(26) Returning Home, Part 4: The Second Return (final post)

The Chinese proverb, “Talk doesn’t cook rice,” refers to what happens when one makes plans to do something but doesn’t follow through. Ezra was active in motivating the people to separate themselves from lawless marriages, but what about the men who were wrapped up in these marriages? The nation needed a system to sort through all these unlawful unions.

 Only Jonathan the son of Asahel and Jahaziah the son of Tikvah were employed about this matter: and Meshullam and Shabbethai the Levite helped them. – Ezra 10:15KJV

Bible versions that record the participation of Jonathan and Jahaziah vary regarding their part in Ezra’s request for taskworkers. Currently, I believe their names were recorded by Ezra to indicate their role as civil servants overseeing this work. If you come to a different conclusion after studying this, please share your thoughts.

And the children of the captivity did so. And Ezra the priest, with certain heads of fathers’ houses, after their fathers’ houses, and all of them by their names, were set apart; and they sat down in the first day of the tenth month to examine the matter. And they made an end with all the men that had married foreign women by the first day of the first month. – Ezra 10:16-17

It took three months to sit down with the individual fathers’ houses and sort out the ties that were breaking the civil laws of Israel. In the last verses of chapter ten, Ezra records the tribes and names of the men who separated from their unbelieving wives. This list is extensive, and it is more about cleansing the genealogical lines of the Hebrew race than it is about shaming these men. Ezra could have called them out before they’d agreed to this separation, but he records them in God’s book as they are reconciled with God. This documentation was necessary to prove the pure-blood lineage of the descendants of these men in the years ahead.

When speaking of keeping the genealogical line untainted by non-Hebrew blood, it is good to address the confusion about Jesus’ lineage. Namely, how could Rahab and Ruth be part of Jesus’ lineage when the men of Ezra’s time had to divorce their non-Hebrew wives? Both Rahab and Ruth were not of Hebrew descent, but both made personal declarations of their faith in Jehovah (Rahab’s declaration and Ruth’s declaration). Their genealogies also prove they taught their children to follow Him. Their marriages were not political alliances because they separated themselves from their people and their religious beliefs to obey God. Further, the commandment to the Israelites not to marry “strange” women in Deuteronomy 7 includes context that implies that these non-Hebrews married with the intent to continue in their opposing religious ways and beliefs. So, the Israelites in Deuteronomy 7 are viewed as turning away from God’s guidance to seek out an alliance with godless nations. This didn’t happen with Rahab or Ruth; they were proselytes. Lastly, when Ezra writes Nehemiah’s account, making alliances with other nations through intermarriage rears its ugly head again, and its result is clearly a godless future.

In those days also saw I the Jews that had married women of Ashdod, of Ammon, and of Moab: and their children spake half in the speech of Ashdod, and could not speak in the Jews’ language, but according to the language of each people. – Nehemiah 13:23-24

The Law of Moses was written in the Jew’s language of Hebrew, and the children coming from these marriage alliance had not been exposed to the language. Being unfamiliar with the Hebrew language meant these children had no hope of following God or His covenant.

And among the sons of the priests there were found that had married foreign women: namely, of the sons of Jeshua, the son of Jozadak, and his brethren, Maaseiah, and Eliezer, and Jarib, and Gedaliah. And they gave their hand that they would put away their wives; and being guilty, they offered a ram of the flock for their guilt. – Ezra 10:18-19

Ezra first lists the men of the priestly line. These priestly sons, in repentance and obedience to the law, complete their reconciliation with God in a way specific to the priesthood: they sacrifice a ram to atone for their guilt. Had this situation continued, the service of the priesthood by these men would have been rendered useless to God. Their worship would have been empty for the whole nation.

The rest of the men who returned to God are recorded in Ezra 10:20-43.

Readers of the last chapter of Ezra sometimes come away with the wrong impression of God’s command to separate from these unlawful marriages. Some try to apply this practice to current-day situations, superimposing this command on Christian relationships. It’s clear that the practical intention of this command was to retain the bloodline of Abraham. Christians don’t retain physical bloodlines for any religious purpose and are at liberty to marry from any nation. Furthermore, the guidelines of marriage given by God are revisited in the New Testament. I Corinthians 7 speaks of marriage to an unbeliever as a sanctified union. God recognizes this marriage; it is valid and it is sacred in His eyes. It’s true there are many dangers and little support in a marriage where one is trying to live for God and the other isn’t. A marriage like this has risks and battles beyond that of a relationship where both spouses are devoted to keeping personal relationships with God. The Israelite man of Ezra’s time, on the other hand, could not keep his relationship with God at all and still remain in that law-breaking marriage.

Concluding his account of his return to Jerusalem and that of the first expedition, Ezra writes one last telling statement.

All these had taken foreign wives; and some of them had wives by whom they had children. – Ezra 10:44

Ezra ends his account by speaking to broken families and the suffering of children with no choice in the situation. I hurt every time I read this statement. These are people who had to live with consequences that brought a great shadow over their lives. I hear the solemnity of both the scribe who wrote it and the God who created him. God knows what His child suffers in order to return to Him. And He doesn’t nag the sorrow-worn with statements like, “Well, you made that bad decision. What did you expect?” He is not callous to pain; He stands beside you, grieving with you. He is the father in Luke 15. Your return means so much to Him.

Returning home is about recommitting to healthy relationship. The book of Ezra outlines this relationship process, beginning with commitment to the one you love. It continues by reigniting that love when outside forces try to tear down the relationship. It undertakes the third step, a renewal of one’s heart to build and grow. Lastly, it invites a second journey, challenging us to face and deal with the hidden motives and intentions that work to infect the relationship. All of us mess up in our relationships–that includes the covenant relationship we begin with God. Sometimes we aren’t given the chance to start over, but Ezra illustrates that everyone is given the chance to return home to Jehovah.

Protecting the Vulnerable

(25)Returning Home with Ezra, Part 4: The Second Return

The New Testament speaks of traitorous men and women who refuse to keep their covenant with Christ. They are those who have not kept their faith (2 Peter 2:20), wrecked their faith (1 Timothy 1:19), and have not valued the gift of the Faith (Hebrews 6:4-6). Oh, the many nights Christian siblings spend grieving that they have not chosen to follow the path they promised to follow! Their choices create tears and suffering, and yet, their spiritual family longs to welcome them back.

The men of Israel married women they knew were godless and would remain godless. They married these women to make political alliances with other nations in the region. The cultural reasons for marriage during that time are vaguely understood in our culture. Today, we marry for love rather than to ally ourselves with peoples who will ensure protection and favor between nations. When a union is created between an official of one nation and the daughter of an official of other nation, it is then in the two nations’ best interests to work together. Using human wisdom, it sounds like a wise diplomatic move. But that’s human wisdom, not the act of a faithful, God-fearing child of Jehovah.

These alliances prove these citizens of God’s earthly kingdom do not trust their King to maintain the borders of Jerusalem and the region of Judah. These faithless exiles, whose fathers went through all the grief and struggle to reestablish their nation under God, undermine the laws of their treasured nation in hopes that these unauthorized family ties will cement their claim on Jerusalem. Some of them are priests–-government officials obligated to serve God.

And Ezra the priest stood up, and said unto them, Ye have trespassed, and have married foreign women, to increase the guilt of Israel. Now therefore make confession unto Jehovah, the God of your fathers, and do his pleasure; and separate yourselves from the peoples of the land, and from the foreign women. – Ezra 10:10-11

Some readers of this passage mistakenly look on this account of breaking up marriages and separating these families as being cruel and wrong. From a civil law perspective, governments even today have the God-given right to wield this authority over the marriage union. The marriage contract cannot break our nation’s laws and be legally recognized as a lawful marriage. This is why the officiant asks if there is any just cause why a couple cannot lawfully be joined together in matrimony. The children of Israel were told in advance that marriage to an unbeliever was not a recognized union under God’s government. (See Deuteronomy 7:1-4, where God prohibits these alliance marriages.) So, it was not the act of dissolving these unlawful marriages that was cruel and wrong; it was the treason of making these marriages that was cruel and wrong. The pain the fathers, wives, and their children have to endure is a terrible, terrible consequence of that decision. It is a wrong that harms the entire nation. The effects of an alliance marriage later become a thorn in the side to Nehemiah, too, when building the wall of Jerusalem. Tobiah, an unbeliever related by marriage to men of Judah, schemes with Sanballat to hinder the builders. Some of Judah’s men even try to talk Nehemiah into trusting Tobiah because he is “family” (Nehemiah 6:17-19). It is a faithless wall Nehemiah has to tear down to build the real city wall.

Then all the assembly answered and said with a loud voice, As thou hast said concerning us, so must we do. But the people are many, and it is a time of much rain, and we are not able to stand without: neither is this a work of one day or two; for we have greatly transgressed in this matter. Let now our princes be appointed for all the assembly, and let all them that are in our cities that have married foreign women come at appointed times, and with them the elders of every city, and the judges thereof, until the fierce wrath of our God be turned from us, until this matter be despatched. – Ezra 10:12-14

The assembly agrees and stands behind Ezra’s declaration but asks for relief. Currently, they are shivering, unprotected, out in the heavy rain. They will have to do this day after day until the problem is resolved if Ezra doesn’t grant them a reprieve. This picture parallels how the whole assembly is left open and vulnerable while men in their number, some being their own leaders, corrupt their civil system.

Does this scenario sound familiar? Corruption like this in government hurts the citizens it is meant to protect. Bad alliances and hidden agendas expose the innocent and leave the people defenseless to attack. Even more crucial to consider are the children, the next generation, who will reap the consequences of cruel and treasonous diplomatic decisions. In relationship, this type of destructive behavior not only weakens the individuals, it handicaps the generations to come. They don’t learn from a good example; they lack knowledge of what a solid, healthy relationship looks like. The whole assembly, the nation, is made vulnerable because of the many individual compromises to true relationship.

It’s easy to believe, “I can bend the rules a little because no one is going say anything. What I will gain makes it worth it, and, anyway, it’s not going to hurt anyone.” Looking back at accounts like Ezra’s, one can truly tally up the exorbitant price of this type of ethical finagling. It destroys marriages, it destroys families, it destroys nations, it destroys relationship with God, and it destroys souls. That’s why they speak of God’s fierce wrath. God burns with anger for unrepentant law-breakers in the Bible because He sees people who are putting His sheep in danger. He cannot stand to see His people torn down from the inside—from the place where they are meant to find strength, solace, compassion, and protection.

Through the eyes of Ezra, God shows His long-suffering. He has waited for these faithless men to change. He has borne with their disrespect for the law and has watched His dear ones suffer under a corrupted system. And now, God gives the assembly mercy. They will not be forced to stand in the rain day after day. There will be officials appointed to see to the righting of these ungodly unions. This account exemplifies for us how our Father does know and He does care about His children. He has a purpose that will strengthen and renew His children.

Destructive and unlawful actions committed by the ones you love, and even by national and local leaders, cannot be corrected when everyone ignores it or condones it. As seen in Ezra’s situation, the seed will spread and affect everyone. The consequences will come, and unfortunately, most people try to twist the truth and blame God. They look upon Him as harsh and unloving when the way to right the wrong requires deep and painful measures. But Ezra teaches one to focus on the source of the trouble and carry out the actions that will set everyone free from those destructive elements that continue to plague healthy relationship. When broken relationship covenants cause everyone involved to suffer, it is vital to hold to the commitment by accepting the consequences and resolving to separate from the problem that is creating havoc in the heart. It is the only way to return home.

Awaiting the Verdict

(24) Returning Home with Ezra, Part 4: The Second Return

Then Ezra rose up from before the house of God, and went into the chamber of Jehohanan the son of Eliashib: and when he came thither, he did eat no bread, nor drink water; for he mourned because of the trespass of them of the captivity. – Ezra 10:6

Ezra feels the weighty impact of the work ahead of him in confronting his kinsmen and their decisions to break God’s law. They refused the governance of their Good Ruler. These men switched sides. They turned traitorous to the very system to which some of them, as priests, were government officials. While Ezra prepares to enforce the dissolution of these unlawful unions to reinstate God’s governmental system, he is weakened by the strain of this hard job. It will take time for this situation to be fully worked out, and he is grieving the consequences.

And they made proclamation throughout Judah and Jerusalem unto all the children of the captivity, that they should gather themselves together unto Jerusalem; and that whosoever came not within three days, according to the counsel of the princes and the elders, all his substance should be forfeited, and himself separated from the assembly of the captivity.– Ezra 10:7-8

The nation of Israel was not just a family of God, it was a civil commonwealth; and so, Ezra deals with the problem on the political level. He summons the people to assemble in order to expedite their reconciliation with God as their kingly judge and ruler.

Then all the men of Judah and Benjamin gathered themselves together unto Jerusalem within the three days (it was the ninth month, on the twentieth day of the month); and all the people sat in the broad place before the house of God, trembling because of this matter, and for the great rain. – Ezra 10:9

Ezra paints a pitiful picture of these penitent citizens standing before God’s house. They are all trembling. The ones whose hearts had not trembled previously are now physically trembling before God. What a sad state they are in as they wait for the verdict, waiting to know what must be done to atone for their national infidelity to their King.

Perhaps this scene brings to mind the image the apostle Paul presents about God’s judgment seat.

for we shall all stand before the judgment-seat of God. For it is written, As I live, saith the Lord, to me every knee shall bow, And every tongue shall confess to God. – Romans 14:10b-11

While Jesus’ Church is not a physical governmental system, there is a King and a covenant–a law for the citizens of His eternal kingdom. It is an honor to be invited to commit to the covenant of Christ, and its acceptance requires faithful allegiance. The promise to love God and obey the law of His Son brings a new identity–not of a race or a nation, but of a worldwide kingdom. There will be challenges; there will be battles. The fight to keep the relationship will involve looking inside and focusing on the removal of the destructive behaviors that cause a soul to reject God and drive Him away. The change will hurt, it will be emotionally draining, and it will take a lifetime commitment. God is patient (2 Peter 3:9), and He helps His people endure the hardships (1 Corinthians 10:13).

Call to Action

(23) Returning Home with Ezra, Part 4: The Second Return

Tragedy happens in families. Some tragedies hit without any provocation, and some happen because no one is willing to confront the problem before it becomes the tragedy. One has to know the enemy to battle a destructive influence in one’s life, or the battle will destroy the hearts of the souls involved; they will become the casualties. It is daunting and heartrending when one must go to battle for a loved one by confronting destructive behaviors. A strong relationship with God is profoundly needed during a time of confrontation and upheaval. God knows the outcome, and one can rely on Him to know things will work out. Shecaniah shows his reliance on God when he tells Ezra he knows his brothers need to come back into a right relationship with God.

And Shecaniah the son of Jehiel, one of the sons of Elam, answered and said unto Ezra, We have trespassed against our God, and have married foreign women of the peoples of the land: yet now there is hope for Israel concerning this thing. – Ezra 10:2

Shecaniah admits they’ve “trespassed against our God.” The marriage covenants between these Israelite men to Canaanite women broke their previous covenant with Jehovah. These unlawful unions have become the center of their lives, the altar upon which they sacrifice the worship they’d promised to their God. From these law-breaking marriages grows a web of imprisoning consequences. The men of Israel are no longer able to approach God in worship. They are rejected from His presence because they rejected Him and His agreement. Their children–-the future of the Israelite nation–-are rejected, as well. So, when Shecaniah states, “even now there is hope,” he is alluding to how the problem seems hopeless but there is a solution. He sees the answer to change their cut-off position before God.

Now therefore let us make a covenant with our God to put away all the wives, and such as are born of them, according to the counsel of my lord, and of those that tremble at the commandment of our God; and let it be done according to the law. – Ezra 10:3

To return to a right relationship with God, these Israelite men must break their marriage covenants because they are not lawful under their national government. There is always destruction in battle. To battle against the enemy in a relationship, one will tear down the bad to build up the good. Shecaniah sees that these men must change their lives. In separating themselves from their wives and children, they will forever protect their hearts and their generations for the good.

Arise; for the matter belongeth unto thee, and we are with thee: be of good courage, and do it. – Ezra 10:4

Shecaniah’s challenge to Ezra is a thousand times more meaningful than Neil Armstrong’s “one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” It is infinitely more progressive for a soul to take that step to God. Shechaniah encourages Ezra to confront the priests, the Levites, and those Israelite men who are in these destructive marriages.  Of all the responsibilities this servant of God has faced, this has to be the most difficult. Shecaniah supports Ezra and encourages him to be strong and confront the problem in the family of God.

Shechaniah’s “be of good courage, and do it” is a similar exhortation to Joshua’s words, “Be strong and of a good courage,” when he leads the people into Canaan to conquer it. The Bible records many of these overwhelming challenges, challenges that are often given to a follower of God who has proven faithfulness.

A relationship with God supplies strength and faithfulness to human relationships. It prepares one to understand that a lasting relationship is not dictated by time or circumstance. The courageous are the willing-hearted souls who continue to fight against the odds. A strong, healthy relationship will withstand the battles to recover and grow.

Then arose Ezra, and made the chiefs of the priests, the Levites, and all Israel, to swear that they would do according to this word. So they sware. – Ezra 10:5

Ezra delivers God’s ultimatum to them—that they must recommit themselves to their covenant with Jehovah. It will not be easy, but they can set their hearts to follow the law by giving their word to God to make the necessary changes. It seems natural to us to make certain statements of allegiance: “I agree I will abide by this contract.” “I will tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth.” “I promise to love and to cherish…” This is a Biblical precedent. A commitment is based on binding oneself to a path,  a call to action.

A marriage commitment today and Ezra’s enforcement under the Old Testament are very different. The men of Israel were under a government system based on God as their physical king. The people of Israel had to abide by detailed statutes in order to exist as citizens. To rebel in this matter meant to be cut-off in a material and cultural way. And because these men of Israel moved back to Jerusalem specifically to reestablish their temple worship and their nation, they were required to give their allegiance back to God, back to their nation, back to their identity as a people.

Making It Public

(22) Returning Home with Ezra, Part 4: The Second Return

We like to keep our problems private. What we go through as individuals and as families is often tucked away, hidden from view. Family units convince themselves, “If this gets out, it will only harm our image and discourage others.” Society can approve that silence, too, because it doesn’t want anything that will “open a can of worms.” People in relationship will even experience a sense of oneness because of their united decision not to tell; yet, that silent unity, based on hiding something destructive, feeds the problem. Children and others of a trusting nature are especially susceptible to folding to this type of behavior when it comes from the leader types–and it often does. Believing it is one’s duty to be loyal by saying nothing is actually causing one to sacrifice truth. Without the foundational element of truth, the structural pillars of honesty, integrity, and loyalty gradually lose their underpinnings.

Ezra does not hold to this “silence saves” ideology at all. Ezra’s open misery at seeing Israel’s ongoing, public, law-breaking behavior is a guide for how to deal with that elephant in the room. The marriage unions of Israelites with the unbelievers of the surrounding nations were a complete rejection of the law; they never should have happened. And when they did, they never should have been overlooked, put up with, or condoned by Israel’s government servants. Regardless, they looked the other way for the sake of peace and unity. Of what value are peace and unity when they become the means of feeding behaviors that break the covenant of the relationship?

Now while Ezra prayed and made confession, weeping and casting himself down before the house of God, there was gathered together unto him out of Israel a very great assembly of men and women and children; for the people wept very sore. – Ezra 10:1

Ezra goes before God in the presence of his family. He is broken by this crime in their nation, just as the hearts of his people are broken. He humbles himself openly for them to witness and join him. Not in a closet. Not hidden from all those living in Jerusalem.

Yeah, they’re not finished mourning. The mourning goes from a private, one-on-one with God to a public grief. Anyone who has experienced deep grief will tell you that the point at which you can talk about it openly is the point where you realize you’re handling the pain. You are learning to cope and heal. Ezra’s reaction is very different from grief-coping practices in mainstream U.S. People customarily speak of grief after they are well over it, not during. They are encouraged to dress their grief in pretty little prideful statements, like, “I had to go through this to get where I am today,” and “I’m stronger for it.” There are no signs of humility–and I’m not discussing the humility of the one who broke the relationship’s rules. Where is the humility of the one who’s hurt? We don’t let those people grieve openly. Yes, it is uncomfortable to watch someone hurt, and we certainly like to avoid blaming the one who’s done the hurting. But Ezra and these tenderhearted souls display their hurt and their sorrow in the throes of that dejection.

It is unfortunate that our customary communicative practices shut the doors on most open grief. I truly believe it would change lives if we had access to this type of emotional acceptance. Far too many of us grieve alone in relationships, feeling no support for weeping sorely, weeping unapologetically. We are taught that it’s far more shaming to admit the relationship has failed us in some way, and that’s what we admit when we expose our natural grief. But all relationships are lacking… because all of us are lacking. When we don’t talk about what’s going on while its going on, the emotion gets stored up and suppressed. It comes out in ridicule, anger, and revenge. It’s not just okay to grieve openly; it’s necessary to have a healthy outlet.

Those who had committed the crime of marrying those from unbelieving nations witness this public cry. Before Ezra came, their fellow-kinsmen were pressured to grieve in silence, and the law-breakers took advantage of the silence to continue to live outside of God’s laws. It is Ezra who falls on his knees before God, and before his brothers and sisters, to beg mercy. It is Ezra who repents of it and confesses it openly before Jehovah and his people. This, again, is so different from American customs and culture. Imagine the effect such a public plea would have on us if the one who did not commit the crime mourned and openly begged for mercy for the one who had committed the crime. This is not a finger-pointing scheme; it’s the picture of loving the one in the relationship. Ezra never displays an attitude of “they deserve what’s coming to them.” He knows the law-breaking will have to stop, but he doesn’t threaten or rub his hands together vindictively. When we grieve the problems in our relationship, we tend to accuse rather than mourn. What is the result we really want? It isn’t that our loved ones receive punishment for what they’ve put us through. (I’ve nursed this twisted sort of judgement, too.) We really just want the relationship back. So, it’s natural to take up the pain and humility. We do this privately; we mourn it privately. But what would it be like to mourn openly? What would it teach others in their relationships? How might that loving, emotional reaction affect the ones who are caught up in the web of ongoing destructive pursuits?

It’s a normal response to become frustrated with the person who reveals the problem in the relationship. He/she often gets the blame for “making trouble” or “discouraging others.” But the destructive behavior is the trouble. The destructive behavior is the first domino that causes the other problems to be unearthed. It’s a root issue that requires upheaval. Through Ezra’s humble actions, the crime is revealed. He names the source of the grief. It is laid bare before them all as the cause of their great pain. The unlawful marriages shackling and tormenting this relationship with God come into focus. How will these law-breakers respond?

A Trembling Heart

(21) Returning Home with Ezra, Part 4: The Second Return

Ezra grieves because of his people’s sin of intermarrying into the blood, beliefs, and practices of the nations around them. He goes directly to God in the full force of the shame he feels over what Israel has done against Jehovah. His prayer is recorded, and it shows how he identifies as a member of the nation that is in a relationship with God.

Since the days of our fathers we have been exceeding guilty unto this day; and for our iniquities have we, our kings, and our priests, been delivered into the hand of the kings of the lands, to the sword, to captivity, and to plunder, and to confusion of face, as it is this day. And now for a little moment grace hath been showed from Jehovah our God, to leave us a remnant to escape, and to give us a nail in his holy place, that our God may lighten our eyes, and give us a little reviving in our bondage. For we are bondmen; yet our God hath not forsaken us in our bondage, but hath extended lovingkindness unto us in the sight of the kings of Persia, to give us a reviving, to set up the house of our God, and to repair the ruins thereof, and to give us a wall in Judah and in Jerusalem. – Ezra 9:7-9

From birth, Ezra has paid the consequences of past Israel’s choices. His captive home is still fresh in his mind. As a scribe, Ezra has had access to Israel’s previous records, which show the disasters which came upon the nation for the same crimes that are happening all over again. Ezra speaks from gratitude for the undeserved gift of returning to Jerusalem and expresses to God his frustration with his people. He points out that God granted Israel the favor of letting them leave their captivity. “You ‘lighten our eyes and give us a little reviving’,” says Ezra, alluding to the relief he feels to be free to return home.

Ezra 9:4 provides an example of what faithful hearts do when the relationship is threatened–they tremble. This trembling comes from the fear of losing something they value. They believe in God’s power and know the consequences are real and imminent. Those who had married against the law weren’t fearing the consequences. Though they had generations of historic proof, it wasn’t enough to keep them from breaking their covenant with Jehovah. They didn’t value that relationship with God.

And now, O our God, what shall we say after this? for we have forsaken thy commandments, – Ezra 9:10

Ezra’s words depict his despair. He sees what he is losing, and he is mourning that loss.

From Joshua onward, God kept record of Israel’s path, how He reached out to them to draw them close to Him and how He warned them not to fall into that destructive way of life. Ezra quotes God’s warning.

for we have forsaken thy commandments, which thou hast commanded by thy servants the prophets, saying, The land, unto which ye go to possess it, is an unclean land through the uncleanness of the peoples of the lands, through their abominations, which have filled it from one end to another with their filthiness: now therefore give not your daughters unto their sons, neither take their daughters unto your sons, nor seek their peace or their prosperity for ever; that ye may be strong, and eat the good of the land, and leave it for an inheritance to your children for ever. – Ezra 9:10b-12

Israel of the past was weakened from the inside by intermingling their hearts and souls with these nations. They paid the price for those corrosive practices and beliefs, but had they learned from their mistakes?

And after all that is come upon us for our evil deeds, and for our great guilt, seeing that thou our God hast punished us less than our iniquities deserve, and hast given us such a remnant, shall we again break thy commandments, and join in affinity with the peoples that do these abominations? wouldest not thou be angry with us till thou hadst consumed us, so that there should be no remnant, nor any to escape? O Jehovah, the God of Israel, thou art righteous; for we are left a remnant that is escaped, as it is this day: behold, we are before thee in our guiltiness; for none can stand before thee because of this. – Ezra 9:13-15

Ezra makes a bare and direct statement about Israel’s existence: they do not deserve to live. God has every reason to consume them with the fire of their own destruction. They have a reason to tremble because those who remain of the Israelite nation are there solely because of God’s mercy. When a person chooses to go a destructive way, trampling on the promises and commitments made in that relationship, there are consequences. If one really values that relationship, one will tremble and mourn when corrosive and degrading behaviors are introduced and accepted.

Ezra illustrates that there is a process that occurs when a relationship covenant is broken. There is a time of loss and a time of mourning that loss. There is a time of shame and humiliation in which those who value the relationship ask the questions that hurt the most. They dig back into the past and open up the history of the relationship, looking for answers. Ezra talks about how he doesn’t believe his people are entitled to God’s goodness and care. He believes the opposite. He admits God had every right to give up on this relationship with Israel long ago. Going back and rehearsing where the whole relationship began is a way of re-identifying the purpose and intention of the souls in that relationship. “Here is our agreement when we began,” each soul says. “The agreement has been breached. What now?” Some souls come to this crossroads and cannot move forward. Ezra comes to the crossroads and says to God, “I’m not giving up. I know the value of what we have. Please, please don’t give up on me and your people.” Ezra reveals that re-commitment is possible–and re-commitment is always possible with God! Ezra is one who trembles, one who mourns, one who is grateful for the patience and forgiveness expressed by God. Perhaps this is why God chose him to write this book.

Trusting Outside the Box

In Returning Home, Ezra’s relationship with his people causes him to suffer from and grieve for their destructive choices. Part of suffering includes the feeling of being trapped in the situation–unable to move forward or backward without experiencing additional pain. And, yet, remaining in the present pain seems unendurable. One of the coping tools I use when facing hardship comes from a concept I learned in a class in which I was introduced to the story, Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions by Edwin A. Abbott.

Originally written as a satire on Victorian society, Flatland is told from the perspective of “A Square,” a male polygon who introduces the reader to his world of two dimensions. The story analyzes human behavior, employing attributes of two-dimensional shapes to depict the era’s attitudes and cultural climate. A Square begins to have visions that prepare him to be introduced to a sphere, a three-dimensional character from Spaceland. The three-dimensional world of Spaceland has no trouble comprehending A Square’s two-dimensional world with its guidelines and its way of thinking, but A Square needs a lot of convincing, and a trip into Spaceland, to accept the idea of a three-dimensional society.

One could compare this to how we live a sensate-driven human experience, a sort-of two-dimensional understanding of circumstances. Our difficult situations are fettered by our position in time; we are unable to perceive the ending point, which creates greater distress. Yet, like the sphere who entered into A Square’s world, a Creator stands outside those two-dimensional restrictions, unbound by past, present, and future. Obstacles and institutions may seem, to me, immoveable, but He created them and can use them to His purpose.

Ezra’s record illustrates how God is capable of rescuing His people, and that there is no circumstance He can’t handle. That principle, coupled with this concept that God is not hampered at all by my two-dimensional perceptions, encourages me and gives me hope. He sees the bigger picture when I don’t. I don’t know why hardships happen, or how long I will have to suffer, but I trust in the One who fully understands the circumstances. I know He will see me through it or help me to escape it. So that, in the intensity of the moment, when I feel the most shaken, I can step back mentally from the experience just enough to accept it as a present distress rather than an endless torment.

Whether you agree with this concept or not, I recommend reading Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions. It is an entertaining, thought-provoking little book.

Seeking Counsel

(20) Returning Home with Ezra, Part 4: The Second Return

The generation before mine loved watching soap operas. TVs in the hair salons would keep the shows running through the afternoons, and the hairdressers would gab about who was cheating on whom. These soaps glamorized characters who participated in destructive behaviors and rarely faced the full brunt of the consequences (unless one counts being killed and coming back to life repeatedly). Some fans took their cues from these absurd storylines and played them out in their own lives, earning loneliness and misery. As we come to the last phase of relationship in this series, we see how one must act in ways that will ensure the relationship’s future. What we do today affects who will be beside us tomorrow. Destructive behaviors are like viruses; they become deeply embedded in the fabric of our relationships and work to destroy them. Leave them there long enough, and they will take up residence in the psyche. That’s when it’s time to look for an advisor, someone who can see the bigger picture, comprehend the problem, and help us take steps to change it. Ezra’s account confirms how important it is to seek help to rout out the behaviors and issues that plague a relationship, issues that have gone unchallenged for too long.

Once Ezra is settled in Jerusalem, the leaders of Israel come to him privately. They tell him of some destructive behaviors going on that are being ignored.

Now when these things were done, the princes drew near unto me, saying, The people of Israel, and the priests and the Levites, have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands, doing according to their abominations, even of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and the Amorites. For they have taken of their daughters for themselves and for their sons, so that the holy seed have mingled themselves with the peoples of the lands: yea, the hand of the princes and rulers hath been chief in this trespass. – Ezra 9:1-2

These descendants of Jacob are tainting their bloodline by adopting pagan cultures and marrying Gentiles, which is in direct opposition to their civil law. Their own government officials, including the Levites, are practicing in this law-breaking behavior. When Ezra learns this, he is tremendously discouraged and records his reaction.

And when I heard this thing, I rent my garment and my robe, and plucked off the hair of my head and of my beard, and sat down confounded. Then were assembled unto me every one that trembled at the words of the God of Israel, because of the trespass of them of the captivity; and I sat confounded until the evening oblation.- Ezra 9:3-4

Coming to Jerusalem, Ezra, no doubt, envisioned how returning home would be. From these words, it’s clear he never imagined confronting such a bold display of unfaithfulness. The word ‘confounded’ in verses 3 and 4 means to be stunned by the horror of something, devastated. He responds in the way the whole nation should have responded when these marriages first took place. As one experienced in the civil law of Israel, Ezra knows this situation is dire because it affects the future of God’s people. They have created ongoing ties–that is, they have decided to remain and live in unlawful unions. Ezra, brought low by this discovery, details the painful action of pulling out his own hair. This cultural act depicts the agony he is in. (Even today, souls who are suffering emotionally will inflict pain on themselves.)

Seventy or so years have elapsed since the first expedition came to build the temple in Jerusalem. So, a new generation, the offspring of the original souls who committed themselves to God, is now in possession of the land. Gratitude and honor toward God are fading. The generations born in Jerusalem know little about what their parents and grandparents worked and fought for. They are starting their own foundations, and those foundations are being established in political and personal ties that fly in the face of God’s instructions and rules for them as a nation. They aren’t looking at the big picture; they can’t imagine what the end of this behavior will be. But Ezra knows. He fully comprehends the disease that has taken hold of his people.

It is human nature to see a deep-rooted problem and decide to ignore it… sometimes for years. We like to say we’re “letting sleeping dogs lie,” but destructive behaviors don’t stay dormant; they infect everything. People sinking into destructive habits don’t know the moment at which the problem becomes ingrained and begins to spread. Our minds reel from the barrage of horrific things that occur to individuals in relationships daily. Yet, one never imagines facing such horror and brokenness, even while these ruinous acts creep into our lives. Destructive behaviors are more than intrusive; they entrap us and hold us hostage. They change the way we think and cause us to turn on the ones who are dearest to us–because the problem becomes more necessary than the relationship. The seeds of destructive disease run deep and will, eventually, put to death our beautiful relationships. As it tears our lives apart, we fall to our knees, stunned.

As Ezra faces this blow, God grants him comfort. The faithful of God–the ones who care about their future relationship with Jehovah–gather around Ezra. They must have endured much, aware that this destructive behavior was happening but not able to stop it.

And at the evening oblation I arose up from my humiliation, even with my garment and my robe rent; and I fell upon my knees, and spread out my hands unto Jehovah my God; and I said, O my God, I am ashamed and blush to lift up my face to thee, my God; for our iniquities are increased over our head, and our guiltiness is grown up unto the heavens. – Ezra 9:5-6

The evening sacrifice, or oblation, shows how all Israel is continuing to worship God like nothing is wrong. They aren’t counting the cost; they aren’t concerned for the nation’s future in a meaningful way. They are intent on promoting their own ambitions, choosing to make these marriage covenants for political and/or personal gain. This is the opposite intention from the intention God has been trying to teach them. Relationships that are built on self-ambition have a goal, and that goal has nothing to do with nurturing a relationship to last well into the future.

Ezra’s is the response of a wise soul who does care. He isn’t the one breaking the law, yet he casts himself before God at the realization of the baseness in the hearts of his people. God’s shining city is now revealed to be a corrupted ruin that everyone is pressured to pretend is not in shambles, and he can’t fathom why his people have succumbed to this shame.

Destructive behavior that is ingrained in one’s heart is there to do one thing: destroy. Ezra’s account illustrates the importance of seeking help. You may already know someone who has experienced some aspect of what you are going through. There may be more than one individual who can help you return home. They can be approached privately, as the leaders of Israel approached Ezra. Let someone in to see your situation through an experienced pair of eyes and give you a better perspective.

Secondly, your relationship with someone who has chosen destructive behaviors does not mean you have agreed or should feel bound to enable them. The leaders who came to Ezra told him of the law-breakers because they were seeking help for their nation. Like Ezra’s account teaches, face the problem; talk to God about it, and seek experienced counsel from someone who can see the destruction for what it is.

A Burden and a Treasure

(19) Returning Home with Ezra, Part 3: Renewed

Ezra and the people journeying to Jerusalem carry with them the king of Persia’s treasures, earmarked for the temple. Ezra must conduct his people and the king’s riches in the safest and most expedient way. He chooses the Levite priests as the burden-bearers.

Then I set apart twelve of the chiefs of the priests, even Sherebiah, Hashabiah, and ten of their brethren with them, 25 and weighed unto them the silver, and the gold, and the vessels, even the offering for the house of our God, which the king, and his counsellors, and his princes, and all Israel there present, had offered: 26 I weighed into their hand six hundred and fifty talents of silver, and silver vessels a hundred talents; of gold a hundred talents; 27 and twenty bowls of gold, of a thousand darics; and two vessels of fine bright brass, precious as gold. – Ezra 8:24-27

They were carrying about 24 tons of silver, along with silver items that weighed approx. 3.75 tons. The gold weighed around 3.75 tons, and the 20 bowls of gold weighed about 19 pounds. The silver and gold had been melted into talents, which were large, anvil-like units of about 67-75 lbs. weight. In Persian times, they were often shaped like disks or amphoras (large vases with handles). This made them easier for the Levite workers and priests to transport.

And I said unto them, Ye are holy unto Jehovah, and the vessels are holy; and the silver and the gold are a freewill-offering unto Jehovah, the God of your fathers. 29 Watch ye, and keep them, until ye weigh them before the chiefs of the priests and the Levites, and the princes of the fathers’ houses of Israel, at Jerusalem, in the chambers of the house of Jehovah. 30 So the priests and the Levites received the weight of the silver and the gold, and the vessels, to bring them to Jerusalem unto the house of our God. – Ezra 8:28-30

These holy men took responsibility for the precious things of God’s house. As God’s treasurers, not only was it their job to transport these heavy riches, but it was their burden to guard them until they reached the temple.

A treasure is something that is valued enough to keep it and take care of it. Treasure isn’t always thought of as a burden, but it is. It requires a faithful keeper. When you embark on a relationship, you are granted a treasure. The ones in the relationship must show they value what has been granted into their care through faithfulness and trust.

Then we departed from the river Ahava on the twelfth day of the first month, to go unto Jerusalem: and the hand of our God was upon us, and he delivered us from the hand of the enemy and the lier-in-wait by the way. 32 And we came to Jerusalem, and abode there three days. – Ezra 8:31-32

Ezra gives glory to God for their safe arrival, and they deliver the treasure to the LORD’s house after recuperating from the journey. Note that the job was completed when they reached their destination.

In relationships, there are burdens or responsibilities that are carried and set down at an endpoint. For example, a parent-child relationship begins with caring for a helpless infant. As the child grows, the parent’s responsibility changes from total provision to instilling independence. Later in life, the relationship undergoes a responsibility shift, bringing the adult child to care for the parent in the last years. Carrying the burden to each one of these destinations is important for reminding each other of the value that connection brings. And the burden must be delivered. Continuing to carry what is no longer required works against the relationship.

And on the fourth day the silver and the gold and the vessels were weighed in the house of our God into the hand of Meremoth the son of Uriah the priest (and with him was Eleazar the son of Phinehas: and with them was Jozabad the son of Jeshua, and Noadiah the son of Binnui, the Levites)— 34 the whole by number and by weight: and all the weight was written at that time. – Ezra 8:33-34

There is a feeling of relief that emerges from Ezra’s recording-keeping. This burden in his care was all accounted for. Nothing was lost.

The children of the captivity, that were come out of exile, offered burnt-offerings unto the God of Israel, twelve bullocks for all Israel, ninety and six rams, seventy and seven lambs, twelve he-goats for a sin-offering: all this was a burnt-offering unto Jehovah. – Ezra 8:35

The returning souls who have not had the ability to worship in Jerusalem are also all accounted for as they participate in their first sacrifices to God. Here, He fulfills His responsibility toward them, covering them in the blood of His covenant and making them His own. They join in God’s holy service, taking the responsibility to serve Him from this day forward. Haggai speaks of what it means to be owned by God when he tells Zerubbabel that God promises to make him Jehovah’s signet.

In that day, saith Jehovah of hosts, will I take thee, O Zerubbabel, my servant, the son of Shealtiel, saith Jehovah, and will make thee as a signet; for I have chosen thee, saith Jehovah of hosts. – Haggai 2:23

Living under a world empire, these people were familiar with the signets of the powerful kings who ruled them. It was an instrument that upheld the king’s authority, the king’s own display of personal ownership. Zerubbabel, the heir to the throne of David, would be God’s instrument to empower a world kingdom in the future. Zerubbabel was the bearer of a holy treasure, a pure line that would issue forth a worldwide King who would establish His Holy Kingdom forever.

And they delivered the king’s commissions unto the king’s satraps, and to the governors beyond the River: and they furthered the people and the house of God. – Ezra 8:36

The new arrivals are an encouragement. The work of God’s house will continue to flourish because this second expedition has carried out their responsibilities, delivering the king’s letters that bring in more supplies.

There is always a goal, or goals, in each relationship. One can better accept responsibility and work willingly when one knows the desired end. People in a relationship have to discuss what is expected and come to an agreement about what that work entails. When they know what the goal is, it can be met and they can be encouraged by a job well done.

Ezra and his company aren’t the ones given a holy treasure to carry to a destination. God says that His people are the “earthen vessels” who carry the most precious treasure the world has ever known (2 Corinthians 4:7). His people bear the gospel, God’s personal invitation to receive the gift of entrance into the Kingdom of His dear Son. His vessels wear Jehovah’s signet and are to display His ownership by doing His good works (2 Timothy 2:19-21). As is expected in all healthy relationships, He wants you to value this treasure and remain true to Him. At the end of the journey, He promises an incorruptible crown (1 Corinthians 9:25) and an eternal inheritance that, unlike silver and gold, can never be destroyed (1 Peter 1:4).

Accepting Weakness

(18) Returning Home with Ezra, Part 3: Renewed

Two years ago, we took a family trip to D.C. and New York City. We spent the first week in clean, charming D.C., and I think that was what made our experience in NYC less than stellar. We arrived Saturday night and worshipped in West Manhattan the next morning. That afternoon, we toured Lower Manhattan. By five o’clock, I was ready to leave. The atmosphere of scaffolding and piles of trash was disappointing; the subway was overcrowded and yucky. We escaped via Uber rescue and spent the rest of our stay on Long Island. I’ve asked myself if my experience, my brief encounter with the city that never sleeps, was evidence of my sheltered way of life. I joked with Realm about being Ma and Pa Kettle, rudely awakened by the harsh realities of “the city.” I felt pressured to pretend it hadn’t left a bad impression. But I came to the conclusion that it’s okay that I found New York City abrasive. That isn’t a judgment; it’s a testament to my gentle nature. I don’t claim to be tough or have the capacity to “make it anywhere.” I have my weaknesses.

Ezra had some negative experiences on the second expedition to Jerusalem and admits his weaknesses, too. He doesn’t glaze over the false starts, the problems, and the fears involved; he records them. After Ezra tallies the people who accompany him to Jerusalem (Ezra 8:1-14), he describes how he got his count.

And I gathered them together to the river that runneth to Ahava; and there we encamped three days: and I viewed the people, and the priests, and found there none of the sons of Levi. – Ezra 8:15

Ezra and the people are already packed up and are encamping for three days near a river to get an accurate evaluation of who’s going to be on this trip. Only then does Ezra realize he has no Levites going to Jerusalem, excepting him. This is strange indeed for people to go on a religious pilgrimage, paid for by the emperor, with nary a spiritual minister of God among them! It looks like this expedition isn’t going anywhere.

Then sent I for Eliezer, for Ariel, for Shemaiah, and for Elnathan, and for Jarib, and for Elnathan, and for Nathan, and for Zechariah, and for Meshullam, chief men; also for Joiarib, and for Elnathan, who were teachers. And I sent them forth unto Iddo the chief at the place Casiphia; and I told them what they should say unto Iddo, and his brethren the Nethinim, at the place Casiphia, that they should bring unto us ministers for the house of our God. – Ezra 8:16-17

Ezra doesn’t throw up his hands and give up the expedition. He calls on influential Jewish leaders in Babylon to persuade the Levites at Casiphia to send men, both temple leaders and temple servants, to return to Jerusalem with them. The location of Casiphia is yet unknown, as well as the reason for a group of Levites and temple servants living there, but it does depict for readers how the Nethinim — those temple servants installed by Joshua as “forever” servants (Joshua 9) — were still ministering to the priestly line even in captivity. And Ezra’s appeal to his Levite brothers doesn’t go unmet.

And according to the good hand of our God upon us they brought us a man of discretion, of the sons of Mahli, the son of Levi, the son of Israel; and Sherebiah, with his sons and his brethren, eighteen; and Hashabiah, and with him Jeshaiah of the sons of Merari, his brethren and their sons, twenty; and of the Nethinim, whom David and the princes had given for the service of the Levites, two hundred and twenty Nethinim: all of them were mentioned by name. – Ezra 8:18-20

The priests total twenty souls. This seems a small number in comparison with the seventy-four Levites of the first expedition, but the number is proportional when one recalls that over forty-two thousand people returned on the first trip. There are approximately fifteen hundred men in Ezra’s record of the second return, a much smaller group. It is believed by some that the Hebrews returning to Jerusalem may have come in trickles after the initial return permitted by Cyrus. While this may be true, Ezra’s next words show the danger of making such a journey without protection.

Then I proclaimed a fast there, at the river Ahava, that we might humble ourselves before our God, to seek of him a straight way for us, and for our little ones, and for all our substance. For I was ashamed to ask of the king a band of soldiers and horsemen to help us against the enemy in the way, because we had spoken unto the king, saying, The hand of our God is upon all them that seek him, for good; but his power and his wrath is against all them that forsake him. – Ezra 8:21-22

The passage to Jerusalem was treacherous; they would be exposed to the enemy. Ezra’s caravan included “little ones,” vulnerable family units who were the seeds of the next generation in Jerusalem. So, Ezra finds himself in a predicament. If Ezra asks for military protection from the king, he fears he will contradict his avowal that Jehovah is going to protect them. He’s ready to plea for God’s assistance, but this Hebrew leader knows that one man’s faith does not supply the faith of the whole congregation. He proclaims a fast to beg God’s aid, and in this way shows his people the danger they are undertaking and the value of God’s protection and provision. It is a personal faith that draws each of these souls to abstain from eating in order to express their weakness, their dependence on their Heavenly Father.

Learning to depend on someone in a relationship takes on a whole new meaning when the things you unconsciously put your trust in are stripped away. This is when one is most vulnerable. In all relationships, admitting and accepting one’s own weaknesses brings a deeper knowledge of what each of you needs from the relationship. It reveals to you and to them whether you are trusting in that person or just depending on what the person is supplying for the moment. It gives you a glimpse into who you are trusting and why. Times like these, times of stress and uncertainty, help one discover those hidden shortcomings to face and work through them.

God wants His children to depend on Him, fully expecting that He will provide for all needs (Hebrews 4:16). While He provides through physical avenues, it’s tempting to trust in the provisions instead of depending on the Provider. Ezra’s account depicts how drawing close to God in weakness teaches where the true Source of strength lies (2 Corinthians 12:9). That’s why hardship is necessary when you make the decision to return to a relationship with God. It is not you alone coming to God; it is not your will that makes your path possible. It is His strength that helps you succeed when you choose to accept Him and accept that you need Him. We all need Him so desperately! Ezra and the people learn this when Jehovah answers them.

So we fasted and besought our God for this: and he was entreated of us. – Ezra 8:23