“Ezra” series (post #16)
When these things were done, the leaders came to me, saying, “The people of Israel and the priests and the Levites have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands, with respect to the abominations 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 their sons, so that the holy seed is mixed with the peoples of those lands. Indeed, the hand of the leaders and rulers has been foremost in this trespass.” So when I heard this thing, I tore my garment and my robe, and plucked out some of the hair of my head and beard, and sat down astonished. (Ezra 9:1-3, N.K.J.V.)
The feeling of joy that Ezra felt over leading his group of former exiles to their new home in Judah didn’t last long. Just a few months later a spiritual monsoon rained on the feel-good parade when some of Judah’s leaders brought Ezra some bad news. They confessed that many of Judah’s priests, Levites, and civic leaders had intermarried with the idol-worshiping races that surrounded Judah. Even worse, these priests, Levites, and leaders had caused their sons to do the same. This type of marriage, of course, was the pet sin that all of the 12 tribes of Israel had struggled with for centuries ever since the nation’s conquering and settling of Canaan. It was the primary reason why God had previously allowed the Assyrians to conquer Israel’s northern kingdom and the Babylonians to conquer its southern kingdom.
By comparing Ezra 7:9 with Ezra 10:9, we learn that four-and-a-half months passed before Ezra was told about these marriages. This causes us to ask, “What took those concerned leaders so long to report the problem to Ezra?” The most likely answer is that Ezra’s faithful teaching of the Mosaic law had finally pricked their consciences. That’s the powerful effect that a true man of God conveying a true message from God can have upon people. Ezra’s ministry probably caused those priests, Levites, and leaders who had committed the sinful marriages to come under conviction as well, but they were too cowardly, embarrassed, or seared in conscience to self report their transgressions.
Actually, those men should have known better anyway. I say that because God had always been exceedingly clear in warning the Jews to steer clear of intermarrying with the races of Canaan. In Ezra 9:10-12, Ezra voices a general summary of God’s words and thoughts from passages such as Exodus 20:1-6; 23:32-33; 34:11-16; and Deuteronomy 7:1-4 as he says to God:
And now, O our God, what shall we say after this? For we have forsaken Your commandments, which You commanded by Your servants the prophets, saying, ‘The land which you are entering to possess is an unclean land, with the uncleanness of the peoples of the lands, with their abominations which have filled it from one end to another with their impurity. Now therefore, do not give your daughters as wives for their sons, nor take their daughters to your sons; and never seek their peace or prosperity, that you may be strong and eat the good of the land, and leave it as an inheritance to your children forever.’ (N.K.J.V.)
As we read these words, it is important to understand that God prohibiting the Jews from intermarrying with the other peoples in Canaan had nothing to do with genetic racial superiority or inferiority. The issue was religion, not race. God simply didn’t want His chosen nation of Israel to become corrupted by the idolatrous ways of the Gentiles of Canaan. He knew that whatever positive spiritual influence such marriages might bring to those Gentile races paled in comparison to the negative spiritual influence they would surely bring to the Jews.
What made the situation all the worse was the fact that many of Judah’s spiritual and civic leaders were the ones who had encouraged the nation’s intermarrying by taking foreign wives for themselves and their sons. As that group of whistle blowers said to Ezra, “Indeed, the hand of the leaders and rulers has been foremost in this trespass” (9:2). How could God bless Judah when its civic leaders were living in blatant, unrepentant sin against one of God’s clearest laws? How could He bless its temple’s sacrifices and rituals when the priests and Levites who manned the temple were living personal lives in open defiance against His word? Not only was Judah’s sin pervasive, it was flowing from the top down.
It wasn’t just one group of foreign women who were enticing the Jewish men, either. Eight different races are named in Ezra 9:1: the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and the Amorites. Five of those — the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, and the Ammonites — were part of the group of seven races that had historically defined the land of Canaan before Israel had conquered them and taken possession of the land (Deuteronomy 7:1; Acts 13:19). (For the record, the other two races of Canaan had been the Girgashites and the Hivites.) The three races that had not been part of Canaan’s original seven — the Egyptians, the Moabites, and the Ammonites — were longstanding enemies of the Jews.
In my next post, which will close out this series, I’ll talk about what Ezra instructed the people of Judah to do regarding their sinful marriages. Right now, though, I want to focus upon how Ezra himself responded as an individual. Here’s what he did:
- He tore his garment and robe in a traditional act of mourning. (9:3)
- He pulled out some of the hair from his head and his beard in another traditional act of mourning. (9:3)
- He sat down astonished (appalled, devastated, shocked) for several hours. (9:3-4)
- He fasted. (9:5)
- When he did finally stand back up, he quickly fell back down on his knees and spread out his hands to God. (9:5)
- As part of his confessing of Judah’s sins to God, he went into great detail about not only Judah’s current sin but also her past sins. (9:6-15)
As we can see, Ezra was absolutely mortified when he heard about what those priests, Levites, and civil leaders had been doing for quite a while. Even though he personally had nothing to do with the sins, he used his intercessory prayer to identify himself with his nation. The prophet Daniel had once done this same kind of thing (Daniel 9:1-19). The good news for Ezra was that he wasn’t the only one in Judah who understood the gravity of the situation. In addition to that group of whistle blowers, there was a whole group of likeminded believers (people who trembled before God’s words) who assembled themselves around Ezra to show their support for him as he did his mourning (9:4).
Several years ago I heard a local pastor tell a story about his childhood days growing up on a farm. He said that his dad once sold a calf to make some money. The only problem was that the calf’s mother mourned the loss of her calf for many days afterward. The pastor said that cow would just stand and bellow in mourning over that missing calf. Then he applied the story to modern times. I can’t remember his exact quote verbatim, but he said something to the effect, “When we reach the point where we mourn over our sins the way that cow mourned over the loss of her calf, then we’ll see see some true repentance and revival.” To this day, that’s the best illustration that I’ve ever heard about mourning over sin. So tell me, do you mourn over sin that way? Ezra did, and we would certainly do well to follow his fine example.