1Later the Jewish leaders came to me and said:
Many Israelites, including priests and Levites, are living just like the people around them. They are even guilty of some of the horrible sins of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and the Amorites.
2Some Israelite men have married foreign women and have let their sons do the same thing. Our own officials and leaders were the first to commit this disgusting sin, and now God's holy people are mixed with foreigners.
3This news made me so angry that I ripped my clothes and tore hair from my head and beard. Then I just sat in shock 4until the time for the evening sacrifice. Many of our people were greatly concerned and gathered around me, because the God of Israel had warned us to stay away from foreigners.
5At the time of the evening sacrifice, I was still sitting there in sorrow with my clothes all torn. So I got down on my knees, then lifted my arms, 6and prayed:
I am much too ashamed to face you, Lord God. Our sins and our guilt have swept over us like a flood that reaches up to the heavens. 7Since the time of our ancestors, all of us have sinned. That's why we, our kings, and our priests have often been defeated by other kings. They have killed some of us and made slaves of others; they have taken our possessions and made us ashamed, just as we are today.
8But for now, Lord God, you have shown great kindness to us. You made us truly happy by letting some of us settle in this sacred place and by helping us in our time of slavery. 9We are slaves, but you have never turned your back on us. You love us, and because of you, the kings of Persia have helped us. It's as though you have given us new life! You let us rebuild your temple and live safely in Judah and Jerusalem.
10Our God, what can we say now? Even after all this, we have disobeyed the commands 11that were given to us by your servants the prophets. They said the land you are giving us is full of sinful and wicked people, who never stop doing disgusting things. 12 And we were warned not to let our daughters and sons marry their sons and daughters.
Your prophets also told us never to help those foreigners or even let them live in peace. You wanted us to become strong and to enjoy the good things in the land, then someday to leave it to our children forever.
13You punished us because of our terrible sins. But you did not punish us nearly as much as we deserve, and you have brought some of us back home. 14Why should we disobey your commands again by letting our sons and daughters marry these foreigners who do such disgusting things? That would make you angry enough to destroy us all! 15Lord God of Israel, you have been more than fair by letting a few of us survive. But once again, our sins have made us ashamed to face you.
I love my job as a youth worker because young people today are so inquisitive. They also ask some great questions like, ‘Hey Jonny, what’s the deal with God showing favoritism and picking only a select few?”
This was in the context of understanding the Old Testament and I have to admit, if you did only read a few chapters around the theme of the nation of Israel, you would probably be left with questions like these!
I’m grateful to one of my Old Testament teachers who helped me understand this. He explained that God chose a nation to reach the other nations. It was never about favoritism but about transforming the lives of a few to reach the many, to be a light to the nations.
To be set apart to God and follow his ways was fundamental to their identity and this is why the Jewish leaders are so shocked at the moral state of God’s people (9:1-3). The heart of Ezra’s mission was to turn God’s people back to their first calling and that’s why he is tearing off his clothes (9:3).
Ezra’s prayer is so raw and so powerful that when you read it, it draws you to repentance. Holiness is such a beautiful thing when you realize that God wants to transform and renew your life so that you can be a light to your nation, to your family, to your friends.
We may not need to rip our clothes off but we should care deeply about the pursuit of holiness in our own lives, for the joy of furthering God’s kingdom for the salvation of many.
As Ezra prayed, we say Lord God, thank you for the great kindness you have shown to us. When we were once slaves to sin you never turned your back on us. We thank you that you love us. We thank you for giving us new life. Help us to be a light to the people around us. For Jesus’ sake, Amen.