Ezra’s Prayer About Intermarriage (9:1–15)
1–2 Shortly after Ezra’s arrival in Jerusalem, he learned that many of the Jews, including their leaders, had intermarried with non-Israelite people living in the land. These were mainly the pagan peoples the Assyrians had moved into the land following the fall of Israel’s northern kingdom (2 Kings 17:24). But these people were no different from the original pagan tribes of Canaan that the Israelites had long ago driven out31 (Exodus 3:8). The Israelites had been forbidden to intermarry with the Canaanites (see Exodus 34:15–16; Deuteronomy 7:1–5); therefore, they were equally forbidden to intermarry with any people who did not worship the God of Israel (see 1 Corinthians 6:14).
Throughout Israel’s history those who married pagans usually ended up worshiping the pagan gods of those they married (1 Kings 11:1–8). To do so was to commit spiritual adultery; God alone was to be Israel’s husband” (see Exodus 34:10–14 and comment). That is why Ezra called this intermarriage unfaithfulness (verse 2).
3–5 When Ezra heard about the intermarriage, he tore his clothes and pulled out his hair32 in grief and shame. Then all those who trembled at the words of God—that is, all those who believed God’s word and feared His judgment—gathered around Ezra (verse 4). And then Ezra prayed.
6–9 Ezra’s prayer is one of the most moving confessional prayers in Scripture. He prays as the spiritual leader of his people, and as such, he includes himself in this corporate confession of SIN. Of particular note in these verses is his acknowledgement of God’s mercy and grace toward this small Jewish remnant to whom God had given a firm place in Judah; He had given light in their eyes and relief in [their] bondage (verse 8). The Jews in Judah were still slaves; they were still subjects of the king of Persia; and yet God had not deserted them (verse 9). He had caused the kings of Persia to show kindness to the Jews; He had enabled them to rebuild the temple and had given them a wall of protection—a secure place—in Judah and Jerusalem (verse 10). He had done all this because of His great love for them.
10–15 And yet how had the Jews repaid God for His love? They had disregarded the commands He had given to them through His prophets—above all, through Moses (Exodus 34:10–16; Deuteronomy 7:1–6). These commands were not burdensome; they had been given to the Israelites so that they might enjoy the land (Deuteronomy 5:29,33) and leave it to their children as an everlasting inheritance (verse 12).
But now what did these post-exilic Jews deserve? Up till then they had been punished less than their former sins deserved. But now they deserved to be destroyed completely—without remnant, without survivor (verse 14). And if God did destroy them completely, He would be righteous in doing so. They would have brought this JUDGMENT upon themselves; not one of them could stand in His presence (verse 15).
And this has been the situation of every human being right up to this present day: we cannot stand in God’s presence; that is, we cannot claim any RIGHTEOUSNESS of our own. Because of our sin and guilt, we are deserving only of death (Romans 6:23). Our only hope is to do as Ezra did, to cast ourselves on God’s mercy and confess our sins. And God will hear our prayer, just as He heard the prayer of Ezra.
Note something very important about Ezra’s prayer: when he learned about sin in the community, he did not point his finger at others; he did not behave judgmentally or self-righteously. He identified with those who had sinned, even though he had not committed the same sin himself. In this, Ezra has given us an example of how we should confront sin in our own families and churches. Though each individual must bear the punishment for his or her own sin (see Deuteronomy 24:16 and comment), it is still true that members of a community share responsibility for one another; it is possible that some sin or weakness in myself has caused another brother or sister to stumble. Let us not judge (Matthew 7:1); rather, let us confess our sins one to another (James 5:16).