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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible
Ezra 9

 

 

Verses 1-4

The Problem Of Foreign Wives Is Brought To Ezra’s Attention (Ezra 9:1-4).

It is noteworthy that the problem in question was drawn to Ezra’s attention by some of the ‘princes’ of Israel. This suggests that something had made them become concerned about a situation that they were well aware of. And this must surely have been the Law of God as expounded by Ezra. Ezra had begun his work of teaching the Law, and dealing with law-breaking, and in the course of time he would deal with the very question that was raised, especially as he was probably aware of a little of what was going on. But seemingly he did not want to meet the people head on over such a large issue until at least some concern was expressed. Rather he dealt with it by reading aloud and expounding the Law of God on the subject, leaving that to work on their hearts. Indeed, Ezra 10:3 suggests that it had been a matter of concern among those who were faithful to the Law ‘and trembled at it’ to such an extent that they now came up with a solution of how it could be dealt with. So we must see what follows as the people’s response to the teaching of the Law.

Ezra 9:1

‘Now when these things were done, the princes drew near to me, saying, “The people of Israel, and the priests and the Levites, have not separated themselves from the peoples 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.”

‘Now when these things were done.’ This is a vague time note simply demonstrating that it occurred some time after the arrival of Ezra and his party, once their celebrations were over, and once he had carried out the king’s initial requests. ‘These things’ included the furthering of the people and the house of God which would involve a lot of his time. Initially proclaiming the Law around the area, and setting up a system of judges would also necessarily take some time, and the period was broken up by the Feast of Trumpets on the 1st day of the seventh month, the Day of Atonement on the 10th day of the seventh month and the Feast of Tabernacles on the 15th day of the seventh month for eight days, during which time the Law would be read out to the people (Deuteronomy 31:10-13). For an example of this later on after the arrival of Nehemiah see Nehemiah 8. This would explain why things only came to a head in ‘the ninth month’ (Ezra 10:9) whereas the Ezra party had arrived in the fifth month (Ezra 7:9). But it does serve to bring out the impact that Ezra’s ministry was having. It may well have been the reading of the Law at the Feast of Tabernacles in the seventh month, together with exposition by Ezra, that made certain of the leaders finally come together and decide to approach Ezra in this way. It was no light thing to do.

Some of the ‘princes’, (heads of fathers’ houses, rulers of districts, and no doubt some of the recently appointed judges), came as a deputation to Ezra and pointed out that men out of all Israel, (the people, the priests and the Levites), were all guilty of practising idolatry and the evils of Canaanite religion. Their words clearly reflect a knowledge of the Law which had probably been emphasised by Ezra. The reference to the Canaanite, Hittites, Perizzites, Jebusites and the Amorites can be instanced again and again (e.g. Exodus 3:8; Exodus 3:17; Exodus 23:23; Exodus 34:11; Exodus 34:16; Deuteronomy 7:1-4; Deuteronomy 20:7). Exodus 34:11; Exodus 34:16 and Deuteronomy 7:1-4 are particularly apposite as they refer to the dangers inherent in marriage with these peoples with their debased religions. It is interesting that the Hivites are omitted. This last may suggest that descendants of the other nations could still be identified (whether correctly or not) in the land and its surrounding area. But all who were involved in the worship of Baal among the peoples of the land may well have been seen as ‘Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites and Jebusites’. Compare for this the clauses that follow ‘the peoples of the lands’. The peoples from north of Israel, or the wandering Arabs to the east, may well have been seen as Amorites. The reference to the Egyptians may have been derived from Leviticus 18:3, where the ‘doings of the land of Egypt’ were compared with the ‘doings of the land of Canaan’. The Ammonites and the Moabites were the source of the worship of Molech which was such an abomination to the prophets and such a curse to Israel, and was probably still being carried on in the land, which was probably one reason why, apart from their lack of hospitality, they were excluded from membership of the assembly of Israel for ten generations even though they should convert to Yahwism (Deuteronomy 23:3-6). But the impression of the whole is not that it says that it was all right to marry among peoples not named regardless of their religious attitude, but rather to condemn any marriage with people involved in idolatry, and that could include syncretistic Yahwists.

That God had been right to legislate in this way comes out in that, even after the warnings of the prophets and what had happened to Jerusalem in living memory, Israel were still marrying such people and being led astray by their ‘abominations’, that is by their idols and their false religious ideas. We must remember that of the poor who had been left in the land probably the large majority had continued in these ways, and as we have suggested the returnees might well have seen them with their idolatrous practises as reflecting the nations named. It would have been just as wrong to marry a practising syncretistic Yahwist as to marry into these peoples.

Ezra 9:2

“For they have taken of their daughters for themselves and for their sons, so that the holy seed have mingled themselves with the peoples of the lands, yes, the hand of the princes and rulers has been chief in this trespass.”

The ‘princes’ pointed out that the main culprits had been the aristocracy who should have been preventing it happening. And they saw their activities as causing ‘the holy seed’ of the returnees and those who had united with them to become mingled with ‘the peoples of the land’, by allowing the aristocrats and the other men of the new Israel to intermarry with idolaters. We can compare Paul’s injunction in 1 Corinthians 6:15-17, where he condemns true Christians who have consorted with prostitutes, religious and otherwise, because by doing so they have become one with them. We should note that this reference to ‘the holy seed’ is in the words of the officials, and is probably citing Isaiah 6:13. They are not the words of Ezra. But it does demonstrate that they saw themselves as the holy remnant of Israel, and as such needing to be religiously pure.

It is not justifiable in context to take seed literally as seed that is implanted, and then to build theories on that basis. The contrast is not with other seed or with soil but with people, as in Isaiah 6:13. Thus the holy seed must signify the holy people. This is such a common use of seed in the Old Testament e.g. Genesis 3:15; Genesis 4:25; Genesis 12:7; Genesis 13:15; and often, that it scarcely needs to be demonstrated.

Once again we must reiterate that at the heart of what happened was a hatred of idolatry and sexual perversion, rather than an attack on races. People of all such nations could eventually have been absorbed into Israel (and had been in the past) if they had truly turned to YHWH. It is, however, certainly a warning to us not to be ‘unequally yoked together with unbelievers’ (2 Corinthians 6:14), because that is to mix light with darkness.

Ezra 9:3

‘And when I heard this thing, I tore my garment and my robe, and plucked off the hair of my head and of my beard, and sat down desolated.’

Ezra’s response was immediate. This does not necessarily indicate that he had been unaware in general of what was happening, but it does demonstrate that he wanted the people to realise how seriously he treated the matter. He tore his clothes, plucked hair from his head and his beard, and ‘sat down desolated’. These were deliberate signs of distress and anger (compare Nehemiah 13:25). They not only depicted sorrow, but judgment.

Ezra 9:4

‘Then were assembled to me every one who trembled at the words of the God of Israel, because of the gross dereliction of duty of those of the captivity, and I sat desolated until the evening oblation.’

Then those who trembled at the words of the God of Israel, that is the truly God-fearing, who, of course, had not taken foreign idolatrous wives, gathered to him to support him because of the gross dereliction of duty, the grievous sin, of ‘those of the captivity’ (those who had returned with Zerubbabel) who had become involved with idolatry. Ezra was clearly now in the Temple area but in a place where people could come to him, that is, in the court around the Temple. And he sat there in his anger and anguish until the time for offering the regular evening sacrifice, at around 3:00 in the afternoon.


Verses 1-44

Ezra Deals With The Problem Of Returnees Who Have Been Led Astray Into Idolatry Having Taken Foreign Wives (Ezra 9:1 to Ezra 10:44).

It is important here to recognise that what was in question was not the taking of foreign wives who willingly turned away from all false gods and became worshippers of YHWH, but the problem of taking foreign wives who introduced their false gods and ideas into the worship of Israel. This is specifically brought out in Ezra 9:1-2; Ezra 9:11-12. It was as a consequence of such false worship that God’s judgment had come on Judah and Jerusalem previously, and there was a grave danger that it could occur again. It was this recognition, and not racism, that made Ezra act as he did. We note here that Ezra’s reference to himself in the first person continues. We are still within the sphere of his own memoirs. His decision here was vital to Israel’s future.

It is understandable why some of the returnees should seek wives among the local population because the numbers given in Ezra 2 suggested that many of them were unmarried. But what they should have ensured was that those wives abjured idolatry and became true Yahwists. It was the failure to observe this rule, by taking wives still involved in idolatry, that led to the problem

What is now described in Ezra 9:1 to Ezra 10:6 all took place in the Temple on the same day, and Ezra 10:7 onwards then explains the steps that were taken afterwards to deal with the situation. It may be summarised as follows:

· The princes report to Ezra in the Temple area on the taking of foreign wives involved in idolatry by the aristocracy and the people, thus introducing pollution among God’s people (Ezra 9:1-2).

· Ezra expresses his anger and grief and sorrow by his actions, and sits there in utter desolation, while around him gather those in Israel who tremble at God’s word (Ezra 9:3-4).

· At the time of the evening sacrifice Ezra prays and acknowledges the sin of the people against God in the face of His mercy (Ezra 9:5-15).

· A great crowd gather around Ezra joining with him in his grief (Ezra 10:1).

· Shecaniah confesses to Ezra that the people have sinned and suggests that they gather and make a covenant with God to put away their idolatrous foreign wives, calling on Ezra to arise and act (Ezra 10:2-4).

· Ezra arises and makes the priests, the Levites and all Israel swear that they will do what had been suggested (Ezra 10:5).

· Ezra retires to one of the side chambers and begins a time of fasting and prayer (Ezra 10:6).

· Proclamation is made throughout Judah and Jerusalem to all the returnees that within three days they must gather in Jerusalem on pain of forfeit of their property (Ezra 10:7-8).

· All the returnees gather on the twentieth day of the ninth month in the open area around the Temple, in pouring rain, in great concern over the matter (Ezra 10:9).

· Ezra points out firmly that they have sinned in the matter of marriage to idolatrous foreign women, bringing guilt on Israel, and calls on them to make confession and separate themselves from the peoples of the land and from the foreign women (Ezra 10:10-11).

· The people consent but point out that there are a large number of people involved and the rain is so heavy that they cannot stand out in it, and that besides this it is a matter which will take a few days (Ezra 10:12-13).

· They suggest that their princes be appointed to deal with the matter, and that there should be brought before them out of the cities at different appointed times all those who had married foreign women, accompanied by their elders and judges (Ezra 10:14).

· A few stand up and oppose the suggestion, but are overridden, with the result that the people do what is suggested (Ezra 10:15-16 a).

· Ezra and the heads of fathers’ houses spend three months examining the cases as suggested by which time all the cases have been dealt with (Ezra 10:16-17).

· A list is given of the priests, Levites, singers, gate-keepers and all of Israel who have been involved with idolatrous foreign women, and they give their word to put away their wives and offer suitable sacrifices (Ezra 10:18-44).


Verses 5-15

Ezra’s Admission Of Israel’s Guilt Before YHWH On Behalf Of The People (Ezra 9:5-15).

When the time of the evening sacrifice came, no doubt feeling that this act of atonement and dedication on the behalf of the whole of Israel was a suitable time , Ezra then rose from his sitting position and fell on his knees with his arms spread out towards YHWH. This presumably indicated spreading out his hands towards the sanctuary. And then he confessed before YHWH the sin of the people in the face of God’s gracious love towards them.

It was a prayer that suited the particular occasion only, not of a kind for general use, and is totally an admission of guilt. He does not even ask for mercy. He just leaves what response God will make in the hands of God. His prayer may in fact have been longer, but the gist of it is given here, for it is not only a prayer admitting guilt but is also an attempt to lead the people into similarly admitting their guilt, and that involved awakening their thoughts to the truth of the situation. He wants them to see the stark reality of what they have done>

Ezra 9:5

‘And at the evening oblation I rose up from my humiliation, even with my garment and my robe torn, and I fell on my knees, and spread out my hands to YHWH my God,’

He had been sitting there with his garment and robe torn (Ezra 9:3), in a condition that demonstrated his humiliation, and it was in that condition that at the time of the daily evening sacrifice, he rose up and fell on his knees before God with his arms outstretched towards the Temple.

Ezra 9:6

‘And I said, “O my God, I am ashamed and blush to lift up my face to you, my God, for our iniquities are increased over our head, and our guiltiness is grown up to the heavens.”

Praying on behalf of the people he admitted to God the shame that ‘he’ felt concerning what ‘they all together’ had done. (‘I am ashamed --- our iniquities’). He was so ashamed that he himself blushed at the thought of lifting up his face towards God. And this was because the sins of the new Israel, (in which he included himself), had grown and increased over their heads and their guilt had grown even up to the heavens. ‘Increased over our head’ probably indicates that they had got so big that they could not be contained within themselves but multiplied over their heads before God.

Ezra accepted communal responsibility. If Israel had sinned then he had sinned. He had not taken an idolatrous foreign wife but he shared guilt with those who had because he shared responsibility for what happened in the community. This was not just an ancient belief, there was logic to it, for the community should have done something to prevent it happening.

Ezra 9:7

“Since the days of our fathers we have been exceeding guilty to this day, and for our iniquities have we, our kings, and our priests, been delivered into the hand of the kings of the lands, to the sword, to captivity, and to plunder, and to confusion of face, as it is this day.”

By continuing in the sins of their (pre-exilic) fathers they shared their guilt, and they also shared in what had historically happened to them. It was that that was the cause of their present condition. For it was due to ‘our’ iniquities that they (Israel and its anointed ones, kings and priests) had been delivered into the hands of the kings of the lands, suffering the sword, captivity, plunder and total embarrassment right up to this day. These were the sore judgments described in Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28, the curses on those who broke the covenant, which Israel had suffered again and again through history, as the book of Kings reveals. And they were still suffering under them to some extent. The sword and plunder were a common hazard at the hands of their adversaries and of lawless bands.

This must not be interpreted as signifying that they must necessarily continue to suffer for the sins of their fathers, for the very idea behind the putting away of idolatrous foreign wives was in order to ensure God’s continuing favour. Corporate responsibility did not mean that there was no way out. If they repented they would not suffer for the sins of their fathers.

‘The kings of the lands.’ This may refer to the kings of the great empires, Assyria, Babylon, Persia. Nehemiah 9:32 speaks of ‘from the time when the kings of Assyria oppressed us to this day’. But Ezra may have had in mind all oppressing kings.

Ezra 9:8

“And now for a little moment grace has been shown from YHWH our God, to leave us a remnant to escape, 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.”

But while they were still not truly free and were still in bondage to the Persian empire, God ‘for a little moment’ had shown them His unmerited favour and love (grace) in giving them a remnant who had escaped from exile, and were firmly established in His holy place, where God could enlighten their eyes and give them a little reviving of life even though they were in bondage. His ‘for a little moment’ contained within it the hint that it might not carry on unless they truly repented.

The remnant here is not simply those who survive disaster, as the word indicated when they were in the land, but has in mind specifically those who have returned to the land as a remnant of His people. He sees the people who have returned as very much the true Israel.

‘To give us a nail (or ‘tent peg’).’ This may indicate that God has firmly encamped them in his holy place so that they are ‘tent-pegged’ there (compare Isaiah 54:2), or that He has given them a nail as a means of support by providing them with reliable leaders (compare Isaiah 22:23). ‘His holy place’ may be the Temple, or Jerusalem, or even His land. In Psalms 24:3 it indicates the Temple and it surrounds. In Psalms 46:4 it indicates the city of God.

‘May lighten our eyes.’ Compare 1 Samuel 14:27, ‘he (Jonathan) dipped his rod in the honeycomb and put it to his mouth and his eyes were enlightened’. It describes the effect of good food for someone who is very hungry. Metaphorically therefore it signifies being revivified in spirit

Ezra 9:9

“For we are bondmen; yet our God has not forsaken us in our bondage, but has extended covenant love to 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 its ruins, and to give us a wall in Judah and in Jerusalem.”

Yet he recognised that they were still bondmen. He was under no grand illusions. Nevertheless God had shown His unmerited favour in that He had not forsaken them in their bondage, but had revealed His covenant love towards them, either in a way that could be observed by the kings of Persia, or by causing the kings of Persia to look favourably on them. And the consequence was that He (or they) had given them a reviving of life through the Law, through the setting up of the house of God, and the repairing of its ruins, and to ‘give them a wall in Judah and Jerusalem’. This last probably signified either the protection of the Persian empire, or the protection of God Himself as a consequence of His presence in the Temple among His people, rather than literal walls. The word for ‘walls’ is not the usual one for the walls of a city, but rather refers to fences round vineyards. Thus it indicates that Judah and Jerusalem are God’s vineyard under God’s protection. ‘A wall in Judah and Jerusalem’ would be a strange way to refer to the walls of Jerusalem.

Ezra 9:10-11

“And now, O our God, what shall we say after this? For we have forsaken your commandments, which you have commanded by your servants the prophets, saying, ‘The land, to which you go to possess it, is an unclean land through the uncleanness of the peoples of the lands, through their abominations, which have filled it from one end to another with their filthiness, now therefore do not give your daughters to their sons, nor take their daughters to your sons, nor seek their peace or their prosperity for ever, that you may be strong, and eat the good of the land, and leave it for an inheritance to your children for ever.’ ”

But now his question is, what is he to say ‘after this’, that is after God has demonstrated His unmerited favour in this way? For unbelievably, after His goodness to them, they have done the very thing that their forefathers had done. They have allowed among them the very abominations (idols) that God had commanded them to cast out. Thus they had forsaken His commandments by allowing idols to enter into the very houses of His own people, His remnant who have returned to the land. They are turning it again into an unclean land as a result of these uncleannesses which have their source in the peoples of the land, and this in spite of God having forbidden them to take daughters from those peoples for themselves. Only by not taking these daughters will they be strong and eat the good of the land.

The citation is put together from a number of references in the Law and the prophets, e.g. Deuteronomy 7:1-3 - ‘the land to which you go to possess it --.’; Joshua 22:19 - ‘if the land of your possession be unclean --’ (referring to a land which does not have in it the dwellingplace of YHWH); Leviticus 18:24-27 - ‘the nations are defiled which I cast out from before you, and the land is defiled -- for all these abominations have the men of the land done who were before you and the land is defiled --’; 2 Kings 21:16 - ‘Manasseh shed innocent blood -- until he had filled Jerusalem from one end to the other --’; Deuteronomy 7:3 - ‘you shall not give his daughter to your son, nor will you take his daughter to your son --; Exodus 34:16 - ‘And you take of their daughters to your sons, and their daughters go a whoring after their gods, and make your sons go a whoring after their gods --’ ; Deuteronomy 23:6 - you shall not seek their peace or their prosperity for ever --’; Isaiah 1:19 - ‘if you are willing and obedient you shall eat the good of the land --’; see also Deuteronomy 11:8.

‘By your servants the prophets.’ Moses was seen as a supreme prophet (Deuteronomy 18:15; Deuteronomy 34:10). Compare also ‘his servants the prophets’ in 2 Kings 21:10. See also Jeremiah 7:25, and often.

Ezra 9:13-14

“And after all that is come upon us for our evil deeds, and for our great guilt, seeing that you our God have punished us less than our iniquities deserve, and have given us such a remnant, shall we again break your commandments, and join in affinity with the peoples who do these abominations? Would you not be angry with us until you had consumed us, so that there should be no remnant, nor any to escape?”

Ezra then drew out before God the awfulness of what they were doing. He asked God whether, in view of the fact that He had punished them less than they deserved, after all that had come on them as a result of their evil behaviour and their great guiltiness, and had given them a remnant who had returned from exile, did He really think that they would again break His commandments and join in affinity with the very peoples who did these abominations? Surely it seemed impossible. Indeed would it not mean that He would be angry with them and consume them, so that as a consequence there would be no remnant, nor anyone to escape?

In other words he recognised that the people’s guilt was so great in doing what they had done, that really they could not hope for mercy any more. Having been given a second chance by deliverance, they had failed to take it. How could they then expect anything but the severest of judgment?

Ezra 9:15

“O YHWH, the God of Israel, you are righteous, for we are left a remnant who have escaped, as it is this day. Behold, we are before you in our guiltiness; for none can stand before you because of this.”

Ezra does not pray for mercy. He does not ask forgiveness. He instead reminds YHWH that He is the Righteous One. In one sense that leaves them without hope because it means that He will judge righteously as He did with Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:25). But in another sense it means that He can bring to them His righteousness (Isaiah 46:13), so that in experiencing deliverance they can say, ‘Glory to the Righteous One’ (Isaiah 24:16). And it is this that Ezra is hoping for but dared not ask for.

He reminds YHWH that they are left as the remnant who have escaped as a consequence of His goodness, but immediately admits that that does not mean automatic pardon. He admits that they stand before Him in their guiltiness, something which means that none of them can stand before Him.

So his cry for mercy and pardon is unspoken and he recognises that that will all depend on God’s compassion as the One Who has chosen His remnant.

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Ezra 9:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/ezra-9.html. 2013.

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