Even Now There Is Hope for Israel
Scripture: Ezra 9:1– 10:44
1 While Ezra prayed and made confession, weeping and casting himself down before the house of God, a very great assembly of men, women, and children, gathered to him out of Israel, for the people wept bitterly. 2 And Shecaniah the son of Jehiel, of the sons of Elam, addressed Ezra: “We have broken faith with our God and have married foreign women from the peoples of the land, but even now there is hope for Israel in spite of this. 3 Therefore let us make a covenant with our God to put away all these wives and their children, according to the counsel of my lord and of those who tremble at the commandment of our God, and let it be done according to the Law. 4 Arise, for it is your task, and we are with you; be strong and do it.” 5 Then Ezra arose and made the leading priests and Levites and all Israel take an oath that they would do as had been said. So they took the oath.
6 Then Ezra withdrew from before the house of God and went to the chamber of Jehohanan the son of Eliashib, where he spent the night, neither eating bread nor drinking water, for he was mourning over the faithlessness of the exiles. 7 And a proclamation was made throughout Judah and Jerusalem to all the returned exiles that they should assemble at Jerusalem, 8 and that if anyone did not come within three days, by order of the officials and the elders all his property should be forfeited, and he himself banned from the congregation of the exiles.
9 Then all the men of Judah and Benjamin assembled at Jerusalem within the three days. It was the ninth month, on the twentieth day of the month. And all the people sat in the open square before the house of God, trembling because of this matter and because of the heavy rain. 10 And Ezra the priest stood up and said to them, “You have broken faith and married foreign women, and so increased the guilt of Israel. 11 Now then make confession to the LORD, the God of your fathers and do his will. Separate yourselves from the peoples of the land and from the foreign wives.” 12 Then all the assembly answered with a loud voice, “It is so; we must do as you have said (Ezra 10:1-12).
I don’t know what you hoped you would be when you were young, what vocational path you thought you would take. But how many of you think you have arrived, that you have fulfilled all your plans? How many of you think you’ve made it? Most of us are probably still holding out hope, confident we’ll get there, believing we are at least moving in the right direction. But some of you may have lost all hope for your future.
I’m here to tell you that the promise of Jeremiah 29:11 is still true. God has a plan for you, and it is a great plan. God’s plan for your life is far greater than you have ever hoped for yourself. God has a purpose and plan for your future that is more amazing than you ever dared to dream for yourself. God’s plans for you, according to 2 Peter 1:4, is that you “become partakers of the divine nature.”
God’s plan for your future is that you would become in some way like God himself, that you would be holy as he is holy. This hope for our future depends on us pursuing this holiness, but the pursuit must be rooted in the mercy and grace of God. As we conclude our study of the book of Ezra this morning, let’s consider God’s hope for us to be holy. In these last two chapters, we confront the hindrance to holiness, the help for holiness, and the hope for holiness.
The Hindrance to Holiness
The last two chapters of the book of Ezra tell us about a sin problem among the people of Israel who have returned from their captivity in Babylon. Sin is the great hindrance to holiness. Indeed, it is an infinitely greater threat than anything that comes at us externally. The first two verses of chapter nine lay out the sin that was discovered.
After these things had been done, the officials approached me and said, “The people of Israel and the priests and the Levites have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands with their abominations, from the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and the Amorites. For they have taken some of their daughters to be wives for themselves and for their sons, so that the holy race has mixed itself with the peoples of the lands. And in this faithlessness the hand of the officials and chief men has been foremost (Ezra 9:1-2).
We can see that the sin is found somewhere in the fact that some of the returnees have taken spouses from among the pagan people around them. But often when we ask whether a particular action is a sin or not, the answer requires a deeper examination. That is certainly the case here.
Mixed-Race Marriages Are Not Inherently Sinful
It would be a huge mistake, for example, to use a text like this to argue that the Bible condemns all marriages that are between different races or ethnicities of people. I hope you do not read this text that way, but many people have and probably many still do. It wasn’t until 1967, barely fifty years ago, that the Supreme Court (Loving v. Virginia) struck down laws in sixteen states that prohibited interracial marriage. So I would not be surprised if seeds of doubt about the rightness of interracial marriage lingers in the minds of many American Christians.
This is what the church I grew up in taught. They used a passage like this one to say that since there was such a strong reaction to and great consequences from this episode of a “mixed marriage,” then the Bible is suggesting it is not “expedient” to marry someone from another race, ethnicity, or nationality. I’m guessing many of you were not taught that, but those seeds of doubt might make you wonder if, even though interracial marriage is not a “sin,” perhaps it ought to be avoided if at all possible. But we ought to see it altogether differently. Interracial marriage is not something that should be tolerated but something rather that should be celebrated. It is not something merely permissible for God’s people; it is something beautiful. One of the most celebrated marriages in the Bible is between a Jew named Boaz and a Moabite named Ruth, from whose union came king David and Jesus himself.
The Holy Race
What then is happening in a text like this? What is the sin? Later in chapter nine, in Ezra’s prayer, he points out that this kind of intermarriage is in direct defiance of God’s command. In verse 12, he cites from a passage like Deuteronomy 7:3, which expressly forbids intermarriage with the foreign people in the Promised Land. The same prohibition is found in Exodus 34:16. But in both those passages, the reason for the prohibition is quite clear. God’s people are not to intermarry with the people around them, “for they would turn away your sons from following me, to serve other gods” (Dt 7:4). The concern was clearly spiritual. And the same concern is found in the New Testament in the prohibition of Christians marrying non-Christians (2 Cor 6:14; 1 Cor 7:39). The sin here, as verse 2 makes it plain, is the compromising of the purity of “the holy race,” which, (do we really need to say it?), is none of the ethnicities or races of people on earth. None of us are righteous, none of us are holy, and none of us are more righteous or more holy than any other ethnicity or race.
As we saw last week, this “holy race” even in Ezra’s day no longer included every single ethnic Jew, but only those who returned from exile and thereby took the risk of faith in God’s covenant promises to them. The concern of this passage is with the purity of those who are counted among God’s people. Thus, a passage like this is not teaching us as Christians primarily about marriage but about the problem of sin for us who have said “yes” to God and are engaged to be his. Having been united to Christ, we belong to God. And it is because of this relationship of love that sin is a problem.
Sin, for the Christian, is an act of adultery. In Exodus 34:16, the warning that follows the prohibition against marrying the peoples of the lands is that they will cause one to “whore” after other gods. And the key term in these two chapters is the word faithlessness (Ezra 9:2, 4; 10:2, 6, 10). Sin, in whatever form, is, for the Christian, spiritual infidelity, and it is just as appalling and devastating as marital infidelity. It is an abomination. We cannot be careless about it; we must be vigilant against it. Unfortunately, our instincts are to recognize the sin in others far more quickly than we see it in ourselves. We are especially good at seeing it in non-Christians while tolerating it much more among ourselves. Ezra would have us be a bit more introspective and take sin a bit more seriously.
And this is particularly to be the case within and among God’s people today, the ones that Peter calls “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation” (1 Pet 2:9). Sin is a problem especially within and among the church, and together we must take this problem seriously.
Ezra was not among those who had sinned in this way, but once he hears about it, he doesn’t shrug it off as if it is of no concern to him. There are individual sinners here; their names are recorded and in the public record at the end of chapter 10. And in Ezra 9:2 we are told that “the officials and chief men” were among the most unfaithful in this particular sin. It is still a shock today, even if no longer surprising, when the grossest sins are discovered among the leaders of our churches and other Christian ministries.
So sin is still a problem in the church, and it is still a great concern. It should be a concern individually, but also corporately. But the story Ezra tells us here doesn’t just illustrate that discouraging reality, it tells us what we ought to do about it. It is because sin is a problem that prayer becomes a priority.
The Help for Holiness
That Ezra is appalled by the unfaithfulness of his people is evident from his response in verse 3. And this is in response to the sin of others, not a sin he himself committed! Christians today should take note that our carelessness toward the holiness of others may betray our indifference to or unbelief in the kingdom of God. How concerned are we for the holiness of our brothers and sisters? Do we see our own spiritual welfare as intertwined with theirs?
But it is his prayer in verses 6-15 that grabs our attention. As one commentator says, this prayer is “the theological heart of the entire narrative.” Ezra’s prayer is his plea for help in the pursuit of holiness, and it is for us today as well. Let’s take a closer look and notice, not just that Ezra prays because of the problem of sin, but how he prays, how he requests help.
The Shame of Sin
The first thing Ezra does is perhaps the most counter-intuitive: he accepts the shame and does not shift the blame.
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. From the days of our fathers to this day we have been in great guilt. And for our iniquities we, our kings, and our priests have been given into the hand of the kings of the lands, to the sword, to captivity, to plunder, and to utter shame, as it is today” (Ezra 9:6-7).
Sin is shameful, embarrassing. The prophet Jeremiah rebuked God’s people before the exile for not being ashamed of their abominations, for not knowing how to blush at their sin (Jer 6:15), but Ezra admits the shame freely, the shame of a sin he himself did not commit. But in accepting shame Ezra identifies himself with those who sinned rather than putting himself above them. It is as if their sin represents the sin of his own heart. This is a crucial step in dealing with the problem of sin. You and I will either run away from God, trying to rid ourselves of shame in our own way, making excuses for ourselves or deceiving ourselves into thinking that we are not like those people. Or, we will run to him in prayer, humbly accepting responsibility for it.
The Recognition of Mercy
In verses 8-9, Ezra moves on in his prayer to the recognition of God’s mercy. “But now for a brief moment favor has been shown by the Lord our God.” So far in our story, things have seemed to be moving along toward a glorious end for the returnees from exile. But here Ezra notes just how merciful God had been. They are still slaves, under the authority of the Persian government, and we’ve seen just how volatile that can be for them throughout the book of Ezra. But God had given them “a little reviving in our slavery.” God had fulfilled his promise in bringing the people back to the land seventy years after their temple had been destroyed. Even in the midst of the consequences of sin, Ezra has noticed the compassion which God had shown to his people. God had not forsaken them in their slavery but had extended to them “his steadfast love.” God is doing everything he can do give them hope. His heart is for their welfare.
Do you see the mercy of God? How do you see it? Do you think of God’s mercy as if he is a God of wrath who finally relents when you beg for mercy? Or do you see that God is, as one Puritan once put it, “more tender of you than you are, or can be, of yourself”? If you do, then shame will drive you toward the God of mercy, never away from him.
The Righteous Justice of God
But then, in verses 10-15, Ezra’s prayer directs us still to where we usually are not willing to go, to affirming the righteous justice of God. He recalls God’s command that the people have violated in verses 11-12. And then he says, beginning in verse 13,
And after all that has come upon us for our evil deeds and for our great guilt, seeing that you, our God, have punished us less than our iniquities deserved and have given us such a remnant as this, shall we break your commandments again and intermarry with the peoples who practice these abominations? Would you not be angry with us until you consumed us, so that there should be no remnant, nor any to escape? (Ezra 9:13-14)
So what will happen if we sin, and God shows us mercy, and then we just keep presuming on that mercy and keep on sinning? How will this all end? If the mercy of God does not lead to holiness in his people but only to the multiplication of even more sin, will this end well for us? Ezra doesn’t think so.
This is why the author of Hebrews warns Christians that “if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries” (Heb 10:26-27). In other words, if we who have seen that salvation from sin, the rescue from our rebellion, is rooted and grounded only in the grace and mercy of God, then what will happen to us if we rebel against God’s grace and mercy? The answer is obvious, and “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” (Heb 10:31).
Ezra’s prayer ends in verse 15 without any request for pardon. He’s left with nothing—no excuse and seemingly no hope for rescue in light of how far God’s people have gone away from the ray of God’s mercy to them. Ezra’s prayer ends without any word of hope, but that is precisely where hope is found.
The Hope for Holiness
As we turn to chapter ten, we find the hope for holiness. A solution is proposed to the problem faced in chapter nine. While Ezra was praying and confessing and lamenting, “Shecaniah the son of Jehiel, of the sons of Elam, addressed Ezra: ‘We have broken faith with our God and have married foreign women from the peoples of the land, but even now there is hope for Israel in spite of this’” (Ezra 10:2).
How Is There Hope?
We don’t know much about this man named Shecaniah; the Bible speaks of probably six different individuals with this same name. What matters is what this man did. He recognized the hope that there still was for Israel in spite of their great sin and went into action. But how did he know there was still hope, “even now,” in spite of this great sin? On what could he ground this hope?
We might be tempted to see, from what Shechaniah suggests in verse 3, that the hope was found in acts of repentance. If Israel will repent, then there is hope. But our biblical instincts should not be satisfied with that answer. If Israel’s sin here is as bad as we have suggested, then hope cannot be grounded in Israel turning from that sin. We can go back to our key verse in this second plot, Ezra 8:22, and the principle stated there. “The hand of our God is for good on all who seek him, and the power of his wrath is against all who forsake him.” Israel’s hope in the midst of their great sin can only be rooted in one thing, namely, a God who punishes “less than our iniquities” deserve (Ezra 9:13).
Israel’s hope is entirely based on a God of mercy, a God of grace. How can there be hope when sin increases? The answer is found in the grace of God which increases even more (Rom 5:20). The hope we have for holiness is still the mercy and grace of God which flow naturally from his character and never run out. If you want his mercy, if you need his grace, then come to him and you will have it every single time.
So Now What?
If there is still hope, then what should we do? It’s an appropriate question, but only after we grasp the hope that is found in a holy God of grace. Otherwise, our actions will be grounded in a hopeless confidence in our own selves.
You see, the hope that is found in Israel’s God ought to lead us to acts of repentance. That’s what verse three demonstrates. There is still hope, “Therefore let us make a covenant with our God to put away all these wives and their children, according to the counsel of my lord and of those who tremble at the commandment of our God, and let it be done according to the Law.” What Shechaniah proposes is straightforward. Because God is gracious, he reasons, let us not go on sinning. That would be absurd (Rom 6:1-2)! The abundance of grace does not legitimize the continuation of sin; the abundance of grace is the power that puts sin to death and to lay hold on hope. So, because God is gracious, let’s do something about this sin. Let’s get to work, empowered by the mercy and grace of God.
Shechaniah proposes a solution, which is, essentially, to require that those who have married pagan wives to divorce them and separate from them and their children. But the solution is not without difficulty and it raises many questions on its own. After all, God has made his opinion on divorce quite clear in his law: he hates it. The solution Shechaniah proposes appears to be, on the face of it, contradictory to the law of God. But Shechaniah does not want this, as the end of verse 3 shows. He encourages a repentance that brings the people in line with God’s ways not further away from it.
The Moral Dilemma
This is why he appeals to Ezra, who has already been substantiated as a man of character and a student of God’s Word. “For Ezra had set his heart to study the Law of the Lord, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel” (Ezra 7:10). So Shechaniah urges Ezra to do just that. “Arise, for it is your task,” he says in verse 4, “and we are with you; be strong and do it.” I love that! Imagine a church that says to its pastor-teachers, “Teach us the Word of God. Give us the truth straight and unfiltered. And we will submit to that truth. We will obey it, no matter how challenging it is, no matter how entangled with sin the truth reveals we still are.” What great hope for holiness there would be for such a church!
Indeed, sin brings us into an entangled web of moral dilemmas. That’s how destructive it can be. And our instincts in dealing with sin often take us further away from God’s ways. Convicted of showing hostility instead of the love of Christ to the LGBTQ community, we reason that we must now be more accepting or affirming of their argument. Or, seeing how important holiness is, we conclude that we must separate from such people altogether lest we be swept up into their unbiblical agenda.
You and I still need the wisdom of the word of God to show us the way of grace that leads to true holiness. The Word of God possesses this wisdom, but we will need to know our Bibles, to know how to read our Bibles, and be far more suspicious of our natural instincts.
Verses 9-17 bring the story of Ezra to a close. It took about 75 days to go through each case of intermarriage and sort things out, showing the time it took to think deeply and biblically about the matter before them and how enmeshed in sin and its consequences the people were.
This is the work that God, by his grace, continues to do among us through the council of his Word proclaimed to us week by week, day by day. Indeed, this is itself an evidence of God’s grace among us, as he brings to completion the work of holiness he has begun in us.
So do not resist it. Do not run from it. Even now there is hope for us no matter what sin remains in our hearts.
 John Piper argues cogently for the positive good of interracial marriage in chapter 15 of his Bloodlines: Race, Cross, and the Christian (Crossway Books, 2011).
 A. Philip Brown, Hope Amidst Ruin: A Literary and Theological Analysis of Ezra (Greenville, S.C: Bob Jones University Press, 2009), 217.
 John Flavel, Keeping the Heart: How to Maintain Your Love for God (Fearn, Scotland: Christian Heritage, 2012), 57, cited in Dane Ortlund, Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020), 133.