II. The Return of the Exiles under Ezra Ezra (7:1–10:44)

7:1-6 Chapter 7 leaps ahead several decades to the second return under Ezra himself. During the reign of King Artaxerxes of Persia, Ezra—the book’s namesake—came to Jerusalem in 458 BC (7:1). His genealogy is provided to establish his priestly pedigree and to show that he descended from Aaron (7:1-5). A scribe was an expert in the law of Moses, capable of interpreting it and teaching it to the people (7:6). This detail would become vital to the next events recorded because though God’s people were out of Babylon, there was still a lot of Babylon (idolatry and immorality) in God’s people. Ezra’s primary ministry in Judah would be resolving this.

8:35-36 Upon the group’s arrival to their new home, three days of rest (8:32) were followed by multiple sacrifices of praise and worship to God. Ezra gave a copy of the king’s decree to the leaders in the region, so that they would support the people and the house of God (8:36).

9:1-2 The joy of the return was short-lived. Ezra found himself with a crisis on his hands. Some leaders of the Jewish community approached Ezra with bad news, really bad news, and then even worse news. The bad news was that the returned exiles were showing how little they had learned from the example of their ancestors because they had not separated themselves from the surrounding peoples and their detestable practices (9:1). The really bad news was that the Israelite men had taken non-Israelite wives, so that the holy seed [had] become mixed with that of the surrounding peoples. Even worse, the leaders and officials [had] taken the lead in this unfaithfulness (9:2).

Such actions had been clearly forbidden by God. After the exodus from Egypt and before Israel entered the promised land, Moses had commanded them not to intermarry with the people groups listed in Ezra 9:1 (see Deut 7:1-3). Why? “Because they will turn your sons away from me to worship other gods. Then the Lord’s anger will burn against you, and he will swiftly destroy you” (Deut 7:4). The Israelites of Ezra’s day, then, were walking a path that would send them right back into divine judgment.

9:3-4 Ezra dramatically demonstrated his horror and humiliation before the Lord on behalf of his sinful people (9:3). Those who similarly took God seriously—that is, those who trembled at the words of the God of Israel—gathered around Ezra as he sat devastated (9:4).

Some Christians today, who have grown up in a culture that prizes individualism, might be puzzled at Ezra’s response here. After all, Ezra himself wasn’t guilty of this sin, so why should he be so concerned? But, Ezra had a right understanding of the corporate aspect of being a part of the people of God.

Think of it this way. A faithful offensive lineman may perform a well-executed block. But, if the rest of the offensive line collapses and the quarterback is sacked, the faithful football player is still on the losing end of things because he is part of a team. God calls his church a body—composed of many parts but functioning as one unit (see 1 Cor 12:12-31). We, as the church, are not merely to look after ourselves but to practice the “one anothers” of Scripture (see John 15:12; Gal 6:2; Eph 4:32; 1 Thess 5:11). God doesn’t want Lone Ranger Christians. Our spiritual vitality and growth only come as we serve the Lord together.

9:5-7 Like the godly leader he was, Ezra turned to the Lord in prayer. Though he was personally innocent, he readily identified with God’s people, his fellow Jews, who had sinned. Ezra fell on [his] knees and spread out [his] hands to the Lord, which was a position of deep contrition and repentance (9:5). He was personally ashamed and embarrassed to look up to God because of the people’s unfaithfulness (9:6).

Unfortunately, such blatant sin among the Israelites was nothing new, but had characterized previous generations who had suffered under the disciplining hand of God as a result (9:7). How could the men of Ezra’s generation be so blind and hard-hearted as to ignore their people’s history and invite God’s judgment once again?

9:8-9 Ezra might have despaired about the future of the restored community except for one wonderful truth about the Lord: He is a God of grace (9:8). He had seen fit to preserve a remnant of his people and to deliver them from slavery once again—not so that they might live for themselves, but so that they might rebuild the house of . . . God (9:8-9).

9:10-15 In light of God’s abundant grace, there was no excuse for this sin of intermarrying with the unrighteous nations surrounding them. Ezra acknowledged that the people had broken God’s clear commands, even quoting them back to God to demonstrate his understanding of how serious this offense was (9:11-12). Ezra knew God had already treated Israel far better than they deserved (9:13). He would be completely justified in sweeping them away and leaving no survivor (9:14). So, with all this said, Ezra made no specific request of the Lord. Instead, he threw himself and his people on God’s grace. He said, we are before you with our guilt . . . no one can stand in your presence because of this (9:15).

10:1-4 Ezra’s distraught condition over the sin of interfaith marriages and his humble, facedown repentance drew a large crowd to the open square in front of the temple (10:1). The people joined Ezra in bitter weeping, and, to their credit, were determined to deal with the situation. A man named Shecaniah spoke for the group, pledging their support for the painful steps the leader Ezra would have to take to remedy these sinful intermarriages (10:2-4).

The seriousness of the situation is indicated in Shecaniah’s use of the word covenant to describe the people’s earnestness (10:3). A covenant is a promise that binds the parties to its fulfillment. The people had determined to send away all the foreign wives and their children (10:3). Clearly, this cleansing would be difficult, but it was necessary to maintain the purity of the restored Israelite community and to avert further spiritual corruption that would bring God’s judgment again.

Having said that, I want to clarify that these were unique circumstances in the history of the nation of Israel. The church should not see these events as prescribing a principle for marriages today in which a Christian is married to an unbeliever. Clearly, a believer is to marry another believer—one who is “in the Lord” (1 Cor 7:39). But, if a person becomes a believer after he or she is already married to an unbeliever, Paul gives biblical counsel about such situations in 1 Corinthians 7:12-16.

10:5-8 Soon, the leaders circulated a proclamation . . . that all the exiles should gather at Jerusalem (10:7). The Israelite men who had entered into such marriages had flouted the Mosaic law’s prohibition against unholy unions (see Deut 7:1-4). And sadly, nearly one-quarter of the offenders were priests and Levites who knew God’s Word better than anyone. Drastic measures, then, had to be taken. Any offender who did not show up in Jerusalem to appear before Ezra would forfeit all his possessions and be excommunicated from the assembly of the exiles (10:8).

10:9-16 Ezra took his place of leadership to begin reviewing the cases, but a bone-chilling heavy rain made the proceedings miserable to endure (10:9). Then, Ezra called it like it was. He said, You have been unfaithful (10:10). And so, a plan was worked out to let leaders in each town judge the offenders among them (10:12-14). The related process took three months to implement fully, but in the end, the cleansing was complete (10:16).

10:18-44 As if to emphasize the seriousness of this sin and its threat to the restored community, the list of Jewish men who had married pagan wives was led by the priests . . . Levites . . . singers, and gatekeepers (10:18, 23-24)—those responsible for overseeing the temple and leading Israel to worship the Lord. Only when these leaders had dealt with their sin could the whole assembly move forward in establishing themselves in their land under God’s blessing.

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