When I read God’s word, some passages seem to leap off the page at me and demand my attention. This is what happened recently when I read Ezra 9:1-15. In the beginning of the chapter, Ezra the priest is informed by the leaders of the remnant of Israel that has returned from captivity in Persia that the people have not separated themselves from the surrounding nations but have taken wives from among these pagan peoples. The practice had become so pervasive that even the priests and Levites had married into those idolatrous nations.
Ezra’s reaction to this news is enlightening, and it teaches us some valuable lessons about true, biblical repentance. Twice in v.3-4 the text says that Ezra was astonished by this news and those who were God-fearing among the people gathered around him as he sat in the dust, having rent his robes and plucked out some of his hair. There can be no mistake about how seriously Ezra took these charges as he begins to pray and confess the sins of the people. These people, who were entering into covenant relationships with foreign idol worshipers, had only just returned from a 70-year captivity in the lands of Babylon and Persia, a captivity that was brought about by the idolatry and unfaithfulness of their fathers and grandfathers. In fact, Ezra quotes from the law of Moses in v.11-13, saying in essence that they are repeating the errors of the past and stand to suffer even greater judgment that they have just endured. I especially appreciate the imagery that Ezra uses to show how he sees his own sin as well as the sin of his people in v.6. He says that their iniquities have risen higher than their heads – I imagine a pile of rubbish, stinking and foul, that has been piled up precariously high and is threatening to topple over. As if that were not enough, he continues by saying that their guilt has grown up to the sky. And this is not an exaggeration, because each of us, if we are honest with ourselves and with God, must admit that our sin towers over us, unstable and ready at any moment to come crashing down over our heads. It is beyond our reach and our control, because we, too, have been unfaithful and disobedient.
But Ezra does more than simply mourn his sin. He turns to the One who can actually do something about the problem. His prayer reflects great humility as he prostrates himself before the Lord, too ashamed to even lift his eyes toward heaven, and acknowledges that there can be no defense given in light of their grave sin. In the midst of his confession there is hope, for the people join in weeping over their sin and make a covenant to turn from their sinful ways, to separate from their foreign wives, and to follow the word of the Lord to remain set apart to God. In this we see that true repentance does not make excuses for sin but deals honestly and humbly with its consequences, leading the repentant sinner to obey the Lord. May we learn from Ezra’s example and pursue true repentance before the Lord, the righteous Judge.