Michael Green writes: “In St. Louis there is a railroad switchyard. One particular switch begins with just the thinnest piece of steel to direct a train away from one main track to another. If you were to follow those two tracks, however, you would find that one ends in San Francisco, the other in New York. Sin is like that. Just a small deviation from God’s standards can place us far afield from our intended destination”.
This is the sneaky nature of sin; it looks so harmless on the surface. We think: it won’t hurt anyone else, I’m sure God won’t mind, it’s really for the best. These are just some of the ways in which we as Christians often justify doing things which we know are contrary to God’s Word and ways. Sadly, it was no different in Ezra’s day. God had brought the Jews back to their own land, He had ended their exile, He had helped them to restore worship. They had rebuilt and dedicated God’s temple. God’s good hands now provided them with fresh provisions, people and prosperity. Yet despite all this, God’s people and the leadership once again turned away from God, to follow their own sinful hearts. This was the situation which confronted Ezra as he arrived in Jerusalem. He was shocked and horrified to see how far God’s people had fallen, and how close they were to destruction. However, Ezra loved God and the people. So before doing anything, he sought God’s direction in prayer, and interceded for the people, calling on them to return to God and he would return to them. Hopefully soon we will be able to return to church services. What will characterize our response to God when our exile has ended? Will we turn away from him when this crisis is over, or we will turn back to God through Confession of Our Sins, acknowledging God’s Compassion towards us through our acts of contrition? Will our lives reflect Ezra’s Prayer?
1. Confession vs. 6-7
As we’ve already said, sin will never stay secret. It will eventually, come to light and, when it does, it will affect and infect everything it touches. 57 years earlier, God’s people had rebuilt his temple and restored worship. But over time, they had begun to drift from God’s Word. The beginning of chapter 9 gives us the reason for Ezra’s prayer. The leaders of Israel bring to his attention that not only the people, but more specifically, the religious leaders, are flagrantly breaking God’s law by associating themselves with the people of the land. For Ezra says “they had taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves, and have mingled the holy race with the peoples around them. And the leaders and the officials have led the way in this unfaithfulness vs.2”. Ezra must’ve been speechless! It’s bad enough when the people are deserting God, however the spiritual leaders of the nation are setting a sinful example. Ezra is devastated, because it was these very same sins, the breaking of God’s holy law, which landed Israel in exile in the first place. Ezra rips his garments and pulls out his beard to indicate to all those around him how terrible sin is before God.
How Ezra deals with the situation is a great example for us to follow. He fell on his knees with his hands spread out “to the Lord my God and prayed: “I am too ashamed and disgraced, my God, to lift up my face to you, because our sins are higher than our heads and our guilt has reached to the heavens. From the days of our ancestors until now, our guilt has been great. Because of our sins, we and our kings and our priests have been subjected to the sword and captivity, to pillage and humiliation at the hand of foreign kings, as it is today. Ezra does not stand aloof from the people, he prays for them, associating himself with the sinners. He demonstrates stands with the people of Israel because they are God's covenant community. As God’s covenant community, the sins of the few, affect the many. Ezra lists all of the sins that brought the people of Israel to this point. He takes responsibility for the sins of their forefathers as well. True confession can only take place within the community of God when there is a radical change of heart. The people of God must be willing to confess their sins and to accept the consequences the sin had brought upon them. They needed to take responsibility for their actions. God’s forgiveness can only come when there is a radical recognition of the condition and consequence of sin. In Ezra’s confession, we also see a prefiguring of Christ’s baptism for sin at the Jordan and His acceptance of the people’s guilt, even though the guilt is not His own. The act of confession naturally leads to forgiveness and to God’s compassion, as we see in the next section.
2. Compassion vs 8-9
The confession of sin always leads to the compassion of God. Ezra continues his prayer: “But now, for a brief moment, the Lord our God has been gracious in leaving us a remnant and giving us a firm place in his sanctuary, and so our God gives light to our eyes and a little relief in our bondage…He has granted us new life to rebuild the house of our God and repair its ruins, and he has given us a wall of protection in Judah and Jerusalem vs 8-9.” Ezra uses four images in his prayer to demonstrate the compassion of God towards Israel.
Firstly, God has preserved a “remnant vs. 8b” of his people. The word remnant carries with it the idea of a piece of rope or cloth has been kept aside for some special purpose. Wiersbe says, “Throughout Jewish history, even when the nation turned from God, He always preserved a remnant that remained faithful to Him from that remnant, He made a new beginning.” Within the nation of Israel, there was always the true spiritual Israel. Luther and Calvin fleshed this idea of a remnant and related it within our church community to the concept of the visible and the invisible church. There will always be those within our churches who love and serve the Lord, and there will always be those members whose hearts remain unchanged by Jesus.
Secondly, Ezra speaks of God providing “a firm place in his sanctuary vs. 8b” - the imagery here was of the tent peg or a nail pounded into the wall of the Temple Sanctuary. This demonstrated the concept of stability and safety. God had given the Jews a foothold in the land, had chosen once more to show his favour upon them. This favour was seen with the officials and the King of Persia. God blessed them more abundantly, but again, as we see in this prayer, the people have chosen to go their own way. Therefore, God had to chastise them with no rain and poor crops, as seen in the book of Haggai 2. All those who come to the Lord in prayer, and obey his Word, will always find a secure place, a firm hold and blessings.
Thirdly, Ezra uses the image of God giving “light to our eyes vs. 8c”. This term carries the concept of being revived, having new life, and coming back from the dead. Nearly all the exilic prophets spoke of the Israelites in captivity as being dead. Ezra praises God for breathing new life into the people of Israel by bringing them back into their land. Through the repentance of sin, God breathes new life into us. He fills us with His Spirit anew, so we may go out and serve him in the world.
The final picture used by Ezra is of God giving the Israelites “a wall of protection in Judah and Jerusalem.vs.9b” through bringing them safely back into the land and giving them favour with the Persian authorities. God had softened the hearts of these powerful Persian kings, who were favourably disposed towards God's people. Though these kings were powerful, God in his sovereignty used them to fulfil his purposes. God is in control of all things. Prayer confession leads to compassion and, when we ponder the greatness of the grace of God, it must lead us to solid action.
3. Contrition vs 10-15
In Ezra's prayer, he has confessed the nation’s sin before God, he expressed God's compassion towards them, even though they have been disobedient, and now he demands of the nation they must turn from their wicked ways and follow God. This is only possible through heartfelt contrition for what has happened as a “result of our evil deeds and our great guilt, and yet, our God, you have punished us less than our sins deserved and have given us a remnant like this. Shall we then break your commands again and intermarry with the peoples who commit such detestable practices? Would you not be angry enough with us to destroy us, leaving us no remnant or survivor? Lord, the God of Israel, you are righteous! We are left this day as a remnant. Here we are before you in our guilt, though because of it not one of us can stand in your presence.”
The compassion of God, which has been so gloriously displayed in bringing them out of exile, would not be tarnished by the people’s sins. Ezra is ashamed - God has been so gracious to the nation of Israel - yet they have chosen once again to be disobedient and go their own ways. And worst of all, the chief officials from the land are the greatest perpetrators. They are meant to lead God's people to greater covenant obedience, but they themselves are breaking this covenant and leading others to do the same. This passage was often used by the nationalist government to justify apartheid, and was one of the theological justifications for the mixed marriages act. This text is not against mixed marriages of different races, it is about a spiritual issue. What Ezra is speaking out against is Apostasy and idolatry. In these mixed marriages, the Israelites would be led away from worshipping God and into pagan practices. The people were worshiping foreign gods. The context is the same in the New Testament when Jesus says believers must not be unevenly yoked. Christians are not to marry unbelievers because, more often than not, they will be led away from God. This is the heart of Ezra's prayer; by breaking God's laws they are inviting his judgement. They must put away their foreign wives and foreign husbands and return to the Lord. Confession must always lead to action.
It is no use asking God to forgive our sins if we simply go back and do them again and again and again. When our hearts are changed and we have felt the compassion of God, it will spur us on to action to that we may follow God and leave our sins behind. So too we are called to come to God in confession to experience God's compassion in prayer, so that it may lead to contrition and to the right action. Let us not be like Israel and abandon God, but rather let us turn to him in prayer, and feel the warmth of His face shine upon us.
As we come to the end of our Ezra series, we can take some final messages from today’s passage:
First, we should always remember God’s calling on our lives. Jesus said in the New Testament that we should be in the world but not of the world. In John’s first letter, believers are reminded to detach themselves from the love of the world. The same is true of this passage in Ezra. The people in Ezra’s day were not setting themselves apart, they were mixing their worldly lives with their spiritual lives. As followers of Christ, we are meant to be separate but part of this world. We live in the world, we work, play, interact with others, yet God is calling us to obey his commands, to seek our pleasures in things which are pleasing to Him, to seek his kingdom first. The whole emphasis of the gospel and of the lives of the early Christians was to show how different followers of Christ were. We are supposed to be different to the norm, different from the pack. We are supposed to be counter-cultural, to spread the love of God while challenging injustices. To care about the world, while not being of it.
Second, each day brings temptations to sin. As in our opening story, at first it might not seem like a big deal – the tracks might look like they are going in the same direction for a while, yet eventually we will find ourselves at an unwanted destination. Other times, we sin with eyes wide open. We know that we are acting against God’s will, yet we still do it. We are faced with opposing desires every day: the desire to live a holy and God-honouring life, and the desire to give in to sinfulness. Fortunately, the power of the Holy Spirit is within us, giving us insight, wisdom and strength to follow God’s way.
Lastly, Ezra also made it clear where responsibility for sinfulness lies: with each person. We live in a time when there is a tendency to justify all sort of behaviour. Genetics, hereditary traits, upbringing, environment, peer pressure and even God are blamed for sin. As Ezra shows us in his prayer, confession is the first step. Take responsibility for yourself and your actions before God. Ask for forgiveness and God’s blessings will follow. God’s mercy and grace are what keeps us going. We might feel like each day brings insurmountable challenges and opposition to our faith, yet there is an unending supply of God’s grace to see us through, to strengthen us and give us supernatural peace.
Let us confess our sins, trust in God’s compassion and turn back to God with contrite hearts. Charles Spurgeon used to say, “That it was the strength of our prayers, not the length of our prayers, that was important, and he was right. When you pray from a burdened heart, with a mind that’s saturated with God’s Word, then God will hear and answer.” Let us pray.