I want to take you back to December of the year 458 B.C. It would be a pivotal moment for the people of God in Jerusalem. Ezra, a Jewish scribe who worked for the pagan King Artaxerxes in Babylon, had arrived in Jerusalem in August of the same year, 458 B.C. He had been sent by the king and given a very specific assignment. We can read the details of the task given to Ezra by King Artaxerxes in Ezra 7:25.
25 And you, Ezra, in accordance with the wisdom of your God, which you possess, appoint magistrates and judges to administer justice to all the people of Trans-Euphrates– all who know the laws of your God. And you are to teach any who do not know them. (Ezra 7:25 NIVO)
Ezra was given the responsibility of appointing magistrates and judges who would carry out justice according to the law of God. Ezra was also to teach the Word of God to all of the people who didn’t know the Word of God.
As I said earlier, Ezra traveled some 900 miles from Babylon and arrived in Jerusalem in August of 458 B.C. There’s no doubt he went right to work. Ezra was interviewing potential magistrates and judges trying to find out if they were well versed in God’s Word before he installed them in any official capacity. At the same time he was busy teaching God’s Word to the people day after day after day. There’s no doubt he taught at the temple, which, if you will remember had finally been completed 57 years earlier. The temple isn’t the only place Ezra taught God’s Word. He was a traveling teacher. King Artaxerxes had given him the job of teaching God’s Word throughout the whole Trans-Euphrates region.
Ezra had been at it for four months when some of the leaders of the people in Jerusalem came to visit with Ezra. If you will turn with me to Ezra 9:1-2. Let’s read it together.
1 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 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 9:1-2 NIVO)
What is going on in Jerusalem with God’s people? The leaders reported to Ezra that God’s people, including the leaders, priests and Levites, had married foreigners. The last sentence of Ezra 9:2 says, “And the leaders and officials have led the way in this unfaithfulness.” Now, before we take a deeper look at what had been going on in Jerusalem let me just state the obvious from our 21st century, enlightened, woke mindset–This is nothing more than flat out racism is it not? As I’ve been studying this Scripture for the past couple of weeks I’ve run into that take on Ezra 9 several times. For the sake of time let me tell you that what we have here is not racism on Ezra’s part, or on God’s part for that matter. Let me show you the evidence for why I say this has absolutely nothing to do with racism.
Moses was married to a woman named Zipporah, not a Hebrew, but a Cushite. Today, if you were to locate Ethiopia on a map then you would be familiar with the general area of the Cushites. In Numbers 12 we learn that Moses’ sister Miriam and his brother Aaron began to talk bad about Moses because of his Cushite wife. God defended Moses and Zipporah and He judged Miriam and Aaron.
In Genesis 41, Joseph, just after he interpreted Pharaoh’s dream, was given an Egyptian wife named Asenath, by Pharaoh. Asenath is the daughter of an Egyptian pagan priest. Later, God blessed Joseph and Asenath with two boys, Ephraim and Manasseh, half Hebrew and half Egyptian. Still much later, Joseph’s father, Jacob, when he was near the end of his life was paid a visit by Joseph and his two sons. Jacob, the father of the twelve tribes of Israel, adopted Joseph’s sons, Ephraim and Manasseh, those half Egyptian boys as his own boys and they became the ancestors of two of the twelve tribes of Israel.
One more story if you don’t mind. Remember Ruth and Naomi? Naomi and her family were from Bethlehem, but because of the famine they moved to Moab. While in Moab, Naomi and Elimelech’s boys married two girls from Moab. Long story short, Elimelech died, several years later both of Naomi’s sons died, and she was left with her two Moabite daughter-in-laws. Naomi told them to go back to their families, but Ruth said, “No way! I’m going with you.” Listen to what Ruth told Naomi.
16 But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. 17 Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the LORD deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me.” (Ruth 1:16-17 NIVO)
Ruth, the Moabite, became the great grandmother of King David, the greatest king in the history of Israel. Ruth the Moabite is also in Jesus’ family tree. The purity of the people of God is about the purity of faith, not race. What had happened in Jerusalem that was so distressing to Ezra was that God’s people had fallen back into the very sins that had gotten them carried into exile in the first place.
Let me take you back, way back, to a time when Moses was preparing the former slaves who had come out of Egypt for what they should do and expect when they moved into the Promised Land. Moses told them there would be people in the land, some of the names listed in Ezra are the very people Moses warned them about. Then, in Deuteronomy 7, we read,
3 Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, 4 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. 5 This is what you are to do to them: Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones, cut down their Asherah poles and burn their idols in the fire. 6 For you are a people holy to the LORD your God. The LORD your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession. (Deuteronomy 7:3-6 NIVO)
God told His people through Moses what would happen. Did it happen? Over and over again it happened. God’s people married people who had no regard for God, worse yet, they were pagans who worshiped false gods and it led to the demise of Israel. The most memorable example is Solomon, supposedly the wisest man who ever lived and yet we read,
1 King Solomon, however, loved many foreign women besides Pharaoh’s daughter– Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Sidonians and Hittites. 2 They were from nations about which the LORD had told the Israelites, “You must not intermarry with them, because they will surely turn your hearts after their gods.” Nevertheless, Solomon held fast to them in love. 3 He had seven hundred wives of royal birth and three hundred concubines, and his wives led him astray. 4 As Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other gods, and his heart was not fully devoted to the LORD his God, as the heart of David his father had been. 5 He followed Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and Molech the detestable god of the Ammonites. 6 So Solomon did evil in the eyes of the LORD; he did not follow the LORD completely, as David his father had done. (1 Kings 11:1-6 NIVO)
Over and over again God’s people refused to pay attention to God’s warning about what would happen if they gave their hearts to those who worshiped other gods and it never turned out for the better. It always turned into a disaster.
What is really tragic is that those who had been taken from their homeland in Jerusalem to the far away land of Babylon knew what they had done, they knew why their nation had crumbled. After almost 70 years in exile, those first Jews who made the journey back to Jerusalem were so intent, so focused on doing things right this time, not making the same mistakes their parents and grandparents had made in the past. The first thing they did when they arrived was to set the base of the altar in place. They were going to focus their lives on serving God, worshiping God, and walking with God as they reestablished themselves in Jerusalem.
Now, by the time Ezra arrived in Jerusalem, it had been 80 years since the exiles had returned to Jerusalem. The focus and passion they once felt for walking with God, learning His Word, and living out their faith in obedience to God somehow, somewhere along the way faded into the background. The fires of passion for the Lord died out as their passion for others were stirred up.
There’s no doubt it had been going on for some time. So, what was it that caused some people to feel convicted about what they had done? What was it that disturbed them so badly that they sought out Ezra to confess their sins? The answer to that question is very easy. Do you remember who arrived in Jerusalem four months prior to the confession? Ezra right. Do you remember the task Ezra was given by King Artaxerxes? To teach the Word of God right. There’s your answer. When we are exposed to God’s Word it will either harden us if we are determined to do life our own way or it will quicken us, soften our hearts, and convict us where we are out of God’s will. Remember Hebrews 4:12?
12 For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12 NIVO)
What we read in Ezra 9 contains some incredibly valuable lessons for those of us who are living in Oklahoma City in 2020. Is it ok to marry anyone we want? Well, that depends. If you have given your heart to Jesus and are determined to live your life for His glory then the answer to that question is, “No, you shouldn’t marry just anyone.” Before you go off on me as being narrow-minded, old fashioned, and out-of-touch-with-the-times just stop and think about it for a moment. If your greatest desire in life is to know the Lord, to walk with Him daily, to allow Him to use you to impact the lives of others, and to one day have a family where you can serve the Lord with your spouse and pour into your kids–then does it not make sense that you should marry someone who has those same aspirations for their life?
Truth is most Christians today decide who they will marry based on looks, sense of humor, financial security, or the fun-to-be-with factor and not the person’s commitment to the Lord. As a result, I’ve seen men and women drawn away from the Lord by someone they care deeply for, but who has no desire to walk with God. There are folks here this morning who are married to an unbeliever and I want to encourage you to keep loving your spouse, pray for the Lord to touch the heart of your spouse, and live your life as a witness of God’s love and grace before your spouse.
If you are here this morning and you are not married, but you hope to be some day then I want to urge you to pray for the Lord to send you a man or woman after God’s own heart. Put that request at the top of your list and pray for the Lord to send him or her your way some day. It is so important that you refuse to compromise your love for the Lord for the sake of someone you are attracted to in life.
Now, if you just go to church to go to church, to see friends, or to try and soothe your conscience, but you’re not serious about your walk with the Lord and you really have no desire to live your life for His glory or according to His will, then by all means marry who you want. Let’s get back to Ezra.
In Ezra 9, when the people came to Ezra to confess what had been going on, we can learn how Ezra responded by reading Ezra 9:3-15. Let’s read it together.
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. 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: “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. 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. 10 “But now, O our God, what can we say after this? For we have disregarded the commands 11 you gave through your servants the prophets when you said: ‘The land you are entering to possess is a land polluted by the corruption of its peoples. By their detestable practices they have filled it with their impurity from one end to the other. 12 Therefore, do not give your daughters in marriage to their sons or take their daughters for your sons. Do not seek a treaty of friendship with them at any time, that you may be strong and eat the good things of the land and leave it to your children as an everlasting inheritance.’ 13 “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. 14 Shall we again break your commands and intermarry with the peoples who commit such detestable practices? Would you not be angry enough with us to destroy us, leaving us no remnant or survivor? 15 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 9:3-15 NIVO)
Ezra heard the news and tore his cloak and tunic, he pulled his hair out of his head and his beard, and he sat down. Tearing one’s clothes and pulling hair out was customary for those who were grieving in Ezra’s day, in all of biblical times really. When Ezra says he was “appalled” in verses 3 and 4, he uses a really interesting Hebrew word. The Hebrew word, “??????” (shamem) means, “to be desolate, stunned, stupefied, horrified, etc.” Ezra can’t believe what he has just heard. Then, we read in verse 4,
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 9:4 NIVO)
Those “who trembled at the words of the God of Israel” gathered around Ezra. They stayed. They waited. They prayed. They waited. Then Ezra prayed. Ezra’s prayer is one of the most powerful prayers you will ever hear or read. I want to point out a couple of things Ezra mentioned in his prayer that I’ve been thinking about this past week. First, Ezra was not one of the leaders who had married someone of another faith, but he identified himself with those who did.
6 “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 9:6-7 NIVO)
For those of us who are followers of Jesus please hear me. There is much wrong with the people of our nation, there is much wrong with our leaders, but we need to adopt the mentality of Ezra and use “we” instead of “them.” We are really good at pointing fingers at others. Ezra prayed and acknowledged before God, “our sins are higher than our heads and our guilt has reached to the heavens.” Isn’t that true for us living here in Oklahoma City as well? It’s not “them,” it is “us” who have sinned, it is “us” who are broken, it is “us” who are in need of God’s forgiving grace and merciful restoration.
The second thing that stood out for me about what Ezra prayed before the Lord is the fact that he made no excuses. We are so accustomed to making excuses aren’t we? We wouldn’t have done what we did if they hadn’t done what they did. It really wasn’t my fault. Ezra prays,
15 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 9:3-15 NIVO)
God you are righteous and we are guilty. This is still true today. God is righteous. God is rightly-related to His creation. God has never broken a promise, never told a lie, never mistreated His people. We, on the other hand, are guilty. The Bible says “all have sinned,” but most of us don’t believe that we are sinners. Even for some of those who will admit they are sinners they are quick to qualify it with, “but I’m not as bad as…” My friend, let me let you in on a little secret. You and I are hopelessly lost. We are experts in messing things up, breaking things, and alienating those we love if left to our own devices. It is only when we have our eyes opened to this reality by the Holy Spirit of God using the Word of God that we can then recognize our greatest need in life. Our greatest need is not for more money, a better house or car, or a more understanding husband, wife, or kids–our greatest need in life is a life-giving, life-transforming relationship with Jesus. Do you know Him this morning? I know you are in church, but I need to know if you know Jesus, if you love Jesus, if you are walking with Jesus and allowing Him to lead you and guide in the decisions you make throughout the day. If not, then I want to invite you to cry out to Him this morning and ask Jesus to come into your heart, into your life.
Britton Christian Church
922 NW 91st
OKC, OK. 73114
January 19, 2020