This morning we’ll continue our series “Rebuilding the Church: Rebuild, Renew, Revive” in Ezra 9 & 10. These are the final two chapters of this short historical book. You will notice that the story being recounted ends abruptly, without any conclusion given. In the original Hebrew bible, Ezra and Nehemiah were combined into a single book. Thus, the final chapter of Ezra was immediately followed by the first chapter of Nehemiah without any separation. Therefore, writing closing remarks at the end of Ezra 10 would have been unnecessary.
As we discovered last week, Ezra was a highly educated priest and scribe who led the second expedition of Jewish exiles to Jerusalem. He came with a decree from King Artaxerxes to teach and implement the law of Moses. His desire was to reintroduce the proper observance of God’s law. Many of the Jewish customs and ordinances had been forgotten or otherwise compromised during the years of captivity.
The identity of the Jewish culture was in extreme danger. Their uniqueness and distinctness as the chosen people of God was quickly fading away. To an ever-increasing extent, the Jews were assimilating to the pagan culture of the “foreigners” who populated Jerusalem. The situation was dire, and Ezra recognized it.
When he became aware of the extent of their spiritual decline, Ezra was greatly grieved and spent several hours in confessional prayer. Then he confronted the people, boldly pointing out their sin and proposing a difficult but necessary solution. Those who were guilty felt strong conviction, and they repented of their unfaithfulness.
It is important to point out before we begin that it is not a sin to marry someone from a foreign nation, or of a different race, or from another culture - for example, Boaz’s marriage to Ruth. In the Bible, the term “foreigner” is more concerned about the gods one serves than any place of origin. The sin of the Jews in these chapters was that, as a result of their mixed marriages, they had followed after other gods.
I. THE CONFESSION (Ezra 9:1-4)
When Ezra arrived from Babylon and introduced himself and those with him, the exiles in Jerusalem must have sensed that change was coming. Knowing that Ezra had come to evaluate their spiritual condition and to enforce the Mosaic Law, they knew he’d soon discover that they were guilty of intermarriage with the pagan women who lived in the region.
Notice that the princes approached Ezra to confess their transgressions, rather than waiting for him to find out. They knew what they were doing was wrong, but until Ezra came no one called them out for it. Knowing that he would, they came forward and divulged their behavior.
The princes, rulers, priests, Levites, and laypeople were all guilty. The sin was not isolated to a particular group. Practically all of the Jews who had been living in Judah for any time at all had married foreign wives.
The sin was not simply marrying foreigners, but rather marrying pagans - those whose religious beliefs were “foreign” and antithetical to Judaism. The abominations of these unbelievers was effecting and polluting the exclusive worship of Jehovah God that the law demands (Deuteronomy 7:1-3).
Notice that twice the Scripture tells us that Ezra was appalled by the rampant unfaithfulness of the people. Our problem today is that we don’t find sin appalling - we find it appealing. Perhaps we feel sorry, particularly if get caught, but when is the last time you were actually appalled (shocked, offended, or horrified) by sin?
II. THE PRAYER (Ezra 9:5-15)
Now fully aware of the peoples’ unfaithfulness, Ezra falls to his knees in prayer. As a priest, he is praying on behalf of all the exiles. He is ashamed and embarrassed by their behavior, especially as he considers how faithful God has been to them compared to how unfaithful they have been to Him.
Ezra concludes that God is merciful, and that He has not punished the people to the extent they deserve. He asks that the LORD would extend His mercy once again, and not utterly destroy the remnant of Jews who were left.
III. THE PROPOSAL (Ezra 10:1-4)
Ezra’s public prayer was so raw and emotional that a crowd gathered. They too began to weep bitterly, perhaps for the first time grieved by their own sinfulness.
Notice that Ezra does not initially suggest that they dissolve their marriages with these foreign women. Rather, it is one of the exiles themselves that makes this proposal. This indicates a type of self-discipline, in which the sinners realize their own error and desire to make the needed corrections.
The plan to “put away all the wives and their children” would be led by Ezra in accordance with the law of God. The people would follow his expert counsel and abide by his instruction as they sought to resolve this problem.
IV. THE ASSEMBLY (Ezra 10:5-15)
Before taking this proposal to the people at large, Ezra makes sure the the leading priests and Levites are on board. He didn’t want any surprises when the big assembly came. It is always wise to make sure that the key people are with you before you propose making a change.
Ezra had been granted sweeping authority by the king, so when he called an assembly the people came despite the pouring rain. Having already received the support of the leadership, Ezra now commanded the remaining Jewish remnant to divorce their foreign wives and return their allegiance to God alone. The overwhelming majority of the people agreed that this was to correct course of action.
V. THE ENFORCEMENT (Ezra 10:16-44)
Ezra wanted to make sure that all of the exiles who intermarried were identified and given the same opportunity. Therefore he appointed a committee to investigate and list all of the offenders. Once they finished their task, Ezra could proceed dissolving these marriages.
One by one, the men who guilty of mixed marriage separated from their pagan wives and came forward to make an offering to God. Ezra listed all of these by name, not as an accusation against them but rather as a recognition of their repentance.
It is difficult for us to understand why God would command men to divorce their wives and leave their children. Afterall, the Bible clearly states that God hates divorce. Yet, given the circumstances, this was the best of two very difficult choices. Sometimes our bad decisions leave us with limited options. Either they could stay married and continue to assimilate with the heathen world around them, or they could dissolve their marriages to preserve their Jewish identity and special distinction as the chosen people of God.
This text may make you feel uncomfortable - it makes me feel that way - but we must not miss its significance. If the Jewish remnant had not chosen to put away their foreign wives, the Jewish way of life might have been lost forever. It is through this faithful group that Judaism was preserved and passed down to the generations that followed.
We need to be careful not to misapply this message to our lives today… if your spouse does not believe in God, I am not suggesting that you go out and divorce them this week. But if your marriage is drawing you away from God rather than toward Him, something is very wrong. And if you are unmarried, it is foolish to enter into any serious relationship with someone who is not a Christian. Why take the risk when there are so many single Christians out there?
Here’s the bottom line… our first love should be God Almighty. If we are in any type of covenant relationship (whether it be marriage, a business partnership, or whatever) with someone who consistently pulls us away from Him and leads us to love other gods, then we are living a lifestyle of unfaithfulness. Our covenant relationships with other people should strengthen our relationship with God, not weaken it.