Chapter 9 struck me as a chapter that is full of emotion. Ezra was distraught. He had heard some of the returned exiles had intermarried with the local peoples, and he tore his garments and pulled out his hair in anguish. The people had fallen into sin. Couldn’t you feel his anguish?
God had said the people were to remain pure. They were not to intermarry with the people of the Promised Land. The heart of the issue was idolatry. The spouses from the other nations tended to turn the Israelites toward false worship. We learn that from none other than the life of King Solomon. And the people of Israel were in a covenant with the One True God. To be in a covenant with him meant to worship him and him alone – and to follow his commands. The calling of the people of Israel was to remain pure. And so these kinds of intermarriages were off-limits. The Israelites were to faithful to God alone.
Idolatry caused the Israelites to suffer the discipline of God and to be kicked out of the Promised Land to begin with. And here Ezra discovered the people were falling into it again. You get a sense that the people were living on borrowed time – on the sheer grace of God. They were just a “remnant,” and they were living in a period of “a little reviving in (their) slavery.” They had gotten another chance. They were back in the Promised Land, and the temple had been rebuilt. Things were looking pretty God. God had blessed them in unexpected ways.
And they were blowing it.
There’s emotion here. Ezra said, “O my God, I am ashamed and blush to lift my face to you.” He was serving the role as priest for the people – interceding for them before God. And I noticed how this was a communal thing. It wasn’t just that one member of the Israelite nation had sinned, or hundreds had sins. The whole nation was at fault. Ezra, who hadn’t engaged in intermarriage, was acting like he had sinned. All the people were in this together.
Of course, we don’t live like that today. Or rather, we don’t think we live like that. We kind of think we’re all on our own. (We’re Americans after all.) Another church member can sin if he wants, but that doesn’t affect me. I wonder if we can find some sort of corrective to that here in Ezra. Do God’s people all live in this together – as one body, where one rejoices and all of us rejoice – and where we intercede on each others’ behalf before God? The Bible says we do.
Anyway, I was struck by how moved Ezra was by the people’s sins. And how he collapsed before God in prayer – prayer for mercy. It was communal sin.
And I wonder whether we ever see communal sin in our midst as a church. Is that something we would notice? And would we, even if we didn’t engage in the sinful activity, hit our knees before God in petition for forgiveness.
Of course, God promises to forgive us as we confess our sins (1 John 1:9). Jesus Christ paid the cost on the cross. As I was thinking about Ezra’s prayer in light of our new position in Christ, I came to the conclusion that it is Christ who is interceding for us as we sin. He’s embracing that sin – our sin – as his own. Indeed, our sin is communal. That’s what the cross was all about, after all. One man died for many so that we could live. He is our high priest.
And then I thought about sin. I thought about the temptation to blend in with the other “nations” around us. Remember, God had a purpose in that rule against intermarriage. He wanted a peculiar people – a distinct nation that could become a blessing for all the other nations. The nation can’t be distinct unless it worships God alone. And we still are called to be a distinct “nation.”
And there remains a temptation to “intermarry” – although we don’t think of it as a big deal. The culture around us has other things that it worships – self, money, good health (a big one today), sex, prestige, individualism, freedom, etc. And we can slip into that kind of worship if we aren’t paying attention.
We’re called to separate ourselves from the world. And as we separate ourselves, we build the kingdom that draws the nations toward God. That’s the idea of God’s peculiar people.
But that separation is not something we sometimes think we should do. But we must remember it’s not a separation of looking down on non-Christians or judging the world. Rather, it’s a separation based on our priorities. We simply trust and follow Jesus. That’s it. We follow wherever he goes. And that means there are some roads we simply don’t travel.
The apostle Peter – one who knew all about the forgiveness of Jesus – wrote this: “Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul” (1 Peter 2:11). And the apostle Paul wrote this: “But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler – not even to eat with such a one” (1 Corinthians 5:11).
Let’s be aware of ourselves. How are we falling into the traps of the world? And let’s be aware of ourselves as a church – what communal sins might we need to bring before God?