Scandalous Grace (Ezra 9:1-15)

FPCNorwayEzra: Building the House of God, Sermons

We are hopeless sinners, and yet God gives us a Savior. Who will deliver us from this body of death? “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom. 7:25). Jesus didn’t save us because of anything that we did to merit his favor. He saved us because we were, and are hopeless sinners; and yet he still gives us his name. Christian, now that’s what I call scandalous grace.

Scandalous Grace

Rev. Matthew J. Stanghelle
April 12, 2020

Last week we dealt with the question of how we should respond to God’s abundant grace. In Ezra, God pours out his overwhelming favor on his people. The good hand of God is with them time and time again. Ezra begins with God’s gracious call to bring his captive exiles home to the promised land. He delivers them safely home through the blessing of King Cyrus. Despite periods of opposition, God gives them political favor and federal revenue to build his house—his holy temple in Jerusalem. 

Now, as Ezra comes on to the scene, God blesses him also. He calls Ezra to lead the second wave of exiles home. He departs with similarly bountiful political and economic provisions as the first wave. God is pouring out his abundant grace on his people once again. In response to God’s grace, Ezra gives us a very positive example. He calls for a fast to petition the Lord for safety on their journey. Following this season of prayer and fasting, the good hand of God leads them home. But what they find when they get there is nothing short of scandalous.

But amid scandalous sin, Ezra also points us to scandalous grace. The behavior of God’s people is reprehensible and inexcusable. But God does not treat them as their sins deserve. Nevertheless, God’s favor is not automatic. So, Ezra intercedes on behalf of God’s wayward people. The fear of what God ought to do forces us to reckon with his response. Despite the scandalous nature of sin, Ezra reminds us of God’s scandalous grace. But chapter 9 doesn’t give us an easy out, and it leaves us hanging until we learn of the outcome in chapter 10. This week we deal with the problem; next week, we will discover the response. This morning, we will study chapter 9 in two parts.

1. Scandalous Sin (Ezra 9:1-2)

The moral condition of God’s people in Jerusalem is shocking. Any trace of the revival that came about from completing the Temple has vanished. From priest to plebe, Ezra discovers and appalling moral scene. The opening verses tell the tale.

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 peoples of the lands. And in this faithlessness the hand of the officials and chief men has been foremost.”     

—Ezra 9:1-2

Can you imagine Ezra’s response to this news? He has faithfully carried out the king’s orders. He’s delivered treasures and furnishings to the temple. Steeped in scandalous sin are the very priests and people with whom they have just worshipped the Lord. Israel has intermarried with the peoples of the lands. Now, why is intermarriage with foreigners scandalous?

1. Intermarriage Is a Total Rejection of God’s Explicit Ban

Intermarriage with foreigners was no ‘gray area’ in the law of Moses. Marrying foreign spouses constitutes a brazen rejection of God’s explicit ban. Deuteronomy 7 makes it very clear. There God speaks through Moses, saying,

“When the Lord your God brings you into the land that you are entering to take possession of it, and clears away many nations before you, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations more numerous and mightier than you, and when the Lord your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them, then you must devote them to complete destruction. You shall make no covenant with them and show no mercy to them. You shall not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons.    

—Deuteronomy 7:1-3

This ban is clear and explicit, and it is certainly not the only passage that speaks to it. The nations inhabiting the promised land were to be devoted to destruction. This ban is stated repeatedly in the Old Testament. God had decreed their total annihilation (cf. ch. 20:17; Ex. 22:20; Lev. 27:29; Num. 21:2, 3). He forbid Israel from making any covenant with them (Ex. 23:32; 34:12; Judg. 2:2; [ch. 20:10; Josh. 2:14; 9:18; Judg. 1:24]), nor could they marry them (Ex. 34:16; Josh. 23:12, 13; 1 Kgs. 11:2).

But why? Deuteronomy 7:4 reveals the answer,

For they would turn away your sons from following me, to serve other gods. Then the anger of the Lord would be kindled against you, and he would destroy you quickly.       

—Deuteronomy 7:4

The fundamental reason is religious purity. When you marry someone who worships a different god, that opens the door to syncretism. We probably all know at least one couple where each spouse has different religious affiliations. E.g., ‘He goes to the Catholic service, and hSe goes to the Lutheran service.’ Or, ‘he goes to the Protestant service, and she doesn’t go anywhere.’ Or, ‘She’s Buddhist, and he’s agnostic.’ Not only does that create disaster in your marriage, but it is ruinous for your children. They don’t know what to believe. Syncretism in the parents usually leads to nominalism and total unbelief in the children. How many homes are tortured by this today! Religious purity is at stake for Israel, and they are failing miserably.

2. Israel’s Religious Leaders are the Foremost Perpetrators

To make matters worse, Israel’s leaders are the foremost culprits in perpetuated this rebellion. Recall verse 3, “And in this faithlessness the hand of the officials and chief men has been foremost.” 

The worst culprits in this infamous crime were the very people who should have been holding back the tide. These guys are no doubt attending the marriage ceremonies. The priests and Levites are no doubt leading the services! And worse than that, they are leading by example in picking foreign wives out for themselves. Worship starts in the home, and these leaders are setting the wrong model. Rather than modeling holy worship, they are encouraging the people in shameful idolatry.

Note how quickly Israel has fallen. In Ezra 6:21, the Passover is celebrated by everyone who had “separated himself from the uncleanness of the peoples of the land.” Now that impulse has been completely erased.

In summary, the Lord knows that intermarriage leads his people to idolatry, and therefore he bans it. Now in Ezra’s day, they are at it again. God gives his people a second chance in the land and they blow it. There is really no excuse. This situation is no better than when Israel was kicked out of the land the first time.

Application

1. Marriage to Unbelievers

The New Testament continues God’s ban against intermarriage with foreigners in a spiritual sense. There we learn that God’s people are not to be unequally yoked. That is, we should not marry unbelievers. The problem is not what nation is your spouse from, but what God does he or she worship, or doesn’t worship. We should only marry a spouse that worships the Lord Jesus Christ. 

The problem of idolatry continues in the New Testament, and the Bible warns us against it. Recall the apostle’s words in 2 Corinthians 6,

Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever? What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God.     

—2 Corinthians 6:14-16

The ultimate issue with intermarriage is not ethnic purity, but religious purity. The New Testament highlights the spiritual principle that underlies the ban. We are the temple of the living God, how can we be united to a worshiper of Baal? What fellowship does light have with darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial. When we marry an unbeliever, we unite our body, that is made holy to the Lord, with their body that belongs to the devil. That, of course, is an idolatrous abomination in God’s eyes. Another issue surfaces if your spouse walks away from the Lord. 1 Corinthians 7 deals with that issue and I will let you study it for yourselves. Or, perhaps, you did marry an unbeliever. There is forgiveness in Christ if you seek it. But beloved, do not put God to the test by marrying an unbeliever when you know full well what the Bible says about it.

2. The Regulative Principle for Worship

The Bible’s ‘regulative principle for worship’ is also underlined by the prohibition against intermarriage. Foreign worship practices, rituals, and pretended holy days have no place in the worship of God’s people. Surrounding Deuteronomy 7, which we cited above, are two other vital texts for the regulative principle for worship. The Lord says through Moses, in chapter 5,

You shall be careful therefore to do as the Lord your God has commanded you. You shall not turn aside to the right hand or to the left.            

—Deuteronomy 5:32

Then in chapter 12, the Lord speaks even more explicitly through Moses, saying,

You shall not worship the Lord your God like the nations whom you disposess, for every abominable thing that the Lord hates they have done for their gods… Everything that I command you, you shall be careful to do. You shall not add to it or take from it.        

—Deuteronomy 12:31-32

A full treatment of the regulative principle for worship is for another time. Here we can simply remember that the underlying issue in Ezra 9, and Deuteronomy before, is that God’s people are to guard the purity of God’s worship according to God’s Word. The failure to do this carries right into the New Testament when Jesus says, “In vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men” (Mark 7:7). Beloved, we are not to go to the right or the left of God’s Word. God defines true worship. All other forms of worship, even directed toward the God of the Bible, are man-made and superstitious. It is nothing less than idolatry. Our confession of faith highlights this point,

The light of nature showeth that there is a God, who hath lordship and sovereignty over all; is good, and doeth good unto all; and is therefore to be feared, loved, praised, called upon, trusted in, and served, with all the heart, and with all the soul, and with all the might. But the acceptable way of worshipping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshipped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representation, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture.         

—Westminster Confession of Faith, 21.1

For all that God has done for Israel, their response is shocking. The returned exiles have fallen into scandalous sin. Far from a life of gratitude for all that God has graciously done, Israel is living in brazen rebellion. It is all the more shocking when we consider God’s scandalous grace.

2. Scandalous Grace (Ezra 9:3-15)

The state of Israel’s moral decline horrifies Ezra. He says in verses 3-5,

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.      

—Ezra 9:3-5

Ezra is appalled. The Hebrew word here describes someone who is ruined, destroyed, desolated, horrified. He is laid waste until the evening sacrifice. At that time he rises from his fasting and he does the only thing that he can. Ezra prays.

He says to the Lord, “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” (Ezra 9:6). Ezra knows that God destroyed Israel for these very sins. What would stop him from doing it again? He is so ashamed that he can barely lift his eyes to the Lord.

Ezra continues to intercede for Israel, remarking of the audacity of perpetrating the same sins as their forefathers, despite God’s grace, saying,

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 peoples who practice these abominations? Would you not be angry with us until you consumed us, so that there should be no remnant, nor any to escape? Would you not be angry with us until you consumed us, so that there should be no remnant, nor any to escape?      

—Ezra 9:13-14

God has every right to wipe Israel off the map, and Ezra knows it. He punished Israel far less than they deserved. And now, after God has graciously blessed them, they turn around and flagrantly rebel against him. God has every right to destroy Israel, but in the end, Ezra concludes that the only reason that they are still alive is because of God’s scandalous grace. He concludes his prayer, saying,

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.            

—Ezra 9:15

In the end, Israel is saved by grace alone.

Beloved, we too live before God by grace alone. For the New Testament is clear that we are all sinners (cf. Rom. 3:9-20). We violate God’s law every day in thought, word, and deed. The awareness of our inability to keep God’s law has driven many a saint into the dark depths of depression. We are hopeless sinners. What born-again Christian hasn’t said with, Paul, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Rom. 7:24)? 

We are hopeless sinners, and yet God gives us a Savior. Who will deliver us from this body of death? “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom. 7:25). Jesus didn’t save us because of anything that we did to merit his favor. He saved us because we were, and are hopeless sinners; and yet he still gives us his name. Christian, now that’s what I call scandalous grace.