Ezra & Nehemiahby Robert M. Solomon
When a patient is diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, doctors will not delay in instituting drastic measures to save the patient. This is true in spiritual matters too.
The leaders in the community set into motion a process of repentance and renunciation. They start by summoning all to gather in Jerusalem, warning that failure to do so would result in the loss of membership in the community and property in the land (Ezra 10:7-8). The people meet, and are ″greatly distressed by the occasion and because of the rain″ (v. 9). There is ″shivering misery″11 that comes from both spiritual and physical discomfort.
Ezra then proceeds to speak clearly about their sin of intermarriage and the need to separate from (divorce) their foreign wives (v. 11). Responding together with a loud voice, the Israelites agree, but plead to be given time to settle the matter (v. 13). Standing in the rain seems to bother them as much as standing in guilt. Confessing that they ″have sinned greatly″ (v. 13), they suggest that time be taken to investigate those who have married foreign women.
Ezra agrees. Investigating the cases will help the community avoid imposing a blanket rule that may not take into consideration individual family situations. Perhaps some of the foreign wives have already turned to Israel's God and renounced their foreign gods. Only those who have not or are unwilling to do so will be affected by the ruling.12 It takes about three months for the clan leaders to investigate all the cases, after which actions are taken as previously decided (vv. 16-18).
Modern readers may find these actions rather harsh, but there are good reasons for them. God's law has to be obeyed; there can be no compromising of Israel's faith through intermarriage with those who hold onto pagan religions.
In contrast, the apostle Paul, while urging Christians not to marry unbelievers (following the general principle in 2 Corinthians 6:14 and 1 Corinthians 7:39), adds that those who are already married to unbelievers before they became Christian are not to divorce their spouses, for reasons mentioned in 1 Corinthians 7:12-17.
Why do Ezra and Paul seem to differ in their pastoral solutions? Further reflection may help us to understand. Ezra was dealing with the Jewish community, who were to retain their religious purity as the nation that would produce the Messiah. He was dealing with Jews who were already under the law and who should have known better than to marry across faiths. Paul, however, was dealing with people who were converting to the Christian faith and who may have already been married to non-Christians.
Do you agree with the actions taken by the leaders? What are the disadvantages of taking immediate action without proper investigation? On the other hand, what if the investigation was postponed indefinitely?
What principles could be applied in the church today? Why is it important for us to confess and renounce sin?