At the evening sacrifice I arose from my fasting; and having torn my garment and my robe, I fell on my knees and spread out my hands to the LORD my God.
After decades of captivity in Babylon, the Jews had returned to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple and the city. That should have been a joyous time, a time to celebrate the favor of God, a time to rejoice in relative freedom, but it was not. Instead, it was a time of opposition and grave guilt, a time when the enemies of God tried to undermine the work of the Jewish elders, a time when the remnant who had returned to Jerusalem realized their sins and sought repentance. Here their ancestral home had been restored to them, and the temple had been rebuilt, but the people themselves still had not separated themselves from the sins of their fathers. Were there specific things they were still doing? Nothing in particular is mentioned in the text, but there was a bigger problem: the sons of Israel had intermarried with the pagans of the land.
Intermarriage? Why would that be a problem? God understood the danger of the Israelites marrying pagans, and He had forbid them to do it:
1 “When the LORD your God brings you into the land which you go to possess, and has cast out many nations before you, the Hittites and the Girgashites and the Amorites and the Canaanites and the Perizzites and the Hivites and the Jebusites, seven nations greater and mightier than you,
2 “and when the LORD your God delivers them over to you, you shall conquer them and utterly destroy them. You shall make no covenant with them nor show mercy to them.
3 “Nor shall you make marriages with them. You shall not give your daughter to their son, nor take their daughter for your son.
4 “For they will turn your sons away from following Me, to serve other gods; so the anger of the LORD will be aroused against you and destroy you suddenly.”
“For they will turn your sons away from following Me,” said the Lord. You see, it wasn’t simply that the Canaanites were not of the blood of Israel, it was that they did not believe in the Lord God of Israel. The danger of intermarriage was not in diluting the blood of God’s chosen people but in the way it diluted the faith of children of Abraham. Mixing in different ideas and philosophies would turn the next generation away from worshiping the Lord their God in the way He had prescribed.
29 “When the LORD your God cuts off from before you the nations which you go to dispossess, and you displace them and dwell in their land,
30 “take heed to yourself that you are not ensnared to follow them, after they are destroyed from before you, and that you do not inquire after their gods, saying, ‘How did these nations serve their gods? I also will do likewise.’
31 “You shall not worship the LORD your God in that way; for every abomination to the LORD which He hates they have done to their gods; for they burn even their sons and daughters in the fire to their gods.
32 “Whatever I command you, be careful to observe it; you shall not add to it nor take away from it.”
And so, having seen the temple rebuilt and worship restored, the scribe Ezra nonetheless lamented and fasted and prayed, because many Jews were still married to pagans who had lived in the land. No sooner had the people found favor with their God than this great iniquity was found in them, a deeper sin that threatened the very foundations of their faith and worship. This was far worse than simply breaking a single commandment, because the erosion of the true faith would lead to a life full of sin and it would cause future generations to sin even worse.
This sin of intermarriage had to be stopped, and so the elders fasted and prayed and beseeched God that He should forgive them and cleanse them. They called for a national repentance of this grievous sin, and the intermarriages were dissolved and the pagans were put out from among the Jews, so that the worship of the Lord God would be pure and preserved for generations to come.
It isn’t hard to see the parallels between those far-off days and our current situation in the churches of America. Our modern churches are “intermarrying” with modern philosophies and social whims, and the true faith is being undermined. The fear of God is being replaced with a soft message of the love of God. The “inconvenient” parts of the Word of God are explained away as anomalies or historical oddities that no longer apply to believers. And perhaps the worst thing is that this erosion is spreading to each successive generation, that fewer people each year are living lives of Biblical purity and faith. We live in a time when the churches of America no longer resemble those first churches founded by Paul and Peter, but instead they resemble the corrupt churches Jesus condemns in Revelation: the corrupt church of Pergamos, the immoral church of Thyatira, the dead church of Sardis, the lukewarm church of Laodicea. (Revelation 2-3)
But all is not lost! There is still hope for he who overcomes this tide that threatens to wear away this nation’s faith in the true Christ and fear of the living God. We can join Ezra in fasting and prayer and repentance. We can renew our covenant with the Son of God, rededicating ourselves to holiness and justice and righteousness. We can leave behind out guilt and shame, leave behind our sins and doubt, leave behind our slavery to alien ideas and ungodly philosophies. We can come before the Lord our God, fall on our knees and spread out our hands to God and seek His mercy for this land. We can cry out to God, “O LORD God of Israel, You are righteous, for we are left as a remnant, as it is this day. Here we are before You, in our guilt, though no one can stand before You because of this!” (Ezra 9:15)
Let us come before God in humble repentance and allow His mercy to cleanse us through the blood of Christ. Let us break the bonds of our enslavement to pagan ideas and immoral living, and let us seek instead all the things of God–all that is good and noble and righteous and just. Let us put off our marriages to ungodly and foreign ideas and seek instead the way, the truth, and the life that is Christ Jesus alone.
O Lord our God, Father of our Savior, Creator of the universe–O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer, our Strength and our Shield–O Lord God of our fathers, You who humbled Yourself for OUR sins and OUR salvation–O Lord, we beseech You today to heal this land and Your church, to purge our hearts of foreign ideas and immoral philosophies, to break the marriage bonds we have with worldliness and compromise. Father God, redeem us from this current slavery, and restore to us the joy of Your salvation. Amen.