Old fashioned ideas about God, that turn out to be very important.
Two weeks ago, we looked at guilt. Ezra 9 showed us what God is like, and what we are like. Guilt may be out of fashion, but it turns out it’s very important.
Today, we look at repentance. Also out of fashion. Also very important. And, as we’ll see, extremely costly.
Ezra chapter 10 is a shocking chapter. Did you feel an element of shock as it was read out?
Before we get shocked, or even offended, we need to slow down. We’re going to look closely at this one to make sure we understand it correctly. Let’s ask 4 questions of the passage:
What was the problem?
What did they do about it?
Did they do the right thing?
And then let’s tread really carefully as we ask: Exactly what are the lessons for us today?
So, then, question number 1: What was the problem?
If you were here for Ezra 9, you’ll know, but let me remind you.
The year is 458 BC. Ezra has just returned to Jerusalem from Babylon. 80 years earlier, Cyrus King of Persia sent the Jews home from their Babylonian captivity. Their mission was to rebuild the temple. As Ezra leads back a second generation, his mission is to rebuild the people’s love and loyalty to their God. He’s sent primarily to teach the Word of God.
Those two returns together make up God’s plan to restore his people. They’ll have a place to worship, and hearts that are in tune with God. We need both. We need structure to our worship, and we need hearts on fire for God.
When Ezra arrived in Jerusalem, he found a problem. We met it in chapter 9, verses 1 and 2: “After these things had been done, the leaders came to me 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, like those of the Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Jebusites, Ammonites, Moabites, Egyptians and Amorites. They have taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves and their sons, and have mingled the holy race with the peoples around them. And the leaders and officials have led the way in this unfaithfulness.’”
We said last time that the problem was religion not race.
God has no problem with his people marrying from other races. It’s his plan to bring the nations of this world together. At the Passover feast in chapter 6, many from other nations joined in, who chose to leave the worship of their various gods, and worship the one true God with his people.
Where God does have a problem is with his people marrying those from other religions. In this case, those of other nations who don’t leave their previous religion behind. And that’s because Israel’s history is littered with examples of God’s people doing this, and then starting to worship other gods themselves. Indeed, this was what led to the exile to Babylon in the first place.
The problem was religion, not race.
And last time we saw Ezra in deep distress. He prayed to God. He confessed his sin, and that of the people.
And today we get to action. It was so important they prayed about it first. They had to feel the weight of what they’d done. It was God they’d sinned against, so they had to bring their sin, their mess, before God.
But important though it was to pray, they needed action too. They needed to repent. To make real changes.
What they did
So that’s the problem. Question number 2: What did they do about it?
The short answer is: Those who had taken a foreign wife sent them away. Verse 3: “Now let us make a covenant before our God to send away all these women and their children, in accordance with the counsel of my lord and of those who fear the commands of our God.”
Notice three things about how they did it. This was done carefully, not in a cavalier and slapdash way. Three things.
Number 1. It was done with much prayer. Ezra was already praying, with a growing crowd, but after they’d decided on this course of action, look at verse 6: “Then Ezra withdrew from before the house of God and went to the room of Jehohanan son of Eliashib. While he was there, he ate no food and drank no water, because he continued to mourn over the unfaithfulness of the exiles.” Something like this should not be done without much deep and persistent prayer.
Number 2. It was done with careful leadership. This was too weighty a thing for Ezra to handle on his own. He’d been teaching God’s law. A group led by Shekaniah could see the implications of God’s law for the current situation. Verse 2: They came to Ezra and suggested what needed to be done. “… in accordance with the counsel of my lord and of those who fear the commands of our God. Let it be done according to the Law.”
And they didn’t just drop Ezra in it: “Here’s a thankless task – you make yourself unpopular”. Not at all. Verse 4: “Rise up; this matter is in your hands. We will support you, so take courage and do it.” And before Ezra did anything, he made sure these leaders really were with him. Verse 5: “Ezra rose up and put the leading priests and Levites and all Israel under oath to do what had been suggested. And they took the oath.” Things were going to get rocky. They needed to be in this together.
With prayer. With careful leadership. Number 3: It was done with care and thought.
The picture in verse 13 is dismal. The weather paints the picture of how everybody was feeling: “But there are many people here and it is the rainy season; so we cannot stand outside. Besides, this matter cannot be taken care of in a day or two, because we have sinned greatly in this thing.”
They’d gathered the whole community together. Nobody was to be absent. But it was the middle of December, pouring with rain, and so probably freezing cold. So rather than rush this, and mess it up, they set up an inquiry.
This was not an inquiry to compromise. Bureaucracy instead of action. You know the kind of thing: Write a report, commission a public inquiry, set up a committee, report back in three years to find a way to kick the can down the road some more.
No – they needed three months to look at each person, one at a time, to work out exactly what had happened and what needed to be done. This was careful, and it was thorough.
With prayer. With careful leadership. With care and thought.
That’s what we do know about what they did.
There’s a lot we don’t know as well. And a lot of people’s objections to this revolve around assuming things that we just aren’t told.
How many were cleared when the inquiry looked into them?
How were the women treated? It’s easy to picture these poor women simply turfed out onto the street with nowhere to go, but we aren’t told that. We are told everything was done according to God’s law. If you read his laws, you’ll see God cared greatly for women in this situation. If anything, we can assume they were sent back to their parental home, with their needs provided for.
So it’s not helpful to feel scandalised from details that we have to guess. Far better is to notice what we are told: with prayer, with careful leadership, with a great deal of care and thought.
Whether it was a good thing
So: Question 1: What was the problem? Question 2: What did they do about it?
Now question 3: Did they do the right thing?
The Bible doesn’t just report events that happened and leave us to interpret them. The Bible writers interpret the history they record. So we have to look at how the narrator of the book of Ezra is leading us to think.
There are three clues showing us they did the right thing.
Number 1: Ezra’s credentials.
We were first introduced to Ezra, back in chapter 7. We were shown his ancestry, his careful study of God’s laws, the way he put what he knew into practice, the fact that the king of Persia had sent him precisely because he was so qualified. That chapter was put there so that the readers of this book would learn to trust Ezra when it comes to making these difficult reforms.
Clue number 2: The support for what they did.
42,360 Jews returned to Jerusalem in chapter 2, another couple of thousand in chapter 8. The whole community came together to decide what to do.
When they took a vote, how many voted against the proposal?
Verse 15: “Only Jonathan son of Asahel and Jahzeiah son of Tikvah, supported by Meshullam and Shabbethai the Levite, opposed this.” Answer? 4. 4 against. Everybody else in favour. This was not 52% in favour on a minute turnout! It was 99.99% in favour with 100% turnout.
Clue number 3: God was in it.
This whole process was soaked in prayer. Now, sure, I’m not naïve. Of course it’s possible to pray about a decision and still get it wrong. But we’re being told that God was in it.
Ezra’s character and qualifications. The massive majority in favour. Soaked in prayer. We’re being led to the conclusion that this was the right thing to do. It was awkward. It was time-consuming. It was certainly costly. But it was the right thing to do.
The main reason people think they did the wrong thing was because it cheapens marriage. God created marriage in Genesis 2. Jesus added his own personal endorsement to that. And marriage is intended to be for life.
So how can it be right to send these women away?
The answer I think is that these marriages were illegal. The people concluded they were against God’s law. These marriages should never have been contracted.
This is not a group of men sending their wives away because they don’t like their cooking. This is more like finding some men who have married their own sisters, or who were already married and took a second wife. It should never have happened.
These Israelites would say they’ve just got married. God says they can’t have done. This is not a marriage. It’s against his law.
To be slightly more technical, this means we’re in the territory of annulment, not divorce.
A bit of English history might illustrate here. Henry VIII’s first wife was Catherine of Aragon. If you know the rhyme about the fates of Henry’s 6 wives, you’d think his first wife was divorced. But that was not what happened.
Catherine was unable to produce a male heir for Henry. Many people think Henry got bored of Catherine, and fancied Anne Boleyn instead, and that’s probably true. But something niggled away at Henry’s conscience. Leviticus chapter 20, verse 21: “If a man marries his brother’s wife, it is an act of impurity; he has dishonoured his brother. They will be childless.” Catherine was previously married to Henry’s older brother, Arthur. So that verse nagged at his conscience. Here was the reason he did not have a son.
So he asked the pope to annul his marriage. To declare that it was an invalid marriage. The pope refused. So Henry declared that the Church in England was no longer under the pope’s jurisdiction. The king of England was head of the Church in England, and so the Church of England was born.
Henry was partly driven by guilt, and partly trying to find a way to swap his wife for a younger model. The pope was right to refuse.
But back in Ezra 10, the people have discovered that these marriages really were forbidden by God. God says these were marriages that were impossible to enter into.
Now, remember we haven’t yet got to thinking how this applies today. We’ll get there.
But this is why this response is commended to us. Ezra’s credentials. The unanimity of the community. The fact God was in this decision. It all says that the people did the right thing.
They did the right thing because God has such a high view of marriage, not to undermine God’s institution of marriage.
What we might do
Question 1: What was the problem? Question 2: What did they do about it? Question 3: Did they do the right thing?
Now let’s come really carefully to the last question: What are the lessons for us today?
I think there are 4.
The first is that it does not mean for us what it meant for them.
Many Christians are married to someone who is not a Christian. We looked at the letter of 1 Corinthians last year. In chapter 7, Paul explicitly says that the Christian in this position is not to divorce their unbelieving husband or wife.
Nobody today may seek to annul their marriage because the person they are married to is not a fellow Christian. These laws for Israel were all tied up with the fact that the people of God were also a nation state. Now, the people of God is made up of the followers of the Lord Jesus Christ from every nation on earth. Things have moved on.
Second: it’s still true that Christians should not marry someone who is not a Christian. If you have done, stay married, make it thrive, and we’d love to pray for you and support you in that. But if you’re not married, and you want to get married, it needs to be a fellow Christian.
In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul says to widows: They’re free to remarry, but their new partner must belong to the Lord.
Many Christians feel the pressure to marry someone who is not a Christian. Not many single Christians of the opposite sex in your church. Or they simply find someone they love.
Sadly, Israel’s history is accurate as to what usually happens. The Christian ends up worshipping the gods of the person they’re married to. Their ambitions, their priorities, their goals, their dreams subtly shift. The people in Ezra 10 were painfully aware of this, which is why they took such strong action.
Number 1: Don’t divorce your husband or wife because they’re not a Christian. Number 2: Don’t marry a non-Christian in the first place.
Number 3: Deal with sin radically. The people prayed about it. Chapter 9. But then they acted. Chapter 10.
Feeling sorry and confessing to God are not everything. Repentance is fundamentally practical. When you become aware of something specific in your life that is not the way God wants it, you need to take action. And that action may be deep and may be radical. There may be a habit to kick, a place no longer to go to, a specific apology to make, money to give, a job to change, a new habit to start.
Ezra knew this could be very costly indeed. He prayed hard first, and gathered leaders about him. But when push came to shove, it was time to act.
You may remember the teaching of Jesus in Mark chapter 9: “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life maimed than with two hands to go into hell, where the fire never goes out. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than to have two feet and be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out.”
Sin needs to be dealt with ruthlessly. It can feel like losing a limb, losing part of you. But if God is your number one loyalty, then so be it.
Number 1: Don’t divorce your husband or wife because they’re not a Christian. Number 2: Don’t marry a non-Christian in the first place. Number 3: Deal with sin radically.
Then number 4: Be thankful for Jesus.
This is a funny place for the book to end. We talked last time about the terrible sense of déjà-vu there is here. The people were exiled for their unfaithfulness, and no sooner have they been given another chance than they’re back at it again.
Every Old Testament book ends with this weird feeling that things are not yet complete. The story is not yet told. And this is no exception. We’re left longing for someone who can change our hearts from within, to break that endless spiral of rebellion, forgiveness and fresh chances, followed by more rebellion.
We’re left longing for Jesus. Except that the book of Ezra may leave us longing for Jesus, but we aren’t longing for him. We have him.
One of the biggest take-home points of this chapter is to make us thankful for Jesus. Thankful that our standing before God is not like the tide, that goes in and out, but is steady and secure.
Be thankful for Jesus.
Jesus of Nazareth is full of the grace of God.
When he arrived on the scene in the first chapter of Mark’s gospel, here was his message: “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news.”
Jesus calls us to repent. To turn our whole life around, so that it points in his direction. That’s deep. It’s radical. And its costly.
But then he gives us the other side of the coin. He calls us to believe the good news. He did not come to tell us all to pull up our socks. He came to announce the good news that he has done the thing we could never do for ourselves.
He came to die and rise again, so that all who follow him would be changed and transformed from within, would be forgiven, would be welcomed into God’s family, would look forward to the day when Jesus returns to this world.
If you’ve never responded to Jesus in this way, trusting your whole life to him, then do so today.
And if you have, this chapter urges you to continue the costly but worthwhile business of devoting your whole life to worship him.