Reconciled

(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.