A. The people decide to forsake their sin.
1. (1) The example of Ezra’s confession.
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.
a. While Ezra was praying, and while he was confessing: The power of Ezra’s confession was not merely in the words recorded in Ezra 9:6-15. It was in the depth of heart that prompted the prayer, here shown by weeping, and bowing down before the house of God. He prayed this prayer and humbled himself on behalf of the people publicly, before a very large assembly of men, women, and children.
i. Bowing down before the house of God: The Hebrew grammar “implies that Ezra kept on ‘throwing himself down’ on the ground.” (Yamauchi)
b. For the people wept very bitterly: This shows that the people were also struck by the conviction of sin and the need to confess and repent. They sorrowed over the sin of the covenant community just as Ezra had done.
i. “They could not wash their hands in innocency, they, therefore, washed them in tears; they knew that as the sins of the old world, so of this little world, needeth a deluge.” (Trapp)
ii. Through the centuries, one mark of a powerful movement of the Holy Spirit among the people of God is that they are convicted of their sin and feel compelled to confess it and to put it away. The old Puritan John Trapp thought of confession as a purging of sin. “This is the soul’s vomit, which is the hardest kind of physic [medicine], but healthsomest. This the devil knows…and, therefore, he holds the lips close, that the heart may not disburden itself by so wholesome evacuation.” (Trapp)
iii. “Confession of sins is a neglected doctrine. It only comes into its rightful place in times of revival, when the Holy Spirit comes in doubly-convicting power and makes it impossible for the erring believer to have any peace of mind until the wrong is confessed whenever necessary.” (Orr)
iv. In his book The Second Evangelical Awakening, Dr. J. Edwin Orr quoted the observations of a high-ranking army officer upon the work of the Spirit in his Scottish town: “Those of you who are at ease have little conception of how terrifying a sight it is when the Holy Spirit is pleased to open a man’s eyes to see the real state of heart…. Men who were thought to be, and who thought themselves to be good, religious people…have been led to search into the foundation upon which they were resting, and have found all rotten, that they were self-satisfied, resting on their own goodness, and not upon Christ. Many turned from open sin to lives of holiness, some weeping for joy for sins forgiven.”
v. William Newton Blair, the author of a book describing the great Korean revival, declares: “We may have our theories of the desirability or undesirability of public confession of sin. I have had mine, but I know that when the Spirit of God falls upon guilty souls, there will be confession, and no power on earth can stop it.” (Cited in Orr)
vi. The Bible has much to say about the confession of sin, and we can surmise some general guidelines about it:
· Confession should be made to the one sinned against.
· Confession publicly of specific sins should be made within the circle of people affected by those sins.
· Confession of general spiritual need, while being discrete about the specific sin, is appropriate when the circle of the people affected by the sin is either personal or very small.
· Confession should be appropriately specific.
· Confession should be thorough.
2. (2-4) Shechaniah exhorts the people to action.
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.”
a. We have trespassed against our God…yet now there is hope in Israel in spite of this: Shechaniah recognized the severity of their sin, yet he also knew that their present brokenness over their sin was an emblem of the work of God’s Spirit among them. Thus, it was a reason for hope in Israel in spite of this.
i. It is interesting that Ezra himself did not suggest the course of action that Shechaniah did. Perhaps Ezra was so deeply troubled by the sin of the community that he could not think of a wise response. Perhaps Ezra knew what to do but knew that the suggestion had to come from the community itself instead of from himself, as a newcomer to Jerusalem and Judea.
b. Let us make a covenant with our God to put away all these wives: Shechaniah advised the actions of repentance, more than simply indulging the feelings of brokenness.
i. “One fact to be borne in mind about the issue as a whole is that divorce was permitted in Israel (Deuteronomy 24:1); and broken marriages had been rife at this time for the very opposite of the present reason: i.e., there had been a scandalous number of Jewish wives abandoned in favour of heathen women (Malachi 2:10-16).” (Kidner)
ii. “While divorce is always hateful to God (Malachi 2:16), and a witness to human ‘hardness of heart’ (Mark 10:5), the situation described in Ezra 9-10 was a classic example of one in which the lesser of two evils had to be chosen. If a serious reason for divorce could ever exist, this had a better claim than most to come within that category.” (Kidner)
iii. “Marriages made between some prohibited persons; as suppose, between a father and his daughter, a brother and a sister, are not only unlawful, but void marriages, and ipso facto null, by the political laws of civil nations. And therefore these marriages with idolatrous and heathen women, being expressly and severely forbidden by God, might well be disannulled.” (Poole)
c. Those who have been born to them: This was a strong command, because not only would the wives be put away – but also the children. Because of this, some commentators (such as Adeney) think that this was excessive zeal in reforming, going beyond God’s will and causing great harm. Yet we should see that this was in fact God’s will.
i. This was understood by the ancient culture – that of course, the women would stay with their children. “‘All these women and their children’ reflects the fact that in ancient societies, as in ours, mothers were given custody of their children when marriages were dissolved.” (Yamauchi)
ii. It was also, no doubt, mitigated by support from the husbands. “Though by the Jewish laws such marriages were null and void, yet as the women they had taken did not know these laws, their case was deplorable. However, we may take it for granted that each of them received a portion according to the circumstances of their husbands, and that they and their children were not turned away desolate, but had such a provision as their necessities required. Humanity must have dictated this, and no law of God is contrary to humanity.” (Clarke)
iii. Also, it seems that because of God’s mercy in this difficult situation, there were relatively few children affected (Ezra 10:44).
iv. “That children may and sometimes do suffer, at least temporal evils, for their parents’ sins, or upon occasion of them, is most evident, both by the Scripture instances, and by the laws and usages of nations in some cases.” (Poole)
d. Arise, for this matter is your responsibility. We also are with you: Shechaniah both exhorted those guilty to do what was right and stood beside them in support. This was especially meaningful because it seems that though Shechaniah was not guilty of marrying a pagan woman, both his father and his uncles were (Ezra 10:21).
3. (5-8) Ezra issues a proclamation.
Then Ezra arose, and made the leaders of the priests, the Levites, and all Israel swear an oath that they would do according to this word. So they swore an oath. Then Ezra rose up from before the house of God, and went into the chamber of Jehohanan the son of Eliashib; and when he came there, he ate no bread and drank no water, for he mourned because of the guilt of those from the captivity.
And they issued a proclamation throughout Judah and Jerusalem to all the descendants of the captivity, that they must gather at Jerusalem, and that whoever would not come within three days, according to the instructions of the leaders and elders, all his property would be confiscated, and he himself would be separated from the assembly of those from the captivity.
a. Ezra arose, and made the leaders of the priests, the Levites, and all Israel swear an oath: The counsel of Shechaniah seemed good to Ezra, so he immediately called upon the people to swear an oath to do according to this word. Significantly, Ezra began with the leaders; he expected them to make things right with God first.
b. He ate no bread and drank no water, for he mourned: For Ezra, this whole tragedy was as bad as if someone had died. He could not think of himself or his own needs when he knew God was being so greatly dishonored.
i. We can say that Ezra observed a complete fast, abstaining from both food and water. This same kind of fast is rare in the Bible but was observed twice by Moses (Exodus 34:28; Deuteronomy 9:18) and also by the people of Nineveh (Jonah 3:7).
ii. “The man who sets himself ‘to seek, to do, to teach’ the law of God invariably brings himself into places where sorrow will be his portion, and intrepid courage necessary.” (Morgan)
c. Whoever would not come within three days…all his property would be confiscated, and he himself would be separated from the assembly: Ezra was given great civil authority by King Artaxerxes (Ezra 7:26). Here he put that authority to use by making the people fulfill the oath they had previously made (Ezra 10:5).
B. The spirit of repentance at the assembly of the people.
1. (9-11) Ezra’s appeal to the trembling assembly.
So all the men of Judah and Benjamin gathered at Jerusalem within three days. It was the ninth month, on the twentieth of the month; and all the people sat in the open square of the house of God, trembling because of this matter and because of heavy rain. 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.”
a. So all the men of Judah and Benjamin gathered at Jerusalem within three days: This was an impressive response to the remarkable call Ezra made in the preceding verses. Their unified response was another evidence of the moving of the Holy Spirit among the people of God.
b. All the people sat in the open square of the house of God, trembling because of this matter and because of heavy rain: The willingness of people to forsake normal comforts and to humbly assemble in adverse circumstances was another evidence of the moving of the Holy Spirit among them.
i. This response has been seen again as the Holy Spirit has moved upon the people of God. Orr records that in March of 1859, at the beginning of a great move of God that would bring more than one million souls to conversion in Great Britain, some unordained men with a passion for revival preached at the First Presbyterian Church in Ahoghill, Northern Ireland. There was such a large crowd at that meeting that they had to dismiss the meeting out of fear that the balconies would collapse under the weight of so many people. They took the meeting to the street right outside the church, and in the freezing rain James McQuilkin preached to 3,000 people in the streets, with many of the listeners falling to their knees in the wet and muddy street because they were so moved by the conviction of sin under the preaching of these laymen.
c. You have transgressed…adding to the guilt of Israel: Ezra’s word to the people was clear and strong. Though the moving of the Holy Spirit was evident, it was important to carry the work through to completion and not be satisfied with a partial work.
d. Now therefore, make confession to the LORD…do His will…separate yourselves: This was a clear call to both confession and repentance.
i. We might even say that their confession would be vain without corresponding repentance. This repentance (the decision to stop one’s sinful behavior and to do His will) is an essential element of the Christian life.
ii. “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.” (Spurgeon)
2. (12-15) The response of the assembly.
Then all the assembly answered and said with a loud voice, “Yes! As you have said, so we must do. But there are many people; it is the season for heavy rain, and we are not able to stand outside. Nor is this the work of one or two days, for there are many of us who have transgressed in this matter. Please, let the leaders of our entire assembly stand; and let all those in our cities who have taken pagan wives come at appointed times, together with the elders and judges of their cities, until the fierce wrath of our God is turned away from us in this matter.” Only Jonathan the son of Asahel and Jahaziah the son of Tikvah opposed this, and Meshullam and Shabbethai the Levite gave them support.
a. Yes! As you have said, so we must do: This was still another evidence of the remarkable moving of the Holy Spirit upon the people. They immediately answered (and with a loud voice) in agreement to what Ezra said.
b. But there are many people…. Nor is this the work of one or two days: The people asked Ezra for the time to make it right. This was necessary because so many people were involved in this sin, yet the principle was agreed upon with very little opposition.
c. Only Jonathan the son of Asahel: “Why these four men opposed the measure is unclear. Perhaps they were protecting themselves or their relatives. Perhaps they viewed the measures of separation as too harsh. Less probably they were fanatics who wished no delay in implementing the measure.” (Yamauchi)
3. (16-17) Each case is examined individually over a 3-month period.
Then the descendants of the captivity did so. And Ezra the priest, with certain heads of the fathers’ households, were set apart by the fathers’ households, each of them by name; and they sat down on the first day of the tenth month to examine the matter. By the first day of the first month they finished questioning all the men who had taken pagan wives.
a. They sat down on the first day of the tenth month to examine the matter: Though Ezra was wisely willing to accept the delay because of necessity, he also held the assembly accountable to do what they agreed to do in the months after the great assembly.
b. They finished questioning all the men who had taken pagan wives: The whole process took many weeks because so many men had taken pagan wives. The questioning was necessary because they needed to examine if one of these wives had genuinely decided to serve the Lord God and to forsake her native religions.
i. If the pagan wife had decided to keep her primary allegiance with her former people and their idols, she could not live among the covenant community and had to be divorced.
ii. To the end of the chapter, there is a list showing that only about 114 of these pagan wives refused to embrace the God of Israel and had to be divorced. Yamauchi calculates that it was less than one-half of one percent of the people who were guilty of this pagan intermarriage and who had to divorce their wives. Though it was such a small percentage, it still had to be dealt with strongly – and it was. It also shows that most of the foreign wives joined the people of God in their hearts as well as their homes.
iii. In the New Testament believers are also instructed to marry within the faith. Marriages to unbelievers are condemned (2 Corinthians 6:14) and widows (as one example of the unmarried) are directly commanded to marry within the faith (1 Corinthians 7:39). However, Paul specifically commanded that if a believer is married to an unbeliever, they are to remain in the marriage, if at all possible, both for the opportunity of a witness to the unbelieving spouse and for the benefit it brings to the children (1 Corinthians 7:12-17).
4. (18-44) The list of those found guilty.
And among the sons of the priests who had taken pagan wives the following were found of the sons of Jeshua the son of Jozadak, and his brothers: Maaseiah, Eliezer, Jarib, and Gedaliah. And they gave their promise that they would put away their wives; and being guilty, they presented a ram of the flock as their trespass offering.
Also of the sons of Immer: Hanani and Zebadiah; of the sons of Harim: Maaseiah, Elijah, Shemaiah, Jehiel, and Uzziah; of the sons of Pashhur: Elioenai, Maaseiah, Ishmael, Nethanel, Jozabad, and Elasah.
Also of the Levites: Jozabad, Shimei, Kelaiah (the same is Kelita), Pethahiah, Judah, and Eliezer.
Also of the singers: Eliashib; and of the gatekeepers: Shallum, Telem, and Uri.
And others of Israel: of the sons of Parosh: Ramiah, Jeziah, Malchiah, Mijamin, Eleazar, Malchijah, and Benaiah; of the sons of Elam: Mattaniah, Zechariah, Jehiel, Abdi, Jeremoth, and Eliah; of the sons of Zattu: Elioenai, Eliashib, Mattaniah, Jeremoth, Zabad, and Aziza; of the sons of Bebai: Jehohanan, Hananiah, Zabbai, and Athlai; of the sons of Bani: Meshullam, Malluch, Adaiah, Jashub, Sheal, and Ramoth; of the sons of Pahath-Moab: Adna, Chelal, Benaiah, Maaseiah, Mattaniah, Bezalel, Binnui, and Manasseh; of the sons of Harim: Eliezer, Ishijah, Malchijah, Shemaiah, Shimeon, Benjamin, Malluch, and Shemariah; of the sons of Hashum: Mattenai, Mattattah, Zabad, Eliphelet, Jeremai, Manasseh, and Shimei; of the sons of Bani: Maadai, Amram, Uel, Benaiah, Bedeiah, Cheluh, Vaniah, Meremoth, Eliashib, Mattaniah, Mattenai, Jaasai, Bani, Binnui, Shimei, Shelemiah, Nathan, Adaiah, Machnadebai, Shashai, Sharai, Azarel, Shelemiah, Shemariah, Shallum, Amariah, and Joseph; of the sons of Nebo: Jeiel, Mattithiah, Zabad, Zebina, Jaddai, Joel, and Benaiah.
All these had taken pagan wives, and some of them had wives by whom they had children.
a. And among the sons of the priests who had taken pagan wives the following were found: Those who had to put away their wives (because they refused to convert) are here listed. This is a somewhat shameful list, and not a very good way to get one’s name recorded in the best-selling book of all time.
i. “None was exempt from the reformation, which was carried out with complete thoroughness. Such action is ever the true outcome, and only satisfactory expression, of sorrow over sin.” (Morgan)
ii. Jewish rabbis speculated on the reason why Jewish men divorced their Jewish wives and married women from the pagan cultures (Malachi 2:10-16): because the Jewish women who returned from exile lost their beauty and aged before their time. “When the Jews drew near from the Exile, the faces of the Jewish women had become blackened by the sun. They therefore left them and married heathen wives.” (Rabbi Johanan, cited by Yamauchi)
iii. They presented a ram of the flock: “This shows that they sinned against knowledge; for a sin of ignorance the oblation was not a ram, but a goat.” (Trapp)
iv. Some of them had wives by whom they had children: “Whereby he implies that most of their wives were barren; which came to pass by God’s special providence, partly to manifest his displeasure against such matches, and partly that the practice of this great and necessary duty might not be encumbered with too many difficulties.” (Poole)
b. All these had taken pagan wives: As seen before, the greater problem was that these wives remained pagan and refused to join the covenant community. Their break with the people of Israel was grounded in faith, not in race.
i. “Let us at least separate ourselves after the manner of Christ, who frequented the temple, acknowledged the State, accepted invitations to great houses; but his heart and speech always revolved about his Father.” (Meyer)
ii. Ezra here disappears from the Biblical record for about thirteen years, when he appears again in the Book of Nehemiah. His passion then was the same as it was at the end of the Book of Ezra: to transform the people of God by bringing them the word of God.