A number of years ago a man of a certain church had been put under discipline. He had been having an inappropriate relationship. When the elders confronted him initially, he demonstrated no concern about it. Since he continued to remain unrepentant, the elders had to take more drastic steps. They banned him from the Lord’s Table.
But it didn’t get that far. A month or two later the man requested a meeting with the elders. And in that meeting he broke down. Tears of remorse poured forth as he confessed his sin. In the midst of his sobs he told the elders that he had broken off the relationship. And he asked if the elders would restore him to table fellowship.
He went on to explain that being barred from the table was too much for him. Not being able to commune with Christ in the Supper was to him an unbearable thing, and that it got him to realize the error of his ways.
Since it was obvious that he no longer justified himself or took a flippant attitude towards his sins—since it was clearly evident that the man had true remorse for his actions, the elders moved to restore his right to the table.
It is not very often that you see true sorrow for sin. In today’s world, where there is such decadence and apathy, you expect sin to be indulged or treated more as a joke.
But Jesus said, “blessed are those who mourn.” And he wasn’t talking about just being unhappy. He was talking about sin and what really is the heart of a repentant attitude.
We often think of godliness as perfection. We think that a good Christian is one who is immune to sin. But the reality of it is a good Christian is anything but good. What makes a good Christian is his repentance. And part of that means being disgusted, truly troubled, by his wayward actions or the waywardness of others.
That’s certainly what we see in the passage that is before us this morning. In this passage Ezra hears a report of great sin. And Ezra, it seems, becomes almost paralyzed by the news. He bewails it by casting himself down before the Lord, and out of that same pain he prays a prayer of confession. He is a man who shows us what it means to be burdened by the woeful weight sin.
This morning we are going to meditate on this passage, and it is my hope that we’ll become a bit more cognizant of what makes for a godly reaction to sin. If we are going to react appropriately, the first thing we must do is understand the nature of sin. If we do not grasp what sin is, then we will not respond appropriately too it. So it is important that we come to terms with its true identity.
And we see identified for us in the first two verses.
I. The sin is identified [1-2]
The chapter opens with some of the officials coming to Ezra and reporting the sin. And when Ezra hears of it he is thrown into hysterics. What is it that causes ezra and his chums to fly into such hysterics? Well, two things really.
On one level it is that the people have taken wives from among the peoples of the land. Verse 2 says that they have taken some of the foreign daughters for themselves and for their sons. And in verse 1 the various people groups are listed for us. They have intermarried with “the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and the Amorites.” These, of course, are the ungodly and wicked nations that inhabited the land of Israel prior to the conquest. They were the ones who were to have been driven out, and the Lord had commanded that the Israelites not to intermarry with them or become otherwise associated with them.
But I'm going to suggest that this was a secondary problem. It was incredibly evil, for sure, and I'll have more to say about it in just a second. But I believe the real problem is their failure to be distinct. Look at what it says in verse one. Note the language that is used. It says, "The people of Israel and the priests and the Levites have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands.”
The word that is used here, the word separated, is the same word that is used in the opening chapter book of Genesis. In the creation story God is said to separate the light from the darkness. He separates the waters so that one is the sky and the other becomes the sea. Then he separates the land from the sea.
This separation is what is the focus of the passage. This is what is important to Ezra and the people: The Jews were to be separate. As God's people they were to radically different from the rest of the world.
The real problem wasn't so much the marriages per se as it was their not being separate. The Old Testament laws permitted you to marry foreigners, so long as they devoted themselves to Yahweh. Think of Modes’ wife or Boaz’s marriage to Ruth the Moabite. So marriage isn't what is really the main problem. It is the compromise that is demonstrated in the marriages.
Israel was called to be holy. They were to be set apart from the world and be noticeably different. God had given them his commandments and, as a result, their lives were to be unique. And their uniqueness was to be a direct result of their devotion to Him.
So the problem is much deeper than some mere marital vows or who they connected with on eharmony. The problem was what we may call the sin of similarity. It was their wholesale turning away from God and becoming indistinguishable from the world.
And this gives us a much broader understanding when it comes to application of the text. You might be sitting here thinking, “I'm married and I'm long past the dating scene. So I don't have anything to worry about here.” But the passage does apply to you in that this has to do with any capitulation to the standards of the world. It isn't just about who you date, but it has to do with how you talk, how you think, and how you act in regards to anything.
A few weeks ago we meditated on the third commandment and what it meant to blasphemy God's name. A number of you spoke to me in the days following about how far reaching that is. And some of you mentioned the ordinary kind of conversation that is used among your coworkers.
When we speak ill of life’s events or grumble against God's Providence, what are we doing? We are speaking the language of the unbelieving world. We are failing to be the separated people God has called us to be.
Now, I do not want to downplay the specific form of sin that is mention here. The unholy mingling is very much a serious thing, and we need to recognize it as such. But we need to understand what really is at stake. To enter into a relationship with an unbeliever is to (essentially) become an unbeliever.
We could (and perhaps should) recognize the harm it does to one’s spirituality. It can only dilute your faith and it will make for troubles down the road in one's walk with Christ.
But there's more to it than that. To enter into such a relationship is a capitulation. God's standard says that the chief quality in the person should be their faith in Christ. Pretty much everything else is a matter of liberty. But if you start a relationship with someone who is not a believer, your standard for the relationship is something else; it ends up being a standard of the world. Perhaps it is their looks that initially attracts you. But physically attraction and good looks are worldly basis for relationships. Or it may be something deeper that attracts you. It may be that you have fun with the person or you enjoy the level conversation you have with them. You may even say they understand you and enjoy support you in incredible ways.
Now these may be good things. I'd even say they are wonderful things. But they are alternative standards for the relationship.
As God's people we must be distinct. That’s what we are called to be. We are to be a people who are different—separated from the world. And recognize how serious a thing it is when we fail to do so.
Which leads us to the next part of our passage. In the first two verses we see how the sin is identified. The next two verses show us how the sin is grieved.
II. The sin is grieved [3-5]
Notice how Ezra reacts to the news. Verse 3 says he tore his clothes and pulled hair from his head.
Now, let’s recognize these as some pretty extreme gestures. Ripping one's clothes may not seem like a big deal today. Athletes do it all the time. In our day it is actually fashionable to wear clothes that look like they’ve been produced in a Swiss cheeze factory. We turn clothes over to the Goodwill or local thrift shop without much of a thought.
But back then you didn't have a large wardrobe. Clothes were a much more precious commodity. They weren't cranked out in mass production like our factories do now and they weren’t cheap. Some of you in the older generation may remember patching clothes because you just didn’t run out and buy new jeans. Some of you may even remember getting in trouble if you tore your pants.
Back then, tearing your clothes would be like tossing out the contents of your dresser and closet, leaving you with virtually nothing else to wear. You ladies recognize that you'd have to be pretty upset to do something like that.
I don't think that I have to make a great deal of comment on tearing out one’s hair. That's just painful. You have to be pretty exercised to do that kind of thing.
The passage repeats the fact that Ezra was “appalled” (v.3,5). The word there can mean astonished, but it is interesting to note that the word can also be used in reference to a city that has been be decimated by its enemies laying siege to it. Ezra wasn't just a little distraught at this. He was downright horrified. It was like he had just been run over by an army.
Some might think that this is a little over the top. You can hear people maybe say, “Why is he so judgmental?”
But, as Dale Ralph Davis says, we do not typically understand a genuinely holy reaction to sin.
Ezra is violent in his reaction because he understands sin better than we do. As a man who was steeped in God’s word and God’s ways, he has a well developed doctrine of sin. He saw the sin from God’s perspective. He recognizes it for the atrocity it is and it truly grieved him.
Of course, the outward actions were representative of what was going on inside of him. Ezra tore his clothes because he was himself torn up over the sin. He pulled his hair out because it pained him and put him in a state of anxiety. He sat down because he was paralyzed by the shame and distraught by the evil of it.
And, as Dale Ralph Davis goes on to sin, if we find Ezra’s reaction to be a little over the top--if we do not understand the excessive manner and violence of it, then that probably says more about us than it does Ezra. It really shows how flippant our view of sin really is.
I once heard a story about a man who saw the old Looney Tunes show about the Road Runner for the first time. He was from a foreign country. If I remember right, he had come to the states with a missionary. The Road Runner show is steeped in the old time slapstick humor. The coyote sets up a trap and then it ends up backfiring on him. This man happened to watch one of the scenes from an episode, and a rock fell on the coyote. Do you know how he reacted? He ran out of the house and threw up in the back yard. He was sickened by it. You might say he had a pretty weak stomach. But maybe there’s another way to look at it. Maybe he had a much higher regard for life. Maybe he was much more sensitive to how distressing the destruction of life really is, so much so that he couldn’t even take it from a cartoon.
Now, my point is not what you should watch on TV and if you should turn off the Loony Tunes. My point has to do with godly grief and whether or not we tremble at God’s word.
You’ll notice that those who gathered around Ezra, didn’t have exactly the same reaction as Ezra. Their outward demeanor was much more subdued. But they did have the same heart as Ezra. They were men who “trembled at God’s word.” (v.4)
Remember that this is what God says through Isaiah. God says, “This is the one to whom I will look: the one who is humble and contrite in spirit, and who trembles at his word.”
If we really stand in awe of God, we’ll understand the grief. As a matter of fact, there will be evidence of it in our own lives. We might not put our wardrobe through the shredder, but we’ll understand what it means to truly mourn sin. There will be times where we grieve it and are sickened by it too.
The last portion of our text is the longest portion. It records for us the confession that was made for the sin.
III. The sin is confessed [6-15]
It wasn’t enough for Ezra to hear about it and to mourn it. Ezra took these things to God and openly acknowledged their sins before him.
And this is an important part of the flow of the narrative. It reminds us how important it is to confess our sins. This is a step that is often overlooked (or rather avoided). We should confess that confessing our sins is a rather difficult thing for us to do.
I once knew a church that had as part of its service a confession of sin, like we do. But it always seemed like they were confessing the sins of others. It never felt like they confessed sins that were specifically theirs. It was easy to talk about the sins of the culture or the sins of other churches, but it was not frequent that you heard anyone admit sins that were common to that particular group.
Confessing sin is important because it is a demonstration that one is truly repentant. It shows that you are willing to cut through the shame and pride of your heart to acknowledge the evil of the thing and seek real restoration.
In verses 6-15 Ezra confesses his sin. And it is interesting to examine Ezra’s prayer and note the different parts to it. He begins his prayer by lamenting the sin—lamenting the greatness of the sin.
A. His lamentation of the sin
Ezra does not downplay the sin in the least. He readily admits and decries its evil. In verse 6 he acknowledges the magnitude of their guilt. He says that their iniquities have risen higher than their heads (as if they are drowning in sin). And he says that their guilt has mounted up to the heavens.
Then he goes through a little review of their history and he recognizes that they should have known better. Really, the sin is so great because it is an abuse of God’s grace. He admits that God had granted them a little reviving (8-9). In verse 13 he admits that God had punished them less than their sins originally deserved. He allowed them to live, and, more than that, he gave them the chance to return. He recognizes that God should had sent them to hell and never looked favorably upon them again after that.
That’s a point to keep in mind. Every sin deserves God’s wrath and curse, both in this life and the life to come. But God is typically merciful and does not punish us to the degree that he should.
But he not only laments the sin, you notice that he also owns the sin.
B. His ownership of the sin
Ezra doesn’t point his finger or say, “These people are foolish.” As he makes this prayer he includes himself. In verse 7 he says, “We have been in great guilt.” In verse 10 he says, “We have forsaken your commandments.”
Now, Ezra had not intermarried, but he sees this as a sin that he is himself included in and certainly responsible for.
And we need to be aware of corporate sin. Sometimes we are guilty by association. We might not have committed the sin per se, but it is part of our heritage. It is around us and there’s a sense in which the seeds of the sin live in our hearts.
If anything, Ezra is not putting himself on a pedestal. There’s true humility that he shows in identifying himself with the corporate complex of the covenant people. We are all in solidarity with one another and we should recognize that the sin of one affects us all. We are all complicit in some way, whether we turn a blind eye to it, set a bad example for it, or do not do our part to keep it from happening.
There isn’t any radical individualism in the Bible. And we should be ready to recognize the wide ranging interconnection that we have in corporate sin.
But notice how this prayer ends. In the last two or three verses Ezra seems to express a great deal of consternation.
C. His consternation over the sin
He ends with a string of questions and a declaration of God’s rightful displeasure. “Shall we break your commandments again and intermarry with the peoples who practice these abominations? Would you not be angry with us until you consumed us?...Behold, we are before you in our guilt, for none can stand before you because of this.”
There’s a sense in which this prayer leaves you hanging. It doesn’t feel like there’s any real conclusion. It seems to end with a despairing cry where he recognizes that they deserve God’s thorough judgment.
All in all, Ezra seems to express a great deal of frustration. He seems to think that there’s no real solution.
And I think that is purposeful. For one, it is a recognition that he can do nothing to rectify the sin. Remember that Ezra is a priest. His job is being a mediator between God and man. But he recognizes that he is severely limited. He cannot stop history from repeating itself. He cannot do anything to stop the avalanche. Moreover, he cannot stop judgment.
It points us to the need for a greater priest. The cliffhanger of a prayer reminds us that we need a greater mediator: one who can not only stop God’s judgment but also stop the cycle of sin.
And maybe that’s why Ezra came to prayer when he did. Earlier in the passage it says that Ezra rose from his mourning and came to prayer at the time of the evening sacrifice. Perhaps it was the smell of burning flesh that brought Ezra before God in the first place.
As that animal was being consumed it reminds us of the Sacrifice of Christ. There was one who takes the wrath of God and he came to break the power of reigning sin.
But Ezra’s frustration should also be a reminder to us of our responsibility. As his voice suddenly trails off, it should put the fear of God in us. There’s a sense in which this is a rhetorical device to get us to remember that God is a consuming fire. If we continue in our sins, what should we expect but judgment?
Think about who you are. Think about how God has been gracious to you. You have not been treated as your sins deserve. Some of you have a rich heritage of grace too. You stand in a long line of people who have experienced the grace of God and been given many favors. If you want to capitulate to the world—if you don’t want to be distinct, and would rather run off and join in the abominations of the world—what do you expect should happen? Do you think you can stand?
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Matt is blessed to be a husband, father, and pastor in Ashland, Ohio.