Scripture Reading: Ezra 9
Background Reading: 1 Corinthians 5:6–13; 2 Corinthians 6:14–7:1
1. What is the response of the leaders of Israel to the arrival and the teaching of Ezra? Did they come forward voluntarily, or were they coerced? (See Note 9:1.) Compare this with Achan’s confession in Joshua 7:13–21.
2. What specific laws of God do they admit to having violated? Does God’s law speak to ethnic or racial intermarriage, or is God only concerned with spiritual relationships? Is God concerned about marrying across political or ethnic boundaries? (See Note 9:2.)
3. What is Ezra’s response to these confessions? What is unusual about his response? (See Note 9:3; read Nehemiah 13:25.)
4. Are all the people of Israel guilty of intermarriage with pagans? What is the reaction of those who have not committed such sins? What motivates their actions? (See Note 9:4; read Isaiah 66:2.)
5. What is the tenor or tone of Ezra’s prayer? Does he include himself among the guilty? Should he take responsibility for the sins of the people? How does this prayer compare with that uttered by Daniel? (See Note 9:6; read Daniel 9:3–19.)
6. Is Ezra still concerned with those past sins of Israel which caused their being taken as exiles into Babylon? Or is he concerned about the present sins committed by the exiles since their return to Jerusalem? (See Note 9:8–9.)
7. How had God treated his people while they were still in captivity in Babylon? What evidences does Ezra cite of God’s mercy and compassion? (See Note 9:9.)
8. Does God deal justly with his people? Does he give them the punishments that their sins deserve? Does he deal in the same way with pagan people? (See Note 9:13; read Exodus 34:5–9.)
Notice the contrast with the earlier situation. When we get to Ezra 9 we encounter a situation which has not been reported before in the book of Ezra. Prior to this time there has been a wonderful spirit of obedience and worship of God, with all of the people having demonstrated a willingness to follow God’s law precisely and willingly. When the people under Zerubbabel and Jeshua first came back to Jerusalem, they were willing to take the gifts and offerings from the surrounding people for the rebuilding of the altar and for the rebuilding of the temple (3:1–10), but they were not willing to let the enemies of Judah and Benjamin help in the building process (4:1–2). The people of God were not willing to compromise their religious practice for the sake of peace with their neighbors, and for that they paid a price of opposition, lies, and legal harassment. For two to three years the work on the temple was stopped, until the people of Israel could once again get assistance from King Darius of Persia.
When the temple was finally finished, the Israelites not only dedicated it to God but also celebrated the Passover. At that time, “the priests and Levites had purified themselves and were all ceremonially clean” (6:20). Furthermore, “the Israelites . . . had separated themselves from the unclean practices of their Gentile neighbors in order to seek the Lord, the God of Israel” (6:21). Israel was truly a God-fearing nation and was trying to live according to all the requirements of God’s law. On the surface there is no appearance of Baals, Ashtaroth, or Moloch, no images or groves, golden calves, or high places. The temple was duly respected, and the temple service was all in place. It seems as though God’s people have finally learned to live in obedient, loving relationship to their God. They have finally matured in the faith and can be happy about their religious practices.
Text Notes on Discussion Starters
[9:1] Within a few short months after Ezra and his entourage arrived in Jerusalem, “the leaders came to [him] and said” that “the people have not kept themselves separate from the neighboring peoples with their detestable practices.” What they found was that the people had compromised with the world around them and had not been on guard against all the sins of their neighbors. In the sixty years since the dedication of the temple, the people had become lax in their resistance to evil and had become too compromising with their neighbors. During times of peace and prosperity, when there seemingly is no persecution, are the times when the temptations become most subtle and effective. During the time that God had sent his people into captivity, the land of Canaan had once again become populated with people who did not love the Lord or his law, and who had devised all kinds of false religious practices. The situation after the Babylonian captivity is very similar to that existing in the time of Moses and Joshua, where the Promised Land is overrun by enemies of the gospel. God had warned his people repeatedly about that and had told them not only that they should not compromise with these neighbors but also that they had to tear down all their idols, their pagan altars, and their Asherah poles, and give up their evil practices.
[9:2] The complaint registered against the leaders by those who came to Ezra sounds almost identical to that expressed by Moses shortly before the Israelites were ready to march into the Promised Land the first time. God had instructed Moses to list those same names of heathen peoples and had commanded his people to “make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy. Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, for they will turn your sons away from following Me” (Deut. 7:2–3). God is emphatic about this command, forbidding intermarriage between believers and unbelievers. God knows our human nature and knows that if our sons marry non-Christians, they are apt to wink approvingly when the wives introduce unholy ideas or practices into the church. Solomon, in all of his wisdom, thought that such rules did not apply to him, but he soon found that his wives turned his heart away from God (1 Kings 11:1–11). God knows, too, that the children from mixed marriages are apt to be unfaithful to God, especially if their mothers are non- Christians, for it is the mother who shapes the child and gives direction during those early formative years. It wasn’t good enough to ignore them or to co-exist alongside of them, but God’s people had to root out these evil practices. God wanted his people to take over the Promised Land and to make it his special possession. God commanded them to “break down their altars, smash their sacred stones, cut down their Asherah poles and burn their idols in the fire” (Deut. 7:5). God also emphasized to them that he was a jealous God, who would not tolerate any kind of competition (Exod. 20:5; 34:14). He was truly holy and insisted that he alone be worshipped. God is saying the same thing to us today, I believe. It isn’t enough for us to believe that abortion, gambling casinos, lotteries, and same-sex marriages are wrong, but we must also be active in trying to remove those practices from our land and separate ourselves from them. We should not in any form or fashion be associated with them.
[9:3] Ezra not only tore his garment and robe but also “plucked out some of the hair of [his] head and beard.” Right behavior must always begin at the top, but this would seem to be an extreme reaction. He must have been so upset and shaken by this information that he was beside himself in anguish. Compare this response with that of Nehemiah when he heard a similar report about Jewish men marrying pagan women (Neh. 13:23–27). Both Ezra and Nehemiah appear to be truly God-fearing leaders, who know deeply how God hates such sin. Some parents mistakenly make the complaint that they do not want their children’s teachers to be role models for their children. They claim that all the teachers should be doing is teaching the children the subject matter of the course. One can never separate our lives from our teaching. What we are and what we do are far more significant than what we say. If we preach one thing and live another, our audience will do what we live and not what we preach. Our example is usually so powerful and so loud that our students sometimes cannot hear a word that we say.
[9:4] The saddest part of this confession of sin is that the priests and the Levites are listed prominently at the top as those who “have not kept themselves separate from the neighboring peoples” (v. 1). In fact, the report goes on to state, “the leaders and officials have led the way in this unfaithfulness” (v. 2). When we get to Ezra 10, we will notice that the first ones listed are sons of Jeshua, the son of Jozadak, who was the high priest who came with Zerubbabel in the first migration. Four of Jeshua’s sons were found guilty of marrying idolatrous wives. That is often true today, too, for we see so often that those who are leaders in the church, whether pastors or professors or elders, are guilty of serious sins and lead the people astray. Heresy, it is said, begins not so much in the pew as in the seminary. Evil practice begins many times with the preachers and follows in the lives of the laity. We need to remember, too, that Satan works harder on the leaders than on anyone else.
[9:6] Ezra is chosen by God for just such a time as this. He has devoted his life to a study of the law of God and has distinguished himself as the most noted authority on the Law in the whole Persian Empire. God has been grooming and preparing him for this special assignment, because God sees what is happening in Judah and Jerusalem. Those who are called to be his people are forgetting the Law and are no longer keeping his commandments. When Ezra gets there, he is quickly apprised of the situation. Ezra did not do anything wrong, but he is the one who “tore his tunic and cloak, pulled hair from his head and beard and sat down appalled” (9:3, New International Version). When trying to understand Ezra’s reaction to the report that he had received, we must remember that he was an outstanding student of the law of God. He knew Moses’ writings better than anyone in the land. He had studied the books of Exodus, Numbers, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy so carefully and thoroughly that he knew exactly what God required and how God would respond to this charge of evil. Ezra knew how Moses had responded when he found out that the Israelites, under his brother Aaron’s leadership, had made and worshipped the golden calf. He knew that Moses fell prostrate before the Lord for forty days and forty nights and ate no bread and drank no water because “he feared the anger and wrath of the Lord” (Deut. 9:19). Moses knew then that God had every right to destroy his people and to wipe them from the face of the earth. Out of love for the people of God, Moses, who himself had done nothing wrong, pleads with God for mercy and demonstrates, by his personal example, how truly sorry he is for the offenses against God. Ezra also probably knew of Daniel’s prayer of confession (Dan. 9:3–19) for the people of God and the fact that Daniel confesses all of the sins that the people had committed. Moses, Daniel, and Ezra are all types of Christ, taking on themselves the guilt of God’s people and coming before God in repentance and humility, not because of what they personally had done but because they came as representatives of God’s people. As a type of Christ, Ezra appears to consider all of their sins as his sins, all of their disobedience as his disobedience, and all of their perils as his perils. At first Ezra is very much alone in his grief and remorse, but public notice is soon taken of this and the devout people of God come to support him. Those people who also feared God and knew that he is righteous and angry at sin gathered around Ezra and demonstrated their support for Ezra’s action. “Everyone who trembled at the words of the God of Israel gathered around me because of the unfaithfulness of the exiles” (9:4).
[9:8–9] All the way through the prayer Ezra uses the plural pronouns “us” and “our,” signifying that he put himself as a member of the community and includes himself as a sinner. In making his confession, Ezra recalls the fact that God’s people have often been disobedient and have deserved every kind of punishment that God has sent their way. He admits that their record is rather sad and that they have a long history of disobedience. He doesn’t pretend that this is only one isolated instance of sin. Thinking back to their earlier existence, he admits, “Because of our sins, we and our kings and our priests have been subjected to the sword and captivity, to pillage and humiliation at the hand of foreign kings, as it is today” (9:7).
[9:9] God has been good to us. Ezra acknowledges that God had been very good to them in spite of their long history of sin and rebellion. “Our God did not forsake us in our bondage; but he extended mercy to us in the sight of the kings of Persia.” He admits that God had every right to wipe every one of them from off the land, but he is grateful that God has spared a remnant and has allowed them to come back to Canaan with a tremendous amount of wealth and has privileged them to rebuild the temple and to have regular worship. Ezra in effect is saying, “How ungrateful we are to have offended a God who has been so good to us!” On behalf of all the people, Ezra admits the specific sins of which they were guilty and repeats the Law for all to hear, and then casts himself and the people on the mercy of the court. He readily admits that what has happened to them “has come upon us for our evil deeds and for our great guilt” (9:13).
[9:13] “You our God have punished us less than our iniquities deserve.” “You are righteous, for we are left as a remnant, as it is this day” (9:15). Ezra admits their guilt and recognizes that none of them can stand in the presence of God. If God dealt justly with them, they would all have to die. Their sins demand the death penalty. But “the Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in mercy” (Ps. 103:8). The captivity into which God had placed his people had been effective in transforming their lives from the rebellious, idolatrous, and haughty attitudes of the people when God had sent King Nebuchadnezzar to punish them. Now, by contrast, they are quick to admit their guilt and show a true humility. They recognize that they are, by nature, sinners prone to hate God’s law and in need of his forgiveness.
Dr. Norman De Jong is a semi-retired pastor in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.