For we were slaves. Yet our God did not forsake us in our bondage; but He extended mercy to us in the sight of the kings of Persia, to revive us, to repair the house of our God, to rebuild its ruins, and to give us a wall in Judah and Jerusalem. Ezra 9:9
Ezra’s Prayer of Confession Over Failure to be Separate and Be Holy
When Ezra has been in Judea for a little over 4 months he faces the problem of mixed marriages. Deuteronomy 7:1-5 and Exodus 34:11-16 prohibit intermarriage with pagan peoples because, as God’s chosen people, the Jews are to be “holy to the Lord.” Ezra is appalled to learn that even some of the priests have married Canaanites. He tears his clothes as a mark of public shame and guilt (9:1-5). He then utters one of the Old Testament’s most powerful prayers of confession, in which he identifies himself with God’s sinning people (vv. 6-15).
Key concepts: Shame, Sin, Confession, Separation, Holy, Prayer, Covenant, Remnant
Intermarriage (9:1-2). OT laws of racial separation were intended to maintain the distinctiveness of the covenant people. They were also protective, intended to guard against a fall into idolatry. The principle that marriages should be contracted only between believers is also reflected in the NT (1 Cor 7:39, 2 Cor 6:13-18).
Ezra’s reaction (9:3). Ezra was overcome with grief. Tearing one’s clothing is an act of expressing extreme distress. Ezra felt shame and disgrace. As a Jew, he was one with the community and felt a personal responsibility for Judah’s unfaithfulness. It’s better to weep over others’ actions than to loudly condemn them.
Whose hair do we pull out? (9:3). Ezra tore out some of his hair in his anguish and distress. Later Nehemiah, confronted with the same sin, tore out the hair of the guilty parties (Neh. 13:25). In Neh. 13 the governor is attacking those who went back to their own earlier promise not to marry pagans. The pattern fits a first century Jewish legal procedure, which called for those first instructed concerning a sin to be dealt with gently. Only those who persisted after being instructed were to be punished.
Moral influence (9:4). Ezra had royal authority in Judah to serve as magistrate. But rather than rely on secular authority, he chose to exert moral influence. His personal anguish moved those who shared his awe of God to gather around him and swayed the entire community. We are better off exerting moral influence through teaching and example, than by pressuring for the enactment of “Christian” laws.
Ezra’s prayer (9:6-15). While Ezra and Nehemiah may have reacted differently to the inter-marriage issue, their prayers have much in common (Neh. 9:5-38). Daniel’s prayer of confession also bears a striking resemblance to that of Ezra (cf. Dan 9:4-19). Each contains: a general confession, acknowledgement of former sins, reminders of God’s mercy, further confession of the contemporary sin, and a final admission of guilt linked with an appeal for mercy. This thorough admission of sins can serve as a model for our own prayers of confession today.