When I heard this, I tore my tunic and cloak, pulled hair from my head and beard and sat down appalled. Then everyone who trembled at the words of the God of Israel gathered around me because of this unfaithfulness of the exiles. And I sat there appalled until the evening sacrifice.
Then, at the evening sacrifice, I rose from my self-abasement, with my tunic and cloak torn, and fell on my knees with my hands spread out to the Lord my God 6 and prayed:
“I am too ashamed and disgraced, my God, to lift up my face to you, because our sins are higher than our heads and our guilt has reached to the heavens. From the days of our ancestors until now, our guilt has been great. Because of our sins, we and our kings and our priests have been subjected to the sword and captivity, to pillage and humiliation at the hand of foreign kings, as it is today.
“But now, for a brief moment, the Lord our God has been gracious in leaving us a remnant and giving us a firm place in his sanctuary, and so our God gives light to our eyes and a little relief in our bondage. Though we are slaves, our God has not forsaken us in our bondage. He has shown us kindness in the sight of the kings of Persia: He has granted us new life to rebuild the house of our God and repair its ruins, and he has given us a wall of protection in Judah and Jerusalem.
“What has happened to us is a result of our evil deeds and our great guilt, and yet, our God, you have punished us less than our sins deserved and have given us a remnant like this. Shall we then break your commands again and intermarry with the peoples who commit such detestable practices? Would you not be angry enough with us to destroy us, leaving us no remnant or survivor? Lord, the God of Israel, you are righteous! We are left this day as a remnant. Here we are before you in our guilt, though because of it not one of us can stand in your presence.” - Ezra 9:3-9, 13-15
Last week, Ezra received the difficult news that the people of Israel were still disobeying the commands of God. We spent some time learning why God made these commands in the first place. God really does have our best (and our relationship with Him) first in His mind when he gives us direction.
When I heard this, I tore my tunic…
As a pastor, I have tunic-tearing, beard ripping, moments nearly every day. People that I have discipled or ministered to do not follow the Biblical teaching that I know they’ve received. It feels much the same way that I feel when my children don’t listen to the things that I’ve told them for their own good. I just want to pull my hair out. This was Ezra’s first reaction, but I like to believe that, while He sat there for a good portion of the day, God was speaking to him about the right way to work through His disappointment.
There were others who also feared the word of the Lord who were just as distraught as He was and sat with Him. One attack of the enemy is to tell us that we are the only ones that even care. This is obviously not true, but it feels like it sometimes. The most notable example of this in scripture is found in 1 Kings 19, when Elijah is convinced that he is the only prophet left.
Because of our sins…
The result of God’s work on Ezra during the time he sat with his beard and hair torn out was that when he rose up, he prayed a priestly prayer for the people of Israel. He begins by taking on the sin of all of Israel as his own responsibility. Not only did he claim the guilt of the sin of Israel that led them into captivity, he also claimed the sin of those that led him to his current state, even though Ezra has just arrived back in Jerusalem and had nothing to do with this disobedience. Rather than standing on the side of God in judgment and pointing to everyone who had disobeyed the commands of the Lord, he stood on the side of the sinner and cried out to God on their behalf…not just crying out for forgiveness for “their” sins, but for “our” sins.
The attitude that Ezra had toward the people of Israel after his time in self-abasement is an example for pastors who have been frustrated with the people to whom they minister. It is also an example for all Christians, who have been called to be a Kingdom of Priests. We must take on the attitude of intercession for our world rather than of criticism.
But now, for a brief moment, the Lord our God has been gracious…
Ezra was intensely aware of the grace that God had given the people of Israel. Unfortunately, many of us in today’s culture are more likely to take the grace of God for granted because we have been taught the grace of God as if it were a birthright. God’s grace cost Jesus a brutal death on a cross. It wasn’t cheap and it isn’t our right! It is a gift and we need to be thankful for God’s gift and respond with a life of thanksgiving!
Shall we then break your commands again?
Ezra’s question reminds me very much of Paul’s question in Romans 6.
“What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?”
Paul and Ezra both realized that the incredible grace of God deserved a response of grateful obedience. We need to take this same attitude into our day. Each day we make choices. Are we remembering what God has done for us an responding to Him in obedience?
Next week, we will address the disparity between the commitments that we make to God and our obedience. How can we follow through with the commitments that we make at an altar of prayer?