Ezra has been touched by Yahweh’s holiness to the point that he feels something of His intolerance toward sin. His whole spirit reacts toward sin’s repulsive nature; he recognizes the impossibility of sin coexisting with holiness.
Notice here that Ezra’s high sensitivity reacts toward the sins of others, not committed against him personally but against Yahweh’s holiness. It’s a reaction that Jesus Christ describes as hungering and thirsting for righteousness, and it can appear either from the recognition of one’s own sins or the recognition of the community’s sins against God.
Notice too, that this sensibility toward sin must unburden itself in prayer: “[I] fell upon my knees and spread out my hands to the LORD my God” (Ezra 9:5). This prayer includes:
1) The confession of sins and the personal identification with the sins of others: “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” (Ezra 9:6).
2) It recognizes the offense of sin against the most recent manifestations of Yahweh’s grace: “But now for a brief moment favor has been shown by the LORD our God, to leave us a remnant and to give us a secure hold within his holy place, that our God may brighten our eyes and grant us a little reviving in our slavery” (Ezra 9:8).
3) Against this background of grace, sin makes no sense – it is an offense, an incomprehensible act of rebellion against Yahweh’s grace: “And now, O our God, what shall we say after this?... Seeing that you, our God, have punished us less than our iniquities deserved and have given us such a remnant as this, shall we break your commandments again and intermarry with the peoples who practice these abominations?” (Ezra 9:10, 13-14)
4) It recognizes the punishment that sin deserves: “Would you not be angry with us until you consumed us, so that there should be no remnant, nor any to escape?” (Ezra 9:14)
5) It recognizes the complete righteousness of Yahweh and the complete guilt of sinners: “O LORD, the God of Israel, you are just, for we are left a remnant that has escaped, as it is today. Behold, we are before you in our guilt, for none can stand before you because of this” (Ezra 9:15).
Jesus Christ promises in this situation, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (Matthew 5:6). By the power of Yahweh’s Spirit, Ezra’s hunger and thirst for righteousness is satisfied immediately: “While Ezra prayed and made confession, weeping and casting himself down before the house of God, a very great assembly of men, women and children, gathered to him out of Israel, for the people wept bitterly. And Shecaniah the son of Jehiel, of the sons of Elam, addressed Ezra: ‘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. Therefore let us make a covenant with our God to put away all these wives and their children, according to the counsel of my lord and of those who tremble at the commandment of our God, and let it be done according to the Law. Arise, for it is your task, and we are with you; be strong and do it’” (Ezra 10:1-4). Through the teaching of Yahweh’s word over a long period of time and by the work of Yahweh’s Spirit, the high sensitivity toward sin has extended itself to others in the community. Instead of resisting the word, the community joins Ezra in repentance.
Perhaps someone today reacts to this reading by saying, “Poor women and children who are left abandoned by the religious fanaticism of one man!” But a
reaction like this has not considered the situation fully. Ezra does not find guilt in racial differences but in Israel’s having intermarried with “peoples who practice [notice the present tense] these abominations” (Ezra 9:14). The testimonies of Rahab in Joshua 2 and 6:22-25 and of Ruth demonstrate that the Israelites could receive foreigners who converted to Yahweh. Ezra 9 – 10 addresses marriage to foreign women who actively practice other religions and are training the next generation to do the same. We suppose that they could convert to Yahweh like Rahab or Ruth and be accepted by the Jewish community. If not, then the men had no business marrying them, knowing that they were disobeying Yahweh’s law and putting the future generations of Yahweh’s remnant at risk.
The high sensitivity toward sin caused by devoted study of Yahweh’s word can lead to great discomfort. It urges us to make difficult decisions, sometimes totally contrary to common reasoning. But these decisions, made in repentance and obedience to Yahweh’s word, produce the peaceful fruit of righteousness (Hebrews 12:11).