Posted: 08 Jan 2011 11:00 PM PST
IT MAY BE DIFFICULT FOR SOME CHRISTIANS, immersed in the heritage of individualism and influenced by postmodern relativism, to find much sympathy for Ezra and his prayer (Ezra 9). A hundred or so of the returned Israelites, out of a population that by this time would have been at least fifty or sixty thousand, have married pagan women from the surrounding tribes. Ezra treats this as an unmitigated disaster and weeps before the Lord as if really grievous harm has been done. Has religion descended to the level where it tells its adherents whom they may marry? Moreover, the aftermath of this prayer (on which we shall reflect tomorrow) is pretty heartless, isn't it?
In reality, Ezra's prayer discloses a man who has thought long and hard about Israel's history.
First, he understands what brought about the exile, the formal destruction of the nation, the scattering of the people. It was nothing other than the sins of the people—and terribly often these sins had been fostered by links, not least marital links, between the people of the covenant and the surrounding tribes. "Because of our sins, we and our kings and our priests have been subjected to the sword and captivity, to pillage and humiliation at the hand of foreign kings, as it is today" (Ezra 9:7).
Second, he understands that if this community has been permitted to return to Judah, it is because "for a brief moment, the LORD our God has been gracious in leaving us a remnant and giving us a firm place in his sanctuary, and so our God gives light to our eyes and a little relief in our bondage" (Ezra 9:8).
Third, he understands that in the light of the first two points, and in the light of Scripture's explicit prohibition against intermarriage, what has taken place is not only singular ingratitude but concrete defiance of the God who has come to Israel's relief not only in the Exodus but also in the exile.
Fourth, he understands the complex, corrosive, corporate nature of sin. Like Isaiah before him (Isa. 6:5), Ezra aligns himself with the people in their sin (Ezra 9:6). He grasps the stubborn fact that these are not individual failures and nothing more; these are means by which raw paganism, and finally the relativizing of Almighty God, are smuggled into the entire community through the back door. How could such marriages, even among some priests, have been arranged unless many, many others had given their approval, or at least winked at the exercise? Above all, Ezra understands that the sins of the people of God are far worse than the punishment they have received (Ezra 9:13–15).
How should these lines of thought shape our thinking about the sins of the people of God today?
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