The Tenth in a Series of Sermons on Ezra-Nehemiah
What does it mean to repent? Many of our contemporaries act as if repentance simply means to say “I’m sorry,” shed a few tears, promise not to commit the offense again, and then go merrily on their way. In the case of Ezra, given his great sorrow for his people, Israel, repentance is much more than a declaration of “I’m sorry,” followed by a promise to do better. Upon hearing the news that the Jews were again intermarrying with the pagan “people of the land,” (the Canaanites) Ezra went into a time of mourning. After all that Israel had endured–seventy years of exile in Babylon, followed by a difficult return to the land, a prolonged struggle to rebuild the temple and the city which had been destroyed by the Babylonians–Ezra could not believe that the Jews had so quickly grown indifferent to the law of Moses. Before Israel even entered the land of promise, in Deuteronomy 7:1-8, YHWH commanded his people not to intermarry with the Canaanites. But the Jews disobeyed this command in the generations after they first entered the promised land, intermarried with pagan Canaanites, and now are doing so again. After Ezra’s repentance–in the form of mourning for himself and for his people–stirred the people of Israel deeply. Seeing him mourn because of their sin and then pray for Israel, the people too repented, and began ending the sinful marriages in which they had engaged, and looked to YHWH for mercy. This is the theme of Ezra 10, our passage before us.
With this sermon we complete our time in the Book of Ezra. We will pick up with the Book of Nehemiah when I return in mid-August. And then we will turn to the Book of Daniel. In the final chapter of Ezra, the account resumes where there narrative left off in chapter 9:5. “And at the evening sacrifice I rose from my fasting, with my garment and my cloak torn, and fell upon my knees and spread out my hands to the Lord my God.” Ezra’s prayer follows in verses 6-15, the tone of which can be seen in verse 6, Ezra’s first petition. “O 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.” Why is Ezra in a state of mourning? Why is he too ashamed to lift up his prayer to YHWH? What is the great sin which his people have committed?
As we saw last time, before the Israelites entered the promised land, YHWH gave the Israelites clear and explicit instructions that his people were to wipe out the Canaanites (all of them), that the Israelites were to destroy all Canaanite religious shrines, and finally, that the Israelites were not to intermarry with pagans. We noted that the prohibition not to intermarry with the Canaanites was a theological prohibition–not a racial one. Moses married a Midianite. Aaron’s wife was a Cushite (Nubian/African). Joseph married an Egyptian woman. Even Israel’s greatest king, David, had Gentile ancestry. The reason why God forbade intermarriage is not that the Canaanites were of a different race than the Jews. The reason is that the Canaanites were of a different religion than the Jews–they were pagans, worshiped all kinds of so-called “gods,” in and through pagan rituals (often tied to nature), with some of the Canaanites even practicing child sacrifice.
The Jews struggled with this attraction to Canaanite ways from the very time they entered the promised land–the Canaanites were much better at convincing Jews to become syncretists (to add the pagan “gods” to the worship of YHWH), than the Jews were in convincing the Canaanites to worship YHWH alone as the true and living God. Since YHWH is a jealous God, demanding that his people worship him and him alone, any worship of idols or pagan gods violates the terms of the covenant YHWH made with Israel at Mount Sinai. After much long-suffering patience with his people–who are like an adulterous spouse who continually seeks other lovers–YHWH’s covenant curses came upon Israel in the form of defeat by enemies and then exile from the land. The northern kingdom (Israel) was defeated by the Assyrians in 722 BC, before the southern kingdom (Judah) was defeated in 587 BC by the Babylonians, with substantial numbers of Jews taken to exile in Babylon–their return serving as the occasion for the writing of the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah.
To read the rest of this sermon, Click Here