Friday, April 11, 2008

Ezra's Prayer for the People's Sins

Ezra’s Prayer

Ezra 9

1After these things had been done, the leaders came to me and said, “Ezra, the
Israelites, including the priests and Levites, have not kept themselves separate
from the people around us. Those neighbors do evil things, as the Canaanites,
Hittites, Perizzites, Jebusites, Ammonites, Moabites, Egyptians, and Amorites
did. 2The Israelite men and their sons have married these women. They have
mixed the people who belong to God with the people around them. The leaders
and officers of Israel have led the rest of the Israelites to do this unfaithful thing.”

3When I heard this, I angrily tore my robe and coat, pulled hair from my head
and beard, and sat down in shock. 4Everyone who trembled in fear at the word of
the God of Israel gathered around me because of the unfaithfulness of the
captives who had returned. I sat there in shock until the evening sacrifice.

5At the evening sacrifice I got up from where I had shown my shame. My
robe and coat were torn, and I fell on my knees with my hands spread out to the
LORD my God. 6I prayed,

“My God, I am too ashamed and embarrassed to lift up my face to you, my
God, because our sins are so many. They are higher than our heads. Our guilt
even reaches up to the sky. 7From the days of our ancestors until now, our guilt
has been great. Because of our sins, we, our kings, and our priests have been
punished by the sword and captivity. Foreign kings have taken away our things
and shamed us, even as it is today.

8“But now, for a short time, the LORD our God has been kind to us. He has
let some of us come back from captivity and has let us live in safety in his holy
place. And so our God gives us hope and a little relief from our slavery. 9Even
though we are slaves, our God has not left us. He caused the kings of Persia to be
kind to us and has given us new life. We can rebuild the Temple and repair its
ruins. And he has given us a wall to protect us in Judah and Jerusalem.

10“But now, our God, what can we say after you have done all this? We have
disobeyed your commands 11that you gave through your servants the prophets.
You said, ‘The land you are entering to own is ruined; the people living there
have spoiled it by the evil they do. Their evil filled the land with uncleanness
from one end to the other. 12So do not let your daughters marry their sons, and do
not let their daughters marry your sons. Do not wish for their peace or success.
Then you will be strong and eat the good things of the land. Then you can leave
this land to your descendants forever.’

13“What has happened to us is our own fault. We have done evil things, and
our guilt is great. But you, our God, have punished us less than we deserve; you
have left a few of us alive. 14We should not again break your commands by
allowing marriages with these wicked people. If we did, you would get angry
enough to destroy us, and none of us would be left alive. 15LORD, God of Israel,
by your goodness a few of us are left alive today. We admit that we are guilty
and none of us should be allowed to stand before you.”

The Holy Bible, New Century Version

Ezra 9

The affairs of the church were in a very good posture, we may well suppose,
now that Ezra presided in them. Look without; the government was kind to them.
We hear no complaints of persecution and oppression; their enemies had either
their hearts turned or at least their hands tied; their neighbours were civil, and we
hear of no wars nor rumours of wars; there were none to make them afraid; all
was as well as could be, considering that they were few, and poor, and subjects to
a foreign prince. Look at home; we hear nothing of Baal, or Ashtaroth, nor
Moloch, no images, nor groves, nor golden calves, no, nor so much as high
places (not only no idolatrous altars, but no separate ones), but the temple was
duly respected and the temple service carefully kept up. Yet all was not well
either. The purest ages of the church have had some corruptions, and it will never
be presented “without spot or wrinkle” till it is “a glorious church,” a church
“triumphant,” Eph. 5:27. We have here, I. A complaint brought to Ezra of the
many marriages that had been made with strange wives (v. 1, 2). II. The great
trouble which he, and others influenced by his example, were in upon this
information (v. 3, 4). III. The solemn confession which he made of this sin to
God, with godly sorrow, and shame (v. 5-15).


Ezra, like Barnabas when he came to Jerusalem and saw the grace of God to
his brethren there, no doubt was glad, and exhorted them all that with purpose of
heart they would cleave to the Lord,
Acts 11:23. He saw nothing amiss (many
corruptions lurk out of the view of the most vigilant rulers); but here is a damp
upon his joys: information is brought him that many of the people, yea, and some
of the rulers, had married wives out of heathen families, and joined themselves in
affinity with strangers. Observe,

I. What the sin was that they were guilty of: it was mingling with the people of
those lands
(v. 2), associating with them both in trade and in conversation,
making themselves familiar with them, and, to complete the affinity, taking their
daughters in marriages
to their sons. We are willing to hope that they did not
worship their gods, but that their captivity had cured them of their idolatry: it is
said indeed that they did according to their abominations; but that (says bishop
Patrick) signifies here only the imitation of the heathen in promiscuous marriages
with any nation whatsoever, which by degrees would lead them to idolatry.
Herein, 1. They disobeyed the express command of God, which forbade all
intimacy with the heathen, and particularly in matrimonial contracts, Deu. 7:3. 2.
They profaned the crown of their peculiarity, and set themselves upon a level
with those above whom God had by singular marks of his favour, of late as well
as formerly, dignified them. 3. They distrusted the power of God to protect and
advance them, and were led by carnal policy, hoping to strengthen themselves
and make an interest among their neighbours by these alliances. A practical
disbelief of God’s all-sufficiency is at the bottom of all the sorry shifts we make
to help ourselves. 4. They exposed themselves, and much more their children, to
the peril of idolatry, the very sin, and introduced by this very way, that had cone
been the ruin of their church and nation.

II. Who were the persons that were guilty of this sin, not only some of the
unthinking people of Israel, that knew no better, but many of the priests and
whose office it was to teach the law, and this law among the rest, and in
whom, by reason of their elevation above common Israelites, it was a greater
crime. It was a diminution to the sons of that tribe to match into any other tribe,
and they seldom did except into the royal tribe; but for them to match with
heathen, with Canaanites, and Hittites, and I know not whom, was such a
disparagement as, if they had had any sense, though not of duty, yet of honour,
one would think, they would never have been guilty of. Yet this was not the
worst: The hand of the princes and rulers, who by their power should have
prevented or reformed this high misdemeanour, was chief in this trespass. If
princes be in a trespass, they will be charged as chief in it, because of the
influence their examples will have upon others. Many will follow their pernicious
But miserable is the case of that people whose leaders debauch them and
cause them to err.

III. The information that was given of this to Ezra. It was given by the persons
that were most proper to complain, the princes, those of them that had kept their
integrity and with it their dignity; they could not have accused others if they
themselves had not been free from blame. It was given to the person who had
power to mend the matter, who, as a ready scribe in the law of God, could argue
with them, and, as king’s commissioner, could awe them. It is probable that these
princes had often endeavoured to redress this grievance and could not; but now
they applied to Ezra, hoping that his wisdom, authority, and interest, would
prevail to do it. Those that cannot of themselves reform public abuses may yet do
good service by giving information to those that can.

IV. The impression this made upon Ezra (v. 3): He rent his clothes, plucked off
his hair,
and sat down astonished. Thus he expressed the deep sense he had, 1.
Of the dishonour hereby done to God. It grieved him to the heart to think that a
people called by his name should so grossly violate his law, should be so little
benefited by his correction, and make such bad returns for his favours. 2. Of the
mischief the people had hereby done to themselves and the danger they were in
of the wrath of God breaking out against them. Note, (1.) The sins of others
should be our sorrow, and the injury done by them to God’s honour and the souls
of men is what we should lay to heart. (2.) Sorrow for sin must be great sorrow;
such Ezra’s was, as for an only son or a first-born. (3.) The scandalous sins of
professors are what we have reason to be astonished at. We may stand amazed to
see men contradict, disparage, prejudice, ruin, themselves. Strange that men
should act so inconsiderately and so inconsistently with themselves! Upright men
are astonished at it.

V. The influence which Ezra’s grief for this had upon others. We may suppose
that he went up to the house of the Lord, there to humble himself, because he had
an eye to God in his grief and that was the proper place for deprecating his
displeasure. Public notice was soon taken of it, and all the devout serious people
that were at hand assembled themselves to him, it should seem of their own
accord, for nothing is said of their being sent, to, v. 4. Note, 1. It is the character
of good people that they tremble at God’s word; they stand in awe of the
authority of its precepts and the severity and justice of its threatenings, and to
those that do so will God look, Isa. 66:2. 2. Those that tremble at the word of God
cannot but tremble at the sins of men, by which the law of God is broken and his
wrath and curse are incurred. 3. The pious zeal of one against sin may perhaps
provoke very many to the like, as the apostle speaks in another case, 2 Co. 9:2.
Many will follow who have not consideration, talent, and courage, enough to
lead in a good work. 4. All good people ought to own those that appear and act in
the cause of God against vice and profaneness, to stand by them, and do what
they can to strengthen their hands.


What the meditations of Ezra’s heart were, while for some hours he sat down
astonished, we may guess by the words of his mouth when at length he spoke
with his tongue;
and a most pathetic address he here makes to Heaven upon this
occasion. Observe,

I. The time when he made this address—at the evening sacrifice, v. 5. Then (it
is likely) devout people used to come into the courts of the temple, to grace the
solemnity of the sacrifice and to offer up their own prayers to God in concurrence
with it. In their hearing Ezra chose to make this confession, that they might be
made duly sensible of the sins of their people, which hitherto they had either not
taken notice of or had made light of. Prayer may preach. The sacrifice, and
especially the evening sacrifice, was a type of the great propitiation, that blessed
Lamb of God
which in the evening of the world was to take away sin by the
sacrifice of himself,
to which we may suppose Ezra had an eye of faith in this
penitential address to God; he makes confession with his hand, as it were, upon
the head of that great sacrifice, through which we receive the atonement.
Certainly Ezra was no stranger to the message which the angel Gabriel had some
years ago delivered to Daniel, at the time of the evening sacrifice, and as it were
in explication of it, concerning Messiah the Prince (Dan. 9:21, 24); and perhaps
he had regard to that in choosing this time.

II. His preparation for this address. 1. He rose up from his heaviness, and so far
shook off the burden of his grief as was necessary to the lifting up of his heart to
God. He recovered from his astonishment, got the tumult of his troubled spirits
somewhat stilled and his spirit composed for communion with God. 2. He fell
upon his knees,
put himself into the posture of a penitent humbling himself and a
petitioner suing for mercy, in both representing the people for whom he was now
an intercessor. 3. He spread out his hands, as one affected with what he was
going to say, offering it up unto God, waiting, and reaching out, as it were, with
an earnest expectation, to receive a gracious answer. In this he had an eye to God
as the Lord, and as his God, a God of power, but a God of grace.

III. The address itself. It is not properly to be called a prayer, for there is not a
word of petition in it; but, if we give prayer its full latitude, it is the offering up
of pious and devout affections to God, and very devout, very pious, are the
affections which Ezra here expresses. His address is a penitent confession of sin,
not his own (from a conscience burdened with its own guilt and apprehensive of
his own danger), but the sin of his people, from a gracious concern for the honour
of God and the welfare of Israel. Here is a lively picture of ingenuous repentance.
Observe in this address,

1. The confession he makes of the sin and the aggravations of it, which he
insists upon, to affect his own heart and theirs that joined with him with holy
sorrow and shame and fear, in the consideration of it, that they might be deeply
humbled for it. And it is observable that, though he himself was wholly clear
from this guilt, yet he puts himself into the number of the sinners, because he was
a member of the same community—our sins and our trespass. Perhaps he now
remembered it against himself, as his fault, that he had staid so long after his
brethren in Babylon, and had not separated himself so soon as he might have
done from the people of those lands. When we are lamenting the wickedness of
the wicked, it may be, if we duly reflect upon ourselves and give our own hearts
leave to deal faithfully with us, we may find something of the same nature,
though in a lower degree, that we also have been guilty of. However, he speaks
that which was, or should have been, the general complaint.

(1.) He owns their sins to have been very great: “Our iniquities are increased
over our heads
(v. 6); we are ready to perish in them as in keep waters;” so
general was the prevalency of them, so violent the power of them, and so
threatening were they of the most pernicious consequences. “Iniquity has grown
up to such a height among us that it reaches to the heavens, so very impudent that
it dares heaven, so very provoking that, like the sin of Sodom, it cries to heaven
for vengeance.” But let this be the comfort of true penitents that though their sins
reach to the heavens God’s mercy is in the heavens, Ps. 36:5. Where sin abounds
grace will much more abound.

(2.) Their sin had been long persisted in (v. 7): Since the days of our fathers
have we been in a great trespass.
The example of those that had gone before
them he thought so far from excusing their fault that it aggravated it. “We should
have taken warning not to stumble at the same stone. The corruption is so much
the worse that it has taken deep root and begins to plead prescription, but by this
means we have reason to fear that the measure of the iniquity is nearly full.”

(3.) The great and sore judgments which God had brought upon them for their
sins did very much aggravate them: “For our iniquities we have been delivered to
the sword and to captivity
(v. 7), and yet not reformed, yet not reclaimed—
brayed in the mortar, and yet the folly not gone (Prov. 27:22)—corrected, but not

(4.) The late mercies God had bestowed upon them did likewise very much
aggravate their sins. This he insists largely upon, v. 8, 9. Observe, [1.] The time
of mercy: Now for a little space, that is, “It is but a little while since we had our
liberty, and it is not likely to continue long.” This greatly aggravated their sin,
that they were so lately in the furnace and that they knew not how soon they
might return to it again; and could they yet be secure? [2.] The fountain of mercy:
Grace has been shown us from the Lord. The kings of Persia were the
instruments of their enlargement; but he ascribes it to God and to his grace, his
free grace, without any merit of theirs. [3.] The streams of mercy,—that they
were not forsaken in their bondage, but even in Babylon had the tokens of God’s
presence,—that they were a remnant of Israelites left, a few out of many, and
those narrowly escaped out of the hands of their enemies, by the favour of the
kings of Persia,—and especially that they had a nail in his holy place, that is (as
it is explained, v. 9), that they had set up the house of God. They had their
religion settled and the service of the temple in a constant method. We are to
reckon it a great comfort and advantage to have stated opportunities of
worshipping God. Blessed are those that dwell in God’s house, like Anna that
departed not from the temple. This is my rest for ever, says the gracious soul. [4.]
The effects of all this. It enlightened their eyes, and it revived their hearts; that is,
it was very comfortable to them, and the more sensibly so because it was in their
bondage: it was life from the dead to them. Though but a little reviving, it was a
great favour, considering that they deserved none and the day of small things was
an earnest of greater. “Now,” says Ezra, “how ungrateful are we to offend a God
that has been so kind to us! how disingenuous to mingle in sin with those nations
from whom we have been, in wonderful mercy, delivered! how unwise to expose
ourselves to God’s displeasure when we are tried with the returns of his favour
and are upon our good behaviour for the continuance of it!”

(5.) It was a great aggravation of the sin that it was against an express
command: We have forsaken thy commandments, v. 10. It seems to have been an
ancient law of the house of Jacob not to match with the families of the
uncircumcised, Gen. 34:14. But, besides that, God had strictly forbidden it. He
recites the command, v. 11, 12. For sin appears sin, appears exceedingly sinful,
when we compare it with the law which is broken by it. Nothing could be more
express: Give not your daughters to their sons, nor take their daughters to your
The reason given is because, if they mingled with those nations, they would
pollute themselves. It was an unclean land, and they were a holy people; but if
they kept themselves distinct from them it would be their honour and safety, and
the perpetuating of their prosperity. Now to violate a command so express,
backed with such reasons, and a fundamental law of their constitution, was very
provoking to the God of heaven.

(6.) That in the judgments by which they had already smarted for their sins
God had punished them less than their iniquities deserved, so that he looked upon
them to be still in debt upon the old account. “What! and yet shall we run up a
new score? Has God dealt so gently with us in correcting us, and shall we thus
abuse his favour and turn his grace into wantonness?” God, in his grace and
mercy, had said concerning Sion’s captivity, She hath received of the Lord’s
hand double for all her sins
(Isa. 40:2); but Ezra, in a penitential sense of the
great malignity that was in their sin, acknowledged that, though the punishment
was very great, it was less than they deserved.

2. The devout affections that were working in him, in making this confession.
Speaking of sin,

(1.) He speaks as one much ashamed. With this he begins (v. 6), O my God! I
am ashamed and blush, O my God!
(so the words are placed) to lift up my face
unto thee.
Note, [1.] Sin is a shameful thing; as soon as ever our first parents had
eaten forbidden fruit they were ashamed of themselves. [2.] Holy shame is as
necessary an ingredient in true and ingenuous repentance as holy sorrow. [3.] The
sins of others should be our shame, and we should blush for those who do not
blush for themselves. We may well be ashamed that we are any thing akin to
those who are so ungrateful to God and unwise for themselves. This is clearing
2 Co. 7:11. [4.] Penitent sinners never see so much reason to blush and
be ashamed as when they come to lift up their faces before God. A natural sense
of our own honour which we have injured will make us ashamed, when we have
done a wrong thing, to look men in the face; but a gracious concern for God’s
honour will make us much more ashamed to look him in the face. The publican,
when he went to the temple to pray, hung down his head more than ever, as one
ashamed, Lu. 18:13. [5.] An eye to God as our God will be of great use to us in
the exercise of repentance. Ezra begins, O my God! and again in the same breath,
My God. The consideration of our covenant-relation to God as ours will help to
humble us, and break our hearts for sin, that we should violate both his precepts
to us and our promises to him; it will also encourage us to hope for pardon upon
repentance. “He is my God, notwithstanding this;” and every transgression in the
covenant does not throw us out of covenant.

(2.) He speaks as one much amazed (v. 10) “What shall we say after this? For
my part I know not what to say: if God do not help us, we are undone.” The
discoveries of guilt excite amazement: the more we think of sin the worse it
looks. The difficulty of the case excites amazement. How shall we recover
ourselves? Which way shall we make our peace with God? [1.] True penitents are
at a loss what to say. Shall we say, We have not sinned, or, God will not require
If we do, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. Shall we say, Have
patience with us and we will pay thee all, with thousands of rams, or our first-
born for our transgression?
God will not thus be mocked: he knows we are
insolvent. Shall we say, There is no hope, and let come on us what will? That is
but to make bad worse. [2.] True penitents will consider what to say, and should,
as Ezra, beg of God to teach them. What shall we say? Say, “I have sinned; I
have done foolishly; God be merciful to me a sinner;” and the like. See Hos.

(3.) He speaks as one much afraid, v. 13, 14. “After all the judgments that have
come upon us to reclaim us from sin, and all the deliverances that have been
wrought for us to engage us to God and duty, if we should again break God’s
commandments, by joining in affinity with the children of disobedience
learning their ways, what else could we expect but that God should be angry with
us till he had consumed us,
and there should not be so much as a remnant left,
nor any to escape the destruction?” There is not a surer nor sadder presage of ruin
to any people than revolting to sin, to the same sins again, after great judgments
and great deliverances. Those that will be wrought upon neither by the one nor
by the other are fit to be rejected, as reprobate silver, for the founder melteth in

(4.) He speaks as one much assured of the righteousness of God, and resolved
to acquiesce in that and to leave the matter with him whose judgment is
according to truth (v. 15): “Thou art righteous, wise, just, and good; thou wilt
neither do us wrong nor be hard upon us; and therefore behold we are before
we lie at thy feet, waiting our doom; we cannot stand before thee, insisting
upon any righteousness of our own, having no plea to support us or bring us off,
and therefore we fall down before thee, in our trespass, and cast ourselves on thy
mercy. Do unto us whatsoever seemeth good unto thee, Jdg. 10:15. We have
nothing to say, nothing to do, but to make supplication to our Judge,” Job 9:15.
Thus does this good man lay his grief before God and then leave it with him.

Matthew Henrys Commentary on the Old Testament

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