9 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.”
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 9:1-4 NIV)
As we quickly review our progress through the book of Ezra, we reviewed the details of Ezra’s trip from Babylon to Jerusalem in chapter 8. With his official duties related to leading the group of exiles to Jerusalem now complete, Ezra and the exiles settled into their roles within Jerusalem and the Temple.
As we begin chapter 9, the timeline is approximately four and a half months after Ezra and the exiles arrive in Jerusalem. Ezra must now face his first major order of business.
Chapter 9 is central to the meaning and message of the book of Ezra. Here we see life with God as it should be vs. life in Israel and Jerusalem as it is.
So what is this major issue that Ezra must deal with? Members of the community approached Ezra and let him know that some of the exiles had intermarried with the locals. Worse yet, the very ones who should know better – the priests and Levites and other leaders – are the worst offenders!
In verse 2, the phrase “holy race” might be more literally translated “holy seed”. This phrase is not genetic in its meaning, but rather, spiritual.
In Exodus 19:5-6, God commands His people to live in covenant relationship with Him. This involved living in harmony with God, loving God on the inside (with their hearts), and obeying His commands on the outside (with their words and actions).
Prohibition of intermarriage with non-Jews was a key part of living in that covenant relationship with God. In Exodus 34:11-16, God specifically told Moses and the Israelites not to make any treaties with the local people. In Deuteronomy 7:3-4, God told the Israelites what would happen when they intermarried with the locals. The hearts of the men and women would be led away from the Lord to serve other idols, and God’s righteous and jealous anger would be turned toward His people because of their disobedience.
This spiritual purity that God ordained was key to the covenant relationship with His people. The breach of this spiritual bond was the reason for the downfall of both Israel and Judah. The capture and exile of the Jewish people (as we studied in Jeremiah) was God’s righteous anger against His people for their unfaithfulness to Him.
Verses 3 – 4 capture Ezra’s reaction to this devastating news. In Ezra’s ancient culture, inward conviction of the heart was coupled with the outward manifestation of the emotions. Ezra’s weeping, fasting, the tearing of his garments, and the pulling out the hairs of his head and his beard all signified the degree of grief he experienced over this terrible news.
And Ezra was not the only one experiencing this reaction. Verse 4 says that “everyone who trembled at the words of the God of Israel” gathered around Ezra, likely having the same response as Ezra.
What happens when we fully understand God’s holiness? Hebrews 12:18-29 (especially verse 21) give us a glimpse of what it means to come before the presence of God Almighty.
Does sin break our heart as it did Ezra’s?
Remember that Ezra was not brokenhearted over his own sin, but over the sin of the nation. Had history taught them nothing?
It’s fairly easy to sit in self-righteous judgment over others who are opposed to our views, whether spiritual, political, economic, or any other topics.
Ezra had the king’s blessing to carry out judgment against those who broke God’s Laws. And as we shall see in Chapter 10, Ezra does deal with the issue. However, the first thing Ezra does is recognize God’s holiness and righteousness and tremble before Almighty God over this grievous sin of the nation.
May we take time today to come before the Lord in repentance and worship. If you have a few moments, read the rest of Ezra 9 (verses 5-15) and join Ezra in his prayer.