Even Now There Is Hope (Ezra 10:1-44)

FPCNorwayEzra: Building the House of God

The book of Ezra leaves us wanting more because that is how we should feel. Our final hope should not be in the faithfulness of man but in the steadfast love of God. God does amazing things through his people, but in the end, it is God who does it. I am afraid that if Ezra concluded with a glossy view of the exiles then we would end up looking in the wrong place. Our hope for the future should never be in the capability of people, but in the faithfulness of God to save the incapable.

Even Now There Is Hope

Rev. Matthew J. Stanghelle
April 19, 2020

If we imagined the storyline of Ezra like the stock market, we would be down by the end of it. Highlights fill the book. God’s people return home according to God’s promise. Pagan kings eagerly send them and bountifully supply them. They rebuild the temple and restore the worship of God in the promised land. There are moments of great faith and courage. God’s people even respond in faithfulness and obedience at many key moments. But in the end, they rebel. Ezra concludes with a whimper. There is repentance, but in the end, it leaves you wanting so much more. What’s the point of it all?

Ezra’s miserable conclusion points us to a greater hope than what the children of Israel can achieve on their own. If we pay attention, we will find that even now, there is hope. As we look at our own lives and survey the countless times that we fail God, we must place our hope in something far more significant than ourselves. We must find our hope in the unmerited grace of the Lord. In the final analysis, it is God’s covenant faithfulness to his people that gives us eternal hope. After all, it is God who builds the house, and so it is God who will bring that work to completion. While Ezra’s conclusion leaves something left to be desired, let’s find grace in the greater ending to which it points.

We will unpack this final chapter in three movements. In Ezra 10, we find…

1. A Miserable Conclusion

In the last chapter, we found Ezra lying in the dust, and that is where we still see him in chapter 10. The shock of Israel’s sin leaves him in bitter anguish. He knows that God has every right to destroy his people. But Israel’s betrayal is all the more grievous when you consider God’s goodness towards them. Israel’s treachery leaves Ezra, as every godly leader should be, weeping tears of grief and making intercession for the people.

Consider how Ezra’s hopes are dashed. He longed to study, obey, and teach God’s law to Israel. He had the good favor of God to be sent by Artaxerxes to do just that. God gathers a great assembly around Ezra to return to the promised land and encourage the people. But now he finds that he has to scold them instead. Perhaps it should be so. For every reform and revival begins with repentance. And sometimes, that cannot be achieved until people see the personal response of the reformer. They come to see the gravity of their sin in beholding the response of Ezra lying on the ground in prayer, fasting, and grief.

Now, the current leaders over the people are doing a terrible job. They outstrip Israel’s zeal in committing this appalling sin of marrying foreign women who bring their idolatrous worship rituals with them. This pagan and syncretistic response is abominable. They are in direct rebellion to God’s law. How will they respond to the reformer’s rebuke? We do see a sign of grace in this miserable conclusion. One of the leaders, by the name of Shecaniah, acknowledges their sin, saying, “We have broken faith with our God and have married foreign women from the peoples of the land” (Ezra 10:2).

A very great assembly has gathered around Ezra in these words. Their reformer rises from the dust to hear them. Shecaniah continues, “Therefore let us make a covenant with our God and put away all these wives and their children, according to the counsel of my lord and of those who tremble at the commandment of our God, and let it be done according to the Law” (Ezra 10:3). Not only do the people confess their sin, but they already have a plan to make things right with God. That kind of response should bring hope to any minister.

But there is more hope for the reformer still. Shecaniah concludes his speech with an appeal to Ezra, “Arise, for it is your task, and we are with you; be strong and do it.” These are the kinds of words that any minister wants to hear. The elders expect him to administer discipline to the guilty parties. How often it is the opposite when leaders hold back the minister from obeying Scripture to the full, particularly in the area of discipline. The guilty person goes unchecked among the people of God. Meanwhile, that person remains in their sin, they are a danger to the congregation, and the failure to discipline brings guilt upon the whole church.

Remember the sexual immorality that plagued the church in Corinth. This church is condoning, even celebrating, at least one person running rampant in scandalous sin. Their boastful negligence is damning to the whole church. For starters, church discipline is for the reclamation of the sinner. Paul says, “You are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” (1 Cor. 5:5). Second, church discipline is for the spiritual safety of the whole community. Paul says, “Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump?” (1 Cor. 5:7). Unchecked sin in one person encourages others to follow in their example. Finally, church discipline protects the church from God’s judgment. Unchecked sin in Corinth was causing many to fall sick and even die. Paul says, “That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves rightly, we would not be judged” (1 Cor. 11:29-31).

For the sake of God’s people, we must practice church discipline when there is flagrant, notorious, and public sin in the church. Just as in Ezra’s day, God’s judgment will fall on us when we leave such guilt unchecked. And the response of church elders and leaders should be to support the ministers in administering this discipline. Indeed they should expect it from them. How glad is the minister who has the ardent support of his elders and congregation in the administration of the Word of God? They should all be as Shecaniah to Ezra, saying, “Arise, for it is your task, and we are with you; be strong and do it” (Ezra 10:4).

2. A Mixed Response

Ezra rises in response to these words and makes the leading priests and Levites, along with all the people, take an oath to put away the foreign wives and their children (Ezra 10:3). Note here the great misery of sin. Think of the estate of these women and children. They now have no husband and no father to provide for them. We are told nothing of the nature of this separation. There is no word about how they carried out the act other than Ezra appointed leaders to ensure that it was done (Ezra 10:16-17). But look at the cost. An untold number of women and children are abandoned. 

The act needed to be done. God expected it. Ezra supported it. But look at the cost. The response of God’s people is not wholly satisfactory. What is good is that the majority of people support the decision. They acknowledge the gravity of their sin. They even recognize that they must put away the foreign women and children until, as the text says, “until the fierce wrath of our God over this matter is turned away from us” (Ezra 10:14). Again, happy is the minister whose people acknowledge their guilt when confronted and when they act upon that repentance.

But not everyone is happy, for other leaders opposed the action. Now, verse 15 is difficult to interpret. Are these leaders opposed to the whole edict, or in the delay? One commentator posits a few possible scenarios, “The truth of the narrative is indicated by the candor with which the opposition to the reform measures is recorded. Why these four men opposed the measure is unclear. Perhaps they were protecting themselves or their relatives. Perhaps they viewed the measures of separation as too harsh. Less probably they were fanatics who wished no delay in implementing the measure.”[1]

Regardless of the nature of the opposition, this mixed response shows that all is not well in Israel. As I read this, I can’t help but think about denominational assemblies and elder meetings. Whenever a resolution is debated on the floor, there is almost inevitably a mixed response. Some are adamantly for the recommendation, some likewise are against it. And then there is usually a myriad of middle-ground arguments. This kind of debate happened in the New Testament too. In the Jerusalem council in Acts 15, there was fierce debate about what to do with Gentiles joining the church. I’m afraid that this kind of debate is a necessary evil of living in a fallen world as the people of God. We look forward to that day when the King of Kings will bring absolute rule and order to God’s people. Until then, we do our best debating serious issues and fighting for the wisest course of action.

In the end, the pagan wives and children are purged. Though it was a mixed response, they got the job done. Ezra saw to it personally by appointing the heads of each clan to examine their families (Ezra 10:16-17). Moreover, they were named. This sin is very public, and so the guilty should be publicly named. The list organizes the names into three groups. The guilty priests are named first, followed by the Levites (Ezra 10:18-23). Then the list concludes with the rest of the people (Ezra 10:25-40).

Now Ezra was not one for writing a compelling conclusion. He simply says of this group of guilty Israelites, “All these had married foreign women, and some of the women had even borne children” (Ezra 10:44). It is almost as if the shame was so much that all Ezra could do was state the plain truth and be done with it. Thus ends the book of Ezra. As I said at the start, for all of the glorious moments in this book, the conclusion certainly leaves something to be desired. What are we to make of this lackluster ending?

3. An Unmerited Hope

The book of Ezra leaves us wanting more because that is how we should feel. Our final hope should not be in the faithfulness of man but in the steadfast love of God. God does amazing things through his people, but in the end, it is God who does it. I am afraid that if Ezra concluded with a glossy view of the exiles then we would end up looking in the wrong place. Our hope for the future should never be in the capability of people, but in the faithfulness of God to save the incapable.

Ezra concludes with a very realistic view of people. They will occasionally do some good. Sometimes they might even do a lot of good. But the outcome will always be a failure. God’s people cannot save themselves. They cannot even manage themselves without severe intervention. As we saw in chapter 9, God’s people have every right to be judged and destroyed. And yet God is faithful to us anyways. There is a clue in this text that points us to the grand point of Ezra. It’s something that Shecaniah said to Ezra in verse 2, “But even now there is hope for Israel in spite of this.”

Beloved, we will sin. Sometimes we will sin badly. The truth is that when we do that, we break faith with our God (cf. Ezra 10:2). God could undoubtedly cast us out. But he doesn’t. We must cling to this glorious truth by faith, “even now,” there is hope despite this. There is a far greater marriage needed than what we find in Ezra. That is the marriage between Christ and the church. This marriage was earned with blood. Christ laid down his life for the church. His blood cleanses us. It was our sins that drove him to the cross so that he could marry a faithless people and sanctify them in his grace.

There is nothing we could ever do to win God’s favor. Our marriage to Christ is by unmerited grace. And even more, the consummation of that marriage is yet to come. The marriage supper of the Lamb is our unmerited hope. Therefore, Ezra rightly points our gaze to that great day when we will dwell with our Savior in consummate purity and glory. I appreciate the way Kathleen Neilson puts it when she writes of this final text in Ezra,

Even the repentant obedience shown by the people seems inadequate; their covenant with a holy God at this point (Ezra 10:3) has a shallow ring, in contrast to God’s unfailing covenant with such a sinful people. But hope is not fully extinguished. For the welfare of the people lies not ultimately in them but in their God. Ezra 10:2 rings out deeply with the words, “even now there is hope for Israel in spite of this.” Believers of all times can hold this hope, “even now,” even when we continually fail, for God’s promises will not fail. Abraham’s seed of blessing for the world has appeared in Christ. Unlike the ill-advised intermarriage of Ezra 10, the perfect marriage will come finally, eternally, in Christ and his bride the church, cleansed by him and presented “to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing … holy and without blemish” (Eph. 5:26–27).[2]         

—Kathleen Nielson, Gospel Transformation Bible: English Standard Version

Beloved, we can cling to this unmerited hope. Though we don’t deserve it, Christ bought us with his blood, and he has made us his own. We are the harlot. He is the faithful groom. How could such a one die for us? We are redeemed by unmerited grace, and that great day of consummation is our unmerited hope in glory.

Therefore, beloved. Let us cast away all sin from ourselves and our congregation. Let us strive to make ourselves ready for that glorious day. Purge the evil. Wash your garments. But find your hope in Christ. For he is the builder of his church, and he is the bridegroom. Jesus has gone ahead to prepare a place for us in glory. Even now, he is building us together as a holy dwelling place by the Spirit. And when he returns, the consummation of our union will be realized. So, let us long together to hear those words in Revelation,

Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready.   

—Revelation 19:6-7

Beloved, even now, there is hope for saints and sinners like us. For “blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb” (Rev. 19:9).

[1] Edwin Yamauchi, “Ezra-Nehemiah,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: 1 & 2 Kings, 1 & 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Job (ed. Frank E. Gaebelein; vol. 4; Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1988), 4672.

[2] Kathleen Nielson, “Ezra,” in Gospel Transformation Bible: English Standard Version (ed. Bryan Chapell and Dane Ortlund; Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013), 576.