It seems today that many people want to change the world, so long as it doesn’t involve changing themselves. They want the world to act right, but they are not ready to live right themselves.
The truth is our world is not going to see any kind of meaningful change unless individuals confess their sin and turn to the Lord. And by the way, that’s why the Lord did not tell us to change our culture but to make disciples. And one disciple at a time can bring the light of truth to a dark world.
Ezra understood this principle in his day, some 450 years before the birth of Christ. The Jewish nation needed to change. But it was not going to happen unless individuals confessed their sin.
Now while Ezra is dealing with a unique situation involving the covenant people of Israel, we can find some timeless lessons here in chapters 9 and 10 for us today.
Even before Ezra left Persia to return to Judah, he knew there were sin problems among his people. Now in Jerusalem, he is informed of one of them here in the opening verses of chapter 9:
The officials approached me and said, “The people of Israel and the priests and the Levites have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands with their abominations . . . For they have taken some of their daughters to be wives for themselves and for their sons, so that the holy race has mixed itself with the peoples of the lands.” (verses 1-2)
The issue here isn’t ethnic or racial but spiritual. The Lord had forbidden intermarriage with unbelieving idolaters. Ezra cites God’s prohibition (see Deuteronomy 7:1-6) later in verses 11-12:
“The land that you are entering, to take possession of it, is a land impure with the impurity of the peoples of the lands, with their abominations that have filled it . . . Therefore do not give your daughters to their sons, neither take their daughters for your sons.”
And that is exactly what they had started doing. In fact, even the Jewish leaders and officials were disobeying this command.
Now with that news, watch what Ezra does here. In fact, I want to point out through his actions four steps to take in correctly responding to sin. The first step is anguish. Ezra immediately reacts to this news, writing here in verse 3, “As soon as I heard this, I tore my garment and my cloak and pulled hair from my head and beard and sat appalled.”
Tearing the clothes was a common expression of grief. Pulling out some of his hair expressed distress—he is “appalled” by this sin. He is horrified by what it means. It is only when we become appalled and distressed and horrified over our sin that we are going to do anything about it.
Verse 4 tells us here that other people also “trembled at the words of the God of Israel.” They are fearful of God’s judgment. After all, their recent captivity was the result of idolatry and defiance against God.
This same evening, Ezra writes in verse 5, “I . . . fell upon my knees and spread out my hands to the Lord my God.” I call this second step in responding correctly to sin admission.
Ezra prays here in verse 6:
“Oh my God, I am ashamed and blush to lift my face to you, my God, for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has mounted up to the heavens.”
That is what I call total admission of sin.
Ezra understands that what makes their sin so horrible is that God had only recently shown them mercy by allowing them to survive and even return to their land. But now look: they are gladly intermarrying with people who worship other gods and practice all sorts of immorality in the names of their gods.
And notice what Ezra acknowledges here in verse 13: “You . . . have punished us less than our iniquities deserved.” I know people who won’t repent because they think God is too hard on them, but those who truly repent realize that God has not been nearly as hard on them as He could have been.
Well, properly responding to sin not only involves anguish and admission; it also leads to action. Ezra’s prayer of confession is being offered publicly, before the temple, and that makes a big impression on the people.
In fact, verse 1 of chapter 10 reveals that a great number of people gather around him and begin to weep over their sin. One of them, a man named Shecaniah, says to Ezra here in verse 2:
“We have broken faith with our God and have married foreign women from the peoples of the land, but even now there is hope for Israel in spite of this.”
By the way, that’s pretty good theology. There is always hope for sinners, no matter what they have done, if they confess their sin. Shecaniah goes on to suggest that the people need to make a covenant with God to put away their foreign wives. In other words, “Let’s get serious about changing our lives.” Now I don’t know much about Shecaniah, but he was a brave man for being willing to change his life and challenge others to change theirs.
Ezra has the people take an oath that they will dissolve these marriages. Then, after fasting through the night, Ezra issues a proclamation calling everyone to assemble in Jerusalem. Three days later when they come together in Jerusalem, it’s pouring rain. Ezra preaches anyway, and with great power. In his sermon, he says this:
“Now then make confession to the Lord, the God of your fathers, and do his will. Separate yourselves from the peoples of the land and from the foreign wives.” (verse 11)
Now keep in mind this is a unique step specifically for the nation of Israel during this unique time. This is not advice for you today to go and divorce your unsaved husband or wife. There are passages in the New Testament that tell us what to do in cases like that today—and if you want to look ahead, you can read 1 Peter 3, where the wife of an unbelieving husband is encouraged to respect him and win him with the gospel without even saying a word.
Well, the people are convicted. They confess their sin and then make the changes in their lives that reflect true repentance.
This change is not going to happen overnight. In fact, individual cases will have to be examined. After all, if a foreign spouse has become a follower of the Lord, that marriage would continue. Just think of Boaz marrying a former idolater and Gentile woman named Ruth.
(Proverbs 28:13, James 5:16, 1 John 1:9)
Now there is one more step needed in responding to sin. Along with anguish, admission, and action, there is a final step: accountability. The last half of chapter 10 is a list of those men who had taken unbelieving, idolatrous wives. Let me tell you, the public listing of these 113 Jewish men given here is enough to hold them accountable. You would not want your name on this list for very long.
Many turned back to God in repentance. And so should we today, beloved. We all sin; the question is, How do we respond? Let’s regularly take these steps of anguish, admission, action, and accountability and walk in fellowship with God.