Radical Repentance

“Ezra” series: post #17

Then Ezra the priest stood up and said to them, “You have transgressed and have taken pagan wives, adding to the guilt of Israel. Now therefore, make confession to the Lord God of your fathers, and do His will; separate yourselves from the peoples of the land, and from the pagan wives.” Then all the assembly answered and said with a loud voice, “Yes! As you have said, so we must do.” (Ezra 10:10-12, N.K.J.V.)

Some commentators suggest that the group who left Babylon and returned to Judah under the leadership of Zerubbabel included relatively few women. If this assertion is correct, it means that marriable women were in short supply once the group arrived in Judah. Perhaps this explains why so many of those men broke the Mosaic law by marrying idol-worshipping women from neighboring lands.

Regardless of how the problem had been created, Ezra was the man who had to address it. To his credit, he began by going to the temple and commencing with much praying, confessing, weeping, and bowing down before God. Then he enacted the wildly difficult solution of commanding all the Jewish males who had married non-Jewish wives to divorce those wives. Not only that, those males were also to separate themselves from the children produced by those marriages. You talk about radical repentance! Fortunately for Ezra, he had a large group of people who supported him. As Ezra 10:1 says:

Now while Ezra was praying, and while he was confessing, weeping, and bowing down before the house of God, a very large assembly of men, women, and children gathered to him from Israel; for the people wept very bitterly. (N.K.J.V.)

Actually, the radical plan that Ezra enacted was first proposed by a man named Shechaniah. We meet this man in Ezra 10:2-3, which says:

And Shechaniah the son of Jehiel, one of the sons of Elam, spoke up and said to Ezra, “We have trespassed against our God, and have taken pagan wives from the peoples of the land; yet now there is hope in Israel in spite of this. Now therefore, let us make a covenant with our God to put away all these wives and those who have been born to them, according to the advice of my master and of those who tremble at the commandment of our God; and let it be done according to the law. Arise, for this matter is your responsibility. We also are with you. Be of good courage, and do it.” (N.K.J.V.)

The fact that Ezra quickly agreed with this plan and set it into motion shows that he took it to be God’s will. Again to his credit, he was “prayed up” and “confessed up” to a degree that should have made discerning God’s will easy for him. There is, however, a minority group of commentators who think that he shouldn’t have gone along with Shechaniah’s plan. They base this belief upon Malachi 2:16, a passage where God flatly says, “I hate divorce.” Also, in 1 Corinthians 7:10-16, a New Testament passage, the apostle Paul says that if a lost unbeliever is content to stay married to a saved believer, the saved believer should continue in the marriage.

Admittedly, these two passages make for a compelling argument against what Ezra did. It should be noted, though, that nowhere does the Bible condemn Ezra’s actions. Perhaps special exception should be made for the specific problem that Ezra was addressing. He was trying to reclaim the spiritual purity of an entire nation, not just one married couple.

I myself am not persuaded that Ezra actually erred. In all honestly, both sides of the debate make sense to me, but in the end I’ll say that if the Bible doesn’t plainly condemn what Ezra did, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. I do know that Ezra 10:3 says that the divorces were to be done “according to the law.” Presumably, this means that each divorced wife was to be given a handwritten certificate of divorce that would make her legally eligible to marry another man (Deuteronomy 24:1-2).

As for how Ezra set about putting Shechaniah’s plan into motion, his step-by-step order went as follows:

  • He made all the people, including the priests and Levites, swear an oath that they would carry out the plan. (10:5)
  • He went into a room adjacent to the temple and there he fasted and mourned over the nation’s sins. (10:6)
  • He issued a proclamation that required all the Jews throughout the entire region of Judah to assemble themselves together in Jerusalem within three days. Any Jew who failed to do so would have his property confiscated and be excommunicated. (10:7-8)
  • Once all the people were assembled, Ezra told them to confess their sin of intermarrying with pagan races and separate themselves from their pagan wives and pagan children. (10:9-11)

This great gathering in Jerusalem took place on the 20th day of the 9th month of Israel’s calendar year, a time which fell during the land’s rainy season. Even as the multiplied thousands of Jews sat in the open square of the temple to hear Ezra, the rain was coming down hard (10:9). This sets the context for Ezra 10:13-14, verses in which the people agree to comply with Ezra’s command but ask for more time to sort through the situation. They suggest that individual cases be examined on a city-by-city basis throughout the land rather than in bulk at Jerusalem.

Four Jewish men opposed the plan, but we aren’t told their reasons for doing so. They either didn’t think the delay was a good idea or they opposed the divorces altogether. Either way they were quickly outvoted (10:15). The heads of the families were then appointed as judges, and the case-by-case examinations began in the cities ten days afterward on the 1st day of the 10th month (10:16). Three months later, on the 1st day of the 1st month, the examinations were concluded (10:17).

When all the dust was settled, well over 100 men, including 17 priests and 10 Levites, were forced to divorce their Gentile wives (Ezra 10:18-44). Interestingly, Shechaniah, the man who originally proposed the divorces, isn’t listed among those who had taken pagan wives, but some of his family members are (10:2,26). He must have been a man of great conviction and courage to propose a plan by which his family members would be dealt with so harshly. How rare it is when anyone will side with God over his or her family! As for what became of the divorced wives and the children from those marriages, the Bible doesn’t say. Perhaps some monetary provision was made for them, but it seems likely that they returned to their pagan lands.

In conclusion to this post and this series, let me say that Ezra’s unabashed zeal for God’s word should inspire us all to up our game in that department. He was a man who was willing to go to a radical extreme, including radical repentance, if God’s word called for it. By doing so he brought revival to Judah at least for a while. As we learn from the book of Nehemiah, the revival wouldn’t last, but that wasn’t Ezra’s fault. He was a great man of God whom God used to spiritually reset the people of Judah. May God raise up some modern-day Ezras to spiritually reset these United States, and when He does, may we have the discernment to support them and do what they say. Needless to say, we need some radical repentance ourselves.

This entry was posted in Backsliding, God's Word, Leadership, Repentance, Series: "Ezra" and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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