Ezra, Intermarriage, and Repentance

Pastor Kyle McIver

Ezra, Intermarriage, and Repentance
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Sermon Text: Ezra 9-10

We have finally arrived at the end of Ezra - and we took a very roundabout road to this point! Two weeks ago we didn’t meet and Dan put together an excellent video walking us through Ezra 8. Last week was supposed to be Ezra 9, but because of illness and some other challenges, we read from the book of Hebrews together, which I found to be so sweet. Now tonight we’ll be covering the last two chapters in Ezra, chapters 9 and 10, which works out well since these two chapters form a single unit dealing with the topic of intermarriage in the life of the returned exiles.

So here’s where we’re headed - we have a lot of ground to cover and we’re going to jump right into it. First, we’ll do an overview of the two chapters so that we understand the narrative and how the people arrived at this point, and then we’re going to unpack two of the main themes of this story: intermarriage and repentance. Let’s get into the text.

You’ll notice that chapter nine begins with a reference back to things that had been done. And if you look back over chapter 8, you’ll see that Ezra was putting God’s people and God’s house in order. There’s the gathering of Levites and lists of those who returned with Ezra. And like Dan mentioned in his video, genealogies are important! They demonstrate that the who of God’s people matters. God’s people are distinct - you are either in, or you are out. And genealogies tell you who is in. For very similar reasons, New Covenant churches today ought to keep track of membership - it matters who belongs to God’s people.

And so there is this sense of momentum, of progress as chapter 9 opens looking back on the events of chapter 8. But it lasts for just half of the first sentence. As we keep reading, we see that officials - leaders amongst the people - approach Ezra with grim news: the people of Israel and the priests and the Levites have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands with their abominations, from the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and the Amorites. 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.

Now, this is pivotal for us to understand. A bomb just went off in the midst of this story, and everything else we’re going to see tonight unfolds from this moment. So first let’s ask the question, what is happening here? We’ll see from Ezra’s response in the following verses that this is no small thing he’s just been told. This sin in the midst of God’s people is a deadly cancer, and it has spread silently and pervasively throughout the body. And I want you all to notice something here... Why are the people bringing this sin to Ezra? This wasn’t a single sin, it wasn’t a single day where God’s people just went off the rails. The sin in view here is intermarriage, and these marriages have been around long enough to produce children, as we see in Ezra 10:3. This has been happening long enough to be measured not just in weeks, but in months or even years. So why is this coming to the surface right now?

Look back at Ezra 7. Remember that Ezra is a scribe skilled in the Law of Moses, which God had given to his people, and that the hand of the Lord was on him. He goes up to Jerusalem, and Ezra 7:10 tells us what was in his heart when he went up: For Ezra had set his heart to study the Law of the Lord, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel. Ezra came home to teach God’s law to God’s people. To study it, to do it, and to teach it. And so over the five months that have passed from his return to our passage, that’s what he has been doing. He’s been heavily invested in teaching God’s word to God’s people. And one of the effects on God’s people when God’s word is taught clearly is that sin is exposed and revealed.

There is a clue in our passage that their confession is in fact linked to Ezra’s teaching of God’s word. Look again at the way that these leaders confess their sins to Ezra. They confess that they: have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands with their abominations, from the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and the Amorites. That is a highly specific list of people groups. And Ezra has been teaching these people from the Torah, the first five books of the Bible. Listen to Exodus 34:11-12: Observe what I command you this day. Behold, I will drive out before you the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. Take care, lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land to which you go, lest it become a snare in your midst. That’s almost the exact same list of nations; nations God expressly told his people to be wary of and avoid because of their idolatry and abominable practices.

Listen to one more passage from the Torah, this time from Deuteronomy 7: You shall not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons, for they would turn away your sons from following me, to serve other gods. Then the anger of the Lord would be kindled against you … for you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth.

Ezra has been teaching God’s people God’s word. He’s been working through texts like these two from Exodus and Deuteronomy. And one effect is to expose a very specific sin that has become commonplace amongst the average citizens and leaders alike: intermarriage with foreign nations.

Ezra hears this and he is broken. He tears his garment, pulls hair from his head and beard, and sits appalled. And then verse 4 tells us that those who likewise trembled at the Word of the God of Israel sat with him until evening, when Ezra finally stirs to bring the people’s sin before God in prayer. And the rest of chapter 9 is the record of his prayer on behalf of the people.

A few observations on Ezra’s prayer:

He is very direct - this is a plain admission of guilt. We saw the same thing from the people when they brought this sin to Ezra, and if I had to guess, I’d say they picked this up from Ezra. Many of us duck or dodge when it comes to our sin… we confess partial sins wrapped in half-truths in an attempt to protect some sense of pride or self-righteousness. Ezra doesn’t do that. He is ashamed of what has taken place, and confesses that their collective sin and guilt is greater than can be measured.

He does not remove himself from the people’s sins. It would have been so easy for Ezra to exclaim “Look at what these people have done Lord! Can you believe what they’ve done?! How could they do such a thing?!” But instead, his language is plural: our guilt… our iniquities… This says a lot about Ezra. He identifies with these people - his identity is bound up along with theirs as God’s people. And they will rise or fall together according to the measuring rod of God’s law.

Ezra remembers God’s mercy and his faithfulness. In verses 8-9 he recounts the favor shown by the Lord in preserving a remnant of his people, in how he showed them steadfast love and delivered them from slavery. God’s past mercies ought always to inform and encourage our present confession of sin.

Ezra is praying God’s words back to him. Starting in verse 11, he is rehearsing the commandments of the prophets, and pulling from various places across the Old Testament to demonstrate and then confess their guilt in the specific ways they have sinned against God. And according to God’s law, he knows that what they deserve is justice… he concludes his prayer saying: behold, we are before you in our guilt, for none can stand before you because of this.

And now we’ve arrived at chapter 10. Ezra is praying, and the people have begun gathering to mourn their sin and seek God’s mercy. One of the leaders among the people, Shecaniah, approaches Ezra and says to him, in verse 2: we have broken faith with our God and have married foreign women from the people of the land, but even now there is hope for Israel in spite of this. Admission of guilt, hope in God’s mercy. This is grace at work in the life of God’s people.

And as the rest of the chapter unfolds, we see the people’s repentance. They make a covenant together to put away their foreign wives. Ezra takes the lead in gathering the people, determining who has taken part in the sin of intermarriage, and charging them put away these foreign wives. Now notice in 10:9 that we’re given a specific time marker, the twentieth day... of the ninth month. This issue was so extensive amongst the people that it took three months to work through! And then the rest of the chapter is a list of those guilty of intermarriage, with the book ending rather abruptly after this list and a comment that some of these marriages had borne children.

Now it’s possible that Ezra may not have seen this as the final word in some sense, since Ezra and Nehemiah were frequently viewed as one book. However this episode, this event in the final chapters of Ezra, it does end abruptly. Yet if we consider the thread running through these final two chapters, we can see that there is in fact a conclusion in place: the people have repented. They’ve confessed their sin, accurately assessed their situation through the lens of God’s Word, and taken the necessary steps to turn away from their sin - to repent. So we see from that vantage point of repentance, the book ends more coherently that we may have thought at first glance.

And that’s our passage. Now like I mentioned at the beginning of the sermon tonight, we’re going to press in on two themes from these two chapters: intermarraige and repentance. First, intermarriage.

I’m sure many of you have been wondering what to do with this concept of intermarriage as the driving sin in these chapters. And there are a lot of questions that quickly rise to the surface: how exactly is intermarriage defined here? Was it wrong then or even is it wrong now to marry someone from a different ethnic or cultural background? How do I make sense of God’s people putting away these foreign wives? Good questions, all of them. And as we look closely at our passage and God’s earlier commands that informed Ezra’s and the rest of the people’s actions, the answers come into focus.

First, how is the Bible defining intermarriage here and why is this a sin that demands such a forceful response from God’s people? We looked at passages from Exodus and Deuteronomy warning Israel to stay clear of surrounding nations, and forbidding them to intermarry. And alongside those passages, I want you to consider the example of Moses, the very many who authored these books we’ve been looking back at. Consider this account from Numbers 12.

Listen to verse 1: Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman who he had married, for he had married a Cushite woman. Now, it is most likely that Zipporah, Moses’s wife, here described as a Cushite woman, was black. She would have been descended from the region of Cush, which was south of Egypt, where there was a thriving African culture and people were known for their black skin. And if you keep reading in Numbers 12, you’ll see that the bigger issue is that Miriam and Aaron are actually challenging Moses’s position and authority before the people. But, it is not insignificant that they chose first to attack Moses for who he married, and that attack was based on his wife’s ethnicity.

So how does God respond? Is he about to take Moses to task for his marriage to a Cushite woman? God responds with severe discipline not toward Moses, but toward Miriam and Aaron. He rebukes them and leaves Miriam covered with leprosy. And notice what God does not say: anything at all about Moses’s marriage to a Cushite woman. No denunciation, no discipline - nothing!

One other consideration for you before we start answering these questions. Right here in the book of Ezra, in chapter 6, we saw the exiles participate in the Passover together. Listen to who took part in that celebration - this is Ezra 6:21: it was eaten by the people of Israel who had returned from exile, and also by everyone who had joined them and separated himself from the uncleanness of the peoples of the land to worship the Lord, the God of Israel. These are non-native Israelites, celebrating Israel’s most significant meal together with God’s people. What qualified these non-Israelites to eat the Passover? The text says it is those who separated [themselves] from the uncleanness of the peoples of the land to worship the Lord, the God of Israel. These are people who from the perspective of God’s people were foreigners, but had turned away from their own native culture and religious practices worship the God of Israel and live like the rest of his people. This is the type of woman Moses’s wife was, and those who had likewise turned to worship the one true God in Ezra’s day were welcome to participate in the Passover.

Now back to our questions: how is the Bible defining intermarriage here and why is this a sin that demands such a forceful response from God’s people? This is all about identity and worship. God’s people had a very specific identity: to be a holy priesthood, a nation set apart and distinct in order to reflect God’s glory and goodness in a fallen world. And that identity is compromised when God’s people intermarry with those who do not share this identity. Think about it - how can Israel be holy and distinct if they are welcoming all kinds of religious practice and false gods into their midst? They can’t! It is a betrayal of the mission, a fundamental failure in their calling.

This means that the kind of intermarriage God forbids, the heart of the issue, is not first about a person’s ethnicity, but their allegiance, their worship, and their identity. Foreign people were welcome to take part in the Passover so long as they turned away from practices God forbad and lived within his covenant guidelines for his people. One commentator, in looking at the resolution to the book of Ezra and the putting away foreign wives, wrote:

I would assume that the foreign women willing to identify with Israel and worship Yahweh would not be put away.

I think this is right. God does not look on one ethnicity or another and by nature of that ethnicity declare a person unclean, unworthy, unfit to be numbered among his people. Consider God’s plan of salvation as revealed with the coming of His Son. In the death and resurrection of Jesus, God is ransoming for himself a people from every tribe, tongue, and nation. A multi-ethnic people of God was always the plan, which then unfolded over thousands of years of redemptive history.

God welcomes marriages between a man and woman of two different ethnicities. The only restriction on marriage given us in the New Testament is thoroughly consistent with what we’ve just seen in the Old: do not be unequally yoked - believer, do not marry an unbeliever. Listen to 2 Corinthians 6:14-16: Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever? What agreement has the temple of God with idols?

Do you see the principle? It’s remarkably consistent: God’s people are to marry from within God’s people. Marriage is about worship, mission, and godly offspring. So in the book of Ezra and today, the binding principle for marriage is a shared allegiance, a shared identity, and common ground in worship of the one true God.

And this brings us to our final point and application from this passage: repentance. By intermarrying and tainting the holiness of God’s people with false gods, misdirected worship, and practices which God hates, they were walking in sin. And the only appropriate response to sin is repentance.

There is no alliance, no common ground, no reconciliation between God and sin. Sin must be forgiven, and then forsaken. This is repentance. And this is what Ezra chapter 10 illustrates for us so clearly. Though marriage is not something entered into lightly or cast off casually, in the case of these marriages where one spouse would not put away foreign gods and false idols, the only option at this time in the history of God’s people was separation. This is why Ezra led the people in, as our text says, putting away their foreign wives. Repentance requires a clean break with our sin. Israel’s identity as the people of God could not be what it was intended to be if they permitted false worship and wayward religion in their midst.

And this is so pressing and so relevant for us today. Church, we are the people of God. We have been given an identity, a mission, and a calling. Our union with Jesus by faith is to be the single most important thing about us which then shapes everything we say and do and pursue for the rest of our lives. And sin is incompatible with our identity. Sin is giving allegiance to another love… giving the first place to a desire that is actively opposed to Jesus… and we are both called and commanded to make a clean break with the sin in our lives.

Ezra 10 also highlights an often overlooked aspect of repentance - one which we need to hear and think deeply about as a church. The repentance that we see at the end of Ezra is not merely individual people repenting and turning away from their sin. That is certainly happening. But this is also a corporate act. God’s people are undertaking repentance together. It is not just individual identities and callings that matter here. More prominent in our passage is the corporate, shared identity and calling of God’s people to be holy. There is an urgency to get right with God together, as a whole people.

And church, that is a truth that has not weakened or dissipated over time. We as the church, God’s New Covenant people, should feel the same sense of urgency to be a pure church. A holy people, distinct and set apart and prepared for mission in the world. Paul applies this exact logic in 1 Corinthians 5 when speaking of sexual immorality in the church. The entirety of chapter 5 is devoted to sexual immorality and the need for God’s people to repent, and even to go so far as to put someone out of the church for their sexual immorality. Paul closes his argument in 1 Corinthians 5 by quoting Deuteronomy 13:5 and telling the church to purge the evil person from among you. That is strong language! It probably makes us uncomfortable...

What about grace?! What about mercy?! What about the real and deep and painful struggle with sin that takes weeks or months or years to overcome?! Are we to put sinners out of the church?! Questions like these are why precision matters profoundly. Getting grace right, getting repentance right, and making the gospel clear is an absolute necessity if we are to live together as God’s people underneath his calling and his blessing.

Let’s be clear: this church is for sinners. If we put out all of the sinners, then I’d be the first one leading a long procession of every single one of us out the door. But to understand grace and repentance means knowing that sin must first be forgiven, and then forsaken. There is no repentance apart from forgiveness. Church, we have been entrusted with the gospel - the explosively good news that King Jesus himself shed his blood on your behalf so that all of your idolatry, all of your lying and lusting and laziness and pride might be totally forgiven! Nailed to the cross of Jesus and counted against you no more!

And when we bring our sins to Jesus and receive forgiveness in his name, the penalty of sin is put away. The power of sin remains - this is why we will continue to struggle, why repentance will never be behind us in this life. But Christian - you can overcome a forgiven sin. And there is no sin that Jesus cannot forgive.

It is our calling together to purge the evil from our midst. We do that first and foremost by holding high the gospel of Jesus Christ. Sin is first forgiven, then forsaken. So we preach the gospel and sing the gospel together. We confess our sins and apply the gospel to our own hearts and to the hearts of our brothers and sisters with whom we have covenanted together to do this very thing. And then we walk together, step by step, little by little, helping one another make a clean break with sin. To put it away from us - to cast it out of our lives and out of our church.

It will be messy. It will be painful. It will be imperfect. But it must be done. The exiles in Ezra 10, even amidst the exposure of their sin and the revelation that they’ve run headlong into disobedience, held on to God’s mercy. Listen again to Ezra 10:2-3: 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…

Church, this is the pattern for our life together. Not one of us is innocent. We have all broken faith with God and married ourselves to passions, practices, and desires outside of God’s law. But even now there is hope for us! God’s mercy is inexhaustible, rolling down to a thousand generations. And so just like these exiles, we ought to respond in covenant together to put away our idols and false gods, and to walk in the light of God’s mercy together. Jesus purchased this for you. For us. He is the good shepherd who will lead us through the dark nights and deep valleys to the rivers of his sustaining mercy and steadfast love.