Like a great Hollywood movie, we’ve experienced the highs and lows of the people of God during the past few months as we’ve been studying the book of Ezra. Last week, as we took a look at Ezra 9, we found Ezra shocked, dumbfounded, gutted, and appalled. I didn’t see that one coming. I had assumed everything was going well, better than good since Ezra had arrived in Jerusalem and began teaching God’s Word to the people. He had arrived from Babylon four months earlier and was fulfilling the task King Artaxerxes had given him–teach the Word of God to the people. Ezra had been teaching in the temple. He had been teaching in and around Jerusalem. He was teaching young and old alike.
Out of the blue, at the opening of Ezra 9, some of the leaders came to confess to Ezra. They let him know that some of the men had married foreign women. They married Hittites, Canaanites, Moabites, Egyptians–people that God had said not to marry. God didn’t tell them to stay away from the people because God was against Moabites, Egyptians, or any of the peoples named, but because they worshiped other gods. Throughout biblical history we’ve seen how God’s people have been led astray and began to worship false gods when they intermarried with the people God prohibited them from marrying.
When Ezra heard the news he was devastated! Ezra tore his robe and tunic, ripped hair out of his beard and head, and fell to the ground. Eventually Ezra prayed. He prayed one of the most powerful, humble prayers we find in the entire Bible. He aligned himself with the transgressors by saying, “Our sins are higher than our heads and our guilt has reached to the heavens.” Ezra poured out his heart before God. He owned the sins of the people of God and he declared the righteousness and holiness of God. He never made an excuse, never shifted the blame, and made it known that God had been more than gracious to His people. Listen to this from Ezra 9:13.
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. (Ezra 9:13 NIVO)
Ezra didn’t ask God for another chance, he didn’t plead with God for mercy, and neither did he separate himself from God’s people who had committed the horrible sin. Ezra closed out his prayer with these words.
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 9:15 NIVO)
What a cliffhanger! What’s going to happen next? If Ezra were a made-for-tv-movie then you know there would be a commercial right now. This isn’t Hollywood, this is real life. Ezra’s story is filled with highs and lows, with troubles and trials, as well as victories and moments of sweet grace and undeserved mercy.
When we come to Ezra 10 things go from bad to worse. I hate to break the news to you, but there are consequences attached to sin. We would like to believe, and often it is taught in today’s American church, that we can do whatever we want, ask for forgiveness, and then just shuffle on down the road. Nothing could be further from the truth. There are consequences attached to the choices we make in life. There are consequences when we willfully disobey God. Let’s read a portion of Ezra 10 and see what happened.
1 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. 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.” 5 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. 6 Then Ezra withdrew from before the house of God and went to the room of Jehohanan son of Eliashib. While he was there, he ate no food and drank no water, because he continued to mourn over the unfaithfulness of the exiles. 7 A proclamation was then issued throughout Judah and Jerusalem for all the exiles to assemble in Jerusalem. 8 Anyone who failed to appear within three days would forfeit all his property, in accordance with the decision of the officials and elders, and would himself be expelled from the assembly of the exiles. 9 Within the three days, all the men of Judah and Benjamin had gathered in Jerusalem. And on the twentieth day of the ninth month, all the people were sitting in the square before the house of God, greatly distressed by the occasion and because of the rain. (Ezra 10:1-9 NIVO)
Ezra was gutted when he heard the news of the sins of the people of God. There’s no doubt he would be doubly gutted when he witnessed the separation of families, as he watched husbands hold their wives and kids in their arms for the last time. I can’t imagine. We sit here in this sanctuary and immediately bristle at the thought, “That’s not right. That’s too harsh, too extreme! There’s got to be another way!” You know what’s really interesting? About 15 years after this incident, Nehemiah would discover that the men of Israel had fallen back into their old ways, they had married women from Ashdod, Ammon, and Moab. Nehemiah responded to the news quite differently than Ezra. Ezra pulled hair out of his own head and beard; Nehemiah pulled hair out of the men’s heads. Nehemiah beat up some of the guys. He made them take an oath that they wouldn’t marry any more foreign women, but he didn’t make them separate from their families. The two leaders responded quite differently. Who was right and who was wrong? That’s a simple question from our vantage point, but we need to cut these guys some slack. We don’t have all of the information about what was taking place in Jerusalem at this time. We don’t know the whole story of why the men married the foreign women. Let me give you some information that isn’t included here in Ezra, but it is found in Malachi. God used Malachi in a powerful way with those who returned from exile. He came down hard on the men because many of them had divorced their Jewish wives so they could marry foreign women.
11 Judah has broken faith. A detestable thing has been committed in Israel and in Jerusalem: Judah has desecrated the sanctuary the LORD loves, by marrying the daughter of a foreign god. 12 As for the man who does this, whoever he may be, may the LORD cut him off from the tents of Jacob– even though he brings offerings to the LORD Almighty. 13 Another thing you do: You flood the LORD’s altar with tears. You weep and wail because he no longer pays attention to your offerings or accepts them with pleasure from your hands. 14 You ask, “Why?” It is because the LORD is acting as the witness between you and the wife of your youth, because you have broken faith with her, though she is your partner, the wife of your marriage covenant. 15 Has not the LORD made them one? In flesh and spirit they are his. And why one? Because he was seeking godly offspring. So guard yourself in your spirit, and do not break faith with the wife of your youth. 16 “I hate divorce,” says the LORD God of Israel, “and I hate a man’s covering himself with violence as well as with his garment,” says the LORD Almighty. So guard yourself in your spirit, and do not break faith. (Malachi 2:11-16 NIVO)
We’re not told any of this in Ezra which should help us to understand that we don’t know all of the facts. This should also cause us to cut Ezra some slack. Leadership is difficult. Leaders are called upon to make difficult decisions, decisions which will impact many lives, decisions that many people won’t agree with and they’ll make that known. It’s always been funny to me how those who are not willing to take on the responsibilities of leadership are the quickest to criticize and condemn the decisions made by leaders.
Ezra agonized in prayer over what to do. Ezra fasted from food and water seeking God’s counsel. Then, a man named Shecaniah, the son of Jehiel, who was one of the descendants of Elam, came to see Ezra. Shecaniah said, “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.” (Ezra 10:2 NIVO) Shecaniah had a plan: Those who married foreign women must separate from them. If you will take a look at Ezra 10:18-44 you will see all of those who married foreign women. You’ll also notice that Shecaniah’s name is not there, he wasn’t one of the men who married a foreign woman, but I bet you would have guessed that wouldn’t you? So, after examining the list of the guilty and not finding Shecaniah’s name you might conclude he was a rat, easy for him to propose separating families when it wouldn’t cost him anything right? Hold on just a minute. Take a look at Ezra 10:26 with me.
26 From the descendants of Elam: Mattaniah, Zechariah, Jehiel, Abdi, Jeremoth and Elijah. (Ezra 10:26 NIVO)
What was that moment like for Shecaniah when he realized his own father was guilty of marrying a foreign woman? Did he try not to think about it? Did he go to his dad and break down and cry? Did he tell his dad that they must go to Ezra? We don’t have any details, but we know it must have been a rough, painful day for Shecaniah. Was his relationship with his dad ever the same after that day?
It reminds me of a mom whose daughter played two years of volleyball in college. While in college she started experimenting with drugs which led to a heroin addiction. Mom tried everything to get her daughter off drugs, but the hardest thing she ever did was turn her daughter in to the police. When the police came, mom said the last words she heard from her daughter were, “I hate you and wish you would die. If you died tomorrow I wouldn’t go to your funeral!” Our sin complicates things for our own lives and for the lives of those around us, those who love us.
After Shecaniah shared his idea with Ezra, a proclamation was issued throughout Judah and Jerusalem for everyone to come to Jerusalem within three days. Anyone who didn’t comply would be cut off from the community and their property would be confiscated. We read in Ezra 10:9,
9 Within the three days, all the men of Judah and Benjamin had gathered in Jerusalem. And on the twentieth day of the ninth month, all the people were sitting in the square before the house of God, greatly distressed by the occasion and because of the rain. (Ezra 10:9 NIVO)
Imagine that scene. It was December of 458 B.C. Some of you went with me to Israel in December a few years ago. It was cold. Those who had been summoned to Jerusalem were sitting in the square before the house of God–stressed, distressed, and shivering as the cold rain fell. Ezra reminded them of what they had done, they had married foreign women. Ezra urged them to confess their sins before the Lord and separate themselves from their foreign wives. Verse 12 tells us, “The whole assembly responded with a loud voice: ‘You are right! We must do as you say.’” (Ezra 10:12 NIVO) After they agreed with Ezra someone in the crowd, probably some of the leaders of the people pointed out that it was raining and cold, there were so many people present, and it was going to take some time to untangle everything. In verse 16, we can learn the process that took place to determine who needed to separate from their wives and children.
16 So the exiles did as was proposed. Ezra the priest selected men who were family heads, one from each family division, and all of them designated by name. On the first day of the tenth month they sat down to investigate the cases, 17 and by the first day of the first month they finished dealing with all the men who had married foreign women. (Ezra 10:16-17 NIVO)
Elders and judges in each of the towns would hear the cases and render a decision. The entire process took three months. Three months. That tells us this was no witch hunt, no kangaroo court, it was a meticulous search for truth concerning who was married to a woman who still worshiped and served her foreign gods and which wives had turned from the faith of their fathers and mothers and, like Ruth or Rahab, become a worshiper of God. When it was all said and done there were 110 men found guilty. That’s not many considering the approximately 50,000 Jews who had traveled with Zerubbabel and Ezra over the course of 80 years time, but for those 110 families it had to have been devastating.
When you check out the list of those who had disobeyed God and married foreign women you will notice that the sin was widespread among the Jewish men. What’s most disheartening is that the spiritual leaders were guilty. There were seventeen priests, six Levites, one singer, three gatekeepers, and eighty-three lay people. What’s really interesting is the very first offenders on the list. Let’s read Ezra 10:18 together.
18 Among the descendants of the priests, the following had married foreign women: From the descendants of Jeshua son of Jozadak, and his brothers: Maaseiah, Eliezer, Jarib and Gedaliah. (Ezra 10:18 NIVO)
This is so interesting to me because back in Ezra 2 when the list of exiles in Babylon who were making the trip back to Jerusalem were listed, the priests were last on the list. Now, when the sins of God’s people are being listed the priests are first on the list. Ouch! God’s Word tells us that God’s leaders will be judged more severely than others. James wrote,
1 Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. (James 3:1 NIVO)
The priests being listed first ahead of the others who sinned against God is very comforting to me to be honest. The story of these priests reminds me of another story we were talking about in Sunday school a couple of weeks ago. Moses had sinned and his punishment was that he would not be permitted to go into the Promised Land. It didn’t seem like a “big” sin, certainly not big enough to keep Moses out of the Promised Land after all he had put up with for 40 years while leading the people through the wilderness. An entire generation of people wouldn’t be allowed to go into the Promised Land because of their sin. Why should Moses be treated any differently? God does not show favoritism (Acts 10:34).
God calls us not to show favoritism throughout His Word. If God gave preferential treatment to His leaders over everyone else would that not make God a hypocrite, just like us? We all are guilty of giving preferential treatment to some folks over others. Then when others are given preferential treatment over us or our kids then we cry, “That’s not fair!” God does not show favoritism and He demands that we do the same. In Leviticus 19:15, God told His people,
15 Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly. (Leviticus 19:15 NIVO)
How can God ask this of us? Because this is the way He treats us. The priests, Levites, and other workers at the temple had sinned. It wasn’t swept under the carpet. The priests, Levites, and other workers at the temple were listed first. In 1 Peter we read that “judgment begins with the House of God” (1 Peter 4:17).
Before we get out of here I want to go back to something Shecaniah said to Ezra. Shecaniah said, “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.” (Ezra 10:2 NIVO) I love the optimism of Shecaniah. What had taken place was horrible. We can clearly understand that by Ezra’s response. Yet, Shecaniah said, “But in spite of this, there is still hope for Israel.” For Shecaniah, Ezra, and the people of God their hope was in repenting of their sin, turning from their ways, and seeking the Lord once again. God had been gracious in the past and He would be gracious once again.
So here we are at the end of Ezra. Things didn’t turn out the way they had planned when they first arrived in Jerusalem. They were determined to worship the Lord alone when they arrived, but somewhere along the way they lost their way once again. Here we are at the end of Ezra and instead of celebrating… the people are repenting. Isn’t this an accurate description of your life and mine? I’ve had the best of intentions. I love the Lord, there is no question about that my friend, but I find myself living like I don’t even know Him at times. I find myself repenting before God on a regular basis, a daily basis. Pastor Spurgeon wrote,
Perhaps you have the notion that repentance is a thing that happens at the commencement of the spiritual life, and has to be got through as one undergoes a certain operation, and there is an end of it. If so, you are greatly mistaken; repentance lives as long as faith. Towards faith I might almost call it a Siamese twin. We shall need to believe and to repent as long as ever we live. (Charles H. Spurgeon)
From the Fall of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden on, we witness time and time again the frailty and sinfulness of humanity throughout the Word of God. In our society we are constantly being bombarded with messages of how to be a better you, a new you, an improved you. The messages we are being fed stand in stark contrast to the testimonies of the men and women of the Bible who learn about their inability, regardless of their resolve, to be the men and women God has called them to be. Ezra and the exiles who made the long journey back for a new beginning, learned the same truth. In the New Testament, the greatest missionary the world has ever known, the man who wrote more books of the New Testament than anyone else, once said,
15 I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. 16 And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. 17 As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. 18 I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out… 24 What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? 25 Thanks be to God– through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Romans 7:15-18; 24-25 NIVO)
Where did Paul find hope? Where will you and I find hope? Paul’s hope, my hope, and your hope is found in Jesus alone. If you are here this morning and you find that you stumble and fall time and time again then I want to urge you to look to Jesus this morning. Confess your sin to Jesus. Confess your need to Jesus. He is a great Savior for great sinners my friend. Won’t you invite Him in?
Britton Christian Church
922 NW 91st
OKC, OK. 73114
January 26, 2020