The Lord's Day Evening
July 6, 2008
“Repentance in the Rain”
Dr. Derek W. H. Thomas
Dr. Thomas: Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made the heavens and the earth. Let us worship God.
Reverend Billy Joseph: With boldness we do approach Your throne, O God, but we approach because in Your grace You have found us out. You have searched for us, who were sinners vile and helpless, and You have come and conquered us, even our resistance. You, the sovereign King and Lord, You invaded our lives, and therefore we are now Your children saved by the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, made new and made in His image.
And so, Lord God, we would come and worship You, the Sovereign Savior; we would come and adore You, for You are our God, and we are the sheep of Your pasture. O Lord God, thank You for our salvation. Thank You for Your gospel, the good news that though we were sinners, Christ died for us. When we could do nothing, Christ bought us by His own death on the cross, satisfying divine justice. By His grace He gave us His righteousness so that we might enter into Your presence in worship of You, O God, and acknowledge that apart from You, we are nothing, but acknowledge that through our Lord Jesus Christ we not only can come into Your presence but we desire to come into Your presence. We desire to come into Your house to worship You this evening and to give glory to Your name, because You are our God. Father, may our worship be pleasing in Your sight. May it indeed be reminiscent of that which Christ has done for us; may it be even a smidgen of what He has done for us, so that You might be pleased not with our worship, but with His worship. Father, thank You that He is in our place and that we come in His name, and come because of His righteousness, and because of His perfection. So be pleased, Father, to accept Your Son's sacrifice in our behalf and take our meager worship, and may it glorify You. These things we ask in Jesus' name. Amen.
Dr. Thomas: Now turn with me once again to the book of Ezra, to the final chapter of Ezra and what I think will be the penultimate sermon on Ezra. There will be one more next week…and lo and behold, it's another list of names! However, I do want next week to try and summarize if I can some of the leading themes of Ezra that caused this rather peculiar ending to the book — and there is a reason for it.
But tonight I want us to look at the first seventeen or so verses of chapter 10 of the book of Ezra. We are in the month of December of 458 B.C.
Now before we read the passage together, let's look to God in prayer. Let's pray.
Lord our God, we bow in Your presence. You alone are the one true and living God. There is none beside You. You are utterly holy and righteous, a God who establishes covenant with sinners such as us. We thank You tonight for Your word. Thank You for the Bible, the holy word of God. Thank You for every jot and tittle of it, the least stroke of a pen, all given by Your out-breathing. Scripture is the product of Your breath. You breathed it into being. Father, we thank You that it is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in the way of righteousness, that the man of God might be thoroughly furnished unto every good work. Now grant us Your blessing as we read it together. Help us to treasure it. We ask it in Jesus' name. Amen.
This is God's word:
“While Ezra prayed and made confession, weeping and casting himself down before the house of God, a very great assembly of men, women, and children, gathered to him out of Israel, for the people wept bitterly. And Shecaniah the son of Jehiel, of the sons of Elam, addressed Ezra: ‘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 those 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.’ Then Ezra arose and made the leading priests and Levites and all Israel take oath that they would do as had been said. So they took the oath.
“Then Ezra withdrew from before the house of God and went to the chamber of Jehohanan the son of Eliashib, where he spent the night, neither eating bread nor drinking water, for he was mourning over the faithlessness of the exiles. And a proclamation was made throughout Judah and Jerusalem to all the returned exiles that they should assemble at Jerusalem, and that if anyone did not come within three days, by order of the officials and the elders all his property should be forfeited, and he himself banned from the congregation of the exiles.
“Then all the men of Judah and Benjamin assembled at Jerusalem within the three days. It was the ninth month, on the twentieth day of the month. And all the people sat in the open square before the house of God, trembling because of this matter and because of the heavy rain. And Ezra the priest stood up and said to them, ‘You have broken faith and married foreign women, and so increased the guilt of Israel. Now then make confession to the Lord, the God of your fathers and do His will. Separate yourselves from the peoples of the land and from the foreign wives.’ Then all the assembly answered with a loud voice, ‘It is so; we must do as you have said. But the people are many, and it is a time of heavy rain; we cannot stand in the open. Nor is this a task for one day or for two, for we have greatly transgressed in this matter. Let our officials stand for the whole assembly. Let all in our cities who have taken foreign wives come at appointed times, and with them the elders and judges of every city, until the fierce wrath of our God over this matter is turned away from us.’ Only Jonathan the son of Asahel and Jahzeiah the son of Tikvah opposed this, and Meshullam and Shabbethai the Levite supported them.
“Then the returned exiles did so. Ezra the priest selected men, heads of fathers’ houses, according to their fathers’ houses, each of them designated by name. On the first day of the tenth month they sat down to examine the matter; and by the first day of the first month they had come to the end of all the men who had married foreign women.”
Amen. May the Lord add His blessing.
Some preachers affect you deeply. I remember in August of 1974, in a building approximately this size, containing this number of seats or pews, 1500-1600 people I think were present. Maybe a few more. I remember listening to Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. It was my second or third time that I had heard him preach. I remember this pain in the back of my neck from the tension that I felt just listening to his voice. I remember vividly saying to myself, “Breathe!” I'm holding my breath in anticipation of the next sentence. You have your own stories, I'm sure.
Ezra was such a man. He had a profound effect on people. It wasn't him, you understand; it was God through him. God used him. God took him, took his personality, took his voice, took his convictions, took his zeal for the Law of God, took his commitment, his discipleship, and it powerfully affected the people of God.
They came to hear him when he had prayed that day the prayer we looked at two weeks ago in Ezra 9, that deeply, deeply convicting prayer in which he asks for nothing, but confesses not so much his own sin, though he takes on the personality of the whole of Israel, confessing their sins. And they've gathered now from Jerusalem, and from apparently the surrounding districts of Jerusalem, to weep.
It's December of 458 B.C. There's a problem. It's a very specific problem. It's a difficult problem. Some of the details are hard to extrapolate. There are a lot of questions. It's about marriage — bad marriages, unlawful marriages. Some of the men of the returned exiles (probably not the men who returned with Ezra, but the ones who had returned eighty or ninety years before at the time of the decree of Cyrus…children of those exiles, maybe grandchildren of those exiles) had married foreign women.
Now let's rehearse this again. We looked at it two weeks ago. Let's be clear, at least on this issue. This is not a ban on inter-racial marriage. That's not the point of the passage. There's a beautiful story…one of the most beautiful stories in the whole of the Bible…of Ruth, a Moabitess, marrying into Judaism, into the faithful. It's one of the most beautiful, romantic stories of marriage in the whole of the Bible. Moses married a Cushite — a black woman, an Ethiopian. You remember Miriam criticized the marriage; she was made a leper. It is as though God is saying to her, ‘If it's white skin you want, then let Me give it to you.’ Read it. Numbers 12. It's a very telling passage. No, this isn't a ban on inter-racial marriage.
The marriages here are marriages outside of the faith. Jewish men have married unbelievers. Some of them perhaps had married Persians for social reasons. It would explain one or two things, that they had married well-to-do Persian women to climb the social ladder perhaps. We’re not told the details. The point is they had married outside of the faith and this was contrary to the Law of God.
I. There must be a conviction of sin.
What happens first of all is this public conviction of sin. In times of revival, in times of extraordinary blessing, those times are often preceded by a corporate appreciation of sin. There was sin in Israel. They could not proceed unless this sin was confessed and dealt with. Ezra has fallen down weeping in the temple precincts, and perhaps hundreds have joined him on the temple mount. This is Spirit-wrought. This is a spirit of self-condemnation. It always precedes the gospel. The gospel is not good news unless we first of all appreciate that we are sinners.
There's an account of the great revival in 1907 in Korea, one of the great revivals of the last century. It's at a Methodist Annual Conference in January, and one of the great biographers of this period of history says:
“The evening meeting connected with the Bible Conference began on January 6, in the central church in Pyongyang, with more than 1500 men present. Women were excluded for lack of room. Different missionaries and Korean leaders had charge of the evening meetings, all seeking to show the need of the Spirit's control in our lives and the necessity for love and righteousness. After a short sermon, man after man would rise, confess his sin, break down and weep, and then throw himself on the floor and beat the floor with his fists in a perfect agony of conviction. Sometimes after a confession the whole audience would break out into audible prayer, and the effect of that audience of hundreds of men praying together in audible prayer was something indescribable. Again, after another confession they would break out into uncontrollable weeping, and we would all weep together. We couldn't help it. And so the meeting went on until 2 a.m. with confession and weeping and praying. We had prayed to God for an outpouring of His Holy Spirit upon the people, and it had come.”
I wonder if you pray for revival…for the Spirit to be poured out on this congregation, this denomination, this land, the people of God. Well, this is perhaps what it would look like. Men, women, and children here have gathered in the temple mount, along with Ezra, for one reason: to confess sin.
Ezra's being used of God in this, of course. He's a leader, but he's in the background here. This is not a passage about Ezra. It's not a passage about Ezra's personality. This isn't a passage about a motivational speaker. You've heard them…some of you, I'm sure, have been to seminars with your work, with your employment. I'm sure they do a lot of good in certain ways in certain areas, but that's not what's happening here.
These people are at an end of themselves. There is sin in the camp. Not all of the people have sinned; it's actually confined to a relatively few, and they’re named. Just glance at the closing of the chapter. They’re named. Imagine that! It's the Bible's way. In order to grow up, we need to grow down. In order to be exalted, we must first of all be abased. In order to appreciate the gospel, we must first of all appreciate sin. In order for reformation to advance, sin must be confessed and rooted out.
I suppose in our day of such shallow things, a day when we think of the gospel as something that gives us good feelings perhaps, a day when we read the Bible for comfort, to feel good about ourselves…this is a passage that is entirely counter-cultural. We fail to understand it. An entire race of people have gathered together, the people of God, and they’re weeping because God's wrath is upon them.
They were back in the land. It was a time of extraordinary blessing. God had remembered His covenant. He had remembered His promise. He had brought them back to Jerusalem. The temple had been built, sacrifice was being offered, but there was sin amongst them.
You remember the story of Achan in the book of Joshua. He saw, and he coveted, and he took, and he hid. Those four verbs in Joshua 7: he saw, and coveted, and took, and hid. And the sin of one man brought the whole of Israel to a standstill. Well, it's not so much the sin of one man, but it's the sin of a few men that now brings Israel to her knees in public confession of sin.
II. Sin must be removed.
But sin not only needs to be confessed, it needs to be rooted out. Meet Shecaniah. Who? Who is Shecaniah? Ah, but you have been cheating, because you've just read Ezra 10! It's one of those “Bible Trivia” questions, isn't it? Who is Shecaniah? He's a nobody. God raises up this man, Shecaniah, out of nowhere, and he comes and he confesses the sin of Israel in this matter of marriage, and marriage to foreign women, and marriage in particular to unbelieving women.
Now, if you glance at verse 26 — and all you need to do is just glance at it — you’ll see the name Jehiel there in verse 26. And Shecaniah is the son of Jehiel. Now, Jehiel was not an uncommon name, but it is possible that this Shecaniah is the son of that Jehiel who is named in verse 26; in which case, if that is true, he's actually confessing the sin of his father and mother…and that is so un-Southern, isn't it! He comes to Ezra, he comes to the temple, he comes before God and he says there is sin in Israel. And perhaps he's saying, ‘It's in my family, but there is hope.’
Why is there hope? Because God is a God of mercy. He's a God of mercy to those who repent. He's a God of mercy to those who turn from their sins and cleave unto the Lord. He urges Ezra to take up this task of reformation. Ezra must do it! He is the leader, and Shecaniah urges him to be strong and to be courageous — it reminds us of some verses in the opening chapter of the book of Joshua.
Now there are two issues…two difficult issues. What is being proposed here — at least what is seemingly being proposed — is that these men put away their wives and their children…a mass divorce. The problem is that Malachi, who is a contemporary prophet, tells us in the second chapter of the book of Malachi that God hates divorce. The book of Deuteronomy in chapter 24 allows for divorce in certain circumstances, but not especially these circumstances. The second problem is the fact that this issue re-occurs. It re-occurs in the book of Nehemiah. It re-occurs in chapter 13 of the book of Nehemiah, and Nehemiah's solution to this problem is a different one. (Well, let's deal with Nehemiah when we come to Nehemiah 13!)
These are unique circumstances. Let's be clear about that. These are unique circumstances. Israel had not been here before. They were the holy people of God. They were a holy race, as Ezra had made clear in his prayer in Ezra 9. They could not…they could not sanction marriages outside of the faith lest the promise of the seed, which is Christ, not materialize. It was unique. Israel is a unique nation.
They propose a plan whereby a public proclamation is made. All the men, the leaders of families, are summoned to Jerusalem. They have to be there in three days. That shows how far they had traveled from Jerusalem — not far, because they would have to be able to make their way to Jerusalem within three days. That means that in the period from the first return, eighty or ninety years in the past, they had only gone maybe fifty or sixty miles away from Jerusalem. So the exiles were still living within a relatively short space from the city of Jerusalem. If they didn't turn up within three days all their property would be confiscated, and they would be excommunicated. Imagine! Imagine if that was a sanction for not turning up at church.
And it's raining. Heavy rain is falling as they gather in Jerusalem. And you have to imagine the temple mount and the square before the temple mount (looking different from the way it would have looked of course in the time of Jesus)…hundreds, thousands now of men standing shivering in the rain, and shivering at the thought that the wrath of God was upon them because sin was in the camp.
And so a proposal is made, because there is so much work to be done and it needs to be done carefully, and it needs to be done with fairness and equity and justice. So they propose that these men would be looked at in turn. Leaders, elders and judges would be brought from each respective city. And it took three months. Three months…this judicial investigation lasted for three months, day after day after day, looking at each case individually.
Some disapproved of the plan. There wasn't unanimity. Four are mentioned: Meshullam, in verse 15…if you glance down at verse 29, you’ll see that he is named, implying perhaps if it's the same Meshullam, that he had married an unbelieving wife. Understandable,then, that he didn't like the plan.
Now what can we say about this? Let me say two or three things:
Firstly, that this passage says something to us about bad marriages. This is not the same case as that which Paul is dealing with in I Corinthians 7. In I Corinthians 7, Paul is envisaging two unbelievers who are married, and one of them becomes a believer. What then? And he gives an allowance that if the unbelieving spouse deserts the marriage then divorce may follow, though reconciliation is preferable. That's not what we've got here. These are believing men knowingly marrying unbelieving women for whatever reason. Perhaps for social advancement, perhaps for lust. Perhaps they had divorced their Jewish wives in order to do so. That is possible.
What's it saying? Well, it's saying don't marry outside the faith. Don't date outside of the faith, either, because that's just sheer folly.
I remember… I'd been a minister for two weeks…the memory of my ordination (which ministers remember forever, I think; it's a very solemn moment when you are ordained to the Christian ministry)…and I'd been ordained for two weeks. A man, who had been a member of the church that I had been called to, had been a member for over fifty years. He was a man probably in his eighties. And he asked me to come and see him, and I went to his home and walked in, and we sat down and he said, “I want you to perform the marriage of my granddaughter to this young man.” And the granddaughter was a believer, and the young man had never darkened the doors of any church as far as I could tell, and had no intention of doing so. So I said to him…I went to see the couple, and I came back to him a few days later, and I said to him…. I probably erred in youthful zeal, but that man never came back to the church. He’d been a member for over fifty years, but my refusal to engage in that marriage was for him the end. I still think he was a fool. I say that with all the respect I can muster, but he was foolish. He had put the love of his own family before the word of God. He had put his family before God.
Is that a word for you? Irrespective of the particularities of Ezra 10, is that a word for you, that you are in danger sometimes of putting family before God?
Secondly, Shecaniah. He did an incredibly difficult thing. I cannot even imagine how difficult it must have been, especially if it is true that his father had married an unbelieving woman. The fact that he was a believer was entirely the mercy of God, but it did not justify the marriage. Now some, and I'm inclined…and we have an Old Testament scholar in our midst, and I will be asking him afterwards…some suggest because of the Hebrew that is used here of the term marriage, the fact that divorce isn't actually mentioned in this passage, and that the Hebrew for foreign women is translated in the book of Proverbs, I think, five or six times to imply harlotry or prostitution, that these weren't technically marriages. That would help a lot. Shecaniah did an incredibly difficult thing: to go and confess, though he doesn't mention it by name…but to go and confess a sin which would bring his own family into the picture. That's incredibly difficult…incredibly difficult to get right. We can only imagine the accusations that would be hurled against him.
Sometimes God asks us to do incredibly difficult things…incredibly difficult things where you have to make a judgment call and pray to God that He would give you wisdom. Is that where you are tonight? You’re not in this problem, but God is asking you to make a difficult thing, to do a difficult thing, to say a difficult thing. And, oh, that God would give you the wisdom and courage and tenacity and downright forthrightness to do it as a humble servant of the Lord, putting God's glory first and personal issues last. Oh, that God would give us that spirit.
There's a third thing here, but it's going to have to wait till next week. It's about the issue of repentance. What is it? What does it look like? What is the shape of it? What's the cost of it? What's the demand of it? Let's save that for next week.
Let's pray together.
Father, we looked at a very difficult passage, and we have many questions. It is Your word. But those things which are clear, make them clearer still to us. Where You convict us, grant us the willingness to turn away and to turn to You, embrace Your word and treasure it in our hearts, counting service for God of more value than anything this world can offer. And grant Your blessing and give us servant-like hearts, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Please stand; 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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