The Book of Ezra: Restoration From Babylon

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Whoever seeks the welfare of God's people must expect a path of trial and sorrow, for, with the affections of God Himself motivating him, the servant will, in his measure, identify himself with their state and condition while laboring for the glory of God in their midst. This was perfectly exemplified in the life of Him who was able to say, "The zeal of Thine house hath eaten Me up," and also in no mean degree, in His servant Paul, who says, in the power of the Holy Ghost, "I endure all things for the elect's sake, that they may also obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory." 2 Tim. 2:1010Therefore I endure all things for the elect's sakes, that they may also obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory. (2 Timothy 2:10).
It was the experience also of Ezra in the opening of this chapter. Filled with a holy zeal, he had been moved to come up to Jerusalem that he might "teach in Israel statutes and judgments," and he finds at the very outset that many of the chosen people had already sunk nearly as low as, if not lower than, the Canaanites whom God had cast out before them. He says:
"Now when these things were done, the princes came to me, saying, The people of Israel, and the priests, and the Levites, have not separated themselves from the people of the lands, doing according to their abominations, even of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and the Amorites. For they have taken of their daughters for themselves, and for their sons: so that the holy seed have mingled themselves with the people of those lands: yea, the hand of the princes and rulers hath been chief in this trespass." vv. 1, 2.
Such is man! Such, too, are the people of God when following the inclination of their own hearts instead of walking in obedience to His Word. Notice, moreover, that when the saints fall into sin, it is often into worse and grosser forms of sin than those committed by the people of the world. It is as if Satan, having gained the advantage over them, would mock at and triumph over them by displaying the most horrible forms of the flesh. In the case before us, it was not only the abominations of the Canaanites, etc. (the former inhabitants of the land), but also those of the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and the Amorites, into which the children of the captivity had fallen, that is, into every possible form of corruption.
And all this had taken place in so short a time- within a few years of the completion of the temple. Objects of the special grace of God in their deliverance from their Babylonish captivity, they had turned His grace into lasciviousness.
What forbearance and long-suffering on the part of Him who had restored them once again to the land of their fathers, in that He did not instantly deal with them in judgment! But if His people are ever the same in their backsliding and sins, He is also unchangeable in His mercy and grace. Hence the gifts and calling of God are without repentance, and therein, and therein alone, lies the security of His people.
The special sin here mentioned is that "the holy seed have mingled themselves with the people of those lands," that is, by intermarriages. This had been expressly forbidden. (That it was not intermarriages only may be gathered from the passage above cited from Exodus, as also from Numb. 25; in fact, all the abominations of the idolatry of the several nations named were connected with these marriages.) See Exod. 34:12-1612Take heed to thyself, lest thou make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land whither thou goest, lest it be for a snare in the midst of thee: 13But ye shall destroy their altars, break their images, and cut down their groves: 14For thou shalt worship no other god: for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God: 15Lest thou make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, and they go a whoring after their gods, and do sacrifice unto their gods, and one call thee, and thou eat of his sacrifice; 16And thou take of their daughters unto thy sons, and their daughters go a whoring after their gods, and make thy sons go a whoring after their gods. (Exodus 34:12‑16). It was therefore in willful disobedience that they had contracted these shameful alliances with the world, for this is what these marriages typify-the besetting sin of God's people in every age. The Apostle James thus says, "Ye adulterers and adulteresses, know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? whosoever therefore will be" (is minded to be) "a friend of the world is the enemy of God" (chap. 4:4), and the Apostle Paul cries, "Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness? And what concord hath Christ with Belial?" etc. 2 Cor. 6:14, 1514Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness? 15And what concord hath Christ with Belial? or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel? (2 Corinthians 6:14‑15). For if Jehovah deigned to say that He was married to Israel (Isa. 54; Hos. 2), believers now are said to be espoused to Christ (2 Cor. 11). Whether for the Jew therefore or for the Christian to unite himself with the world is both unfaithfulness and sin, as well as to forget the holy place of separation into which the former had been, and the Christian is called.
Nor was this sin confined to any one class of the people. The hand of the princes and rulers had been chief in this trespass, and the priests and the Levites, as well as the people, are distinctly named. It would seem, then, that the princes and rulers had first set the example, and that the others had been only too ready to follow. "One sinner destroyeth much good" (Eccles. 9:1818Wisdom is better than weapons of war: but one sinner destroyeth much good. (Ecclesiastes 9:18)), especially when that one has a place of position and influence. As when a standard-bearer faints in the day of battle, the soldiers are often discouraged and so easily defeated, so after Satan has succeeded in entrapping a leader in the Church of God, he often finds it easy work to ensnare many who are less conspicuous. On this account the sin of a ruler or priest under the law needed a larger sacrifice than that of one of the common people. It is therefore a solemn thing-solemn for himself and for the consequences entailed-when a "prince" or "ruler" leads God's people into the path of worldliness and idolatry.
Such were the heavy tidings brought to the ears of Ezra soon after his arrival in Jerusalem, and in the next verse we have the effect produced upon this pious and devoted soul. He says, "And when I heard this thing, I rent my garment and my mantle, and plucked off the hair of my head and of my beard, and sat down astonished." v. 3. He was thus smitten with a great and unspeakable grief because of the sins of his people, and the secret of the intensity of his sorrow, expressed in all these outward signs of humiliation before God, was that he felt in his inmost soul the dishonor done to Jehovah's holy name.
It is comparatively easy to feel for God's people when they are dishonored by their sinful conduct in the eyes of the world, but it is only those who are, through the power of the Holy Ghost, in communion with the mind of God, those who share in His affections for His own, those therefore who first and foremost are filled with zeal for the maintenance of His glory, that can estimate their sin as it affects the holy name by which they are called. Only they can go down, take up, make the sin their own, and tell it all out before God. Moses, Nehemiah, and Daniel are examples of this in their several measures, as well as Ezra, but all these, with others that might be named, are but feeble fore-shadowings of Him who so identified Himself with His people that in confessing their sins He said, "O God, Thou knowest My foolishness; and My sins are not hid from Thee." Psalm 69:55O God, thou knowest my foolishness; and my sins are not hid from thee. (Psalm 69:5).
The grief and humiliation of Ezra were used to reach the consciences of others, or rather to attract to him all who in any degree had mourned over the condition of the people, for he tells us, "Then were assembled unto me every one that trembled at the words of the God of Israel, because of the transgression of those that had been carried away." v. 4. "To this man," says the Lord, "will I look, even to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit, and trembleth at My word." Isa. 66:22For all those things hath mine hand made, and all those things have been, saith the Lord: but to this man will I look, even to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit, and trembleth at my word. (Isaiah 66:2). Trembling at God's word is the evidence of a tender conscience, of one walking in the fear of God and desiring to be found in His ways. Blessed was it therefore that there were still such among the children of the captivity, though it would seem their trembling sprang rather from an apprehension of the consequences of the transgression of their fellows than from a gracious fear of offending their God.
However this might have been, where had they been, and where their testimony before the arrival of Ezra? But that their hearts were true is shown by their taking their stand at this critical moment with him, and we learn at the same time that we have no power to help our brethren until we distinctly and openly take our stand against the evil by which they have been ensnared. Faithfulness to God is the first qualification for helping others.
Ezra retained his place in the dust-borne down by his inexpressible sorrow-until the evening sacrifice. If on the one hand he was heartbroken on account of the people's sin, on the other he discerned, in the exercise of faith, the only ground of approach to God concerning it. In a word, he laid hold of the efficacy of the sacrifice as the foundation on which he could appear before God to spread out before Him the iniquities of the children of Israel. (Compare 1 Sam. 7:99And Samuel took a sucking lamb, and offered it for a burnt offering wholly unto the Lord: and Samuel cried unto the Lord for Israel; and the Lord heard him. (1 Samuel 7:9); 1 Kings 18:3636And it came to pass at the time of the offering of the evening sacrifice, that Elijah the prophet came near, and said, Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and of Israel, let it be known this day that thou art God in Israel, and that I am thy servant, and that I have done all these things at thy word. (1 Kings 18:36), etc.) The evening sacrifice was a burnt offering, all of which, consumed on the altar, went up as a sweet savor unto the Lord, and when once Ezra was before Him in the value of this-in all the value typically of what Christ was to God in His death-the success of his intercession was assured. The Lord Himself could on this account say, "Whatsoever ye shall ask in My name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son." John 14:1313And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. (John 14:13). It was then, as understanding the value of the sacrifice, that Ezra rose up from his heaviness, and having rent his garments and mantle, he fell upon his knees, and spread out his hands unto the Lord his God, and confessed the sins of his people. Let us examine a little these outpourings of his burdened heart.
Notice first, how completely he takes the place of the people before God. He says, "0 my God, I am ashamed and blush to lift up my face to Thee, my God: for our iniquities are increased over our head, and our trespass is grown up unto the heavens." v. 6. Not even in spirit does he separate himself from those who had sinned; he and they- indeed, all the people-are one, corporately one before God. It was so in the eyes of God Himself, for when Achan transgressed, He said to Joshua, "Israel hath sinned." Ezra understood this, and was thus qualified to become an intercessor for the people with God, for unless we apprehend our oneness with God's people, that their sin and sorrow are our sin and sorrow, we cannot truly bear them on our hearts before the Lord in the time of their need.
Having thus taken their place, Ezra confessed that nothing but sin had marked them from the days of their fathers. All God's judicial dealings with them, in delivering them "into the hand of the kings of the lands, to the sword, to captivity, and to a spoil, and to confusion of face, as it is this day," had been on account of their iniquities. He justified God in all His past dealings with His people. And then he owned the grace that had been shown to them from the Lord their God in bringing back a remnant, "and to give us a nail in His holy place, that our God may lighten our eyes, and give us a little reviving in our bondage. For," he adds, "we are [not were, as in our version] bondmen; yet our God hath not forsaken us in our bondage, but hath extended mercy unto us in the sight of the kings of Persia, to give us a reviving, to set up the house of our God, and to repair the desolations thereof, and to give us a wall in Judah and in Jerusalem." vv. 8, 9.
The order of Ezra's confessions is most instructive. Having owned the sins of his brethren, and justified God in His ways with His people, he in the next place magnifies the grace which had visited them in their low estate, and
had brought them-a remnant-back to the land,
and permitted them once again to set up the house of their God. But why does he recite this proof of Jehovah's grace and mercy? It was to show the character of his people's sin, for he proceeds, "And now, 0 our God, what shall we say after this? for we have forsaken Thy commandments," and then he confesses that they had sinned against both light and grace. He conceals nothing, and extenuates nothing, but spreads out all before God, while he owns that if, after all the mercy they had received (v. 13), they should break God's commandments, and "join in affinity with the people of these abominations," God might well be angry with them till He had consumed them, "so that there should be no remnant nor escaping." v. 14. He then concludes by once more justifying God, and by taking His part against himself and the people. He says, "0 Lord God of Israel, Thou art righteous; for we remain yet escaped, as it is this day: behold, we are before Thee in our trespasses; for we cannot stand before Thee because of this." v. 15.
There is much in this inspired confession to commend to the attention of the Lord's people. Its main features have already been indicated, but we desire to emphasize the fact that Ezra from first to last justifies God, and lays bare the iniquities of his people. This in itself is not only a proof of the work of the Holy Spirit, but also a promise of blessing. The place of confession is always the place both of restoration and of spiritual power, and hence it is always a sign of a bad condition when that place is rarely taken. Let us then for a moment challenge ourselves. We have more than once pointed out the correspondence between this remnant and that gathered out to the name of the Lord Jesus Christ in the present day. Is there no correspondence between the sins of the two? Is it not the fact that we have largely "joined in affinity" with the people of the world? Have we not submitted ourselves to their habits, ways, and customs? Is not worldliness our bane? Are not traces of Egypt to be seen everywhere in the assembly? Do we not think more of riches and social position than of the fruits of the Spirit?
Moreover, is it not seldom that our sins (we do not mean our individual sins, but the sins of God's people) are really confessed in our meetings? In fact, is there not an unwillingness on our part to hear our sins spread out before the Lord? If, for example, our departures from the Word of God are owned, our setting aside the authority of Christ, our coldness, our unfaithfulness to the Lord and His truth, our want of separation-if these things are told out in our meetings for prayer, is there not often a manifest impatience, a feeling like that expressed in Malachi, "Wherein" have we done this or that? But we cannot too soon learn the lesson that the Lord will have reality; that, if we are blind to it, He sees our condition, and that until we are brought to own it, like Ezra in this scripture, He must from His very love to us deal with us in corrections and chastisements.
It should also be observed that Ezra does not once pray for forgiveness. No, with any intelligence of the mind of God, it was impossible that he should do so. When there is known evil in our hearts or in the assembly, our first responsibility is to judge it, not to pray for forgiveness. Thus, when Joshua lay on his face before the Lord, after the defeat of Israel by the men of Ai, the Lord said, "Get thee up; wherefore liest thou thus upon thy face? Israel hath sinned," etc.
And yet how often does Satan beguile the Lord's people, in a time of manifested evil, by suggesting through one or another, Let us pray about it. Confess our sins we surely should, but even then only as seeking grace and strength to deal with the evil, and to separate ourselves from it; for if Ezra lay before the Lord in this chapter owning his people's guilt, we shall see him in the next, energetic in dealing with the sin he had confessed, and not resting until it had been put away.