Click here for a print-friendly version
The Faith-in-Action Preacher
Spring Quarter: Prophets Faithful To God’s Covenant
Unit 2: Prophets of Restoration
Sunday school lesson for the week of April 11, 2021
By Dr. Hal Brady
Lesson Scripture: Ezra 10:1-12
Key Verse: Ezra 10:6
- Summarize Ezra’s reaction to the people’s sin.
- Explain why intermarriage with foreigners caused Ezra such grief.
- Write a confession to God for a specific sin and a corresponding course of repentant action.
The writer of the lesson informs us that under the leadership of Nebuchadnezzar the Babylonian Empire overtook Jerusalem and exiled the people of Israel in 586 BC. Eventually, however, the Persian King Cyrus defeated Babylon. He then released Jewish exiles to return home to Jerusalem in 538 BC for the express purpose of rebuilding the temple.
Now, the exiles didn’t return in one massive number. Following that first wave of returning exiles in 538 BC was a second led by Ezra in 458 BC (Ezra 7:7, 13). He desired to restore the people to a state of faithful adherence to God’s law (Ezra 7:25-27). The third and final wave of exiles returned to Jerusalem in 444 BC and they were led by Nehemiah (Nehemiah 2:1-9).
Ezra was not only a priest but a teacher of the law of Moses, commissioned by God (Ezra 7:6). Ezra was made aware that the people of Israel had committed grave sins (read chapter 9). The most glaring violation was that they had intermarried with people and groups outside of Israel (Deuteronomy 7:3).
Note that this prohibition was not based on any racial or ethnic entity. Rather, God warned in Deuteronomy 7:4 that foreign faiths “will turn your children away from following me” (compare 2 Corinthians 6:14-18). Yet even as they returned from exile and sin, the men of Judah were marrying pagan women! And as these men were divorcing Jewish wives as well the result was abuse of divorce laws and resulting hardship for the foreign wives (compare Malachi 2:13-16; Matthew 19:1-9). It is Ezra’s reaction to the people’s disobedience that serves as the subject of today’s lesson.
Conviction of Sin
After the initial shock of the report of the people’s disobedience that Ezra received, he immediately took it to heart. Ezra led by example. The sincerity of his distress over Judah’s sins is emphasized by the intensifying verbs used to describe his actions. Ezra’s physical posture matched his spiritual posture before the Lord. Both body and spirit were marked by brokenness and sorrow.
However, some scholars say that “throwing himself down” in front of the Temple may sound more vigorous in translation than it was in reality. This may be another way of saying that he knelt down during his prayer (Ezra 9:5). In any case, Ezra’s behavior drew a very large and inclusive crowd or “assembly.”
Of course, “The house of God” refers to the temple that had been rebuilt after Solomon’s temple was destroyed in the Babylonian conquest (2 Chronicles 36:19; Ezra 3:7-13; 6:13-18). Construction was completed in 515 BC, and this second temple stood until the Romans destroyed it in AD 70.
There is no question that people of all ages need good leaders. This is as true in the area of repentance as anything else. We are informed that when charting revivals in the Old Testament, movements toward God often started with one leader feeling a burden. Though the circumstances varied, the initiating factor for revival was someone acting on behalf of the people. The leaders may have had a private revelation or realization, followed by the gathering of an assembly, as here in verse 1. Here, Ezra’s own conviction and contrition become an example for others to gather before the Lord and weep over their sins.
At this point, a layperson named Shecaniah (pronounced She-kawn-yay), from the family of Elam, supported Ezra and added a concrete suggestion. Although he himself had apparently not married a foreign wife (he is absent from the list of offenders from the family of Elam in verse 26), he expressed solidarity with the people in their guilt (v.2). Ezra had also identified with the people in their sin (9:7), but Shecaniah moved beyond Ezra’s position to see hope beyond judgment. Shecaniah proposed that the people swear an oath to God to expel their foreign wives and the children born to these unions.
The “foreign women” were those not part of the covenant people. Israel had been repeatedly warned that “the peoples around” them in Canaan would lead them into apostasy (Deuteronomy 7:1-4; Joshua 23:12-13). Whether these particular wives were guilty of such a thing is unknown. However, the sad example of Solomon—the wise king whose foreign wives “turned his heart after their gods” (1 Kings 11:4)—should have stood as a grave warning in the time after the exile. Ezra’s contemporary Nehemiah reminded the people of Solomon’s failures, exhorting them not to suffer the same fate (Nehemiah 13:26-27).
Verse 2b says, “But in spite of this, there is still hope for Israel.” A repentant heart is what makes “hope” possible for right relations with God to be restored.
A minister friend had it correct in his Christmas sermon title. He didn’t preach on “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas” but rather, “I’m Dreaming of a ‘Right’ Christmas.” And of course, that has to do with our repentance of sins and turning toward God.
I repeat, a repentant heart is what makes “hope” possible for right relations with God to be restored. God’s patience with his people is demonstrated time and time again through the Old Testament. The prophets often invoked past episodes of God’s gracious deliverance in order to motivate the people toward obedience. Ezra reminded the remnant in Jerusalem that “you” [God] have punished us less than our sins deserved” (Ezra 9:13).
Hope is always grounded in the possibility of God’s mercy. After a moral failure or personal tragedy, hope exists because, as King David learned firsthand, God is “good, and what [he does] is good” (Psalm 119:68). Hope grounded in God’s goodness led others to write of God’s being gracious, also to anger and full of mercy (see Psalms 103:8; 145:8; Joel 2:13).
In verse 3a, the word “now” signals a step forward from the sins of the past and present, as defined in Ezra 10:2. This suggestion from Shecaniah is drastic and may appear cruel to modern readers. Some might question if God really wanted the men to “send away” their wives and their children, considering Deuteronomy 21:10-14. But in the days following the returns from Babylon, the people were very aware of how unfaithfulness had led to their removal from the Promised Land. Foreign women could very well lead their husbands back into idolatry, as had happened to King Solomon. Thus, the threat the foreign wives posed was too great to ignore. For sure, the people had to be intent on being holy in order to please God.
Before moving on, it should be noted that God’s covenant people were not to mistreat non-Israelites who lived among them—quite the opposite (see Leviticus 19:33-34; 23:22)! But treating non-Israelites with kindness isn’t in the same category as intermarriage. The extraordinary circumstances the people faced called for extraordinary action.
Note in verse 3b that Shecaniah referred to Ezra as “my Lord.” This is only to acknowledge Ezra’s authority to decide and lead the people based in what he believed was right. After all, Ezra was both a student and teacher of the Law of Moses. His decisions on this matter were well-informed.
Verse 3b says, “Let it be done according to the Law.” In view of the law that forbade certain marital unions, there were a couple of notable law-breakers. There were Solomon (who married Rahab, a Canaanite) and Boaz (who married Ruth, a Moabite). These women are honored as ancestors of Jesus himself (Joshua 2:1; Ruth 4:10; Matthew 1:5). However, the captivity from which the Jews had returned was a vivid reminder of the dangers of idolatry. Perhaps some non-Jewish wives were exceptions to the rule like Rahab and Ruth. But the law existed because such cases were exceptions, not the rule. Besides, Rahab and Ruth professed allegiance to God in both word and action.
The emotional toll of separating from one’s wife and children must have been overwhelming on everybody. It is the difficulty of this demand that produced the strong imperative “Rise up.” And this marks the beginning of the shift from conviction to action on the part of the leaders.
Call to Appear
Ezra made sure that the leading priests and Levites and all Israel were on the same page. Opposition to the task ahead had to be absolutely minimized. So the leaders and lay people made a covenant with God to “send away these women and their children” (10:3).
Ezra then moved to the chamber of Jehohanan (Jeh-ho-hay-nan) where he continued to fast and mourn because of the unfaithfulness of the people (exiles). When we think of mourning, it is usually in relation to death—the loss of a loved one or someone special. Ezra carried a sense of loss as he reflected on years his people wasted as they chased false gods and denied the Lord.
A proclamation sent throughout the province required that the whole post-exilic community convene in Jerusalem within three days. The “officials and elders” (v.8) endorsed this demand—thus exonerating Ezra from sole responsibility. In addition, severe penalties were attached to the proclamation for noncompliance.
All those who did not show up in Jerusalem within three days would forfeit their property and would be banned from the community of exiles.
“Three days” was a quick turnaround for a message to be proclaimed and journeys to be undertaken through all Judah and back to Jerusalem. However, the speed with which repentance and action could happen throughout would indicate the importance the people put on rectifying their wrongs.
The severe consequence for not coming to Jerusalem also reveals the utter seriousness of the people’s resolution. As we are informed, forfeiting one’s land and possessions and being cut off from “the assembly” or community would be the same treatment the foreigner wives experienced. Those so penalized would have to find their home elsewhere, away from God’s people.
Call to Action
Ten of the 12 tribes of Israel had been removed to the Assyrian exile more than 180 years previous (2 Kings 17:6). So only the two tribes of “Judah” and “Benjamin” having returned from Babylonian exile remained to answer the call to come to Jerusalem.
“The twentieth day of the ninth month” corresponds to early December. Rain is normal at that time in the year. So in addition to the spiritual distress, there was also physical shivering in the cold, heavy rain. In such conditions all the people sat outside and waited.
Then Ezra the priest (the title indicates the basis of his authority within Israel) underscores the faithlessness of the community’s behavior and says that the marriages with foreign women have added to the guilt of Israel (v.10). Some of the people were guilty because they had married foreign women; others were guilty for having tolerated this practice. Ezra’s statement “adding to Israel’s guilt” implies that the people hadn’t learned the lesson of the exile. Instead of working to decrease sin, they were working for the opposite (compare 2 Chronicles 28:13). In effect, Ezra restated the charge.
At this point, Ezra urges the guilty to confess their sin and to do what would be pleasing to God. The guilty’s first response was to “honor the Lord” by admitting wrongdoing, a necessary step toward reconciliation with God (1 John 1:9). The next step is to follow through “and to do his will,” that is, what he commanded in the first place, what he has desired all long.
To be required to “separate from (their) foreign wives” was not necessarily a judgment on any specific conduct of the wives’ part since no such conduct is listed. Instead, those wives were assumed to retain the priorities and religious practices of “the peoples” of the land whom they had grown up. It was only by severing their influence that the men of Judah and Benjamin could be certain that the wives wouldn’t tempt them to idolatry.
The community gave its unanimous consent to Ezra’s proposal as they were deeply convicted of their sin. To be sure, Ezra’s leadership helped foster that commitment. Point! Any spiritual leader worth following will always direct people to God and his glory only.
Want to make four points here!
First, in the Old Testament we have seen episode after episode of Israel’s rebellion against God and God’s subsequent restoration of his covenant people (true in today’s lesson). The people of God were again in danger of sliding back into idolatry because of their disobedience to God’s law. Like the ancient Jews, we too are tempted by the culture that surround us.
Second, God’s mercy provided hope for Israel to be restored to a right relationship with Him and that same mercy provides hope for us. But that required and requires someone with a burdened heart to take the lead in that effort.
Third, God’s forgiving grace is available to us because of the person and work of Jesus Christ.
Fourth, we are summoned to repent of our sins and be restored to a right relationship with God (1 John 1:9).
The late Bruce Larson, a well-known Presbyterian minister, described his experience before Christ came into his life. He said: “Months passed. The war ended. Occupation began, and with it dullness, boredom and moral stagnation. I felt that I was swimming in a sea of garbage. Even worse, the garbage was inside of me. But that was evidently the prologue for God’s next act in my life.” It wasn’t long after that Bruce Larson repented and the Savior came. Amen.
Resources for this lesson
- What factors must be present for you to truly regret your sins and repent of them?
- Why do you think people are reluctant to repent of their sins?
- What leadership role are you gifted to exercise when dealing with communal, collective sin?
Dr. Hal Brady is a retired pastor who continues to present the Good News of Jesus Christ and offer encouragement in a fresh and vital way though Hal Brady Ministries (halbradyministries.com).
- “2020-2021 Standard Lesson Commentary, Uniform Series, International Bible Lessons for Christian Teaching,” pages 273-280.
- “The New Interpreter’s Bible Volume III,” pages 739-742.
- “The Interpreter’s Bible Volume 3,” pages 651-656.