Ezra 9, 10

Ezra 9, 10

SERIES: The Providence of God

Taking Sin Seriously

Introduction:  In 1973, at the age of 80, Karl Menninger of the world-famous Menninger School of Psychiatry in Topeka, Kansas, published a book which shocked the mental health community.  Its title was Whatever Became of Sin?  It was not a biblical theology of sin, but its thesis was a welcome corrective, namely that moral responsibility must be brought back into the therapy process.  The shock, unfortunately, was short-lived, and today sin is once again as foreign a concept to psychiatry as efficiency is to the federal bureaucracy.

To a large extent our modern society has dispensed with sin by redefining it.  No one commits fornication today—that sounds too ugly and sordid; instead, teenagers are just “sexually active.”  No one is an adulterer; they just have “extramarital affairs.”  Homosexuality is no longer a perversion; it’s an “alternative lifestyle.” Abortion is no longer what the American Medical Association called it a hundred years ago, namely “wanton and murderous destruction of life.”  It is now simply the “removal of an unwanted POC, a product of conception” or “freedom of choice for a woman to control her own body” or “essential reproductive health care.”  And pornographic movies are for “mature” audiences, not dirty-minded ones.  

Shakespeare wrote that “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,”[i] but would it really?  Try calling it “skunkweed” and see if people still buy a dozen roses to say, “I love you”.  By the same token, all these semantic games have drastically affected society’s attitude toward sin.  Attach a softer word to it and people don’t feel so badly about it.  What is far more disturbing, however, is the extent to which sin has become a foreign concept even in the church.  Not only do our modern hymns and worship songs rarely mention it, but theologians rarely write on it and preachers rarely preach on it.  One nationally known pastor defended the absence of the subject of sin from his repertoire by asserting that people hear enough negatives out in the world—what they should hear in church is an encouraging and positive message.  

Well, just to play the Devil’s advocate for a moment, suppose for a moment that you are the personnel director for the St. Louis Post Dispatch.  You need to hire some more reporters, so you go over to Washington University and begin to interview students who have just graduated from the School of Journalism.  One young man seems to be a particularly bright prospect.  He has an excellent academic record and handles himself very well during the interview.  You’re about to offer him a job when he says, “There’s one thing I think I should tell you.  I can only report good news.  I will do an excellent job reporting acts of heroism, upswings in the economy, good weather, parades, and treaty ratifications. But whenever I’m around tragedy or death or political corruption I get depressed.  So, it’s good news or nothing.”  

Chances are it wouldn’t take long for you to decide that the newspaper could do without such a reporter.  Now granted there seem to be a number of Post reporters who can’t report anything but bad news, so you might be tempted to hire this guy just to balance the scales a bit, but on second thought you would acknowledge there is no legitimate place for this guy in your organization.  But such an approach is strangely tolerated in many churches.  

We come to a passage today that majors on sin.  Ezra has returned to Jerusalem from Babylon with the express purpose of teaching the Law of God because he had heard that the exiles who returned 80 years earlier to rebuild the temple are languishing in spiritual apathy.  Within a few months, however, he is rocked to his socks by the news that some of the leaders of God’s people have become spiritual traitors.  This problem is much more serious than mere apathy. 

The insidious sin of assimilation calls for drastic action.  (9:1-2)

What Ezra learns is that over 100 of the people have intermarried with the nations who lived around them.  In order to see the seriousness of this, we must take note of the fact that …

             God has always forbidden His people to intermarry, but the exiles did so anyway.  The evangelical church in the United States has long condemned intermarriage, if not from the pulpit, at least in attitude, but unfortunately not the kind God condemns.  The church has long looked with disdain at whites marrying blacks, yet I find nothing in the Scripture that forbids racialintermarriage.  It is spiritual intermarriage God forbids, i.e., a believer marrying an unbeliever.  Just before God established the Jews in the Promised Land Moses spoke to them and said, 

“When the Lord Your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations (and he names basically the same ones we find here in Ezra 9) … do not intermarry with them.  Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, for they will turn your sons away from following me to serve other gods, and the Lord’s anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you.”

As you can see, the prohibition has nothing to do with race; as a matter of fact, any foreigner could be accepted fully into the Jewish family if he accepted the Covenant God made with Israel.  It had everything to do with spiritual purity in the most intimate relationship known to man—the marriage relationship.  Nor is this prohibition limited to the OT.  In 2 Cor. 6 Paul commands the believer not to be unequally yoked with the unbeliever; in 1 Cor. 7 he forbids widows to marry unless they marry another Christian.  

Now I know there are some Christians who have married an unbeliever and the spouse has converted to faith in Christ.  That is not a justification for marrying unbelievers; it is just a sign of God’s amazing grace that He will sometimes bring good out of sinful decisions.  Unfortunately, there are far more instances where the Christian has abandoned his or her faith to one degree or another in the face of an unequal yoke.  Marriage is difficult enough when there is spiritual unity; it’s difficult to the extreme when that is lacking.

May I address a word to the many singles in our audience? If God forbids you to marry an unbeliever, don’t you suppose a natural inference would be that you shouldn’t date an unbeliever?  I certainly think so.  You’ll never marry someone you don’t date.  

Despite the clarity of God’s Word on this matter of spiritual intermarriage, the exiles had allowed it to happen in a wholesale fashion.  And since there were children born of these marriages, one must assume the practice had been going on for some time.  

             God has always had higher standards for leaders, but the priests, Levites, and officials of Israel actually led the people into spiritual compromise.  The qualifications for being a priest in the OT were very high, and the standards of conduct were uncompromising.  The Apostle James in the NT informs us that the same is true in the church, “Not many of you,” James writes, “should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.” (3:1) Spiritual leadership must never be taken lightly, but in Ezra 9:2 we read, “And the leaders and officials have led the way in this unfaithfulness.”  No wonder the people of God were languishing and apathetic.

Now there are two things you and I can do with this passage this morning.  We can treat it as an accurate historical record that is essentially irrelevant for most of us since we have not been guilty of marrying unbelievers.  Or we can examine the principle here and allow the Spirit of God to apply it to similar sin in our own lives.  I have called the basic sin here the sin of assimilation.  The Jews had allowed themselves to be assimilated into the culture around them (notice the phrase in verse 2, “they have mingled the holy race with the peoples around them.”)  If we lose our distinctives as a holy people of God, it is but a short step (and an inevitable one) to total ineffectiveness in our walk and our witness.  Let me ask you point blank, “To what extent have we become assimilated into the world?”  How about our priorities?  How about our ethics?  How about our attitude toward materialism?  How about our use of the Lord’s Day?  How about our leisure time?  How about our entertainment?

I think you will agree with me that the problem is serious.  But is there no solution?  Yes, there is one, but it is not easy.  In fact, the problem is so insidious that only radical surgery can correct it.  

Prayer, confession, and repentance are essential if God’s people are to experience renewal and revival.  (9:3-10:44)

I want us to trace seven steps to renewal found here in Ezra 9 & 10 that I believe transcend time and culture. 

             Step one:  Seeing sin as God sees it.  (9:3-4). When Ezra heard about the intermarriage and assimilation of the people, including many of their leaders, he says, “I tore my tunic and cloak, pulled hair from my head and beard and sat down appalled.  Then everyone who trembled at the words of the God of Israel gathered around me because of this unfaithfulness of the exiles.  And I sat there appalled until the evening sacrifice.”  When is the last time you pulled your hair out because of sin?  Or when is the last time you even cried about it?  The particular way Ezra expressed his grief may be somewhat tied to his culture, but the fact of his grief cannot be explained away.  This man took sin seriously. 

Have we lost the ability to be shocked by sin?  Do we even realize that our culture is being shaken to its very roots today?  Sodom and Gomorrah had nothing on us here in the last decade of the 20th Century.  Maybe, therefore, we should be taking a cue from Lot, the nephew of Abraham who chose to live in those wicked cities.  In 2 Peter 2:7 we are told that God “rescued Lot, a righteous man, who was distressed by the filthy lives of lawless men (for that righteous man, living among them day after day, was tormented in this righteous soul by the lawless deeds he saw and heard).”  Are we tormented when we see our culture going to Hell in a handbasket, or are we just slightly annoyed?  Are we ready to pour our hearts out to God for our nation, or do we just ring our hands and long for the good old days? 

There’s a verse in the NT that we have all memorized, but I wonder if we have really understood it.  I John 1:9 says, “If we confess our sin, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sin and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”  I’ve heard evangelical pastors interpret this as meaning you don’t have to be sorry for sin; all you have to do is confess it.  Just admit that you did it and you’re cleansed.  But the word “confess” in this verse literally means “to speak alike.”  What we are being called to do is to say what God says about our sin, namely that it is inexcusable, and to see it as He sees it, and He hates it.  If we hate sin the way God hates it, our reaction won’t be far from what Ezra’s was.

             Step two:  Accepting personal and corporate responsibility.  (9:6-15) Sometimes it’s easy for us to see other people’s sin as God sees it.  We are appalled by the crime and corruption all around us, but accepting personal responsibility is much more difficult.  As Ezra falls on his knees before God he prays (v. 6), “O my God, I am too ashamed and disgraced to lift up my face to you, my God.”  Then he explains why:  “because our sins are higher than our heads and our guilt has reached to the heavens.”  And as you continue through his prayer there is constant reference to oursins, our guilt, and our evil deeds.”  This is important to grasp because Ezra himself had not committed this insidious sin of assimilation, nor had the people who returned with him.  Yet he felt such a solidarity with the people of God that he was willing to assume their guilt.  

We Americans are very independent people.  We do not readily accept responsibility for our nation, for our communities, for our schools, for our churches, or even our families; in fact, we have developed a national obsession of blaming others for our problems.  But if renewal and revival is to come to the people of God there is going to have to be a greater willingness to accept personal and corporate responsibility for the tragic state of affairs we see all around us and admit that responsibility before God.  

             Step three:  Believing in God’s mercy.  (9:13-15) The situation is dark, but it is not without hope, because God has not given up yet.  Ezra pours his heart out in verse 13:  “What has happened to us is a result of our evil deeds and our great guilt, and yet, our God, you have punished us less than our sins have deserved and have given us a remnant like this.”  Man-centered humans are amazed that God should at times withhold life and joy from His creatures.  But God-centered believers are amazed that God should withhold judgment from sinners.  A strong belief in God’s mercy and grace toward the ungodly is the whole key to confession and repentance.  If we doubt His mercy, why would we cast ourselves upon it?  

             Step four:  Praying others to conviction.  (10:1-6) From time to time we find ourselves dealing with sin in the lives of loved ones, as Ezra does here.  How do we help them to realize the seriousness of their actions?  What can we do to bring conviction upon them?  Frankly, friends, our options are somewhat limited, because conviction is ultimately the work of the Spirit of God.  But we are not completely helpless.  In the first six verses of chapter 10, and indeed throughout this entire passage, we find Ezra praying others to conviction.  I am quite amazed that despite his personal grief at the sin of the people, Ezra does not rant and rave and scold.  He just prays, albeit openly and with great emotion.  Now there is certainly a time and place for direct confrontation of sin, but the time for prayer is always.

Ezra’s praying succeeds in pricking their conscience to the point at which they urge him to act.  The extreme measures they suggest are, therefore, wholly of their own choosing, and therefore, all the more binding.  Even after Ezra agrees to put the leaders under an oath to carry through with their resolve (v. 5), he delays yet again to appear in the thick of the action, withdrawing rather to a private room in the Temple to continue his fasting and mourning over the faithlessness of the people (v. 6).  The key to renewal and revival in the church is God’s people coming to the point where they are willing to pray for the Holy Spirit’s conviction of sin in their own lives as well as in the lives of their friends and loved ones.  

             Step five:  Confessing public sin publicly.  (10:2-6) I am not one who has much use for cathartic sessions where Christians get together and share all their dirty laundry with one another. Rarely is it edifying, and often it is downright harmful—emotionally and spiritually.  But there are times when public confession is the only way to deal with sin.  

Some years ago a family in our church who had sinned very seriously and publicly confessed that sin publicly and received public forgiveness and restoration.  In the years since then God has performed some absolutely amazing healing in their lives and granted them blessings beyond their wildest imagination. 

I happen to believe that much of the healing they have experienced is a direct result of their willingness to come clean—that way they never have to worry about rumors or about new information that might leak out.  The process was extremely painful, but God has turned an incredible mess into something good and constructive.  They would tell you that public confession of public sin is the only way to go.  (By the way, the last half of chapter 10 makes public the record of the guilty parties for the rest of human history.  Their names are listed in God’s book as a reminder to us that God not only keeps track of the faithful—He also keeps track of those who are rebellious).

Everything we have dealt with so far amounts to spiritual preparation for the sixth and most important step.  

             Step six:  Changing directions (repentance).  (10:7-17) It is certainly difficult to call sin what God calls it, to accept responsibility for it, and to confess publicly.  But all that is chicken feed compared to repentance.  To repent really means to “change one’s mind,” and the single most important thing man needs to change his mind about is the person and work of Jesus Christ.  If a person begins to see Jesus as the Son of God, the friend of sinners, and the only sacrifice for human sin, then he has repented and is saved.  But a true change of mind will in addition always produce an appropriate change of direction in a person’s life—often very painfully.

In verses 7-17 of chapter 10 we find the people themselves, under the influence of one of their leaders named Shecaniah, admitting their unfaithfulness and offering to sign a covenant to send away their foreign wives and children.  Ezra immediately accepts the offer and puts the leading priests and Levites and all Israel under oath to do what has been suggested.  A proclamation is then issued for everyone to assemble within three days in Jerusalem under threat of forfeiture of all his property.  

This, friends, was not a church picnic.  Both the occasion and the cold winter rains made it a miserable gathering, yet when Ezra demanded both confession and repentance, the people responded, “You are right!  We must do as you say.”  Their only protest was that the matter couldn’t be handled in a day or two because the problem was so widespread and so complicated.  So Ezra accepted their suggestion to set up a procedure for everyone who had married a foreign woman to have his case individually investigated.  (After all, perhaps some of these women had converted to faith in God).  There were so many cases the process took three months.

The action the people chose was drastic.  Foreign women and the children born to these mixed marriages were to be sent away.  I assume this means divorce and a return to their homelands.  Many questions remain unanswered.  Were the ostracized children and wives provided for?  Were any attempts made to win them to faith in the one true God?  I would assume so.  What is clear is that Ezra considered this decision to be in accordance with the Law, though that same law stated that “God hates divorce.”  I think our response must be that God hates divorce, but He hates idolatry even more.  Drastic sin demands drastic action.  

Are we left then with an argument for divorcing unbelieving spouses today?  No!  The NT limitations on divorce are considerably tighter than in the OT.  In 1 Cor. 7:12-16 Paul says that if the unbeliever is willing to continue living with the believer, then they must not divorce, for the unbelieving partner is sanctified by the believer!  However, should the unbeliever finally and irremediably desert the believer, the believer “is not bound in such circumstances; God has called us to live in peace.”  He even adds that the children are better off in a home with one Christian parent than in a divorced home.  One major difference, of course, is that Ezra is dealing with those who willfully married outside the faith, thus initiating a mixed marriage, while Paul is talking about one who becomes a believer after marriage and finds himself in a mixed marriage as a result.  

But even if the particular circumstances of Ezra 9 & 10 and the particular remedy applied here are unique to the OT, let us not assume that the answer to sin in our lives is necessarily any less drastic.  Repentance may entail breaking with old friends; it may mean accepting a jail term; it may require restitution.  Some time ago a newspaper clipping appeared in The East African Standard in Nairobi, Kenya:

             ALL DEBTS TO BE PAID


             40380, Nairobi, have dedicated services to the Lord Jesus Christ.  I must

             put right all my wrongs.  If I owe you any debt or damage personally or any

             of the companies I have been director or partner i.e.,




             Please contact me or my advocates (lawyers) J.K. Kibicho and Co.,

             Advocates, P.O. Box 73137, Nairobi, for a settlement.  No amount will be

             disputed.  GOD AND HIS SON JESUS CHRIST BE GLORIFIED.[ii]

That, friends, is a change of directions; that is true repentance.  Spiritual renewal and revival have come to that man’s heart and life.  There is one more step, which, unfortunately, had to be considered by Ezra, and that is the opposition of four individuals named in verse 15:  

             Step seven:  Dealing with opposition.  (10:15). Only Jonathan son of Asahel and Jahzeiah son of Tikvah, supported by Meshullam and Shabbethai the Levite, opposed the decision.”  We can’t be certain, but I suspect these men either had foreign wives themselves or had close friends involved; in fact, Meshullam is specifically named as one of the guilty parties in verse 29.  Perhaps they felt Ezra’s solution wasn’t loving enough.  Perhaps they used the argument one always hears when the church considers discipline of one of its members:  “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.”  Such people fail to acknowledge that when Jesus spoke those words, He spoke them not to interfere with legitimate discipline of sin but rather to prevent the mean-spirited exposure of one sinner by religious leaders who were themselves unbelievers and only trying to trip Jesus up.

You don’t have to be in church work very long before you realize that there are always a few who oppose virtually any decision that is made by the leadership.  They are adept at uncovering some alleged sinister motive or some suspected power play.  A spirit of unity in the Body is evidence to them that the leadership is brainwashing the people.  And how should these antagonists be handled?  Often exactly like Ezra handles them here. Look at verse 16:  “So the exiles did as was proposed.” Those who opposed the decision were ignored.  Once the leaders were clear in their minds that obedience to God required this course of action, they didn’t waste emotional energy trying to keep everyone happy.  They moved ahead in obedience.

Conclusion:  Friends, we have examined the insidious sin of assimilation among the people of God.  We have also found in our text seven steps in dealing biblically with sin so that renewal and revival can come to the people of God.  Our conclusion is:  Sin cannot be ignored, hidden, or trifled with, but it can be forgiven.  The problem of sin is terribly serious, but it is not hopeless, because God has provided a way out.  Prayer, confession, and repentance do not of themselves resolve the sin question; they are simply the response that God requires from us.  The real solution to our sin problem is the death of Jesus Christ in our place on the cross. 

Pastor John Piper of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis writes, 

    “God is the King of the universe; he has absolute creator rights over this world and everyone in it.  Rebellion and mutiny are on all sides, however, and his authority is scorned by millions.  So the Lord sends (prophets and) preachers into the world to cry out that God reigns, that he will not suffer his glory to be scorned indefinitely, that he will vindicate his name in great and terrible wrath.  But they are also sent to cry that for now a full and free amnesty is offered to all the rebel subjects who will turn from their rebellion, call on him for mercy, bow before his throne, and swear allegiance and fealty to him forever.  The amnesty is signed in the blood of His Son.”[iii]

Have you surrendered yet to the great king?  If not, do not delay.  Perhaps you surrendered years ago, but you know in your heart that you have left your first love.  You have allowed sin to get a grip on your life.  It’s time to confess and repent and be restored.  

For over 40 years Billy Graham has used a song at the end of each of his evangelistic services, a song that speaks of man’s sin but also of the one and only solution, Just As I Am.  It is both a song of salvation and a song of revival.  While we sing this song, I urge you to put your faith in the Savior.

DATE: June 14, 1992








[i] William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet. 

[ii] Cited by R. Kent Hughes, Colossians and Philemon:  The Supremacy of Christ, 145.  

[iii] John Piper, The Supremacy of God in Preaching, citation lost.

Romans 1:1-13
Ezra 8