A CRISIS OF FAITH AND FAMILY
There is hardly a more important decision that you make in life than who you are to marry. Marriage is a sacred union, bound with vows and meant to last a lifetime. It involves two separate people coming together to be united as one in a union that is both physical, social, emotional and spiritual. It is because of this bond of unity that believers are warned against being unequally yoked with unbelievers.
The Israelites who first came into the land of Canaan were similarly warned against taking wives from among the pagan people who lived in the land. The Lord ordered that the Canaanites be exterminated, but the Israelites insisted upon a kinder and gentler approach. This disobedience led to their downfall. Soon Israelite men were taking pagan wives and from there it was only one generation removed from Israelites worshiping the false gods of Canaan.
Modern archaeology has uncovered evidence of the religious pluralism which existed in Israel in the days of the Kings. People worshiped Yahweh plus a handful of other gods. Because of this idolatry, the Lord handed over the Israelites into the hands of their enemies.
The Northern Kingdom of Israel was taken away into captivity by the Assyrians in 721 B.C. The Southern Kingdom of Judah fell to Nebuchadnezzar in 586 B.C. and the Temple was destroyed and the inhabitants of the land taken to Mesopotamia.
Now they have returned. First under Zerubbabel and now under Ezra, the people have come back into the land. The Temple has been rebuilt, the sacrifices have been resumed, and all things are now as they were before the Captivity. And that is the problem. All things are coming to be as they were before the Captivity - including the very thing that brought about the Captivity.
THE PROBLEM OF INTERMARRIAGE
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.
"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." (Ezra 9:1-2).
Ezra has not been back in the land for very long when he is approached by a delegation made up of some of the nobility of Judah. They are coming with a problem. The problem is one of intermarriage of the Jewish priests and Levites with some of the pagan peoples of the land.
The issue here was not mere nationalism. Neither was it racism. It was not a matter of one race looking down their noses at another race as not being good enough. Rather it was a case of spiritual compromise and an issue that the descendants of Abraham had been called as a separated people to be a blessing to the world. They were called to be a people apart, unspoiled with the idolatry of the nations. Instead they were involved in marrying pagans and were in danger of bringing that idolatry back into their homes.
The temptation here was not to turn away from God. Rather it was to add something to the proper and appropriate worship of God. Satan often tempts in this way. He doesn’t say, "Leave the Christian faith." Instead he urges you to add a little leaven to the Bread of Life.
You cannot compromise with sin. That is like dipping a white glove into a pool of mud. The mud does not become "glovey" - the result is always an extension of the sin.
Now the people of God were in danger of having it happen again. They were playing with fire by intermarrying with those who had a heritage of paganism.
The leaders of the nation have been the worst offenders. Both those in secular authority and those in spiritual authority were guilty of leading the way in intermarriage with the pagan peoples of the land.
There is a principle here about leadership. Leaders will always lead. If you are a leader, the question is not whether you will lead, but in which direction you will lead. This places leaders with a terrible responsibility.
Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we shall incur a stricter judgment. (James 3:1).
Leaders and teachers have a great responsibility, not only in what they SAY, but also in what they DO. That is because a leader always leads by example.
EZRA’S REACTION TO THE SITUATION
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.
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. (Ezra 9:3-4).
Ezra did not treat this situation lightly. He tore his garment and his robe, pulling out some of his hair both from his head and from his beard. These are the actions of great grief.
Here is the principle. If we ever come to the point where we take God seriously, we will also take sin seriously. Our problem is that we are no longer surprised by sin. We have come to expect it and to think of it as a normal part of the background.
We have seen "Christian" televangelists involved in all sorts of moral and ethical corruption. I am told that divorces among Christians are every bit as common as they are among unbelievers. I hear of Christians who have poor reputations in the business world. These sorts of things have become commonplace.
Ezra’s reaction to this news shows that he still had a high degree of sensitivity to sin. All too many of us have ben desensitized to sin to the point where we hardly notice its presence. A deadening has taken place akin to a shot of spiritual novocaine. What is the answer to such a situation? Go to the cross. The longer we spend in the shadow of the cross, the more sensitive we will be to sin.
EZRA’S PRAYER OF REPENTANCE
The remainder of this chapter is taken up with Ezra’s prayer of repentance. He is repenting on behalf of the nation of Israel. As such, this is a prayer of intercession as he goes to the Lord and intercedes for his people.
The Lord has done the same for us. We have an intercessor who goes before the throne of grace on our behalf. It is not some priestly scribe who does this. It is God’s own Holy Spirit who make intercession on our behalf.
1. The Posture of Ezra’s Prayer.
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 (Ezra 9:5).
Ezra goes before the Lord, falling on his knees and stretching out his hands to the Lord. Though we are not told for certain, the reference to the evening offering suggests that the place of this prayer was at the Temple. The Mosaic Law called for a sacrifice to be made each morning and each evening of each day. An animal would be put to death as a sacrifice for sins. Once the blood had been applied to the horns of the altar, a priest was permitted to enter the Temple and to place incense upon the altar of incense. As the sweet smell of incense filled the Temple, the people would be gathered outside for the sweet aroma of prayer.
At such a time, Ezra comes before the Temple. His robe is torn. His hair is in disarray. He is on his knees. He reaches out with empty hands for the Lord.
How do you come before the Lord? Is it with a spirit of pride or of well-being? Are you spiritually content with your life? Or are you hungry for that which only He can provide?
I am not saying that it is important that you bend your knees when worshiping. But it IS important that you bend your heart toward Him and stretch out to Him hands of faith.
2. The People of Ezra’s Prayer.
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. (Ezra 9:6).
Ezra’s prayer is going to be a prayer of confession. He will be confessing the sins of the nation and the people of Israel. It is not a sin which Ezra himself has committed. He has not taken for himself a pagan wife. He has not joined himself to an idol worshiper. But he confesses nonetheless.
Ezra has identified himself with the people of God. As they have sinned, he bears with them in their guilt. And so he confesses their sin.
When was the last time you went to the Lord and confessed the sin of which your nation and your people and your church and your family has been a part? I believe that such a prayer would be appropriate.
3. The Praise of Ezra’s Prayer
"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.
"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.
"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. (Ezra 9:7-9).
In this midst of this prayer of confession over the sin of Israel, there is a sunburst of the grace and the lovingkindness of God toward His people.
Ezra recognizes that the people of God have already been shown grace from God as He has worked in history to bring them back to their own land where they can again worship Him.
4. The Predicament of Ezra’s Prayer.
"Now, our God, what shall we say after this? For we have forsaken Your commandments,
The predicament that Ezra spells out in his prayer is the disobedience of the people of Israel. God had warned them long ago against intermarrying with the pagan peoples of the land. To do so would be to partake of the uncleanness of their paganism.
5. The Perplexity of Ezra’s Prayer
"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,
Ezra looks at how much the past sin of Israel has brought upon the people in the form of the Captivity and, as he recognizes that God was merciful in the dispensing of His justice, he wonders how the nation can possibly survive destruction to the point where there will be no more remnant.
Make no mistake. This situation was no minor speedbump on the highway of God’s covenant people. Ezra realizes that it has the potential for bringing utter destruction upon that covenant people. And if there is no covenant people, then there is no Messiah born from that people. And if there is no Messiah, then there is no salvation and you are still in your sins. It is nothing less than your salvation that is at stake.
6. The Poverty of Ezra’s Prayer.
"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 9:15).
As we conclude this prayer, I am struck by what is absent from it. There is no promise for reform. There is no explanation of the circumstances. There is not even a request for forgiveness. This is simply a prayer of confession. It is a prayer pronouncing the complete spiritual poverty of the nation.
Such a prayer is reflected in the words of Jesus: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 5:3).
In conclusion, we can learn three things from Ezra’s prayer of confession.