Ezra 9 – Israel’s Sin and Ezra’s Confession
A. The problem is exposed.
1. (1-2) The leaders report to Ezra.
When these things were done, the leaders came to me, saying, “The people of Israel and the priests and the Levites have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands, with respect to the abominations of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and the Amorites. For they have taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves and their sons, so that the holy seed is mixed with the peoples of those lands. Indeed, the hand of the leaders and rulers has been foremost in this trespass.”
a. The people of Israel and the priests and the Levites have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands: After his arrival and the proper accounting of all the gifts brought from Babylon, Ezra received discouraging news. The spiritual condition of the post-exile community was bad, and this was evident in their failure to separate from the pagan peoples that still populated the region.
i. “Feeble and isolated, the Jews were quite unable to resist the attacks of their jealous neighbours. Would it not be better to come to terms with them, and from enemies convert them into allies? Then the policy of exclusiveness involved commercial ruin; and men who knew how their brethren in Chaldea were enriching themselves by trade with the heathen were galled by a yoke which held them back from foreign intercourse.” (Adeney)
b. For they have taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves and their sons: Their failure to separate resulted in intermarriage with the surrounding pagan communities.
i. It wasn’t that this intermarriage was the only problem; but as these communities intermarried, there would be no areas left untouched by pagan associations – business, government, social life. To allow intermarriage with idolaters was to allow all these other areas of compromise.
c. With respect to the abominations of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and the Amorites: This shows that the problem was not primarily ethnic. The problem was they did not separate themselves from these abominations, specifically the idolatry of these people.
i. “All this testified abhorrence, not merely of the act of having taken strange wives, but their having also joined them in their idolatrous abominations.” (Clarke)
ii. With this forsaking of Jewish identity and the at least partial embrace of idolatry (or its toleration in the Jewish community), in a few generations there would cease to be any distinctive Jewish community in the Promised Land.
iii. Ezra 9:1-2 seems to recall passages from the Law of Moses against intermarriage with the surrounding Canaanite tribes – in particular, Exodus 34:11-16 and Deuteronomy 7:1-4. We may see this conviction of sin on the part of the people and their leaders, and the way that the conviction of sin was phrased, to indicate (spiritually speaking) that Ezra’s arrival to bring the ministry of teaching God’s word was bearing fruit. The people heard the word, looked at their lives, and saw that the two did not match.
iv. “During the obscure period that followed the dedication of the temple – a period of which we have no historical remains – the rigorous exclusiveness which had marked the conduct of the returned exiles when they rudely rejected the proposal of their Gentile neighbours to assist them in rebuilding the temple was abandoned, and freedom of intercourse went so far as to permit intermarriage with the descendants of the Canaanites.” (Adeney)
d. Indeed, the hand of the leaders and rulers has been foremost in this trespass: Worst of all, the leaders of the community were leaders (foremost) in this sin. They were leaders, but leading in the wrong direction.
i. “Leading aristocratic families were foremost in contracting the foreign alliances. It is such as they who would profit most, as it is such as they who would be most tempted to consider worldly motives and to forgo the austerity of their fathers.” (Adeney)
2. (3) Ezra’s complete astonishment.
So when I heard this thing, I tore my garment and my robe, and plucked out some of the hair of my head and beard, and sat down astonished.
a. When I heard this thing: Ezra had just finished a dangerous four-month journey from Babylon to Jerusalem. He had perhaps over-romanticized the spiritual commitment of the return-from-exile pioneers and had expected to find something completely different than the culture of compromise that he found.
b. And sat down astonished: Certainly, one of the reasons for his mourning (expressed in the tearing of the garment and the plucking of the beard) was that Ezra remembered that it was these sins of idolatry and compromise that caused the tribes of Israel to be exiled before. He no doubt wondered how the people could endanger themselves like this again.
i. Astonished: “Means ‘to be appalled or stupefied’…. Rare is the soul who is so shocked at disobedience that he is appalled. (The English word originally meant ‘to make pale.’).” (Yamauchi)
ii. Both Ezra and Nehemiah were confronted with the sin of pagan intermarriage. Nehemiah responded by plucking out the hair of the guilty (Nehemiah 13:25); Ezra responded by plucking out his own hair.
iii. “It has been truly said that communion with the Lord dries many tears, but it starts many more.” (Meyer)
4. (4) Ezra is joined by others who were also grieved at Israel’s sin.
Then everyone who trembled at the words of the God of Israel assembled to me, because of the transgression of those who had been carried away captive, and I sat astonished until the evening sacrifice.
a. Everyone who trembled at the words of the God of Israel assembled: There were those in the community who were also horrified at the sin of their community. These (who were marked by their respect for God’s word) assembled together with Ezra.
b. Because of the transgression of those who had been carried away captive: This was an interesting title to give to those who had sinned. In a historical sense, they were among the captives who returned from Babylon (though many or most of them were actually born in Judea). Yet in a real spiritual sense, they were carried away captive by their sin of partnership with idolaters and idolatry.
i. Sat down astonished: “Partly for grief and shame at the sin; and partly for fear of some great and dreadful judgment which he expected and feared for it.” (Poole)
B. The prayer of Ezra.
1. (5-6) Ezra’s sense of shame.
At the evening sacrifice I arose from my fasting; and having torn my garment and my robe, I fell on my knees and spread out my hands to the LORD my God. And I said: “O my God, I am too ashamed and humiliated to lift up my face to You, my God; for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has grown up to the heavens.”
a. At the evening sacrifice I arose from my fasting: Ezra knew there was a time to mourn and he did that for a long time. He also knew that there was a time to pray, and now he would begin his prayer.
i. “The ‘evening sacrifice’ took place about three p.m. (cf. Exodus 12:6; Acts 3:1). The informants had probably visited Ezra in the morning, so that he must have sat in this position for many hours. The time of the evening sacrifice was also the appointed time for prayer and confession.” (Yamauchi)
ii. When Ezra prayed, he alone prayed – yet because he stood before an assembly of the people of God, there was a sense in which he led them in prayer. “The officiating minister is not merely to pray before the congregation, while the people kneel as silent auditors. His prayer is designed to guide and help their prayers, so that there may be ‘common prayer’ throughout the whole assembly.” (Adeney)
b. Fell on my knees and spread out my hands to the LORD my God: Ezra was one of many in the Bible who prayed on his knees.
· Solomon prayed on his knees (1 Kings 8:54).
· The Psalmist called us to kneel before God (Psalm 95:6).
· Daniel prayed on his knees (Daniel 6:10).
· People presented themselves to Jesus in a kneeling posture (Matthew 17:14, Matthew 20:20, Mark 1:40).
· Stephen prayed on his knees (Acts 7:60).
· Peter prayed on his knees (Acts 9:40).
· Paul prayed on his knees (Acts 20:36, Ephesians 3:14).
· Some early Christians prayed on their knees (Acts 21:5).
· Most importantly, Jesus prayed on His knees (Luke 22:41).
i. The Bible has enough prayer not on the knees to show us that it isn’t required, but it also has enough prayer on the knees to show us that it is good.
ii. Ezra also spread out his hands to the LORD. This was the most common posture of prayer in the Old Testament. Many modern people close their eyes, bow their heads, and fold their hands as they pray, but the Old Testament tradition was to spread out the hands toward heaven in a gesture of surrender, openness, and ready reception. “With the palms open toward heaven, in a having, craving way, as beggars. This was the Jewish manner of praying, and it was very becoming.” (Trapp)
c. I am too ashamed and humiliated to lift up my face to You: Though Ezra’s hands were raised his face was down in shame and humiliation before the LORD. He sensed that the sins of the people of Israel had weighed his head down so much that he could not lift his head (our iniquities have risen higher than our heads).
i. Ashamed and humiliated: According to Yamauchi, there is a difference between these two ancient Hebrew words. The first speaks of being ashamed; the second word speaks of the pain that accompanies shame.
ii. “God had been so often provoked, and had so often pardoned them and they had continued to transgress, that he was ashamed to go back again to the throne of grace to ask for mercy in their behalf. This is the genuine feeling of every reawakened backslider.” (Clarke)
d. Our iniquities have risen higher than our heads: Significantly, Ezra prayed saying “our iniquities” instead of “their iniquities.” Ezra had just arrived at this community and he had not shared any kind of life or conduct with them. Yet he knew that because they were bound together in the same covenant before God, their iniquities were in fact his.
2. (7-9) Ezra remembers God’s past kindness to Israel in spite of their sins.
“Since the days of our fathers to this day we have been very guilty, and for our iniquities we, our kings, and our priests have been delivered into the hand of the kings of the lands, to the sword, to captivity, to plunder, and to humiliation, as it is this day. And now for a little while grace has been shown from the LORD our God, to leave us a remnant to escape, and to give us a peg in His holy place, that our God may enlighten our eyes and give us a measure of revival in our bondage. For we were slaves. Yet our God did not forsake us in our bondage; but He extended mercy to us in the sight of the kings of Persia, to revive us, to repair the house of our God, to rebuild its ruins, and to give us a wall in Judah and Jerusalem.”
a. We have been very guilty: Ezra recognized the generally sinful past of the tribes of Israel, and how their exile was a righteous work of God against His sinful people.
b. And now for a little while grace has been shown: Ezra then reflected on the remarkable goodness of God in bringing a remnant of His people back from exile and allowing them to live in the Promised Land again.
c. To give us a peg in His holy place: The idea is that Israel once again had a safe position, a standing in God’s favor and in His temple. In those days, houses didn’t really have cupboards or storage closets as we think of them. Things were stored on pegs set up all around the room. If something was on its peg, it was safe and secure, stored properly and ready for use at the appropriate time.
i. Only a few days before this, Ezra had seen the temple for the first time in his life. He was impressed that God had given His people a peg in His holy place once again and was therefore afraid that their casual disregard for this blessing would once again stir up the righteous anger of God.
d. And give us a measure of revival in our bondage: Ezra rejoiced to see even a measure of revival and knew that this was an emblem of God’s mercy and favor that should not be despised with disobedience and compromise.
e. To revive us, to repair the house of our God, to rebuild its ruins, and to give us a wall: Ezra was impressed by all these signs of God’s mercy and favor to His people, signs he had only seen a few days before for the first time. It made him appreciate how good God had been to His people, and how dangerous it was for them to sin and compromise in response to His goodness.
i. “Some critics take this reference to a wall as an argument for the priority of Nehemiah over Ezra, assuming an allusion to the wall that Nehemiah had repaired in his day. But most scholars agree that the reference here is not to be taken literally.” (Yamauchi)
ii. To give us a wall: “They had the fence of the king of Persia’s favour. They had also God’s providence, as a hedge or wall of fire round about them.” (Trapp)
iii. “The Jewish commentator Slotki (p. 166) observes poignantly: ‘A little grace had been granted by God to his people; a small remnant had found its weary way back to its home and driven a single peg into its soil; a solitary ray of light was shining; a faint breath of freedom lightened their slavery. How graphically Ezra epitomizes Jewish experience in these few words!’” (Yamauchi)
3. (10-14) Ezra fears that God’s people are testing His mercy.
And now, O our God, what shall we say after this? For we have forsaken Your commandments, which You commanded by Your servants the prophets, saying, ‘The land which you are entering to possess is an unclean land, with the uncleanness of the peoples of the lands, with their abominations which have filled it from one end to another with their impurity. Now therefore, do not give your daughters as wives for their sons, nor take their daughters to your sons; and never seek their peace or prosperity, that you may be strong and eat the good of the land, and leave it as an inheritance to your children forever.’ And after all that has come upon us for our evil deeds and for our great guilt, since You our God have punished us less than our iniquities deserve, and have given us such deliverance as this, should we again break Your commandments, and join in marriage with the people committing these abominations? Would You not be angry with us until You had consumed us, so that there would be no remnant or survivor?
a. What shall we say after this? Ezra offered no excuses and not even an explanation. Their conduct was indefensible and in direct disobedience to what God commanded by His servants the prophets.
i. That you may be strong: “Although you may fancy that this way of making leagues and marriages with them is the only way to establish and settle you, yet I assure you it will weaken and ruin you and the contrary course will make you stronger.” (Poole)
b. You our God have punished us less than our iniquities deserve: As severe as the exile was, Ezra recognized that it was less than the people of God deserved. As he looked at their present disobedience, he understood that it was a way of despising the great mercy God had shown in the past and meant they deserved a complete and final judgment.
i. As the tribes of Israel piled sin upon sin before the fall of the northern and southern kingdoms, God still showed remarkable mercy to them. He did not have to preserve them in exile; there could have been genocide instead. As well, He did not have to bring them back from exile into the Promised Land once again. Each of these was a wonderful example of God’s mercy in the midst of judgment.
ii. “It is a fine revelation of the only attitude in which any man can become a mediator. There is first an overwhelming sense of sin. This is accompanied, and perhaps caused by, that deeper sense of the righteousness and grace of God. It finds expression in agonised and unsparing confession. The passion of the whole movement is evidence of its reality.” (Morgan)
4. (15) Ezra calls upon the mercy of God.
O LORD God of Israel, You are righteous, for we are left as a remnant, as it is this day. Here we are before You, in our guilt, though no one can stand before You because of this!”
a. O LORD God of Israel: Here Ezra wisely appealed to the LORD as the God of Israel. Though they had been unfaithful to Him, Ezra still hoped for covenant mercies from the LORD because He was their God.
b. You are righteous: Ezra also wisely appealed to God’s righteousness, especially in leaving a remnant in fulfillment of His prior promises (2 Chronicles 30:6; Isaiah 10:20-22).
i. “Ezra is far too much in earnest simply to wish to help his people to escape from the consequences of their conduct. This would not be salvation. It would be moral shipwreck. The great need is to be saved from the evil conduct itself.” (Adeney)
c. Here we are before You in our guilt: Ezra wisely did not claim an excuse or a reason for their sin. Israel had sinned and they were guilty. The appeal must be made for mercy to the guilty, not as a favor to the deserving (or semi-deserving).
i. We note here that Ezra also did not claim special circumstances or did not tell God that their difficult environment made their present compromise understandable, or that all their other good works or faithfulness somehow excused their idolatry. He simply realized that no one can stand before You because of this!
ii. “Ezra had not even the heart to plead, as Moses had, that God’s name would suffer in such a case. His prayer was naked confession, without excuses, without the pressure of so much as a request.” (Kidner)