Ezra 9-10

Purification of the people.

Up to this point, the restoration (for Ezra7 to 10 deal with restoration, rather than with revival) had produced its effects on the company which went up with Ezra to Jerusalem.   Brought by humiliation, fasting and supplications to realize their poor condition and all that they lacked for the service of God, these men realize that only grace can guide and keep them.  They hold fast to the word of God.  Their leaders understand that practical holiness is obligatory for those who have the charge of holy things.  After they arrive at Jerusalem, they proclaim the solidarity of the people of God and recognize their unity, in spite of the ruin.

But the arrival of this new reinforcement will manifest the state of the people who had previously rebuilt the temple of the Lord; it is the means of revealing the hidden evil which consumes the people and hinders their spiritual development.  Ezra's companions come to him and tell him what they have seen: "The people of Israel, and the priests and the Levites, have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands. they have taken of their daughters for themselves and for their sons and have mingled the holy seed with the peoples of the lands"; and moreover "the hand of the princes and rulers has been chief in this unfaithfulness" (vv.  1, 2).   The surrounding world had gradually invaded the assembly of Israel and, if they were not all contaminated, they were in great danger of being so, for their leaders had been the first to conclude profane alliances.  It is a sad thing to note that all revivals are ruined successively by alliance with the world and, in this matter, the leaders, through their example, are much more guilty.

Is there a means of remedying this state of things?  Ezra, the godly man, devoted to the Lord, immediately understands what is due from him: "And when I heard this thing, I rent my mantle and my garment, and plucked off the hair of my head and of my beard, and sat down overwhelmed" (v. 3).   The first thing, then, is individual humiliation, while waiting for the people to recognize their fault and humble themselves in a general way.  This must always be so.  When faced with the revelation of the sin of the people of God, we are not called upon to take action first of all, but rather, to humble ourselves, and even if we should be alone,  like Daniel and other faithful men of former days, and like Ezra, at the time we are studying, let us not fail to assume this attitude before God.  He looks on the heart that is humbled and broken and He answers its cry.

"Then were assembled to me everyone that trembled at the words of the God of Israel, because of the unfaithfulness of those that had been carried away" (v. 4).  The first effect of Ezra's humiliation is to group around himself those who tremble at the words of God.  No doubt, they are few in number the first day, but this humiliation will spread out to all the people of God.  As for them, they are characterized by what they have learned under Ezra's guidance.  Knowing the word of God through Ezra, they have discovered in it the character of God who can in no way associate Himself with impurity.  Has He not said: "Ye shall be holy; for I am holy" (Lev. 11: 44)?  And so in his prayer (vv. 10-12 Eng), Ezra refers to the word of God, which he knows so well: "For we have forsaken thy commandments, which thou hast commanded by they servants the prophets, saying, The land, unto which ye go to possess [it], is an unclean land through the filthiness of the peoples of the lands, through their abominations, with which they have filled it from one end to another through their uncleanness.  Now, therefore, give not your daughters to their sons, neither take their daughters to your sons, nor seek their peace or their prosperity for ever".

Ezra's individual humiliation consisted in bearing the sin of the people of God as his own,.  Communion with the mind of God always leads us to this.   We see examples in Dan.  9: 5; Jer. 10: 23; Neh. 9: 33, and here: "O my God, I am ashamed and blush to lift up my face to thee, my God: for our iniquities are increased over [our] head, and our trespass is grown up to the heavens.  Since the days of our fathers we have been in a great trespass to this day; and for our iniquities we, our kings, our priests, have been given into the hand of the kings of the lands, to the sword, and to captivity, and to spoil, and to confusion of face, as it is this day" (vv. 6, 7).

How great was the guilt of this people, at the moment when the favor of the Lord began to shine upon them once again, in spite of their condition of bondage!  "And now for a little space there hath been favour from Jehovah our God, to leave us a remnant to escape, and to give us a nail in his holy place, that our God may lighten our eyes, and give us a little reviving in our bondage.  For we were bondmen; yet our God hath not forsaken us in our bondage, but hath extended mercy unto us before the kings of Persia, to give us a reviving, to set up the house of our God, and to repair the ruins thereof, and to give us a wall in Judah and in Jerusalem" (vv. 8, 9).

And had not the Lord made them promises, if they would separate themselves from any alliance with the nations?  Yes, for He had said: "that ye may be strong, and eat the good of the land, and leave it for an inheritance to your children for ever" (v. 12).

To ally themselves with the nations was to abandon separation for Him: this holiness whose value Ezra's companions had appreciated and which had directed them to that day (8: 28).  Now, this was exactly what their predecessors had not observed.  Alliances - which, for us, correspond to worldliness - had overrun them, spreading like gangrene from the priests and leaders of the people to the common people themselves.  They had forgotten that along with separation they lost three significant things: strength, the enjoyment of the good things of the land of Canaan, and their permanent inheritance for themselves and their descendants (v. 12).

We, who are Christians, also make this same sad experience today.  Strength?  Note that it is not a matter of any outward force for Ezra's companions (nor is it for us), for they were only a handful of men, but the mighty hand of the Lord was with them, the enemy had been reduced to nothing and his ambushes had been dissipated.  But how could they now pretend to the two other blessings, to joy and the inheritance, when corruption was established in the midst of the people?

What were they to do?  Ezra humbles himself as always and as always he bows his head in the dust.  With sorrow he recalls the judgment of past faults, which were nevertheless much less severe than the people deserved.  "And after all that is come upon us. [thou] hast given us such deliverance as this," Ezra adds; and if we return to our wicked works, would Thou not have reason to consume us, "so that there should be no remnant nor any to escape?" (vv. 13, 14)

But, he adds, here we are: "we are a remnant that is escaped, as [it is] this day".  The testimony is now confided to the few persons of this second exodus, who are afflicted and repentant on behalf of all the others, and who say: "Behold, we are before thee in our trespasses; for there is no standing before thee because of this" (v. 15).

Is there restoration possible at this moment for these poor escaped souls?  Yes, restoration is found in the attitude which those souls take who, although they had not participated in this defilement, nevertheless assume responsibility for it so completely that they identify themselves with those who remain under God's judgment.  We shall see that this attitude, taken in all sincerity of heart before God, and that this thorough confession of evil, exercises its influence on those who had sinned, in order to bring about their restoration.

In the preceding chapter, we have seen that God answered the humiliation of a single man, Ezra, by gathering around him, in the same spirit of contrition, those of his companions who trembled at the words of the God of Israel.  Here, humiliation spreads to an even greater number: "And while Ezra prayed, and made confession, weeping and falling down before the house of God, there were gathered to him out of Israel a very great congregation of men and women and children; for the people wept very much" (Ezra10: 1).

We cannot sufficiently stress how much the blessing of the people of God may depend on one or a few faithful individuals.  Ezra5: 1 and 2 present a revival produced by two prophets which moved two leaders, and then the entire people to activity for the Lord.  Here, the humiliation of one man, to whom a few individuals then associate themselves, leads to a general humiliation.   And once again a single man steps forward to express it: "And Shecaniah the son of Jehiel, of the sons of Elam, answered and said to Ezra, We have acted unfaithfully toward our God, and have taken foreign wives of the peoples of the land; yet now there is hope for Israel concerning this thing.  And now let us make a covenant with our God to put away all the wives, and such as are born of them, according to the counsel of [my] lord, and of those who tremble at the commandments of our God; and let it be done according to the law" (vv. 2, 3).

But that is not all.  If individual humiliation, and then collective humiliation, is the first thing, neither the individual nor the people of God may remain there.  Action must follow humiliation.  "Arise", Shecaniah says to Ezra, "for this matter is incumbent on thee, and we will be with thee: be of good courage, and do [it]" (v. 4).  Humiliation is not yet separation from evil.  It is the path to this separation and prepares it; but, on the other hand, when it is a matter of remedying ruin, activity without humiliation, however zealous it may be, cannot lead to anything but further ruin.  The flesh, not having been judged in humiliation, throws off all restraint when it is a question of separation from evil.  Such was the zeal of Jehu.  This man certainly did not bear the sin of the people as his own before God, and so he was the first to return to the golden calves at Dan and Bethel once judgment had been executed - and executed in what a manner!

Thus humiliation is necessary, but the energy to purify oneself from evil is just as indispensable.  The Corinthians had understood this after the apostle exhorted them.  Sorrow according to God had worked in them repentance unto salvation, true humiliation; but what promptness, what fear, what ardent desire, what zeal, what vengeance this humiliation had produced!  In every respect, they had shown that they were pure in the matter (2 Cor. 7: 11)!

Shecaniah, the people's spokesman, here shows an energy and disinterestedness which ought to be an example to us.  His father, Jehiel, was among the transgressors (v. 26)!  It required the power of God, united to the zeal of Phinehas, to cause him to abandon all his own family interests and take up the cause of God single-handedly.  Nevertheless this energetic man does not seek to play a role in the work of restoration; he is of no importance in his own eyes.  He esteems that the thing rests on Ezra, the "ready scribe in the law of Moses, which Jehovah the God of Israel had given".  In his eyes, the bearer of the Word, let us say the Word itself, must play the principal role.

Ezra does not withdraw from the obligation set before him.  He immediately moves the leaders of the people to action.  "Then Ezra arose, and made the chiefs of priests, of the Levites, and of all Israel, to swear that they would do according to this word.  And they swore" (v. 5).  But, then even when the change had been produced in the hearts of the people, and they had decided to take action, Ezra does not abandon the expression of his humiliation.  A dishonor had been inflicted on the name of the Lord and still remained associated with it.  Until the purification was complete, mourning and fasting suited those who had resolved to separate themselves from evil: "And Ezra arose from before the house of God, and went into the chamber of Jehohanan the son of Eliashib; and when he came thither, he ate no bread and drank no water; for he mourned because of the unfaithfulness of them that had been carried away" (v. 6).

The energy of a few no longer tolerates any disobedience among the people.  All must submit themselves.  Those who do not want to do so are considered as "wicked" and are cut off from the assembly: "And they made proclamation in Judah and Jerusalem to all the children of the captivity, that they should gather themselves together unto Jerusalem; and that whosoever would not come within three days, according to the counsel of the princes and the elders, all his substance should confiscated, and himself separated from the congregation of those that had been carried away" (vv. 7, 8).  The discipline which had been completely neglected and stopped by the moral slackening of the people, is now exercised according to God.

All the men of Judah and Benjamin gather at Jerusalem.  Ezra speaks to them.  He no longer says, as in Ezra9: 7: "We have been in  great trespass", but: "Ye have acted unfaithfully, and have taken foreign wives. separate yourselves" (vv. 10, 11), for now it is a matter of reaching the conscience of those who have sinned.  To the sorrow over the faults they had committed was added the unfavorable season, "a time of pouring rain, and it [was] not possible to stand without" (v. 13).  Sometimes material difficulties oppose immediate purification.  This could not be "a work for one day or two", for the evil was wide-spread and, as everyone confessed, "[they were] many that [had] transgressed in this thing".  In this way God makes them understand that it is more difficult to repair the evil done than to commit it; but He is full of patience and mercy and takes account of the heart's decision; he knows that the guilty ones are not seeking loop-holes and that they truly desire to obey.

May we as well, in difficult circumstances, exercise the patience of Ezra, the patience of God, toward our brothers, lest they be discouraged.  It might have seemed to those who were "a remnant that [was] escaped" who had not participated in this iniquity, that an immediate separation, even an instantaneous separation, from evil was necessary in spite of "pouring rain".  Brotherly love does not calculate in this way; brotherly love knows that these words: "we are many that have transgressed in this thing", are not empty words.  Love endures all things, believes all things, and hopes all things just because it is love.

If only the sentiment which animated the people had been unanimous!  Unhappily, this was not so.  "Only Jonathan the son of Asahel and Jahzeiah the son of Tikvah stood up against this; and Meshullam and Shabbethai the Levite helped them" (v. 15).  What motives could have turned them to this path of opposition?  None are given to us.  At the very most, we might think that one of them, if he is the same Meshullam as the Levite of verse 29, having taken part in the evil, had personal reasons for opposing the decision of the assembly.  Faced with this opposition, entirely contrary to the mind of God, what do those who have decided to purify themselves do?  They do not exclude their brothers, but rather, they bear with them, and the self-will of the dissident individuals needs no other judgment than the decisive action of the majority.  We have the joy of seeing, later, Shabbethai, the Levite, (more guilty than others on account of his functions, and then because he identifies himself with Meshullam,) being used to cause the people to understand the law, and then set up over the outward business of the house of God (Neh. 8: 7; Neh. 11: 16).   Indeed, the opposition of these men in no way influences the decision of the assembly; it is even a means by which God tests the resolution of heart of their brothers.  It does not stop the onward march of the whole company, for an assembly decision does not require absolute unanimity of the persons present, although this unanimity is desirable and may even be realized if hearts have to do with God in the same degree.  On the other hand, we do not see that the few persisted in imposing their views on their brothers, but they seem to have been quiet, without appealing to their conscience in order to condemn the conscience of others.

On the first day of the tenth month, Ezra and the chiefs of the fathers, men well-versed in the Word, wise and respected by the people, "sat down. to examine the matter".  The evil was evident: it was not a matter of knowing whether or not it existed, but each particular case deserved special discernment and judgment according to God.  Three full months sufficed to set this immense difficulty in order (vv. 16, 17).  Judgment was pronounced in love, without any being spared, nor was there any favoritism, beginning with the priests.  These, whose position made them more guilty than their brothers, "offered a ram of the flock, as trespass-offering for their guilt" (v. 19).  Having acknowledged their sin, they could offer no other sacrifice except a trespass offering, but it was important, because of their office, that they publicly express their humiliation by their offering.  Next the come the Levites, the singers, the doorkeepers, and lastly those "of Israel".  The list is a long one, but what grace! the restoration is effectuated without any new breach, through humiliation which becomes a source of decision and energy, and by means of the ministry of the Word.

This ministry, as we have seen, characterizes Ezra.  In him we find neither miraculous gift, nor prophetic gift, as in a Haggai or a Zechariah, nor an extraordinary display of divine power.  He has nothing which goes beyond the common measure and ordinary resources, but his heart is devoted to the honor of the lovely name of the Lord, and it is concerned for the prosperity of the people.  Above all, he is characterized by the understanding of the law of Moses, of the written Word.  The Word directs him in everything, and his faith rests on the Word.  He insists on the principles which the Word presents, he puts them into practice and does not suffer anyone to depart from them.  In this way he earns the confidence, even of the king, and this is also the only source of his authority.

The book of Ezra offers us precious teachings which apply to the present day position of the people of God, in the midst of the ruins of Christendom.  It teaches us the elements of the testimony, the characteristics of a revival, the conditions of restoration, when the witnesses have forgotten separation from the world.  May we, in these points, consider this precious portion of the Word with great attention!