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Having Been Through It All

November 18, 2018, More from this speaker 更多关于此讲员: Rev Enoch Keong (Ezra 10:1-44) For more of this sermon series 更多关于此讲道系列: Ezra
Preached at a Mandarin (Sunday) service

Tags: Ezra 以斯拉记

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Title: Having Been Through It All
Date: 18 Nov 2018
Preacher: Rev Enoch Keong

Let’s attempt together a multiple choice question this morning. The question, “What effect or effects does Ezra 10 have on us?” The options for us to choose from:

1) I experience faith struggles when I read Ezra 10.
2) My faith is strengthened when I read Ezra 10.
3) It doesn’t bother me.

(Choose one or more of the above options.)

The question is a simple one, asking for our responses in hearing the first seventeen verses of the chapter read.

May I share mine with us. Mine would be options 1 and 2.

I checked option 1 because for me, reading Ezra 10 simply brought about faith struggles. I guess that would also be the case for many of us, because we see cruelty in this chapter of the bible. As we hear the chapter being read, we are likely to be asking questions, such as: Isn’t it unkind and unfair to drive away those foreign wives just because they are not Israelites by birth? What is going to happen to the children born to these marriages? They are totally innocent; some may have been born for less than a week when this harsh decision was made. Who are they to turn to for their basic needs and for a fatherly figure when being driven away? And isn’t it simply cruel to break families up?

There’s cruelty involved in this passage, no doubt about that. What the Israelites were trying to do here probably wouldn’t make very much sense to modern minds. It is especially so for us who live in a cosmopolitan city that approves of marriages between people of different races and nationalities. Furthermore, we usually don’t frown over marriage between people of different faiths these days, although we may caution the Christians on the potential challenges ahead. What the Israelites are doing in Ezra 10 really doesn’t make very much sense to us.

And to set the record straight, the bible as a whole is actually much more receptive of foreigners. The Book of Exodus explicitly prohibits oppression of residential aliens (Ex 22.21). Approval is also shown toward marriages with other races in some instances. For example David’s grandma, Ruth, was a Moabite, and Matthew just gladly published her name in the first chapter of his gospel. Paul, who lived 2000 years ago, was also approving of marriages with people of a different faith. He counselled the Corinthian Christians not to divorce their unbelieving spouses. Instead, they are to see the situation as an opportunity to win them to the faith.

Having said so, we should also ask what was it that made the Israelites in Ezra’s day did what they did. The basic reason was of course to ensure religious purity, and Ps Chang’an has spoken on that last week. But when we dig deeper, we will soon find one other reason for doing something so drastic, a reason that is more fundamental and akin to the human nature. Ezra 9:1 is our clue. The verse says, “…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…”

The names of the tribes in this verse would be familiar to us who have read the 5 books of Moses. However, according to a bible commentator, Hittites, Perizzites, Jebusites, and Ammonites are people groups that were no longer in existence in Ezra’s day.[1] Ezra’s audience could not have been intermarrying with people groups that had seized to exist.

Something interesting is going on here.

Why are these people groups mentioned in the verse? The reason for it becomes clear when we compare the verse with passages from the 5 books of Moses and do a bit of tracing of Israel’s story. We will use Deuteronomy 7 to do this. The Israelites were told at this point in Deuteronomy to destroy all the original inhabitants of the Promised Land when they entered into it. Otherwise, they will most certainly be corrupted by their ways. The Israelites as we know did not do that. And sure enough, they ended up adopting the values and the ways of the Hittites, Perizzites, Jebusites, and Ammonites. They sinned against God by doing the things that those people groups were doing, and went on sinning till God finally sent them to Babylon as their punishment.

The Israelites then returned to their homeland when the time of punishment had ended. And 75 years has passed by the time we come to Ezra 9 and 10. Initially when the Israelites were back in their homeland, they saw the need to keep a distance from the non-Israelites. They did not want to make the same mistake and suffer the same fate as their ancestors. In Ezra 4, they rejected the local inhabitants who requested to join them in rebuilding the temple. But after three quarter of a century or so, many Israelites have led down their guards, and began to mingle with the people of the land. Some had even intermarried and bore children with them. It’s yesterday once more; the returnees were doing the exact same thing that their ancestors did when they first entered the Promised Land.

So, by chastising the people and by citing the Hittites, Perizzites, Jebusites, and Ammonites, Ezra is stressing that nothing really has changed. God punished, the Israelites learned their lesson, but only for a limited period of time, and it’s again yesterday once more.

Friends, Ezra’s writing helps us see clearly the power of sin. Sin is something we may be able to put away for a while, but we can’t put it away altogether. It just keeps coming back. It maybe that we may have a weakness of sort, and God delivers us form it. Maybe we are that type that enjoy hating others, enjoy hurting others, enjoy killing the spirit in others, enjoy doing things that we won’t want God to know. These things drain us instead for helping us find new strength when we do them, but somehow, we just keep on doing them. Finally, God thinks it’s time for us to sort things out, he convicts us, and delivers us from it. But let’s be sure, from that point onward, it won’t be a sinless life journey till we reach heaven’s gate. Anyone like to disagree on this?

Sin is powerful; sin just doesn’t die, sin just keeps coming back. During Noah’s days, when sin was too much, God washed the world with a lot of water to clean away sinfulness. Then what, it was yesterday once more. God had to make those ancient guys who tried building a tall tower to speak in tongues. Then what, it was again yesterday once more. From Noah till Ezra, the bible tells us that sin just doesn’t die, sin just keeps coming back. That’s the situation we are in, something that Ezra 9 and 10 want us to see.

But the 2 chapters are not all bad news, which is why I also chose option 2 in answering the multiple choice question that we did together earlier on.

What is so encouraging about Ezra 10 is that it wasn’t Ezra, the man of God, who pushed for action. It was Shecaniah and the great assembly of men, women, and children that stood around Ezra weeping bitterly at that time (10:1). Who was this Shecaniah (10:2-4)? We are not sure. He was never named as a prophet or a religious leader. He was just one of them in the very great assembly that day. Only that he was able to stop weeping sooner and started speaking up on behalf of the rest.

If the exact same situation is to happen right here, right now, then this Shecaniah would not be me, nor the worship leader, nor the band, but one of us who is seating on one of the pews. Now that’s great news for us as pastors. For that would mean that although we can’t bid an eternal farewell to sin, we have amongst us reformers. And friends, the example of Shecaniah tells us that we can be that reformer. We can help each other realign and return to right path. We, each of us here, is potentially that reformer.

Such reformers are people with insights. If we are fast enough to count the number of names from verses 18 till the end of Ezra 10, we will find in the list about 110 names. Don’t do the counting now please. Someone else tried dividing 110 with the number of returnees recorded in Ezra 2, and concluded that the problem of intermarriage had only affected a very small portion of the Israelite community. 110 people translate into 0.58% from the religious sector and 0.67% from the non-religious sector. Add then up, and it is a problem that affected less than 1.5% of the male population. But the insightful Shecaniahs would be able to spot the danger lurking therein and start the work of reformation.

Don’t get me wrong, and what I am about to say is something very serious. I am not encouraging us to go around and be moral police, to keep hunting for the virus lurking in the room, and when we think that we have detected something, we go disinfect, disinfect. We will be killing the fragrance that God put on the saints with our disinfectants if this is what we do. So, if this is the way we understand what we are saying here; disinfect our thinking, now, please.

Reformers, rather, are like the ones who stood around Ezra on that day. People who are able to be moved by God’s word to weep bitterly; people whom God words really can cause that stirring in them, to the point that they would give up their preferences for his glory.

God’s word stirred the men, women and children that were around Ezra, so gender and age post no barriers to God’s word. God’s word stirred a commoner named Shecaniah, so we need not be somebody in order for God to make us reformers. But, is God’s word able to cause that stirring in us, so that we would give up our preferences for his glory?

When we come across a verse that says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”, is the verse still speaking to us?

The bible says, “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. (Heb 10:24-5) Does the verse cause a thud in our heart?

When we read in the book of Romans, “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, "Abba! Father!"” (Rom 8:15) Do we find joy in reading these words, or joy would only come with our year-end bonus?

Is God’s word able to still cause that stirring in us, so that we would give up our preferences for his glory? Ezra suggests for us in this chapter an important element that would help us be responsive to the work of the word of God.

We started the preaching series on Ezra by saying that the book should clue us on how to be the New People of God, and stressed that “to be able to see God at work behind the scene is one definitive characteristic of the new people of God.” Now that we are at the final chapter of the book, I find the way in which it ends concludes perfectly what we had started out with. Let me use my understanding of Ezra to say I mean. Ezra began by affirming that God is at work behind the scene. And to his people who had experienced God for real – God’s wrath and God’s goodness – to these people who have been through it all, he now says to them that they are to have a healthy fear of God, to always let the word of God stir them, moving them to do that which is godly. It took Babylon for the Israelites to know how to weep bitterly with Ezra, to develop a healthy fear of God. Let us be wiser, especially since we are also reminded of the power of sin this morning. As we end this preaching series, may I leave with us this verse, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.” (Prov 9:10).

And for us who are willing to fear the Lord, may we be also given wisdom on how to maintain the integrity of our faith, while not excluding others in our multi-racial cosmopolitan society.

[1] Mark A. Throntveit, Interpretation: Ezra-Nehemiah, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1992. 51.

Ezra 10 (Listen)

10:1 While Ezra prayed and made confession, weeping and casting himself down before the house of God, a very great assembly of men, women, and children, gathered to him out of Israel, for the people wept bitterly. And Shecaniah the son of Jehiel, of the sons of Elam, addressed Ezra: “We have broken faith with our God and have married foreign women from the peoples of the land, but even now there is hope for Israel in spite of this. Therefore let us make a covenant with our God to 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. Arise, for it is your task, and we are with you; be strong and do it.” Then Ezra arose and made the leading priests and Levites and all Israel take an oath that they would do as had been said. So they took the oath.

Then Ezra withdrew from before the house of God and went to the chamber of Jehohanan the son of Eliashib, where he spent the night, neither eating bread nor drinking water, for he was mourning over the faithlessness of the exiles. And a proclamation was made throughout Judah and Jerusalem to all the returned exiles that they should assemble at Jerusalem, and that if anyone did not come within three days, by order of the officials and the elders all his property should be forfeited, and he himself banned from the congregation of the exiles.

Then all the men of Judah and Benjamin assembled at Jerusalem within the three days. It was the ninth month, on the twentieth day of the month. And all the people sat in the open square before the house of God, trembling because of this matter and because of the heavy rain. 10 And Ezra the priest stood up and said to them, “You have broken faith and married foreign women, and so increased the guilt of Israel. 11 Now then make confession to the LORD, the God of your fathers and do his will. Separate yourselves from the peoples of the land and from the foreign wives.” 12 Then all the assembly answered with a loud voice, “It is so; we must do as you have said. 13 But the people are many, and it is a time of heavy rain; we cannot stand in the open. Nor is this a task for one day or for two, for we have greatly transgressed in this matter. 14 Let our officials stand for the whole assembly. Let all in our cities who have taken foreign wives come at appointed times, and with them the elders and judges of every city, until the fierce wrath of our God over this matter is turned away from us.” 15 Only Jonathan the son of Asahel and Jahzeiah the son of Tikvah opposed this, and Meshullam and Shabbethai the Levite supported them.

16 Then the returned exiles did so. Ezra the priest selected men, heads of fathers' houses, according to their fathers' houses, each of them designated by name. On the first day of the tenth month they sat down to examine the matter; 17 and by the first day of the first month they had come to the end of all the men who had married foreign women.

18 Now there were found some of the sons of the priests who had married foreign women: Maaseiah, Eliezer, Jarib, and Gedaliah, some of the sons of Jeshua the son of Jozadak and his brothers. 19 They pledged themselves to put away their wives, and their guilt offering was a ram of the flock for their guilt. 20 Of the sons of Immer: Hanani and Zebadiah. 21 Of the sons of Harim: Maaseiah, Elijah, Shemaiah, Jehiel, and Uzziah. 22 Of the sons of Pashhur: Elioenai, Maaseiah, Ishmael, Nethanel, Jozabad, and Elasah.

23 Of the Levites: Jozabad, Shimei, Kelaiah (that is, Kelita), Pethahiah, Judah, and Eliezer. 24 Of the singers: Eliashib. Of the gatekeepers: Shallum, Telem, and Uri.

25 And of Israel: of the sons of Parosh: Ramiah, Izziah, Malchijah, Mijamin, Eleazar, Hashabiah, and Benaiah. 26 Of the sons of Elam: Mattaniah, Zechariah, Jehiel, Abdi, Jeremoth, and Elijah. 27 Of the sons of Zattu: Elioenai, Eliashib, Mattaniah, Jeremoth, Zabad, and Aziza. 28 Of the sons of Bebai were Jehohanan, Hananiah, Zabbai, and Athlai. 29 Of the sons of Bani were Meshullam, Malluch, Adaiah, Jashub, Sheal, and Jeremoth. 30 Of the sons of Pahath-moab: Adna, Chelal, Benaiah, Maaseiah, Mattaniah, Bezalel, Binnui, and Manasseh. 31 Of the sons of Harim: Eliezer, Isshijah, Malchijah, Shemaiah, Shimeon, 32 Benjamin, Malluch, and Shemariah. 33 Of the sons of Hashum: Mattenai, Mattattah, Zabad, Eliphelet, Jeremai, Manasseh, and Shimei. 34 Of the sons of Bani: Maadai, Amram, Uel, 35 Benaiah, Bedeiah, Cheluhi, 36 Vaniah, Meremoth, Eliashib, 37 Mattaniah, Mattenai, Jaasu. 38 Of the sons of Binnui: Shimei, 39 Shelemiah, Nathan, Adaiah, 40 Machnadebai, Shashai, Sharai, 41 Azarel, Shelemiah, Shemariah, 42 Shallum, Amariah, and Joseph. 43 Of the sons of Nebo: Jeiel, Mattithiah, Zabad, Zebina, Jaddai, Joel, and Benaiah. 44 All these had married foreign women, and some of the women had even borne children.

(ESV)