Getting Things Right
Repentance may be felt (and usually is felt) at a deep emotional level. But this does not remove the need to be careful and deliberate in how things are set right.
Now when Ezra had prayed, and when he had confessed, weeping and casting himself down before the house of God, there assembled unto him out of Israel a very great congregation of men and women and children: for the people wept very sore. . . . (Ezra 10:1-44).
A number of repentant Israelites gathered to Ezra (v. 1). Shechaniah spoke to Ezra encouragingly, and said that there was still room for repentance (v. 2). He suggested that the people of Israel make a covenant with God to divorce their wives in accordance with the law (v. 3). He got Ezra to arise (v. 4), and all Israel swore that this is what they would do (v. 5). Ezra fasted (v. 6), and a proclamation was made to gather Israel (v. 7). A civil penalty was attached for those who did not comply (v. 8). The men of Judah and Benjamin gathered, repentant, during rainy season (v. 9). Ezra called for the divorces (vv. 10-11), and the men responded with a very reasonable counter-proposal (vv. 12-14). Certain men, including Ezra, were set aside to conduct the investigation (vv. 15-16). And the sorting out took three months (v. 17). The priests had led the way in this corruption (vv. 18-22). Levites were implicated (v. 23), as well as musicians (vv. 24). From Israel generally, the offenders are named and listed (vv. 25-43). All these men had taken strange wives, and some of them had had children by them (v. 44).
The previous chapter made plain that these women were to be divorced because of their abominable practices. My understanding of this mandated divorce from the civil magistrate is that it would not have applied to any foreign woman who had previously converted to the worship of the true God, or to any woman, under pressure from this action, decided to break with her people and their iniquitous practices. The only women who were to be put away were those women who persisted in their unbelief and the iniquitous practices that accompanied Canaanitic unbelief. Not to put too fine a point on it, this Canaanitic worship was notoriously immoral, and the Israelite men were commanded to separate themselves—not from women like Ruth, but from women like Jezebel.
Trembling At the Word:
In the previous chapter, we saw that those who gathered to Ezra were those who trembled at the Word of God (9:4). This is repeated again in this chapter (10:3). This was not just the first group who gathered to Ezra readily; it also included the offenders. They gathered and were trembling “because of this matter” and because of the rain (v. 9). Now realize that the only “bad” thing that had happened was that Ezra tore his clothes and hair. There were no earthquakes or lightning bolts, and yet the offenders said that they need to deal with the “fierce wrath” that had come upon them (v. 14). The only fierce wrath they were dealing with at this point was the wrath of the Word. And they trembled.
Because it was such a momentous issue, the people made a covenant to deal with it properly, and the covenant was ratified with an oath. “And they sware” (v. 5).
This is the fundamental difference between sins and crimes. “And that whosoever would not come within three days, according to the counsel of the princes and the elders, all his substance should be forfeited, and himself separated from the congregation of those that had been carried away” (v. 8). There are behaviors that the Bible clearly identifies as sinful, but to which it never attaches any civil penalty. Neither does it authorize the civil magistrate to attach a penalty to such a thing. Consider clear sins like lust or covetousness or worldliness. The civil magistrate is in no way competent to levy a fine on you for having covetous thoughts in your heart—even though such a thing is clearly sinful. Stealing is a sin and a crime, while covetousness is simply a sin. When Scripture attaches a civil penalty (taking all of Scripture into account), so may we. And we may also do so when we are reasoning by extension and by analogy. In this instance, marriage to pagan women with iniquitous practices was in itself a crime, and Ezra did not hesitate to apply civil penalties.
There is no indication here that Ezra did anything out of line with the law of God. Shecaniah suggested this because he (and the others) trembled at the commandment of God. And he stipulated that the whole thing had to be done “according to the law” (v. 3). And what did the law require? The law required (assuming no repentance on the part of the women) dissolution of numerous marriages. This was not a family values moment. This was not a traditional values moment. This was a biblical law moment. We are to tremble at the law of God, which is not the same thing as gravitating to idols of the hearth. Home-oriented Christians (as we are) need to remember that household idols are among the most ancient idols.
Examining the Matter:
The fact that the sin was great did not permit Ezra and the others to “generalize.” Each situation was unique, and it was necessary for them to work through it carefully, and doing so took them three months. The word used here is darash—seek with care. This was due diligence. When something is obviously wrong (as it was to Ezra), it is easy to assume that you know all the details of why it is wrong. But this does not follow. Ezra knew enough to tear his hair and clothing the moment he heard of the problem. At the same time, he did not take any particular action concerning others without investigating carefully. And with this, all the biblical principles of justice come into play.
Confession and Restitution:
“Now therefore make confession unto the LORD God of your fathers, and do his pleasure: and separate yourselves from the people of the land, and from the strange wives” (v. 11). The Bible never encourages us to think that repentance is a mere nodding of the head. In Scripture, confession is always accompanied by restitution where called for, and correction of life. Notice the text here first. “Make confession to God” is first. “Do His pleasure” is second. “Separate yourselves from the people of the land” is third. John the Baptist put it this way. “Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance” (Matt. 3:8).
The doctrine of “separation” has been much abused by legalists and fundamentalists. But since we don’t have any of them here, what shall we do with this example in Scripture? Why are you entangled with heathenish practices? Why do you and the spirit of worldliness get along so famously? What are you going to do to separate yourself?
Notice in all this that the alliances with the pagans were through the children intermarrying. This would not have happened had the children, as they were growing, not been casting sidelong and envious glances at the world.