The Lord's Day Evening
June 22, 2008
Dr. Derek W. H. Thomas
Please be seated. You may be wondering why we have had a couple of hymns tonight that were dark and melancholy, and that's because the passage before us in Scripture tonight is dark and melancholy, and brooding. It's about sin. We’re going to read a chapter — chapter 9 of Ezra. We’re coming to the end of Ezra. There are two more sermons, I think, before we then move on into the book of Nehemiah, but tonight we come to December of the year 458 B.C. We’re in Jerusalem, and something extraordinary and troubling and unexpected is going to happen. God is going to come down…come down in conviction. It's a prelude to the awakening of the people of God.
If you glance down into chapter 10 just for a minute, and to verse 9, you’ll see a date reference. It was the ninth month on the twentieth day of the month, which means it's December, which means that four and a half months have passed by now from the end of chapter 8 to the beginning of chapter 9, and chapter 10 follows immediately on chapter 9. But there's a gap of about four and a half months.
We’re not sure what Ezra has been doing during these four and a half months. Some suggest — and it's possible — that because he had come back from Babylon bearing the credentials that were necessary for him to minister as an official of the king, Artaxerxes, the Persian king, in Jerusalem, he may have spent these months traveling throughout all of Judea, taking his credentials to the various Persian representatives and officials. More likely, however, Ezra has been in the temple. He has been doing what in fact he had been doing back in Babylon: reading and expounding and applying the word of God, in particular the books of Moses — the first five books of the Old Testament. And as that word is read and explained and applied, something extraordinary now begins to happen, and it happens all of a sudden. Conviction…conviction of sin comes down and grips the people of God.
Now before we read the passage, let's look to God in prayer. Let us all pray.
Lord our God, we thank You for the Bible. We thank You especially for this particular chapter we're about to read. We pray that we might always have hearts that approach Your word seeing it as the infallible, inerrant word of God, and 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. Come, O Lord. Grant Your blessing. We ask it in Jesus' name. Amen.
This is God's word:
“After these things had been done, 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, from 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 people of the lands. And in this faithlessness the hand of the officials and the chief men has been foremost.’ As soon as I heard this, I tore my garment and my cloak and pulled hair from my head and beard and sat appalled. Then all who trembled at the words of the God of Israel, because of the faithlessness of the returned exiles, gathered around me while I sat appalled until the evening sacrifice. And at the evening sacrifice I rose from my fasting, with my garment and my cloak torn, and fell upon my knees and spread out my hands to the Lord my God, saying:
“ ‘O my God, I am ashamed and blush to lift my face to you, my God, for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads and our guilt has mounted up to the heavens. From the days of our fathers to this day we have been in great guilt. And for our iniquities we, our kings, and our priests have been given into the hand of the kings of the lands, to the sword, to captivity, to plundering, and to utter shame, as it is today. But now for a brief moment favor has been shown by the Lord our God, to leave us a remnant and to give us a secure hold within His holy place, that our God may brighten our eyes and grant us a little reviving in our slavery. For we are slaves. Yet our God has not forsaken us in our slavery, but has extended to us His steadfast love before the kings of Persia, to grant us some reviving to set up the house of our God, to repair its ruins, and to give us protection in Judea and Jerusalem.
“ ‘And now, O our God, what shall we say after this? For we have forsaken Your commandments, which You commanded by Your servants the prophets, saying, ‘The land that you are entering, to take possession of it, is a land impure with the impurity of the peoples of the lands, with their abominations that have filled it from end to end with their uncleanness. Therefore do not give your daughters to their sons, neither take their daughters for your sons, and never seek their peace or prosperity, that you may be strong and eat the good of the land and leave it for an inheritance to your children forever.’ And after all that has come upon us for our evil deeds and for our great guilt, seeing that You, our God, have punished us less than our iniquities deserved and have given us such a remnant as this, shall we break Your commandments again and intermarry with the people who practice these abominations? Would you not be angry with us until You consume us, so that there should be no remnant, nor any to escape? O Lord, the God of Israel, You are just, for we are left a remnant that has escaped, as it is today. Behold, we are before You in our guilt, for none can stand before You because of this.’”
Amen. May God add His blessing to that reading of His holy and inerrant word.
I. Distressing news.
The first thing that we see here is distressing news. Ezra has been probably ministering in the temple for four and a half months, and some of the officials (in verse 1 of chapter 9) approach him with news…news that some of the priests and some of the Levites, and no doubt others, have intermarried with the peoples of the lands.
Now let me say a couple of things about some background to what's going on here. The Law of Moses was perfectly clear. We read it, for example, in Deuteronomy 7, the opening verses of the seventh chapter of Deuteronomy and elsewhere in the books of Moses, that when the people of God were to inherit Canaan, they were to be careful not to intermarry with the peoples of the lands. This was not so much, you understand, an issue of inter-racial marriage. It was of course the fact that marrying the peoples of the lands would be marrying outside of the faithwhat Paul speaks of in II Corinthians of being unequally yoked. There is no biblical justification for being opposed in principle to inter-racial marriage, and we shouldn't use passages like this to justify that. There are all kinds, of course, of issues — sensitive issues, issues of politics, issues of economics, multiple issues that need to be taken into consideration in inter-racial marriage, but that's not what is to the fore here so much. It is marrying outside of the faith.
It looks as though there is more going on than even what we read here in the ninth chapter of Ezra. Malachi, who is a contemporary prophet to Ezra, records in his second chapter (the final book of the Old Testament) what looks like a sermon in which he is castigating the people not only because they have married outside of the faith, but some of them have divorced their wives in order to do so. These are probably not so much those who have returned with Ezra, but those who had returned on the first wave, under Zerubbabel. These now would be their sons and possibly even their grandsons that are being spoken of here. And perhaps for economic advancement, perhaps for political gain, perhaps for strategic influence within certain communities, it appears as though they have divorced their wives in order to marry outside of the faith.
It's distressing news, by any standard. It's distressing news. They have flouted the express commandment of God. They have married Yahweh – Jehovah, the God of covenant – to Baal…to a false god. There's an inevitable consequence that will emerge from these marriages.
Now imagine the scenario here. These are folk who have come back from Babylon. They've made a home for themselves in Jerusalem, the city of God. They have witnessed — or at least, their parents or grandparents have witnessed — the rebuilding of the temple. They have seen the hand, the favor of God upon them, and still they have flouted the express commandment of God. They were to separate themselves from unbelief. They were to separate themselves from false gods. And what Ezra has discovered as he's preached the word and expounded the word is that the Old Testament church in Jerusalem was no different than the world. There was no holiness about the church. There was no separated-ness about the Old Testament church. They were not living as the holy people of God. It's distressing news. It's distressing news because priests are involved, and Levites — temple workers — are involved; men who should have known better; men who could not argue that they didn't know about this. It's distressing news that in the very heart of the city of God with all of its favors, with all of its revealed religion, there was sin — and flagrant sin.
II. Ezra's reaction to their sin.
The second thing that we see is Ezra's reaction. He tore his clothes. He pulls out his hair from his head and beard, and he falls to the ground, appalled. He's devastated. He's joined by others, and do you notice how they’re described? He's joined by those who trembled at the words of the God of Israel. They trembled at the words of the God of Israel.
Can you understand that reaction? Can you understand Ezra's reaction? Can you understand the reaction of the people of God who join him in the temple? They’re there until the evening sacrifice — three, three-thirty in the afternoon. They’re there for several hours. Have you ever trembled as you read the Bible? As you read God's law? As you read the Ten Commandments? Part of our liturgy before the Lord's Supper is to say together the Ten Words of Sinai. They’re meant to make us tremble.
There's a famous story of John Rogers, a Puritan preacher in the seventeenth century, and one of his contemporaries, John Howe, is recalling having been to hear John Rogers, and he's telling the story to another Puritan, Thomas Goodwin. And he describes John Rogers in the pulpit, and he's preaching from the Bible — a pulpit Bible. Perhaps it was a Geneva Bible…a large pulpit Bible. And then all of a sudden, because he senses that the people of God are not paying attention, they’re not giving due reverence to the word of God, he picks up the Bible and impersonates God, and as though God Almighty were speaking, he says, “I'm taking the Bible away from you, and you’ll never have it again!” And all of a sudden — John Howe, who was there in the congregation, says that the people began to weep and wail, pleading with Almighty God that He would return the Bible to them. John Howe describes how after the service, when he was about to mount his horse to leave the place of worship, that he could only but stand there holding onto the neck of his horse, being overcome with emotion.
Do you know what it is to tremble at the word of God? We don't, do we? We treat it perhaps too lightly. We take it for granted.
God's word, God's law, the voice of a holy, sovereign God has come, and it's convicted them about their sin, about their unholiness, about their conformity to the world. It's what happens when God comes down, and that's the only explanation. In December of 458 B.C. in Jerusalem, God came down; and as a consequence of God's coming down there was conviction… conviction of sin.
III. Ezra's prayer.
Then in the third place, there's Ezra's prayer. I've been thinking about this prayer all week, wondering if there's a best-selling book in it…you know, “The Prayer of Ezra.” It's too long! [Congregation laughs.] It's too negative. It's too boring. Doesn't ask for anything.
My dear friends, we've got such a lot to learn about prayer. This isn't a model prayer for every circumstance, don't misunderstand me. This is a special circumstance, a circumstance when God has convicted us of our sin. But in that circumstance, this is a model prayer. Sometimes we complain about hymns that are dirges. I understand! But sometimes it's the appropriate thing, isn't it? It's the only thing that we can do. There are days and there are experiences in the life of the people of God when we are overwhelmed by our sin.
“My sins, my sins, they take such hold of me!
I cannot even look up, save, Lord, to Thee.”
You notice in verses 6 and 7, and actually it was in that hymn that Connie did such a good job of [No, not despairingly, come I to Thee] the immensity of the sense of guilt that he feels:
“O my God, I am ashamed and blush to lift my face to You. Our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has mounted up to the heavens.”
That's a lot of guilt. And not just my guilt of today or yesterday or last week, or last year, but it's guilt that goes all the way back to the days of our fathers! There's this immensity of guilt.
Now I have to tell you that those who are in the church today who say that all this talk about guilt is misplaced: “It's the problem of the West, the introspective conscience of the West.” That's the mantra. It's what Sigmund Freud said is wrong with all of us: guilt. Well, Ezra of course hadn't heard of Sigmund Freud, bless his cotton socks!) [Laughter]
Ezra is overcome with guilt…collective guilt. Not just in the first person here, the first person singular, but he's using the first person plural, we…our. He hasn't committed this sin, but he's identifying himself with the people of God.
There's a consequence to guilt. The history of Israel for the last 150 years has been one of captivity, from the time of the Assyrians to the Babylonians to the Persians. And it's because of their sin. It's because they have flouted the word of God. And then all of a sudden, in verse 8, but now for a brief moment there's the dawning of grace because they've been brought back to Jerusalem. A remnant has returned! God has kept His promise! They’re small, they’re pitifully small. They’re not only surrounded by unbelieving nations, but unbelief and compromise has come right into the very heart of Jerusalem itself, and into the very people of God, into the very seer of the temple. And for a brief moment God has shown mercy. God has shown His clemency. God has revived them a little. God has brought light to shine in their eyes for a moment.
IV. Recognition of sin and guilt
And then, from verse 10 onwards, there's a resignation. It begins in verse 9: “For we are slaves.” They were still of course under the Persians, and they would remain so. And there's this spirit of resignation, casting himself on the mercy of God. Look at how it ends:
“O Lord, the God of Israel, You are just, for we are left a remnant that has escaped, as it is today. Behold, we are before You in our guilt, for none can stand before You because of this.”
What a prayer.
Ezra recognizes and realizes something: that there is a limit to the patience of God. There is a limit to the patience of God.
Remember that refrain that Amos, preaching before the exile, employed? “For three transgressions, and for four….” God doesn't come for the first transgression. He doesn't come for the second transgression. He comes for the third and fourth. There is patience, but there is a limit to the patience of God.
How different this prayer is from our typical Wednesday evening prayer, when we read through a list of petitions for this one or that one. Ezra asks for nothing here. Except mercy. And even that is unspoken. Check your praying by the standard of Ezra here.
You see, I fancy some will say that Ezra didn't know enough about grace. I fancy some will say, ‘If only Ezra knew what it means to be a child of God.’ I fancy some will say that what Ezra really needed was to be affirmed that God loved him unconditionally. I fancy some will say that Ezra is just a legalist, consumed by guilt.
John Blanchard has written, “God has nowhere undertaken to forgive a sin that man is not prepared to forsake.” …God has nowhere undertaken to forgive a sin that man is not prepared to forsake.
Ezra understood all too well, you see, that if they were to receive the mercy of God that is what it would be — mercy. Mercy. Because what they deserve is retribution. What they deserve is to be cast away.
You know, let me say again this is not a model prayer for every circumstance, but there is a time to mourn; there is a time to mourn for our sins. I wonder, as the all-seeing, all-gazing eye of God looks down upon First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Mississippi — you and me — I wonder what He sees.
“My sins, my sins, My Savior, they take such hold of me.
I cannot look up, save only, Lord, to Thee.”
Yes, there is mercy with God, that He may be feared, but there is a time…there is a time when we need to feel our sins, so that our praise of God's mercy and grace might be all the fuller and more meaningful.
Let's pray together.
Lord our God, we are so far away and removed from Ezra and Jerusalem two and a half thousand years ago, but like them we gaze at ourselves tonight and there are sins in our lives…unrepented sins, unconfessed sins, large sins, sins of great moment. Have mercy, Lord, we pray. Look down upon us not as we deserve, but look down upon us and grant us a little reviving, and cause a light to shine in our eyes for Jesus’ sake. For the sake of Calvary, for the shed blood of Your dear Son on our behalf, give to us the grace to repent of our sins, to turn away from them and run hard after You. 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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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.