Confession and Repentance – Ezra 10

“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” (Ezra 10:1 ESV)

What does confession look like? What does repentance look like? Throughout scripture we see various forms of sorrow, from weeping to tearing the garments, sitting in sackcloth and ashes to hanging oneself. Yet whether one shows these outward signs of an aggravated conscience or not, we know from the Bible that true, “godly sorrow brings repentance” (2 Corinthians 7:10). Confession, no matter how emotional, is empty without repentance.

What exactly is repentance? Repentance is often defined as a change of mind. And if one truly changes his mind, a difference in behavior will manifest. In other words, repentance is true confession in action. Without a change of outward behavior, inward change likely did not happen.

In Ezra 10 we see both confession and repentance. Recall that in chapter 9 it was revealed that the people had sinned against God by marrying the pagan peoples they were expressly told not to marry. Chapter 9 ends with Ezra’s intercessory prayer and Chapter 10 is about the people’s response. What do we see in their response? We see their confession and outward sorrow expressed in tears and words. But we also see their repentance in determining to put away their wives and return to purity before God.

While their repentance is the most relevant point for us, the question will undoubtedly linger – why would God allow divorce, doesn’t he hate it? Indeed God does hate divorce; but in this circumstance, the preservation of the people of God – the very people from whom Messiah would come – was at stake! The evil of divorce was necessary in order to make right the evil of intermarriage. We we explore this more on Sunday.

The chapter – and the book – ends with a list. Imagine having your name on this list! Rather than a place like Hebrews 11, the “Hall of Faith”, your name would be among those guilty of disobeying God, recorded in a chapter in the Bible for all to read for the next several thousand years! The sins of the people were public and so this was made public. However, thankfully, their repentance was also made public. Like these individuals, you and I are all on the list of sinners. The question is, are we also written in the Lamb’s Book of Life? Such a privilege is only granted by God’s grace in Christ, and manifested in our confession and repentance of sin.

The Hand of Our God was On Us – Ezra 8

“The hand of our God was on us, and he delivered us from the hand of the enemy and from ambushes by the way.” (Ezra 8:31 ESV)

Ezra chapter 8 records another journey out of Babylon, just as we read in earlier chapters. This is the second wave of returned exiles and they are coming with Ezra himself. Recall that the temple is built and we were recently introduced to the man Ezra, who determined to come to Jerusalem to teach the law of God to God’s people.

Verses 1-14 provide another list, much like the one in chapter 2, reminding us of the importance of one’s heritage as an Israelite in taking part in God’s covenant blessings. Verses 15-20 show us Ezra’s priority in gathering the priests together to serve in the temple. Ezra then calls for a fast and prayer for protection, refusing to ask the king for help, relying solely on God (verses 21-23). The last and longest section of the chapter, verses 24-36, tell us that Ezra delegates the responsibilities of keeping the offering to the priests and that through this journey and return to Jerusalem, God kept them safe from their enemies.

Taken all together, Ezra chapter 8 reveals how determined Ezra was to accomplish his tasks. He prioritized service in the house of God. He wanted to be a good steward with what God gave him. And most of all, he relied upon God’s help to do these things. Three times in this chapter, Ezra says, “the hand of our God was on us.”

We would be pretty accurate to say that the Book of Ezra, in its entirety, is all about the theme of “the hand of our God was on us.” From the stirring of the heart of the kings, to the decrees allowing the Israelites to return, to the blessings along the way and the protection of the enemies, there is no doubt that the Book of Ezra points us to how God sovereignly provides for his people throughout history. Yes, the kings made searches and decrees. Yes, Ezra was determined to teach. Yes, the people came together and finally built the temple. But all of these were secondary causes of their success. The ultimate, or primary cause of success in the story of Ezra is the fact that God’s good hand was upon his people!

Ezra Comes to Teach – Ezra 7

For Ezra had set his heart to study the Law of the Lord, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel.” (Ezra 7:10 ESV)

The temple was finally finished. The Jews kept the Passover and celebrated God’s faithfulness with joy. After all they had been through as a people, the climax of the story had finally arrived. But, new life had just begun.

Indeed, God delivers his people from all sorts of troubles and bondage. However, the freedom that comes through his salvation is not a freedom from the cares of life, but rather a freedom to glorify God through obedience and a freedom to serve others. We have seen God’s deliverance in the first 6 chapters of Ezra. Now with Ezra himself on the scene, we will see that God’s freed people, in their own land, with the temple in the background, are to live life in light of God’s Word. And God uses Ezra to come to teach, “for Ezra had set his heart to study the Law of the LORD, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel.” (Ezra 7:10)

Lest you think that this role was merely a formality to pay lip service to tradition, you must understand that in teaching the scriptures, Ezra would meet controversy. Derek Thomas previews the chapters that follow Ezra’s arrival: “Ezra is a reformer and Ezra is a preacher, and he’s going to meddle and meddle a great deal in the lives of the people in Jerusalem. He’s going to talk very particularly about marriage and about intermarriage, and it’s all going to get very painful.”

The Word of God rebukes, encourages, and exhorts. It cuts the heart. It is our necessary food and it is also vital for correction. Ezra was entrusted by God to teach it to the people. In fact, his teaching would stand as the authoritative law of the land. The king says, “Whoever will not obey the law of your God and the law of the king, let judgment be strictly executed on him, whether for death or for banishment or for confiscation of his goods or for imprisonment.” (Ezra 7:26)

Ezra had come to teach the law to God’s people. Through the law, the people would be called to obedience but they would also be reminded of their sin. It was necessary, just as it is now, to look to the law of God and see God’s standard of holiness. But as with all people, the Jews would sin. The law reveals this sin, but only goes so far. For those who hear the law preached and feel convicted under the weight of it, another one of God’s amazing acts was needed – one, ultimate act that perhaps that temple in the background might be pointing the people to time and again.

The Lord had Made Them Joyful – Ezra 6:13-22

“And they kept the Feast of Unleavened Bread seven days with joy, for the Lord had made them joyful and had turned the heart of the king of Assyria to them, so that he aided them in the work of the house of God, the God of Israel.”  (Ezra 6:22 ESV)

The second half of Ezra chapter 6 records the completion of the temple. After all the Israelites had been through this far – coming out of captivity, receiving back their sacred vessels, making the journey to Judah, building an altar, facing their enemies, ceasing the work, then starting the work again and getting their work verified – finally, “they finished their building by the decree of the God of Israel and by decree of Cyrus and Darius” (6:14).

As they did when they laid the foundation (as recorded in chapter 3), the Israelites celebrated the work with praise according to biblical prescriptions: led by the priests and Levites, they gave God offerings, they kept the Passover, they feasted, and they worshiped together. Unlike the end of chapter 3, however, we do not see a division among the people, wherein the older generation sobbed while the younger generation celebrated; rather, Ezra records this event in terms of great unity and joy. What seemed to be the difference? Perhaps the difference between the two celebrations was that this time, God himself was recognized as the reason for this grand accomplishment.

Verse 22 sums this up: “the Lord had made them joyful and had turned the heart of the king of Assyria to them . . .” Here is a clear recognition that this was God’s doing. Yes, man used ordinary means – a decree, a letter, a search. But God is the one who turned the king’s heart. God is the one who brought them there. God is the one who made all this happen.

Joy lasts longest when God is its source. Otherwise, joy is bound to dissipate. Even when we rejoice over good things, like the building of the temple, when we don’t recognize that God has provided these things for our good and his glory, we miss out on the bigger picture. The same God who stirs the hearts of pagan kings and works his glorious will to its glorious end will stir our hearts to joy as we fix our minds on him!


Opposition Averted – Ezra 5:1-6:12

“May the God who has caused his name to dwell there overthrow any king or people who shall put out a hand to alter this, or to destroy this house of God that is in Jerusalem” (Ezra 6:12 ESV)

God delivers his people out of trouble. Psalm 54:7 testifies, “For he has delivered me from every trouble, and my eye has looked in triumph on my enemies.” David mentions God’s deliverance another twenty times in the Book of Psalms. The prophets speak of God’s deliverance. Christ and the Apostles likewise preached God’s deliverance. The testimony of the Bible from cover to cover is that God delivers his people. And he does this in history again and again . . . and again.

But how quickly we forget! Can you relate? Perhaps you’ve experienced troubles, then experienced God’s deliverance, then experienced troubles again, and in the midst of trouble you’ve wondered where God is! And then, when God delivers you yet again you are convicted because you were so worried! If God is for you, who can be against you?

As we considered in our last study of Ezra, in this life there will be trouble for those who do God’s work. Another testimony from cover to cover is this very fact, that God’s people are in the midst of a cosmic battle against the enemy. Expect trouble. Expect opposition. But also – expect deliverance!

The Jewish people are the greatest example of this cycle. Whether due to their own wandering from the Lord or because of outside opposition, the Jews suffered trouble time and again. In our text, their enemies fooled the authorities into stopping the building of the temple by force. We left them at the end of chapter 4 with the temple foundation left alone and the work coming to an end. God uses trials like these to build our faith and perseverance, but he also demonstrates his power by averting the opposition, proving once again that nothing and no one can stand against the counsel of his will.

Chapters 5 and 6 of Ezra prove this very thing. Inspired by the preaching of God-called prophets, the elders of the Jews write to the king, telling him the truth about the building of the temple. They find favor with the king, who not only lets them begin rebuilding again but threatens to execute anyone who would try to stop the project, ““May the God who has caused his name to dwell there overthrow any king or people who shall put out a hand to alter this, or to destroy this house of God that is in Jerusalem” (Ezra 6:12). Obviously this does not mean that opposition will never rear its head again, but it does mean that our sovereign God is totally trustworthy and will deliver his people from their enemies time and again!

Discouragement of the Adversaries – Ezra 4

“Then the work on the house of God that is in Jerusalem stopped. . .” (Ezra 4:24a ESV)

Ezra 3 began with joy but ended with weeping. Ezra 4 begins with adversity and ends in a halt of the building of the temple.

Our text begins right where we left off, shortly after the captives returned, built the altar, then built the foundation of the temple. The shouts of joy and cries of sorrow were so loud that they were heard afar off. Chapter 4 begins with “the adversaries heard that the returned exiles were building a temple” and opposition begins. This opposition began under King Darius. But in verse 6-7, Ezra quickly describes opposition during Kings Ahasuerus and Artaxerxes (whose reigns ended roughly 60 years after Darius); and then in the last verse of the chapter (24), Ezra switches back to opposition under Darius.

The literary structure of this chapter is not incidental. Under the Spirit’s inspiration, Ezra organizes this information thematically rather than chronologically. He is emphasizing ongoing opposition and highlighting how the returnees are a multigenerational front against adversity that would need to be overcome more than once. These themes serve as a reminder for us that opposition in life, particularly against the work of God, is bound to repeat itself.

Our Lord said, “In this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33) and the Apostle Paul said, “everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution” (2 Timothy 3:12). Indeed, the exiles in Ezra were doing the right thing – building the house of the Lord. And indeed, the exiles in Ezra made the right choice – rejecting the offer to compromise the holiness of the temple by joining forces with idolaters. Yes, Ezra 4 ends on the sour note of “the work on the house of God that is in Jerusalem stopped” but we must realize that the exiles did not compromise to alleviate their situation. As Peter says, “it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil.” (1 Peter 3:17)

Victory may not be evident in Ezra chapter 4. The temple work is halted. The adversaries win a battle. But we know the war is not over. We know that God’s plans cannot be stopped, and any pause in those plans is ordained by a sovereign God for his purposes. And we know that God can move mountains, stir hearts, and align events with such precision that his will comes to pass in his perfect timing. Let us come face-to-face with the reality of worldly discouragement as we consider Ezra 4, but let us also be encouraged, knowing our sovereign God will both use and overcome adversity for his glory, that we will not compromise with the world.

Laying the Foundation – Ezra 3:8-13

“[T]he people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping, for the people shouted with a great shout, and the sound was heard far away.” (Ezra 3:13 ESV)

We pick up the narrative about God’s people returning from captivity in Ezra 3, wherein we witness a crucial event: the laying of the foundation of the temple. This is what they came for. Recall the decree of Cyrus, King of Persia, wherein he instituted a God-given directive to return to Jerusalem “to build the house the Lord.” The temple was that glorious seal of God’s presence among his people, and though it had been destroyed, God supernaturally made a way for his people to rebuild it! In our text we see the fulfillment of Cyrus’ decree.

But something unexpected happens in response to the laying of this foundation. After the foundation was laid and the Levites led the people in celebratory singing, the older men, who had seen the original temple, were weeping. Unlike their younger brethren, they did not look at this new temple foundation with joy. The text specifically contrasts the weeping with the shouts of joy, making it clear these were not tears of joy.

The text does not specify why they were weeping. The prophet Haggai gives us a clue: “Who is left among you who saw this house in its former glory? How do you see it now? Is it not as nothing in your eyes?” (Haggai 2:3) Perhaps these older men longed for the glory days of Israel and the beautiful Solomonic temple and this foundation simply failed to live up to expectations. Perhaps they were grieved over their own sin which led to the destruction of the first temple. Whatever the case one thing is evident: God’s work conjures varying responses from his people.

Believers in any season of life should be able to relate. We experience times of great joy and times of great sorrow. Sometimes we experience the entire spectrum of emotions in just one worship service or one season of prayer. Despite the differences in their responses, young and old worked side by side to accomplish the same goals of rebuilding the temple. Likewise, we must be mindful that God’s working will be received differently by our brothers and sisters. Some will weep, others will rejoice. Some will have their pride demolished while others will be uplifted from despair. So long as we inhabit this current world, we will experience diversity in our emotions. Let us minister to one another within this diversity while also looking forward to the day when God wipes away every tear!