Theme: It’s a New Start
Lesson text: Ezra 9:1-15; 10:10-12
Supplemental texts: Exodus 34:15-16; 2 Corinthians 6:14-18; 1 Peter 1:14-15; 4:1-11
Aim: Be distinct, and separate yourself from worldly habits.
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Download a PDF of this week’s lesson material (the Study by Mark Scott, Application by David Faust, and Discovery Questions by Michael C. Mack): LOOKOUT_January29_2023.
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By Mark Scott
The Old and New Testaments refer to God’s family as his “treasured possession” and his “special possession” (Exodus 19:5; 1 Peter 2:9; cf. Titus 2:14). The point is, God’s people are distinct from all other people groups. God evidently wanted it that way. Separation sometimes is the best method of inclusion. God said more than once to “come out from among them” (see Isaiah 52:11; 2 Corinthians 6:17). The proverb of being “in the world but not of the world” still holds true.
Two of the most gut-wrenching prayers in the Old Testament are in Ezra 9 and Daniel 9. In both cases the scribe and prophet pour out their souls to God. They emotionally own their nation’s sins and include themselves as leaders in need of forgiveness. Upon his arrival in Jerusalem in chapter 7, Ezra sized things up rather quickly. The exiles were in danger of turning back to the sinful ways that had caused them to go into captivity in the first place. Ezra was committed to nip that mindset in the bud.
Ezra’s sorrow came after meeting the leaders of the people. These leaders came to Ezra and told him that the priests and the Levites had not kept their distinction from the “ites” of the land (Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, etc.). Intermarriage had given rise to detestable practices (abominations) of the pagan peoples. It was one thing for the people to have intermarried with idol worshipers, but the leaders and officials had led the way in this unfaithfulness (trespass or falsehood).
This might not seem so bad at first pass. After all, the Bible gives examples of intermarriages working out; some even are part of the messianic genealogy (Ruth 4; Matthew 1). But those are the exceptions. The purity of the messianic line was at stake, to say nothing of the priests and Levites who were to serve in the temple.
This situation caused Ezra great pain. It caused him to go through several spiritual gymnastics—such as tearing his clothing, pulling out his hair and beard, and sitting down appalled (desolate or destroyed). He kept that posture until the evening sacrifice (which was again taking place, as before the exile). At that time, he assumed his prayer posture and poured out his heart to God.
He admitted to God his shame and disgrace at the deplorable condition of his people. He was so moved he would not even lift up his face to the heavens as he prayed (a rather typical Jewish posture for prayer). He admitted his guilt and the guilt of his people. He acknowledged that the recent captivity was due to such unfaithfulness.
After confessing his sins, Ezra leaned into the grace of God and pleaded for his protection. Ezra was thankful for many things: the remnant (those who had escaped death) to keep the messianic line alive, a firm place in his sanctuary (a return to offering sacrifices in the temple), enlightenment for their eyes, and relief from their bondage (servitude or slavery).
Ezra knew that God had not forsaken them (cf. Hebrews 13:5) and had shown them kindness (steadfast love) from the kings of Persia. In allowing the people to rebuild Jerusalem, God had put a hedge of protection (the word for protection means hedge or wall) around them.
But even with God’s protection, there was still a need for Ezra to confess that the people had forsaken the commands of God. The peoples who had lived previously in the land had polluted it (made it filthy as in unclean) by their idolatry. By intermarrying with those people, Israel had ended up polluting themselves. It was a clear case of guilt by association. Any friendship with the people would compromise faith. God wanted his people to be strong and eat the fruit of the land and keep it as an inheritance forever.
Even so, God had not punished them as their sins deserved. Ezra pleaded for God to have additional mercy as he acknowledged God’s righteousness
After his prayer, Ezra challenged the people to separate themselves from worldly and unholy habits. The dedication came in these words: “You are right! We must do as you say.” Scholars debate whether the action Ezra took was totally necessary. But it was necessary for God’s people to separate themselves from sinful behavior.