God is grieved when we turn to worship anything but him. Ezra’s visceral sorrow reflects the size of the offense against the Lord. In this text, we see the people’s need for a savior—we are “before [God] in our guilt,” as no one “can stand before [God] because of this” (Ezra 9:15). The need for forgiveness and transformation is gigantic. And God has provided! Jesus is the one who was consumed in anger, he was the remnant that was eliminated in our place (Ezra 9:14).
It’s unlikely that Ezra 9 tops anyone’s list of favorite chapters in the Bible. But with regard to grief over sin, few sections of Scripture are more instructive.
By way of background, Ezra is sent from Babylon to Jerusalem roughly 70 years after the first exiles made the journey. Ezra is both a priest and a scribe, and he will teach the law to the people in the rebuilt temple of God. Ezra 8 describes the travel to the holy city, then Ezra 9 opens with a bombshell.
The Faithlessness of the People
Ezra is told that many Israelites “have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands with their abominations” (Ezra 9:1). They have married women from the surrounding nations who do not worship God. And it gets worse: “And in this faithlessness the hand of the officials and chief men has been foremost” (Ezra 9:2).
Ezra’s response is dramatic.
As soon as I heard this, I tore my garment and my cloak and pulled hair from my head and beard and sat appalled. Then all who trembled at the words of the God of Israel, because of the faithlessness of the returned exiles, gathered around me while I sat appalled until the evening sacrifice. (Ezra 9:3–4)
This is no run-of-the-mill sin. The identity and integrity of this new Jerusalem settlement is being compromised by these marriages. The issue is not mainly cultural or ethnic—it is about worship. Every spouse has enormous religious influence on their partner, and Israel’s history is peppered with unfaithfulness to God beginning with a marriage outside the faith.
Ezra grasps the severity of the situation, and he is undone. He is as torn up as his garment and facial hair.
While his ministry seems to have born fruit—witness those gathered with him who revere God’s word—the unearthing of sin this pervasive is devastating.
Ezra sat appalled in his grief for a while. Then at the evening sacrifice (a public event), he fell on his knees to pray (Ezra 9:5).
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 9:6–7)