and adopt their detestable and sinful practices, which are an offence to the Lord. But, since we’re sinners, and we’re prone to wander, far too often we become just like the people around us who do not believe; and we think like them; and we behave like them; and we talk like them; we live just like them, so that the distinction between the church and the world disappears from view.
That’s what was happening here, in Ezra 9. But we see it in other places in the Bible. Think of Paul’s letters to the church in Corinth and how he complained that though they were believers who belonged to the Lord, they were living as if they still belonged to the world. They were treating one another in a way that was no different from the way their unbelieving neighbours lived. And do you remember? Paul said later in that letter to the Corinthians that because of the way they behaved at the Lord’s Table, some of them had become ill; and some had even died. They had brought temporal judgments on themselves because of what they were doing.
Let’s be clear on this. God’s people will never be eternally condemned; but if we sin against the Lord, and persist in our sins, we can displease the Lord and grieve his Spirit; and he’s prepared to chastise us the way parents will chastise their disobedient child.
But the good news that these two chapters set before us is that the Lord is merciful and gracious; and he does not treat us as our sins deserve; nor repay us according to our iniquity; and whoever sins against him is able to repent and return to him. Ezra was afraid that the Lord would be angry with them; and drive them away from his presence once again. And that’s what they deserved; and it’s what we deserve, because we too sin against him. But he’s always willing to pardon the one who turns from their sin in repentance and looks to him for mercy. So, no matter what you have done to offend the Lord, know for sure that there is a way back to the Lord and there is a way to find forgiveness. And the way back to the Lord and the way to find forgiveness is by turning from your sin in repentance and by seeking mercy from the Lord, who is willing and able to pardon your sins.
And that leads me to the second application. The reason God is willing and able to pardon all who repent and believe is because of Christ. And Ezra points us to Christ.
Think of how Ezra reacted when he heard about their sin. He tore his clothes and pulled out his hair: signs of sorrow and mourning. And in chapter 10, we read that he wept; he wept because of their sins. And didn’t the Lord weep for the people of Jerusalem, because he knew the judgment that was going to come on them, because they rejected him? And did you notice how Ezra identified himself with the sins of the people? He didn’t confess ‘their’ sins, but ‘our’ sins. He didn’t pray about ‘their’ guilt, but about ‘our’ guilt. Though he himself was not guilty of marrying an unbeliever, he identified himself with those who had.
And isn’t that what the Lord Jesus did for us, when he left the glory of heaven and came down to earth as one of us? He became one of us, so that he could take the blame for us; and suffer the penalty we deserve for our sins. He knew no sin; he never once disobeyed his Father in heaven, but our sins were laid on him; and he took our place and suffered in our place the wrath of God. And it’s because he suffered in our place, enduring the wrath of God for us, that you can be forgiven. He laid down his life on the cross as the ransom price to set you free from condemnation; and by his blood, shed on the cross, you are cleansed from the guilt of your sins. And so, no matter what you have done wrong, if you confess your sins to God, and turn from them in repentance, turning to God for mercy, he will forgive you whatever you have done wrong, because Christ the Saviour became one of us and took the blame for his people.
Think about your life and all the ways you have disobeyed the Lord and fallen short of doing his will. Think of what you deserve, because you deserve to be sent away from his presence forever. That’s what Ezra was afraid of, wasn’t it? That they would be driven away from Jerusalem and away from the Promised Land and away from the presence of the Lord because of their sin. And that’s what you deserve for all the ways you’ve disobeyed God. But here’s the good news: God is willing and able to forgive you all your sins, no matter what you’ve done wrong, because Christ died for sinners. So, turn from your sin, and ask God to pardon you for the sake of Christ; and he will forgive you. Even though you may have come here, weighed down by sin and shame, you can leave this place rejoicing, as one who has been pardoned by God for the sake of Christ.
But here’s the third point of application. We’ve been thinking in previous weeks how God was revealing through the return of the exiles to the Promised Land his great covenant of grace by which he promises to deliver his people in every generation from our sin and misery in this present, evil age; and to bring us at last to the new heaven and earth to be with him forever.
Sending these unbelieving wives away reminds us that eternal life in the presence of the Lord is for the Lord’s people only. In Revelation 7, where John got to see into heaven — where the saints who have died have already gathered — he saw a great multitude of people from every nation. Incidentally, that’s more evidence for us that the problem in Ezra 7 with these women was not that they were foreigners, because heaven will be filled with people from every nation; no, the problem was that they were unbelievers. And as John looked into heaven, he learned that this great multitude is made up of people who are wearing white robes. And their robes are white because they’ve been washed in the blood of the Lamb. In other words, the great multitude in heaven comprises all those who have been pardoned by God through faith in Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God who died for sinners. Heaven is for believers; and through faith in him, they’ve been made pure and spotless.
And then, in Revelation 21, when John got to see into the future and into the world to come, he saw the holy City, the new Jerusalem, which is the church in glory. And after describing it, John tells us that nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life. In other words, eternal life in the presence of the Lord is for believers. Sending their unbelieving wives away from the earthly city of Jerusalem was a way of making clear that only believers will be allowed into the heavenly city of Jerusalem in the world to come. Unbelievers will not be admitted into the heavenly city, but they will be shut out of it, and they will be shut out of the presence of the Lord forever. God is holy and only his holy people — those who have been set apart from the world by faith in his Son — will be allowed to come into his presence in the life to come.
And so, if you have not yet believed, I say to you again: Repent and believe. Turn from your sin in repentance and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ who died for sinners, because whoever repents and believes is pardoned by God in this life and will be allowed into the presence of God in the new heaven and earth. Everyone who does not believe will be shut out. But whoever repents and believes is given by God the assurance of sins forgiven and the hope of everlasting life.
And once you believe, and while you go on living on the earth, seek the help of the Lord to live a holy and obedient life, so that your life here on earth reflects the glory of heaven above, where there is nothing impure or unholy. So, seek the help of the Lord so that nothing impure will enter your life; and instead you’ll be able to live a holy and obedient life here on earth.