9:1-3 The phrase after these things had been done links this section with the worship of Ezra and the people (8:35) and the distribution of Artaxerxes’s edicts to the local Persian authorities (8:36). However, many scholars suggest that between the end of chap. 8 and the beginning of chap. 9 there originally stood the account of Ezra’s reading of the law to the people now found in Neh 8 (or possibly Neh 8-9). There is no reason why Ezra could not have read the law on multiple occasions.
9:1 Ezra had not long returned from delivering the king’s edicts (8:36) when some leaders presented him with a genuine threat to the postexilic Jewish community—intermarriage between Jews and pagans. Probably the early groups returning from Babylon had included more men than women, making it more difficult to find a wife. Moreover, marrying a foreign wife was not always forbidden. Joseph and Moses each had a foreign wife. But intermarriage with local Canaanite groups was forbidden “so that they won’t teach you to do all the detestable acts they do for their gods” (Dt 20:18). King Solomon’s example certainly was remembered, as his numerous foreign wives “turned his heart away to follow other gods” (1Kg 11:4). The extent of the problem is shown in that all three major groups of the community were involved—the laity (the people of Israel) as well as priests and Levites.
9:2 The situation was made even worse because the leaders and officials had taken the lead in this unfaithfulness. The issue was not racial but religious. God had chosen Israel to be his “own possession” and his “holy nation” (Ex 19:5-6). His plan to bring blessing and life to all the peoples of the earth meant that his chosen people should maintain their identity. From them would come God’s servant who would be “a light to the nations” (Is 42:6) and would bear the “iniquity of us all” (Is 53:6).
9:3 Ezra identified personally with the sins of his people, responding with actions associated with repentance and mourning.
9:4-5 Those who gathered around Ezra trembled at the words of the God of Israel—a phrase that occurs in three other OT passages (10:3; Is 66:2,5). It identified them as people fully committed to keeping God’s law. Ezra got up from his time of humiliation (Hb ta‘anet), a term that occurs only here in the Hebrew Bible but does occur in postbiblical Hebrew and in Aramaic. It probably implies a penitential act in this context.
9:6-15 Ezra’s penitential prayer of confession, written in late biblical Hebrew, is similar to others from the postexilic era in content, style, and theological perspective (Neh 1:5-11; 9:6-38; Dn 9:4-19). It differs from them in that there is no petition or request to God. Its focus is confession.
9:6-7 Ezra began his prayer with his own shame and embarrassment but quickly shifted to a corporate confession of the nation’s sins. In referring to fathers, he may have been looking back several generations to those who sinned before the destruction of the temple and the exile (5:12), but it is more likely that he used the term to go all the way back to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Dt 6:10; 8:1; 2Ch 34:21). Thus Israel’s entire history was a story of failure and guilt.
9:8-9 The term stake (Hb yathed) literally is “peg,” a metaphor for the idea of permanence (Is 33:20) and stability (Is 22:23-25). That the postexilic community existed and had a temple was a sign of God’s undeserved mercy. The reference to slavery may be misconstrued when read through the lens of American history. The postexilic people did not experience racially based servitude. Yet without question, they understood that they were not a free people. Except for a brief period during the time of the Maccabees (163-60 BC), they would remain under the control of foreign powers throughout the rest of biblical history.
9:10-12 Ezra’s mention of the prophets reflects usage common in later OT texts that certainly includes Moses as well as others who spoke for God. The commands that the people had abandoned are spelled out in vv. 11-12. The focus is the necessity of avoiding defilement of themselves and their nation through association with pagan people.
9:13-15 Ezra warned God’s people that to intermarry with pagans once again could lead God to destroy them all. God had been merciful before when they sinned in this way because they survived as a remnant today, but they should not presume upon his grace. They needed to repent, specifically in the necessary but heart-breaking task of sending away their foreign wives and children (chap. 10).