When Conviction Comes to the People of God

“Our iniquities have risen higher than our heads” — Ezra 9:6

It’s unlikely that Ezra 9 tops anyone’s list of favorite chapters in the Bible. But with regard to grief over sin, few sections of Scripture are more instructive.

By way of background, Ezra is sent from Babylon to Jerusalem roughly 70 years after the first exiles made the journey. Ezra is both a priest and a scribe, and he will teach the law to the people in the rebuilt temple of God. Ezra 8 describes the travel to the holy city, then Ezra 9 opens with a bombshell.

The Faithlessness of the People

Ezra is told that many Israelites “have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands with their abominations” (Ezra 9:1). They have married women from the surrounding nations who do not worship God. And it gets worse: “And in this faithlessness the hand of the officials and chief men has been foremost” (Ezra 9:2).

Ezra’s response is dramatic.

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. (Ezra 9:3–4)

This is no run-of-the-mill sin. The identity and integrity of this new Jerusalem settlement is being compromised by these marriages. The issue is not mainly cultural or ethnic—it is about worship. Every spouse has enormous religious influence on their partner, and Israel’s history is peppered with unfaithfulness to God beginning with a marriage outside the faith.

Ezra grasps the severity of the situation, and he is undone. He is as torn up as his garment and facial hair.

While his ministry seems to have born fruit—witness those gathered with him who revere God’s word—the unearthing of sin this pervasive is devastating.

Communal Sin

Ezra sat appalled in his grief for a while. Then at the evening sacrifice (a public event), he fell on his knees to pray (Ezra 9:5).

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. (Ezra 9:6–7)

Ezra quickly turns from “I” and “my” to “we” and “our” in this prayer. In Ezra 10, there is a full accounting of those who violated the law against marrying foreign women. Ezra’s name doesn’t appear there, and we have no reason to think he was individually guilty of this sin. So, why does he identify with this transgression? Why is it our guilt?

In most of the Old and New Testaments, the people of any community belong to each other. This is especially true when God himself establishes and gathers that community. There are laws and expectations governing individual behavior, but the individualism of the modern West is completely absent.

So while Ezra might not be personally implicated in this scandal, these are his people and this is his community. Regarding this specific sin, we can imagine how friends and neighbors did not keep each other in the way of righteousness. The bulwark of day-to-day encouragement to pursue good and to flee evil had cracked and broken.

Sin in the Face of God’s Kindness

Ezra has a deep knowledge of history, related both to the sins of the people and the kindness of God. He thanks God for his favor to leave a remnant of Israel, to give them favor with the kings of Persia, and to help them reestablish the house of God in Jerusalem (Ezra 9:8–9). God has not forsaken them!

And yet, in the midst of God’s goodness, they have violated his specific commandments (Ezra 9:10–12). Though God has punished them less than they deserved, they have repeated their ancestors’ sins (Ezra 9:13–14).

Ezra knows the holiness of God in ways we might not. He knows that God could be so angry—justly angry—that he might wipe out this remnant of his people (Ezra 9:14). He concludes this way.

Behold, we are before you in our guilt, for none can stand before you because of this. (Ezra 9:15)

Pointing Forward

You might have noticed, this is not a cheery chapter of the Bible! No inspirational slogans to be found. And yet, as with all of Scripture, this chapter makes us look to Jesus.

God is grieved when we turn to worship anything but him. Ezra’s visceral sorrow reflects the size of the offense against the Lord. In this text, we see the people’s need for a savior—we are “before [God] in our guilt,” as no one “can stand before [God] because of this” (Ezra 9:15). The need for forgiveness and transformation is gigantic. And God has provided! Jesus is the one who was consumed in anger, he was the remnant that was eliminated in our place (Ezra 9:14).

Of course, conviction of sin happens again and again as we follow Jesus. And we need not fear conviction. Our sins are completely covered, and we are thoroughly forgiven as children of God. We will not be thrown out or disowned when our sin comes to light. This takes some getting used to, but our loving, holy Father leads the way.

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