5. Confession and Repentance (Ezra 7-10)

Audio (42:13)

Under Ezra’s leadership, the priesthood is purified. James J. Tissot, detail of ‘The Priests’ (1898-1902), Gouache on board, The Jewish Museum.
Under Ezra's leadership, the priesthood is purified. James J. Tissot, detail of 'The Priests' (1898-1902), Gouache on board, The Jewish Museum.

Until now we've been looking at the period of rebuilding the temple -- from the time the first exiles returned to Jerusalem about 537 BC, including the prophecies of Haggai and Zechariah, beginning in 520 BC, and the completion of the temple in 515 BC.

Now we fast-forward nearly 57 years to 458 BC. Most of a century has passed since the temple has been finished. The returned exiles in Jerusalem have fallen into both complacency about their situation, and have adopted a policy of compromise with their neighbors, in order to keep the peace.

Turbulence in the Persian Empire and Artaxerxes I

As you recall, the temple was finished in 515 BC by decree of Darius I, King of Persia (521-486 BC). After Darius the Great, the Persian Empire was ruled by Xerxes I (486-465 BC), known in the Book of Esther as King Ahasuerus, and also mentioned in Ezra 4:6.

But all is not well in the Persian Empire. In 465 BC, Xerxes is murdered by the commander of his royal bodyguard, and Xerxes' son and heir, Artaxerxes I Longimanus (464-424 BC), avenges his father's murder, and then takes firm steps to consolidate his throne. In the west, Egypt has revolted against Persia with the help of the Athenians. It's time for Artaxerxes to make sure that the buffer provinces near the border of Egypt are firmly committed to Persia. This seems to be the outward reason that Artaxerxes is particularly generous to Ezra's mission. The real reason, of course, is God's hand..

The text dates Ezra's journey to Jerusalem in "the seventh year of Artaxerxes" (Ezra 7:7) which is 458 BC. Artaxerxes commissions Ezra to take charge of the ecclesiastical and civil affairs of the province of Judah, and pays for sacrifices to be offered and prayers made for himself and his reign.

Ezra the Priest, Scribe, and Administrator (Ezra 7:1-10)

Though we've studied the first six chapters of Ezra already (Lesson 1), only now do we meet Ezra the Priest, after whom the book is named. We're introduced to Ezra in several ways.

Priest. Ezra is described as "the priest and scribe" (Ezra 7:11-12, 21; 10:16; Nehemiah 8:9; 12:26). A 16-generation genealogy is given in verses 1-5 to prove that his priestly lineage is of the highest order. He comes from a proud heritage of priests.[154] Ezra doesn't seem to serve as a high priest in the temple during his day. Rather, Ezra exercises his ministry by being a religious reformer.

Babylon. Ezra comes out of the large Jewish community centered near Babylon. In addition, Babylon is the main capital of the Persian kings at this period,[155] which helps explain his access to Artaxerxes.

Scribe. Ezra is also described as a "teacher" (NIV) or "scribe" (NRSV, ESV, KJV). The noun is sōpēr, from the verb sāpar, "to count" (mathematical), and "to recount," that is, "to declare, tell, show forth." Related words refer to "book" and "writing." Certainly, scribes were important in the Ancient Near East for keeping records. But gradually scribes evolved from mere copiers and recorders to influential members of the government and representatives of the king. During the Exile a professional class of scribes helps explain to the Jewish community how the Law should be obeyed in a foreign context. Thus the initial elaborations of the Torah, later known as "the scribal tradition," come into existence.[156] This is where Ezra excelled.

"He was a teacher well versed in the Law of Moses, which the LORD, the God of Israel, had given." (Ezra 7:6a)

"Ezra had devoted himself to the study and observance of the Law of the LORD, and to teaching its decrees and laws in Israel." (Ezra 7:10)

Courageous Leader. It is clear that Ezra takes the initiative while in Babylon to seek help from the Persian King in his plans to help Israel. "The king had granted him everything he asked, for the hand of the LORD his God was on him" (Ezra 7:6b). Then he organizes a caravan of Jews to emigrate from Babylon to Judah.

Person of Faith. In Ezra 8, his role as a person of faith is seen. His caravan will be carrying the equivalent of millions of dollars in gold and silver without a military guard. So he organizes a fast to seek God for a safe journey before embarking.

Civil Administrator. Finally, Ezra is a civil administrator, one whom King Artaxerxes commissions to reform the government and justice system in the province of Judah (Ezra 7:25), though I don't think he is the actual governor of the Province of Judah (Yehud).

Artaxerxes sees in Ezra a religious man, but one who will reestablish Persian rule in this area so close to Persia's enemy Egypt. From a divine perspective, Ezra is the one God has chosen to bring religious reform. Perhaps by his largess, Artaxerxes thinks he is buying loyalty. But God is behind it all as a way to finance his own Kingdom work.

Ezra Comes to Jerusalem (Ezra 7:7)

Route of the return to Zion
Route of the return to Zion (larger map)

Ezra's caravan includes not only Babylonian Jews wanting to emigrate to their ancestral home, but also a contingent of religious workers who can help Ezra bring reform when he gets there. Verse 8 gives us the date of the journey -- 458 BC -- and its duration -- five months. Verses 9 and 10 attribute the success of the journey to God's grace and goodness[157] upon a man who has devoted himself to God's service.

King Artaxerxes' Letter to Ezra (Ezra 7:11-28)

Verses 11-28 include the text of a letter of authorization that Ezra brings with him. Artaxerxes authorizes:

  1. Emigration. To emigrate with a band of Jews (verse 13)
  2. Official inquiry. To inquire about the province of Judah and its capital, Jerusalem on behalf of "the king and his seven advisors." In other words, Ezra's inquiry and the measures he will take to correct problems have the king's authority. The Jews' enemies don't have much recourse (verse 14).
  3. Transmit money. To transfer out of Babylon money from both the king himself and the Jewish community to offer sacrifices in Jerusalem, and whatever else is needed there (verses 15-19)
  4. Royal treasury. To draw on the royal treasury of the Satrapy of Trans-Euphrates (of which Judah is a sub-province) for other needs -- essentially a blank check signed by the king (verses 19-21). Limits are set, but they seem generous indeed (verse 22).
  5. Prayer. To pray and offer sacrifices for the king and the Persian government (verse 23). Artaxerxes isn't a believer but a polytheist. However, he believes that favor from the Jews' God -- any god for that matter -- is worth paying for.
  6. Waiver of taxation. The priests and temple workers are free from taxation (verse 24).
  7. Governance. To appoint magistrates and judges to administer justice (verses 25-26). Those who don't obey may be punished by death and other means, by the king's authority.

The chapter closes with a word of praise for God prompting such great favor from the government (verses 27-28a).

Recruiting Emigrants for the Journey (Ezra 7:28b-8:20)

Now that Ezra has official authorization for his journey, it is time to recruit people from the most distinguished families in Babylon to join him.

"Because the hand of the LORD my God was on me, I took courage and gathered leading men from Israel to go up with me." (Ezra 7:28b)

The first part of chapter 8 details the names of the heads of families that join on the journey, as well as the numbers from each family.

When he finally gathers the group at the Ahava Canal to begin the journey, he finds that they have priests, but not Levites, the temple workers who are required to run the temple enterprise. And so he sends a delegation to "Iddo, the leader in Casiphia" (Ezra 8:17), who heads a clan of temple servants. With his help, they assemble 258 men, enough to meet the need.

When you total the whole group, you come up with approximately 1,750 men. I am sure that these men additionally bring their wives, children, and servants, to emigrate with them. So the whole company may have numbered 10,000 or so.

Fasting and Prayer at the Ahava Canal (Ezra 8:21-23)

The company has assembled and are camping together, waiting for the order to embark. But first, there is business to do before God.

"21 There, by the Ahava Canal, I proclaimed a fast, so that we might humble ourselves before our God and ask him for a safe journey for us and our children, with all our possessions. 22 I was ashamed to ask the king for soldiers and horsemen to protect us from enemies on the road, because we had told the king, 'The gracious hand of our God is on everyone who looks to him, but his great anger is against all who forsake him.' 23 So we fasted and petitioned our God about this, and he answered our prayer." (Ezra 8:21-23)

Ezra has been boasting to King Artaxerxes how mighty the Jewish God is, so he can't very well ask for an armed escort. That would display unbelief in God's power to protect him. But the danger is real. They are carrying a great deal of money. So Ezra calls a fast to humble them and to petition God for protection. We don't know the length of the fast, but when Ezra senses that God had answered them, they are ready to go.

Fasting isn't some form of spiritual blackmail or earning favor to manipulate God to do things for us. Rather it is a way of humbling ourselves before God. Fasting helps us to be aware of our need for him, rather than continue to be self-deceived by a sense of self-sufficiency. Our prayers become humble, earnest, faith-filled.

Q1. (Ezra 8:21-23) Why does Ezra call the people to fast? Does fasting compel God to answer our prayers? What does fasting accomplish in us?

Measures to Protect from Embezzlement (Ezra 8:24-30, 33-34)

Access to a money has a way of tempting people to steal it -- or embezzle it from the organization they work for. So Ezra publicly weighs out the gold and silver articles and puts them in the care of twelve trusted men. He tells them that the treasure is "consecrated to the LORD," to put the fear of God in them. And then he explains that when they get to Jerusalem, the articles will be weighed again -- and the weights compared with the original weights to make sure people haven't been shaving off bits of gold and silver during the journey (8:34).

It's both wise and biblical to set up measures to ensure that trusted people don't embezzle God's funds. Paul did this when conveying gifts for the poor of Jerusalem (1 Corinthians 16:3; 2 Corinthians 8:19-21). For example, most churches in our day have found it wise to have different people make bank deposits than those who pay the bills. It's not that we don't trust one another, but we know from sad experience that even the best people can be tempted by greed. Taking precautions is wise.

Q2. (Ezra 8:24-30, 33-34) Why does Ezra weigh out the gold and silver vessels when he entrusts them to individuals, and weigh them again when they are delivered to the temple? Is this an act of distrust? If not, why are steps to prevent embezzlement good for Christian organizations?

Safe Journey (Ezra 8:15-36)

"31 On the twelfth day of the first month we set out from the Ahava Canal to go to Jerusalem. The hand of our God was on us, and he protected us from enemies and bandits along the way. 32 So we arrived in Jerusalem, where we rested three days." (Ezra 8:31-32)

God protects his people during the five-month, 900 mile trek. Yes, a caravan of 10,000 people might be intimidating, but unarmed civilians are no match for mounted bandits, who are skilled at lying in wait where they can't be seen, and then attacking, spreading confusion, and stealing the goods they seek. The enemies and bandits[158] either didn't see them, or did but kept their distance through the sovereign protection of God.

On the other hand, a few years later, Nehemiah has no problem being accompanied by the king's "army officers and cavalry" on his journey from Susa (Nehemiah 2:9). There are no hard and fast rules here, rather we rely on the Spirit's guidance.

Intermarriage between Faiths (Ezra 9)

Ezra and his band of 10,000 pilgrims have delivered their treasure to the temple and are now encamped in Judah in tents while they go about the immense task of finding their ancestral villages and building houses in their homeland.

As for Ezra, he begins his campaign of teaching the Word of God. Within four months (Ezra 7:8; 10:9), his teaching mission bears fruit with agonizing intensity, as some of his students come to him with a devastating report.

"1 The people of Israel, including the priests and the Levites, have not kept themselves separate from the neighboring peoples with their detestable practices, like those of the Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Jebusites, Ammonites, Moabites, Egyptians and Amorites. 2 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.'" (Ezra 9:1b-2)

The leaders' report to Ezra echoes the very words of the Law that he had been teaching them, including a list of the pagan nations from whom Israel was to keep itself separate: "Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Jebusites, Ammonites, Moabites, Egyptians and Amorites" (Exodus 23:23; Deuteronomy 20:17-18).

Spiritual Purity

To people in the West, the idea of prohibiting interracial marriage might seem petty, motivated by racial prejudice, the very prejudice that pluralistic societies like the United States and Western Europe have had to fight to keep peace and promote justice. But if we try to understand what is happening in the Judah of Ezra's day using that paradigm, we'll miss the point entirely.

The issue isn't about race. I would guess that most of the various peoples living in Palestine looked pretty much the same outwardly. And it isn't really about difference of language itself.[159] People probably knew enough Aramaic to makes themselves understood to each other.

The real issue is spiritual. When people intermarry with those of another religion, there is usually a mixing of belief-systems in the family, known as syncretism. If this just happened here or there rarely, it isn't as much of a problem. But if intermarriage with people of other religions is widespread, then the purity of the Jewish faith is compromised.

The worship of Yahweh gets intermixed and confused with the worship of Baal and Ashtoreth, and other pagan gods of the region. Immoral sexual practices of the pagans gradually become acceptable to God's holy people. There is no longer a sense of "clean" and "unclean," and therefore no concept of holiness and righteousness before Yahweh, the holy God. Any kind of religious practice is now tolerated as acceptable. There is no single Truth as revealed by God. Relativism and tolerance now accept all religions and gods as equally valid. As a result, the nation of Israel loses its distinctive character as a people devoted to Yahweh, the one God who created heaven and earth.

This may sound overblown until you look at the history of Israel and Judah. In the Northern Kingdom, the national worship centers came to feature golden calves as objects of worship, intermixed with Yahweh worship (1 Kings 12:28-33). In Judah before the Exile, pagan worship is widespread (Jeremiah 32:26-35) -- even in Solomon's Temple itself (Ezekiel 8; 2 Kings 16).

Before Israel ever entered the Promised Land, God's command is clear:

"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 to serve other gods, and the LORD's anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you." (Deuteronomy 7:3-4)

Indeed, this command has been repeated time after time by godly leaders and prophets down through the years (Joshua 23:12-13). When this command is neglected, disaster follows (Judges 3:6-7; 1 Kings 11:2; Psalm 106:35).

Ezra's Reaction (Ezra 9:3-4)

Gustav Doré, detail from ‘Ezra in Prayer’ (1866), engraving, from La Grande Bible de Tours.
Gustav Doré, detail from 'Ezra in Prayer' (1866), engraving, from La Grande Bible de Tours.

Ezra, as a student of the Bible and the history of God's people, is well aware of the disastrous consequences of intermarriage and syncretism. So when he receives this report, he is appalled!

"3 When I heard this, I tore my tunic and cloak, pulled hair from my head and beard and sat down appalled. 4 Then everyone who trembled at the words of the God of Israel gathered around me because of this unfaithfulness of the exiles. And I sat there appalled until the evening sacrifice." (Ezra 9:2-4)

The word "appalled" describes the horror and shock[160] that Ezra feel, when he realizes the terrible punishment that will come upon the nation -- again -- for this terrible sin. And those who believe the word of God had the same reaction. They are described as those "who trembled at the words of the God of Israel."

Many of us live in cultures that have no concept of "sin" -- only of bad behavior and mistakes. The average man or woman in Western cultures doesn't "tremble at the words of the God of Israel." Rather they don't really believe them or imagine any eternal punishment for disobedience. That's what the culture of Judah is becoming in Ezra's day -- except for a few who still believe strongly that God's words must be taken seriously. They join Ezra in mourning.

The way the people from the Near East mourn is often different from Western cultures. Grief there is expressed publicly and loudly.

"When I heard this, I tore my tunic and cloak, pulled hair from my head and beard and sat down appalled." (Ezra 9:3)

Tearing his clothes and pulling out hair are ways of expressing grief, as well as shock at blasphemy, in that culture (Joshua 7:6; 2 Kings 19:1; Job 1:20; Micah 1:16; Mark 14:63; Acts 14:14). In verse 5 we see that "self-abasement" (NIV), "fasting" (ESV, NRSV), "heaviness" (KJV) accompanies this mourning.[161]

The Prophet Ezekiel had a vision of judgment on the city and the temple, of a man clothed in linen with a writing case at his waist, with the command:

"Pass through the city, through Jerusalem, and put a mark on the foreheads of the men who sigh and groan over all the abominations that are committed in it." (Ezekiel 9:4)

How much do we grieve over the backsliding of our family, friends, and neighbors? How deeply do we grieve over the shallowness of our churches? Or do we revert to a quick judgmentalism that is the earmark of the church in the eyes of the world?

Q3. (Ezra 9:3-4) How does Ezra react when he hears of the sin of intermarriage? Does he react for show? Does he over-react? Why does he grieve over the sins of the people? What is wrong with us if we don't grieve over the sins of God's people? https://www.joyfulheart.com/forums/topic/1739-q3-heart-sick/

Ezra's Prayer Posture (Ezra 9:5-6a)

Ezra's mourning isn't some kind of show. The sins of the leaders of the nation rip at his heart. He is beside himself with anguish for Judah because he knows history. He knows the Word. He knows how punishment for these very sins have been visited upon the nation in the past, and he can see that happening in the future. But he can also see God's mercy. And that brings him to prayer.

"5 Then, at the evening sacrifice, I rose from my self-abasement, with my tunic and cloak torn, and fell on my knees with my hands spread out to the LORD my God 6 and prayed." (Ezra 9:5-6a)

Observe Ezra's posture of humility and supplication. For the most part, Hebrews pray standing (Luke 18:10-13). But kneeling indicates a special kind of humbling oneself before someone who is greater. We see it especially in earnest prayers (Daniel 6:10; Acts 9:40; Psalm 96:6; Matthew 18:26; Luke 22:41-42) -- in Solomon, for example.

"When Solomon had finished all these prayers and supplications to the LORD, he rose from before the altar of the LORD, where he had been kneeling with his hands spread out toward heaven." (1 Kings 8:54)

Spreading of the hands is also a characteristic Hebrew prayer posture, seen throughout the Old Testament. It is also common in the early church (1 Timothy 2:8). One of the characteristic symbols found in the catacombs of Rome is the orante, a figure standing with hands lifted in prayer (though Ezra is kneeling in our passage).

We see in Ezra 9:6b, that Ezra he is praying with bowed head as an indication of his shame and disgrace. Often, the Jews prayed and praised with face uplifted (Job 22:26; Psalm 24:7; John 11:41; 17:1-2), but praying with bowed head is a sign not only of humility, but of shame (Job 10:15; 11:15).

Ezra is not quiet about his mourning and his prayer. He was quite demonstrative -- not for show, but because of his deep shame, grief, and genuine fear that the people's sins will bring God's judgment upon them once again. Skipping down to chapter 10:1 we read:

"Ezra was praying and confessing, weeping and throwing himself down before the house of God." (Ezra 10:1)

Four verbs describe Ezra's actions. Three out of the four verses use the Hithpael stem of the Hebrew verb to express an intensive type of action with a reflexive voice, that is, when the person performs the action upon himself.

  • "Praying" is pālal, "intervene, interpose, pray," used especially of intercessory prayer, where one person pleads before God on behalf of others.[162]
  • "Confessing" is yādâ, "to confess," to convey the acknowledgment or confession of sin, individually or nationally.[163]
  • "Weeping" is bākâ, ""to weep by reason of joy or sorrow, the latter including lament, complaint, remorse or repentance." It is the natural and spontaneous expression of strong emotion.[164] This is the weeping of repentance at having offended God. In the Near East culture it is probably accompanied by loud wailing.
  • "Throwing himself down" is nāpal, "fall, lie, be cast down." I picture this as Ezra's initial reaction to the news. He falls immediately to the ground before the temple and kneeling, begins to pray, confess, and wail for Israel's sins.

Ezra's Corporate Confession (Ezra 9:6b-7)

Ezra begins his prayer with a humble and contrite confession of sins.

"6b O my God, 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. 7 From the days of our forefathers until now, our guilt has been great. 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." (Ezra 9:6b-7)

Notice that Ezra is not confessing his own personal sins. As a priest, he is confessing the sins of the nation -- "our sins." This is no shallow confession. Ezra is overcome with shame and a sense of how the nation has disgraced itself and God by its actions.[165] They have no one to blame but themselves. We'll see some of the same elements in Lesson 6, as we study Nehemiah's prayer of confession (Nehemiah 1:6-7).

Next, Ezra acknowledges God's great grace to Judah, allowing them to return to their land and rebuild the temple.

"8 But now, for a brief moment, the LORD our God has been gracious in leaving us a remnant and giving us a firm place in his sanctuary, and so our God gives light to our eyes and a little relief in our bondage. 9 Though we are slaves, our God has not deserted us in our bondage. He has shown us kindness in the sight of the kings of Persia: He has granted us new life to rebuild the house of our God and repair its ruins, and he has given us a wall of protection in Judah and Jerusalem." (Ezra 9:8-9)

The "wall"[166] probably refers to spiritual protection by God, rather than a physical wall around Jerusalem, which will be restored under Nehemiah a few years later.

God's grace to them makes their subsequent sin even more inexcusable. Ezra doesn't seem to be quoting a particular verse, but summarizing the message of Moses in verses 10-12.[167] Now Ezra reiterates that God has been very gracious, and his punishment has been restrained.

"What has happened to us is a result of our evil deeds and our great guilt, and yet, our God, you have punished us less than our sins have deserved and have given us a remnant like this." (Ezra 9:13)

Ezra concludes his prayer with utter reliance on God's grace.

"O LORD, God of Israel, you are righteous! We are left this day as a remnant. Here we are before you in our guilt, though because of it not one of us can stand in your presence." (Ezra 9:15)

Ezra completely throws himself and his nation upon God's mercy. He doesn't even beg forgiveness, because they don't deserve the grace God has already extended to them. It is an amazing prayer of corporate forgiveness that ranks among the great prayers of the Bible.

Notice that though Ezra his lived a righteous life personally, he includes himself in his confession of the sins of the nation. It isn't, "They have sinned." Rather, "We have sinned."

The People's Response (Ezra 10:1-6)

Ezra's demonstrative prayer draws a crowd.

"While Ezra was praying and confessing, weeping and throwing himself down before the house of God, a large crowd of Israelites -- men, women and children -- gathered around him. They too wept bitterly." (Ezra 10:1)

In times of revival, the Holy Spirit can use one person's obedience and prayer as a catalyst to a mighty revival breaking out. And that's what seems to have happened here. The leader, Ezra the priest, is wailing on his knees before God for the sins of the people. Then someone else understands Judah's great peril because of its sin, and begins to weep also. Then another and another. Before Ezra is finished, hundreds of people have gathered -- men, women, and children -- gathering about him weeping bitterly,[168] so that a great wailing before God is going up in the temple precincts.

After Ezra's prayer is completed and the people have quieted down, a man named Shecaniah[169] stands to speak of a way that there can be "hope for Israel."

"2 Then Shecaniah son of Jehiel, one of the descendants of Elam, said to Ezra, 'We have been unfaithful to our God by marrying foreign women from the peoples around us. But in spite of this, there is still hope for Israel. 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. Let it be done according to the Law. 4 Rise up; this matter is in your hands. We will support you, so take courage and do it.'" (Ezra 10:2-4)

It is remarkable that such a radical suggestion comes spontaneously from one of the people. Shecaniah is probably some kind of leading voice, though we know nothing more about him.[170] He clearly speaks for the people gathered. This isn't Ezra imposing his will, but God's Spirit leading his repentant people forward.

Shecaniah agrees with the Law, that marrying non-Jewish wives is a serious violation of God's will. His proposal is to "send away" or "put away"[171] these non-Jewish wives and the children they have borne. We'll consider the morality of this decision -- and how we apply the principles today -- in a moment. But first let's see how Ezra carries out this decision.

Ezra takes this radical counsel as from the Lord, and puts the leaders under oath to carry out this decision lest they change their minds later (as we also see in Nehemiah 5:12).

"So 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." (Ezra 10:5)

Ezra's mourning over the people's sins isn't just for public show. He continues to mourn and fast in a room provided by Jehohanan, probably the reigning high priest (Ezra 10:6).

Q4. (Ezra 10:2-4) Do you think Shecaniah's solution to the people's sin of intermarriage was from God? Can you think of any other examples in the Bible of prophetic "words of wisdom" directing God's people at crisis points? How do the people respond to Schecaniah's radical solution? How does Ezra implement it?

Implementing the Oath (Ezra 10:7-44)

Next, a proclamation is made for all the male exiles to assemble in Jerusalem three days hence; failure to appear will result in being expelled from the community. It is December by this time, with nasty weather, but at the appointed time they come. They are distressed by the situation facing Israel -- and from sitting in the temple square in the rain! But they are present. Ezra addresses them:

"10b You have been unfaithful; you have married foreign women, adding to Israel's guilt. 11 Now make confession to the LORD, the God of your fathers, and do his will. Separate yourselves from the peoples around you and from your foreign wives." (Ezra 10:10b-11)

The men agree loudly: "You are right! We must do as you say." But due to the rain, and the time necessary to study each individual situation carefully, they suggest a three-month period to complete the investigation.

Only four from among the whole company voice dissent.

"Only Jonathan son of Asahel and Jahzeiah son of Tikvah, supported by Meshullam and Shabbethai the Levite, opposed this." (Ezra 10:15)

These are probably leading men -- though, because the names are common it's not possible to identify them with others in the Book of Ezra who have the same name. They may have disagreed because of the drastic effect this would have on their own families. Or their disagreement may have been that no law required this, and it is not a good idea.

Nevertheless, the dissenters' view doesn't win the day. "So the exiles did as was proposed" (Ezra 10:16a). For the next three months Ezra and his team investigate each case. Perhaps Ezra had no idea how widespread the problem was -- but they take the time needed (Ezra 10:16b-17).

Verses 18-44 list the names of the men. It begins with the priestly families, the descendants of Jeshua, the high priest who rebuilt the temple along with Zerubbabel. Each man offers a pledge to put away his foreign wife, something like our shaking hands on an agreement. Then each man offers a ram, a male sheep, as a guilt offering before the Lord to deal with his sin.

The book of Ezra concludes with these sad words:

"All these had married foreign women, and some of them had children by these wives" (Ezra 10:44).

After this, we don't see Ezra for another thirteen years, when he reappears to read the law during Nehemiah's governorship of Judah -- resulting in a revival (Nehemiah 8). Later he leads a procession to celebrate the completion of the wall around Jerusalem (Nehemiah 12:36).

The Morality of Putting Away Non-Jewish Wives and Children

We can't help but feel bad for the wives and children, who are suddenly sent away. The wives probably return to their parents' homes, for the most part. Hopefully, they are sent away with some money, as Abraham did when he sent away his children born after Isaac (Genesis 25:6). It must have caused great grief, for there is affection as well as economic bonds that are torn asunder. As we'll see in Lesson 9, God hates divorce (Malachi 2:14-16).

But even greater than love for one's wife and children is one's love for God. Jesus told his disciples:

"Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me." (Matthew 10:37)

The real issue here is not whether breaking up homes is wrong, but whether Israel will continue to be faithful to Yahweh only, or be drawn away to worship other gods through intermarriage. Jesus said there are two great commandments (Matthew 22:36-40):

  1. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; and
  2. Love your neighbor as yourself.

Our humanistic culture, which has no love for God, exalts the second commandment over the first, man over God, rather than the other way around.

Application Today

So how do we apply this principle today? Should Christians divorce their non-Christian spouses? No. One of the differences is that Ezra's situation affects the future of the entire Jewish nation. This is a national decision that will profoundly influence the nation's faithfulness to Yahweh for centuries to come. In our cases, we live in a pluralistic world, not in what was essentially a theocracy in Ezra's day.

The Apostle Paul, who wrote in a pluralistic culture where Christians were a small minority, speaks to Christians about this issue with two basic principles:

  1. The Christian should stay with his non-believing spouse and their children if that is possible (1 Corinthians 7:12-16).
  2. If the Christian's unbelieving spouse divorces him or her, the believer is free to remarry (1 Corinthians 7:15), but only another believer, "only in the Lord" (1 Corinthians 7:39). Christians are not to marry unbelievers!

I know that there is disagreement in the Christian community about whether, or under what conditions, a divorced person is free to remarry.[172] But we all agree that the Scripture is clear: Christians must not marry non-Christians.

Any association that impedes our full-out participation in the Kingdom of God should be examined, and if appropriate, ended. Business and social contacts shouldn't compromise our witness. As Paul put it, we need to keep from being "unequally yoked" (2 Corinthians 6:14).

Lessons for Disciples

Ezra 7-10 deals with very difficult issues that face many believers today. They know first-hand how a mixed marriage hinders their ability to set a Christian tone in the family, to raise their children in a clearly Christian environment, and to minister freely with one's free time. Nevertheless, we must not skirt hard issues when it comes to being disciples. Here are some things we can learn from this passage.

  1. Ezra exercises gifts as a priest, as a teacher and scribe, as a recruiter, as a leader, as a man of faith, and as a civil administrator. Multi-gifted people like him can be used powerfully in the Kingdom of God. Are you one of these? Perhaps you can encourage someone you know like this to use his or her gifts to serve God.
  2. Ezra calls people to fast, especially when they face a crisis. Fasting helps us humble ourselves before God, so we are more able to hear him when he speaks, and obey him when the path is clear. It helps us understand our complete reliance upon God (Ezra 8:21).
  3. Ezra lives out his testimony about his faith. Since he has boasted about God's greatness to Artaxerxes, he doesn't feel he can ask for an armed escort, so he seeks God earnestly for help, and God hears. People have to see us practice what we preach (Ezra 8:21-23).
  4. It is wise for churches and Christian groups to take steps to avoid the temptation to embezzle money (Ezra 8:24-30, 33-34).
  5. We must take sin seriously. Sin in the body of Christ (or in our own lives) should cause deep grief within us (Ezra 9:3-4).
  6. We are free to pray with a posture that is appropriate to the prayer. Ezra prayed on his knees with hands spread out to God, head bowed (Ezra 9:5-6).
  7. When we pray for a people of whom we are part, we shouldn't confess their sins, but confess our sins. Ezra intercedes as a mediator, a priest, between his people and God (Ezra 9:6-7). While in the New Testament all are priests (1 Peter 2:5), there is still a need for some to lead the group in prayer and confession before God.
  8. Ezra's sincere and earnest prayer sparks a spontaneous revival among his hearers (Ezra 10:1). Revival and renewal often begin with the example of others. People imitate us as we imitate Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1).
  9. The Holy Spirit moves one of the assembly to offer a solution to the community's problem of intermarriage (Ezra 10:2-4). When we seek God together, he can bring his answer through any who are open to his voice -- and we must be humble enough to receive it.
  10. Ezra used oaths to hold people to their commitments. In our day, leaders can use formal promises to serve the same function (Ezra 10:5).

  11. Available in paperback, PDF,  Kindle formats
    Life is complicated. Instead of implementing an across-the-board rule, Ezra and his team met with each head-of-household individually to talk about his situation and help him figure out how best to implement separation from his wife and children. It is a good leadership example to follow in working with individuals personally (Ezra 10:16-17).
  12. Intermarriage with unbelievers weakens our own lives and witness -- and weakens the Christian community of which we are part. We Christians are forbidden to marry non-believers. But if we are now married to a non-believer, we must not divorce them if they want to live with us (Ezra 9-10; 1 Corinthians 7:12-16, 39).


Lord, you take sin much more seriously than we do. Please help us to grieve over our sins -- enough that we will repent and turn from them. And help us as we seek to order our lives so that you are truly King! In Jesus' name, we pray. Amen.

Key Verses

"Ezra had devoted himself to the study and observance of the Law of the LORD, and to teaching its decrees and laws in Israel." (Ezra 7:10, NIV)

"I was ashamed to ask the king for soldiers and horsemen to protect us from enemies on the road, because we had told the king, 'The gracious hand of our God is on everyone who looks to him, but his great anger is against all who forsake him.' So we fasted and petitioned our God about this, and he answered our prayer." (Ezra 8:22-23)

"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." (Ezra 9:2)


[154] Several luminaries are found among his ancestors: Hilkiah is high priest during the reign of Josiah, who found the lost book of the law while repairing the temple. He was a leader in the ensuing reformation and purification of the temple in 621 BC (2 Kings 22:8ff; 23:4). Zadok is high priest under David (2 Samuel 8:17; 1 Chronicles 12:38-40), loyal to David's son Solomon (1 Kings 1). Phinehas is zealous against immorality and religious apostasy of Israel (Numbers 25). Eleazar succeeds his father Aaron as high priest after his death, and assisted both Moses and Joshua in their missions. Aaron is Moses' brother and the first high priest.

[155] The Kings of Persia also used other capital cities including Pasargadae, Ecbatana, Susa, and Persepolis.

[156] D. A. Hagner, "Scribes," ISBE 4:359-361.

[157] "Gracious hand" (NIV, NRSV), "good hand" (ESV, KJV) uses the adjective ṭôb, "good" in a broad sense of the term.

[158] "Enemies" (NIV) or "the hand of the enemy" (NRSV, ESV, KJV) uses the noun ʾōyēb, "a participle of the verb ʾāyab, "to be an enemy, be hostile to" (TWOT #78). "Bandits" (NIV), "ambushes" (NRSV, ESV), "of such as lay in wait" (KJV) is the noun ōreb , "ambuscade," from the verb ārab, "to lie in wait, ambush." David used the word to describe how his enemies waited for a time they could find him vulnerable and attack (Psalm 10:9; 59:3).

[159] Of course, a distinct language is part of the root of a unique culture; so is religion.

[160] "Appalled" (NIV, NRSV, ESV), "astonied" (KJV) is the Poel participle shāmēm, "be desolate, appalled." Basic to the idea of the root is the desolation caused by some great disaster, usually as a result of divine judgment. Here the word is used in the sense of 'horror' and 'shock' brought about by the vision of desolation. It is the inner response to the outward scene (Hermann J. Austel, TWOT #2409).

[161] The Hebrew noun is taʿanît, "humiliation (by fasting)", from ʿānâ, "afflict, oppress, humble" (TWOT #1652f).

[162] Victor P. Hamilton, pālal, TWOT #1776, Hithpael stem.

[163] The Hithpael form is normally employed when this verb is used to convey the confession of national sins (Daniel 9:4, 20; Nehemiah 1:6; 9:2-3). Ralph H. Alexander, yādâ, TWOT #847.

[164] John N. Oswalt, bākâ, TWOT #243, Qal stem.

[165] "Ashamed" is bôsh, "to fall into disgrace, normally through failure, either of self or of an object of trust." John Oswalt notes, "The force of bôsh is somewhat in contrast to the primary meaning of the English 'to be ashamed,' in that the English stresses the inner attitude, the state of mind, while the Hebrew means 'to come to shame' and stresses the sense of public disgrace, a physical state" (John N. Oswalt, TWOT #222). "Disgraced" (NIV), "blush" (NRSV, ESV, KJV) is kālam, "be ashamed ... the sense of disgrace which attends public humiliation" (John N. Oswalt, TWOT #987).

[166] "Wall of protection" (NIV), "protection" (ESV), "wall" (NRSV, KJV) is gādēr, "wall, fence, hedge."

[167] Leviticus 18:24-30; Deuteronomy 7:1-3; 12:31; 18:12; Malachi 2:11.

[168] "Weep bitterly" translates what is literally "weep with very great weeping," using a common Hebraic repetition of the verbal root to indicate intensity. Here the intensity is increased even more by the addition of the participle rābâ, "become, great, many, much, numerous." The KJV translation, "The people wept very sore," is difficult to understand.

[169] Shecaniah's name means "Yahweh has taken (His) dwelling." This is the same word as the Shekinah glory of God.

[170] In the apocryphal book 1 Esdras 8:92-96 relating this incident, he is stated to be Jechonias.

[171] "Send away" (NIV, NRSV), "put away" (ESV, KJV) is the Hiphil stem of yāṣāʾ. The basic idea of the verb is "go out, come out, go forth," used literally of going out from a particular locality or from the presence of a person. But the Hiphil adds the causative idea, "to cause to go out, send away" (Paul R. Gilchrist, yāṣāʾ, TWOT #893).

[172] You can see my careful exposition of 1 Corinthians 7 in my book 1 Corinthians:
Discipleship Lessons from a Troubled Church
(JesusWalk Publications, 2014), chapter 7, or on my website at https://www.jesuswalk.com/1corinthians/07_marriage_divorce.htm

Copyright © 2024, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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