Ezra: Named in Public – Guilty as Charged!

Sermon by Derek Thomas on July 13, 2008

Ezra 10:18-44

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The Lord's Day Evening

July 13, 2008

Ezra 10:18-44

“Named in Public–Guilty as Charged!”

Dr. Derek W. H. Thomas

Please be seated. Now if you’re visiting with us this evening, I almost feel as though I must apologize once again. It's a list of names in the text this evening. Those of us who have been here in the book of Ezra from the very beginning will have noted that Ezra…some of the material, I think, in the book of Ezra comes from his personal records and his personal diaries, and we've seen more than once now a list of names. This is a “shaming list.” You wouldn't want to be in this list. This is a longer list, but a similar one to the one Ligon was referring to recently in Philippians — Euodia and Syntyche — two quarreling women in the church at Philippi named and shamed forever, recorded in the word of God. Well, tonight we have, depending on which version you are reading…in the ESV, I think it's 110 names; if you’re in the good old King James Version, somehow they've managed, I think, to get as many as 113 names. Part of the problem is the Hebrew, and sometimes “the son of” and variations thereof can sometimes be rendered as a separate name when in fact it is not.

Ezra has come back to Jerusalem. He's come some eighty to eighty-five years after the first return following the decree of King Cyrus. A lot of things have happened. Eighty-five years is two and a half generations. No doubt some of those who had initially returned, some of those who had been there when the temple was constructed some twenty years after that initial return, some of those have probably died. We’re dealing now in these closing chapters with the sons, and probably the grandsons, of those first returning exiles.

Ezra is a representative of the Persian king. He's a Jew, of course; he's a believer. He's a preacher of sorts. We have already seen him expounding the word of God. And when we move into the book of Nehemiah — and we’ll do that next week – in the Hebrew text there is no real division between Ezra and Nehemiah, the one immediately follows the other, we’ll see Ezra appear again in the book of Nehemiah.

Ezra was a man who knew the Scriptures. He had a great burden for the word of God. Ezra 7 has been used by many a preacher as a kind of motto, as a kind of passage to describe what the work of ministry — and particularly what the work of preaching — is largely about: expounding the word of God. He's a man of prayer. We've seen Ezra throw himself to the ground in penitential prayer, a prayer that sounds very much like some of the penitential Psalms. He's discovered in Jerusalem an issue, a problem which ought not to be. It's a difficult problem. We began to look at it last week. It's the problem of intermarriage: marriage of foreigners in particular. Actually, technically it's marriage outside of the faith. Some of the men had married women outside of the faith.

A commission has been established. We’re all familiar with commissions. One of the questions — those of you who are heading for ordination trials, one of the questions invariably that comes is “what's the difference between a committee and a commission?” And the answer that they’re expecting you to give is…and if you don't give this answer it's curtains! It's all over!…a commission has powers. This commission has powers. It can act as its own authority. It's been delegated this authority. It's going to do an incredibly difficult thing. You couldn't pay me enough to be on this commission. They were going to examine these marriages; not just the ones that are going to be mentioned here, but probably many others, some of which were irresolvable, some of which they couldn't find a harmonious conclusion. Some perhaps were dismissed out of court.

It's all to do with the holiness of Israel. There are lots of questions. I'm going to try and address a couple of them. Some of them I'm not even going to touch. We’ll leave this evening with lots of questions — questions to which this passage, and indeed the rest of Scripture, does not provide for us an answer.

Let's pick up the reading in Ezra 10, and we pick up the reading at verse 18, the commission having been established and the verdict is now being given. Before we read the passage, let's look to God in prayer.

Lord, we thank You for the Bible. We want to love it more than we do. We want it to be the first book in our lives. We want to be in the Bible morning, noon, and night. We want to treasure all that it contains, and value it as the infallible, inerrant word of God. We thank You for the truth that all Scripture, including this passage, is given by inspiration of God and is profitable for doctrine and reproof and correction, and instruction in the way of righteousness, that the man of God might be thoroughly furnished unto every good work. We ask now for Your blessing. We ask for the illumination of Your Spirit. We want, O Lord, that supernatural power that enables us to discern what Scripture means. Help us to ask the right questions. Help us to think through logically and structurally what it is that You are saying here, and grant to our darkened minds that the light of Your Spirit might enable us to understand Your word better. We want not just to be those who understand it, but we want to be those who do it. So teach us, O Lord, what You would have us do as a result of understanding a little this part of holy Scripture. Now hear us, O Lord, we pray, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

This is God's word:

EZRA 10:18-44

18Now there were found some of the sons of the priests who had married foreign women: Maaseiah, Eliezer, Jarib, and Gedaliah, some of the sons of Jeshua the son of Jozadak and his brothers. 19They pledged themselves to put away their wives, and their guilt offering was a ram of the flock for their guilt.[4] 20Of the sons of Immer: Hanani and Zebadiah. 21Of the sons of Harim: Maaseiah, Elijah, Shemaiah, Jehiel, and Uzziah. 22Of the sons of Pashhur: Elioenai, Maaseiah, Ishmael, Nethanel, Jozabad, and Elasah. 23Of the Levites: Jozabad, Shimei, Kelaiah (that is, Kelita), Pethahiah, Judah, and Eliezer. 24Of the singers: Eliashib. Of the gatekeepers: Shallum, Telem, and Uri. 25And of Israel: of the sons of Parosh: Ramiah, Izziah, Malchijah, Mijamin, Eleazar, Hashabiah,[5] and Benaiah. 26Of the sons of Elam: Mattaniah, Zechariah, Jehiel, Abdi, Jeremoth, and Elijah. 27Of the sons of Zattu: Elioenai, Eliashib, Mattaniah, Jeremoth, Zabad, and Aziza. 28Of the sons of Bebai were Jehohanan, Hananiah, Zabbai, and Athlai. 29Of the sons of Bani were Meshullam, Malluch, Adaiah, Jashub, Sheal, and Jeremoth. 30Of the sons of Pahath-moab: Adna, Chelal, Benaiah, Maaseiah, Mattaniah, Bezalel, Binnui, and Manasseh. 31Of the sons of Harim: Eliezer, Isshijah, Malchijah, Shemaiah, Shimeon, 32Benjamin, Malluch, and Shemariah. 33Of the sons of Hashum: Mattenai, Mattattah, Zabad, Eliphelet, Jeremai, Manasseh, and Shimei. 34Of the sons of Bani: Maadai, Amram, Uel, 35Benaiah, Bedeiah, Cheluhi, 36Vaniah, Meremoth, Eliashib, 37Mattaniah, Mattenai, Jaasu. 38Of the sons of Binnui:[6] Shimei, 39Shelemiah, Nathan, Adaiah, 40Machnadebai, Shashai, Sharai, 41Azarel, Shelemiah, Shemariah, 42Shallum, Amariah, and Joseph. 43Of the sons of Nebo: Jeiel, Mattithiah, Zabad, Zebina, Jaddai, Joel, and Benaiah. 44All these had married foreign women, and some of the women had even borne children

Well, thus far God's holy and inerrant word.

In the spring of the year 2000, there was a TV program. [I never saw it, I promise!] It was called “I Want to Marry a Millionaire.” It was a spin, I suppose, of “I Want to Be a Millionaire.” Thousands of women applied to take part in this TV program, the prize of which would be this husband — purportedly a millionaire. These women were judged according to their beauty in gowns and swimwear, and general knowledge. At the end of the program, Rick Rockwell married Darva Conger, and they left for Las Vegas. Within a week the marriage had been annulled. He turned out to be not quite the millionaire that he purported to be, and there was talk by a former fiancйe of abuse and some other nasty things. Why did she do it? Why did she marry him? “For the diamond ring and the free trip to Vegas,” she said.

Well, Ezra isn't quite facing that, but he's facing something similar. Marriages among the people of God, among those who had at least discerned the importance of the kingdom of God sufficient to have left captivity — at least, their grandparents had left captivity and they’d come back to Jerusalem. The heart and center are the purposes of God. They had married, some of them, foreign women. They’d married outside of the faith. Perhaps we're meant to understand that they’d married Persian women. They’d married perhaps for social advancement, for perhaps economic gain.

It isn't clear as to whether these technically were marriages. It's not the usual Hebrew word for marriage. In fact, it's a Hebrew word that suggests that they gave homes to these women, which may in Hebrew idiom amount to the same thing.

It's always important when reading history in the Bible to learn the distinction between description and prescription. What we have is an accurate, infallible, inerrant description of what happened. It does not necessarily amount to prescription for us in our context. So we need to do a little digging.

I. Is this a prescription for divorce?

I want to ask three or four questions about this passage: the first, is this a prescription for divorce? I ask that question because some do use this passage as a prescription for divorce. They find themselves married to unbelievers. They use this passage, Ezra 10, to provide justification for divorce. I said last week that Paul addresses that scenario — not the scenario of Ezra 10, but he does address the issue of someone who is a believer, who has come to be a believer after he is married. And if the unbeliever deserts that marriage, then divorce is permissible, though reconciliation would be preferable.

That's not the situation that's being envisaged here. These men, presumably believers but certainly within the covenant community of Israel as Ezra defines it, have knowingly and wittingly gone outside of the faithful in order to marry. That's an entirely different scenario. We have to remember that Malachi is a contemporary prophet of Ezra, and Malachi says in the second chapter, “God hates divorce.God allows divorce

And the Bible, and those who have carefully studied the Bible — our forefathers and predecessors, and writers of our Confession of Faith, here in this church — have suggested that there are two grounds for divorce. One is unfaithfulness or adultery, and the other is willful desertion. Neither of those cases are here in this passage, so what we have is not a case where there is grounds for divorce as we understand it.

II. Was Ezra right?

We have to ask ourselves a very difficult question now. Was Ezra right? Was he correct? Was he right in insisting through the work of this commission — it wasn't him, you understand; it was the commission, and the commission had been established by the almost unanimous (there were three naysayers)…but it was established by the almost unanimous opinion of the leaders of the Israelite community. But were they right? Were they correct in insisting on divorce?

You have to enter into that just a little. What would be the consequences of sending these women (and notice the almost offhand remark at the very end of the chapter that some of them had borne children)… that these women and children would be sent away. Now, they wouldn't be sent away to fend for themselves, as perhaps in a modern Western first world society; they would be sent back to their families and they would be provided for by their larger families, no doubt, in an ancient Near Eastern culture. But nevertheless, there are huge and significant problems here. Women torn away, perhaps unwillingly…perhaps there might have been a few that were willing, but one imagines that most of them would have been unwilling, and one imagines the emotional scenes as these women and children are being sent away. The Bible glosses over that scene entirely, because it's concerned with a matter of principle and not a matter of sentiment. Were the Bible a different book, perhaps we would be reading this in a different way than we read it this evening, but we have to ask the question — at least the possibility — was Ezra wrong?

I don't know the answer to that question, but I'm raising the question. I'm raising it as a possibility because Nehemiah, who faces a similar issue…and we’ll come back to this…oh, it’ll be the other side of Christmas! We’ll enjoy Christmas first, and then we’ll have to come back to this in perhaps January of next year. In Nehemiah 13, this issue arises again.

Now make a mental note that reformation, even within a godly community, doesn't always stick. It doesn't always last. The issue with Nehemiah is fourteen or fifteen years down the line. It's not a long period of time, and the issue is back again. They’re intermarrying again. Now Nehemiah does not insist on that occasion for divorce. Now he does forbid any future such marriages; that is perfectly understandable. But he doesn't insist on divorce, so the question arises, was Ezra wrong? Now hold that thought; hold that question; hold that doubt in your mind for a little. Don't forget it. Don't let it drop down the other side, but hold it there for a second while we dig a little deeper.

What emerges from this commission's finding — and we imagine now the sort of questions that they might have been asking of the husband, to be sure, but of the wives. One imagines that had there been the likes of a Ruth, a Moabitess, technically a foreigner but who professed faith in the God of Israel, that in that case, that case would be dropped. One imagines. We’re not told that, but one imagines that that would be the case.

And one imagines that the result that we have here, the 110-111 names that we read together [whether the pronunciations were correct I have no idea]… but one imagines that in these cases these women did not profess the faith of the God of Israel.

You notice that sin is to be found, and we're all agreed that this is sin. They should not have done this. Whether we're agreed about the divorce issue is another matter, but we're all agreed that the issue itself was sinful. They should never have got themselves into this predicament. But you notice there are seventeen priests involved. Priests — those who had access to the innermost parts of the temple, those for whom the worship of the Lord was their profession and daily duty, who could never argue that they didn't know. There were six Levites, helpers of the priests; there was one singerthree gatekeepers83 or 84 lay members. Sin wasn't confined… [Can I use the word laity? I don't like the word laity at all, but let me use that word tonight.] Sin wasn't confined there. It was at the highest ranks. Some of the priests were descended from Jeshua. Jeshua was the co-leader with Zerubbabel after the decree of Cyrus, that first wave of exile that came back from Babylon came back under the leadership of Zerubbabel and Jeshua, and some of these priests are descended from Jeshua…from that noble line.

Now granted, you may say the numbers are small…and they are small. One hundred, 110, out of what? Thirty thousand men? Forty-three thousand had returned, but the number of men was roughly around 30,000….100-110 out of 30,000. That's relatively a small amount.

But there's a principle here that no man — is it John Dunn? — “No man is an island.” The sin of a few — and that's what motivates the zeal of Ezra — the sin of a few affects the whole.

Isn't that a principle Paul takes up in at least two of his letters, Galatians and Corinthians? That a little leaven leavens the whole lump? And Paul is talking about bad things in both cases…that a little leaven leavens the whole lump. It's the story of Achan, in Joshua; it's the story of Ananias and Sapphira in the book of Acts, that the sin of one or the sin of a few affects the whole entire community. We are the people of God. We are the people of God, and the failure of one inevitably affects the entire community. No amount of spiritual privilege can guarantee holiness.

A few of us were thinking about that this morning in Sunday School from the story of Peter, and the fall of Peter; Peter, who had said, ‘I will never deny You;’ Peter, who was one of the twelve; Peter, who was one of the three; Peter, who had been on the Mount of Transfiguration; Peter, to whom Jesus had spoken those definitive words at Caesarea Philippi: “I will build My church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” But no amount of spiritual privilege can guarantee that we don't fall. Priests had fallen. Levites had fallen.

Oh, there's a lesson here, if we can tease it out a little. “Take heed, you that think you stand; take heed, lest you fall.”

There's something else. I didn't know how to put it [and this semonically is not my best sermon in terms of structure]. But the only way I could think of putting it was this way: that not everything in the kingdom of God is simple and straightforward. You might think when you’re a young Christian — at least, when I was a young Christian, I thought everything was going to be simple and straightforward. I had the answers to everything. I knew how to raise children…until I had my own!

There are complexities here. We may stand from the vantage point of two and a half thousand years, and the vantage point of the revelation of the New Testament, and we may point an accusing finger at Ezra and call him a zealot — and I've been tempted to. We may think of that famous definition of Puritanism by H.L. Mencken: “The nagging fear that someone somewhere may be happy.” And we may point that accusation at Ezra. He was a killjoy. Imagine the consequences of these divorces for the wives, for the children! Surely there was some better way of dealing with this.

But, my friends, you weren't there. And I certainly wasn't there. I have come to respect, in ways that I cannot begin to explain to you, some of the elders in this church who sit on extraordinarily difficult committees, who look at issues not dissimilar to these issues. You don't know them, and that's the way they want it. You've no idea how many hours they've spent, and that's the way they want it. I've heard the results of what they say on occasion, but have never seen the process. I've never been in the room. I've never read the papers. I've never listened to the discussions. I've learnt not to second-guess when wise heads who love the Lord and who love God's word… and they’re men of principle…they’re not merely men of sentiment and passion. They’re men of principle, and I've learnt to respect that. And I tried to look at this passage and adopt the same principle: I wasn't there.

Even if you think Ezra was wrong, it was an incredibly difficult thing that he did, to stand on principle. We don't live in a principled age — not in society (you heard Jerry Sheldon's prayer tonight for the city) nor in the church at large.

What's the problem with the church of today? Well, it's lack of principle. It's lack of backbone. Somebody called me on my cell phone during the week, amazed that a certain church leader had said something. And I wasn't amazed at all. It was exactly what I would expect this certain church leader to say, because he has no backbone; he has no principle. He rules and governs by sentiment and by expediency, but not by the dictates of the word of God, and certainly not by the dictates of holiness.

III. Ezra's primary concern.

And the one prevailing issue for Ezra was the holiness of God's people. And you know, brothers and sisters, tonight, the very gospel hung on that? The coming of the Savior hung on that, that here was this small community…the salvation of you and me depended on this tiny little population in Jerusalem two and a half thousand years ago, because out of that population would emerge the Savior. And if that tiny little population allowed itself to become immersed into the ways and principles of the world…. Tozer said the best place for a ship is in the sea, but woe betide it when the sea gets in the ship. And that was Ezra's concern.

Now you may second-guess. You may shake your head and say, “Ezra, how could you possibly have done that?” But he did it! And he may have been wrong, but he did it out of principle, and he did it out of discernment, and he did it for the good of the kingdom of God. And the Bible doesn't tell us that he was wrong. And I think we ought to be slow…in fact, I think we ought to keep our opinions to ourselves, even though I've let a few out tonight.

You see, what is this passage about? It's about holiness. It's about separation. “Come ye out from among them, and be ye separate,” saith the Lord. All right, we think of some crank with a placard somewhere in the town square, and we say that's no picture of Christianity that I want. But you see, my friends, we've allowed ourselves to think that the future of Christianity and the future of the church is to become like the world. We flaunt our liberties. We are so frightened of being different, of being different from the world, that we've run into the world and become like the world, and in many respects we can't be distinguished from the world.

And Ezra is saying that if the kingdom of God is going to survive, and if the kingdom of God is going to grow, and if the kingdom of God is going to attract others into it, it must be different from the world. It must be Christ-like. “Be ye holy as I am holy.” And I think in Ezra's head that was the text that was spinning round and round and round, that the community of the people of God must be a holy community.

May God give us such a burden. May God give us such a zeal. May God give us such a love for His word and for the holiness of His church that we might be prepared to take the difficult decision for the sake of the kingdom of God.

Let's pray together.

Our Father in heaven, as we segue now from Ezra to Nehemiah, we find ourselves in a place that is difficult, and we remind ourselves that we too often find ourselves struggling to know what Your will is for us when there is no written prescription of Scripture to tell us what to do, and we're left to discern. We pray, O Lord, we pray for the leadership of this church. We pray for the church in the twenty-first century. We pray that we might be distinguished by holiness, by a desire to live out and out for You, no matter what the cost of that may be. And we ask it in Jesus' name. Amen.

Please stand and receive the Lord's benediction.

Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.

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This transcribed message has been lightly edited and formatted for the Web site. No attempt has been made, however, to alter the basic extemporaneous delivery style, or to produce a grammatically accurate, publication-ready manuscript conforming to an established style template.

Should there be questions regarding grammar or theological content, the reader should presume any website error to be with the webmaster/transcriber/editor rather than with the original speaker. For full copyright, reproduction and permission information, please visit the First Presbyterian Church Copyright, Reproduction & Permission statement.

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