Divorce for the Glory of God

a sermon on Ezra 9 & 10 preached at Grace Anglican Church

The neat thing about going through a book chapter by chapter and verse by verse is that we’re not allowed to skip over those strange and difficult stories that we don’t really want to hear.  The last two chapters of the book of Ezra contain one such story: the story of a mass divorce for the glory of God.  Rather than shrink away and let our preaching series through this book end with the happy story of Ezra restoring the place of the Law among God’s people, we’re going to tackle this somewhat horrifying story head-on.  And when we come out at the other side of this, I hope we’ll have a renewed appreciation for just how radical is the Christian life of holy discipleship!  Brace yourselves.

The Problem (9:1-2)

As we get into this story at the end of the book of Ezra, chapters 9 and 10, let me remind you of who Ezra was and what he was up to.  He was a skilled and well-trained priest and scribe, so devoted to studying the Word of God, living it out, and teaching it, that he came to be known among the Jews as a second Moses.  He gathered up a fresh group of exiles in Persia and led them on the thousand-mile-long journey back to Jerusalem to join the people who had already gathered there and rebuilt the Temple.  He was commissioned by the King of Persia to make sure the Law of Moses was being adhered to, and to execute justice where necessary.

Well, only five months after his arrival in Jerusalem, Ezra’s teaching began to bear fruit.  People were listening to him and actually learning God’s word, for as chapter 9 opens, “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.”  These aren’t the fresh wave of pious newcomers, this is the establishment, the people who had been living in Jerusalem for roughly 60 years since they’d begun to rebuild.  Hearts were beginning to change, and they began to recognize the sin in which they were living.  Specifically, verses 1 and 2 explain that they’ve been intermarrying with “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.”  No doubt they had caught on from Ezra’s teaching of the Law that this was not allowed.  Both the book of Exodus and the book of Deuteronomy explicitly forbid it.  Even the list of local pagan peoples is nearly identical; here’s what is written in Exodus 34:11-16.

Observe what I command you this day. Behold, I will drive out before you the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. Take care, lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land to which you go, lest it become a snare in your midst. You shall tear down their altars and break their pillars and cut down their Asherim (for you shall worship no other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God), lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, and when they whore after their gods and sacrifice to their gods and you are invited, you eat of his sacrifice, and you take of their daughters for your sons, and their daughters whore after their gods and make your sons whore after their gods.

The Confession (9:3-15)

Ezra’s response to this news is intense: he pulls out his hair, rips his cloak, and collapses to the ground in horror.  He does not rebuke them; he listens to their confession and keeps silent for the rest of the day.  When it’s time for the evening sacrifice, though, he gets on his knees before God and prays a prayer of confession, just like how Evening Prayer starts in our own tradition today.

In verses 6 through 15 Ezra engages in what’s called identificational repentance.  He is not guilty of the sin of intermarriage, but as he is of the same people as those who did sin, he prays in the first person plural – “we have sinned.”  There are several examples of this in the Bible, and our prayers of confession in Christian liturgies do the same thing.  God’s people are a united whole; we are one Body in Christ.  Even Jesus, who literally had no sin of his own at all to confess, became our great high priest and bore our sins on the Cross.  As Isaiah (53:12) prophesied, he was “numbered among the transgressors.”  That’s what Ezra is doing here.  Now, sometimes we talk about corporate repentance “as a nation,” as if the people of one country can or should do the same thing.  There is something to it, I think; as we Americans are part of one society and culture which commits great atrocities.  But it isn’t clear in the Bible to what extent this concept of identificational repentance applies to secular nations – all the examples in the Bible that I know of have to do with God’s people, which today means The Church, not any earthly country.

Anyway, Ezra’s prayer begins way back in the history of God’s people, noting the unfaithfulness of Israel to the Law of Moses for the past several centuries.  He then works his way up to his own day, acknowledging that they are still not a free people – even though Judea is granted excellent religious freedom, they’re still a vassal of the Persian Empire.  When he names the sin of intermarriage with pagans, he alludes to other Prophets such as Moses (in Exodus and Deuteronomy) and Malachi in chapter 2.

Another thing that’s striking about this prayer is how it ends.  We, in the New Covenant, know that the forgiveness of sins is promised to all who heartily repent and with true faith turn to God.  Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross is greater than any mountain of sin.  But Ezra, living before Christ, does not have quite the same confidence of the Christian, and so in this extreme case he does not include any actual requests for forgiveness.  Normally, Old Testament confession prayers do include a plea for forgiveness and restoration, but this is a rare case that does not.  Ezra recognizes that God doesn’t have to forgive them, and would be completely just in letting them all be conquered and wiped out.  God could still be faithful to His promises by raising up more Jews scattered among the nations and starting over with another, more faithful, remnant.  You will hardly find a better picture of humility, folks.  Ezra’s tacit admission that he and his whole community of faith are unnecessary to God is the ultimate in self-abasement.

And it is in that place of total humility and lowliness where God just loves to meet his people, and exalt them to new heights of love and restoration.  But first, let’s see what the people who are actually guilty of this pagan intermarriage do in response to their confession and Ezra’s prayer.

The Repentance (10:1-8)

Psalm 141:5 says “Let a righteous man strike me—it is a kindness; let him rebuke me—it is oil for my head; let my head not refuse it.”  This is what the people realize.  When Ezra makes his prayer, as the beginning of chapter 10 describes, a large crowd gathers to him, and an official named Shechania speaks for them.  “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.  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.  Arise, for it is your task, and we are with you; be strong and do it.”  Remember that Ezra was commissioned by King Artaxerxes to execute justice in Judea?  Boy, is he in for it now!  The people have taken the initiative; they want to repent, and they know that in this situation repentance from such a drastic sin will take drastic measures.  They realize that if marrying pagans was a sin, then the only way to repent from that sin was to get divorced.

It’s very important to note how the people constantly take initiative here.  They listen to Ezra expounding the word of God, and they are convicted of sin in their own hearts.  Ezra leads them in prayer and confession, and then they realize what the discipline should be for their restoration.  In verse 5, Ezra makes them promise to do as they’ve said they must.  In verse 6 he withdraws for more prayer and fasting, and in verses 7-8 the proclamation to assemble and sort out this sin is described in the plural.  At no point in this process did Ezra take unilateral action.  This was no hellfire preacher calling people out for their sins and coercing them to change; this was a simple preacher of God’s word working with sinners who have realized their fallen estate and seen the light of the way out.  That doesn’t mean Ezra was soft, though.  The sin of the people was very grave indeed, and he made sure that they didn’t chicken out from their promises, which is why in verse 8 it says that property would be confiscated from anyone guilty who did not show up to the big meeting.

It was a dark and stormy night.  Well, actually it was daytime; but it was a dark and stormy and cold December day, and a huge crowd had gathered in Jerusalem.  Verse 9’s description is quite vivid: “all the people sat in the open square before the house of God, trembling because of this matter and because of the heavy rain.”  Ezra stands before them and lays out the guilty verdict: “You have broken faith and married foreign women, and so increased the guilt of Israel.”  Then he lays the sentence for their crime: “Separate yourselves from the peoples of the land and from the foreign wives. And the humble and penitent sinners respond “It is so; we must do as you have said.

We listen to this now, and we shudder.  Isn’t this a little extreme?  First, remember that divorce was legal under certain conditions back then.  Deuteronomy 24:1 permits a husband to divorce to his wife “if she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her”.  An unclean Gentile who does not know or fear the Lord definitely qualifies as “some indecency.”  At the same time, divorce was hateful God, which both the Old and New Testaments attest.  So this situation was no easy matter, and a hard decision had to be made.  The lack of the usual Hebrew words for marriage and divorce in this story suggests that perhaps there was a measure of illegitimacy in those marriages to pagans from the very start.  Theologically that softens the blow and makes sense of the situation.  But psychologically this must have been a very difficult day for those who were guilty.

The story could have ended right there, but Ezra has a few more details to include.

The Legal Proceedings (10:16-44)

Rather than hold one giant mass divorce ceremony there on the spot in the cold heavy rain, they decide to spread out the proceedings over the next three months, allowing time for each case to be dealt with individually, starting with the priests.  It’s noteworthy that the priests and leaders of the people were just as guilty as everyone else; wealth and power and status provide no protection against sin.  Along with the divorces went pledges and guilt offerings, indicating an intention of full repentance and an offer of atonement for their sins.  God’s people are set free from their sins when they repent and cast aside their idols.

The book of Ezra ends with a list of the people who went through this whole process.  This serves as a sort of testimony – yes, these people sinned, but they also repented and have been fully restored into the community.

New Covenant Update: Christian Marriage Teachings

Now, before we attempt to apply this story to our own lives, we must first be sure we take into account what the New Testament teaches about marriage and divorce.

First and foremost, our Lord Jesus made one critical clarification in the biblical marriage teachings.  Moses had allowed divorce for any “indecency” – a line which was open to a great deal of liberal interpretation.  When asked about this, Jesus said (in Matthew 19:8) “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.  And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.”  The days of liberal Jewish interpretation of Deuteronomy were over.

Another wrinkle is introduced when considering marriage between Christians and non-Christians.  2 Corinthians 6:14 says it flat out: “Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness?”  The sense of the verb could also be translated “do not become unequally yoked,” suggesting that the prohibition is on getting married to a non-believer.  This is backed up in 1 Corinthians 7:12-16, where Saint Paul teaches “if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her.  If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him.  For the unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.  But if the unbelieving partner separates, let it be so. In such cases the brother or sister is not enslaved. God has called you to peace.

This teaching rules out Christians copying what the people in Ezra’s day did.  If you come to faith in Christ and your spouse does not, you don’t have to divorce him or her in order to remain pure.  If they don’t want you anymore, then you’re free and that’s fine, but if they want to remain with you in peace, live together in peace.  Mixed marriages are difficult – even when both spouses are Christians that go to different churches it can be difficult to raise children in the faith.  God would spare us from that situation, but if we find ourselves in it, we’re not cut off from the Church, let alone from Christ.

It’s interesting, too, to take note of what kind of reaction you get from Christians when you ask them about the sanctity of marriage.  Our rhetoric today is so bogged down with fighting against the legal institution of same-sex marriage that many of us seem to have forgotten the many other aberrations that exist and also need to be dealt with.  There are many Christians who go on to marry non-Christians.  There are many Christians who get divorced without first seeking any help or counsel from the Church.  There are many Christians (especially women) who stay married despite constant unfaithful abuse from their spouse.  Marriage is a truly beautiful thing, and if we had time I’d take us through Ephesians 5 and its example of Christ and the Church, but we’ll have to save that for another time.

The Bottom Line

The bottom line here is that being a Christian is a big deal, and being married is a big deal.  Holiness & discipleship are radical callings.  Last Sunday we read from Luke’s Gospel about people being invited to a banquet.  I preached about it on Thursday in Athol, too.  If we kept reading in that chapter, Jesus follows up that parable with some very difficult applications, including this: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26).  The language of hating our family versus loving God is for the sake of comparison; God must come first in our lives.  He is more important than your marriage.  He is more important than your children.  He is more important than your own life.

When we hear of persecuted Christians in other parts of the world who lost family members to prison or martyrdom, we see this teaching in action.  All they have to do, in most cases, is “say” Jesus isn’t God, and their family will be spared.  But proclaiming Christ is never to be compromised, even at the expense of your spouse, your children, your own life.  The Jews in Ezra’s day also experienced this hard lesson; faithfulness to God was more important than faithfulness to their wives.  Yes their marriages were illegal in the first place, but that doesn’t make the pain and difficulty of faithful obedience to God any easier.  Sometimes one just has to take up one’s Cross and follow Christ.

We live in a time and place that pushes us more and more to compromise our faith in more and more ways.  Sometimes preachers make the mistake of reminding us to “make room in your heart” for Jesus.  Don’t listen to them!  God demands nothing less than you.  All of you.  “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37).

About Fr. Brench

I'm an Anglican Priest and a sci-fi geek. Therefore, I write about liturgy & spiritual formation, theology & biblical studies, and Doctor Who. But I keep those blogs separate so I don't confuse too many people!
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