In Doug Green’s outline, Ezra 7-10 is the second step of the first half of the book. The first step was now complete as the Temple was rebuilt and dedicated. Yet the physical ‘house of God’ was not complete because now we have in mind all of Jerusalem and its walls are still not rebuilt. As Green explains the intertwining of the themes of the two walls, ”That expectation [rebuilding the physical walls around Jerusalem] will remain unfulfilled throughout the rest of the book of Ezra, while the other major theme—the building of ‘Ezra’s wall’ – is introduced and developed.”
Ezra 7:1 sets the text in the reign of Artaxerxes. It was King Artaxerxes who had ordered a halt to rebuilding those walls around Jerusalem. And Ezra the priest is introduced. Thus the expectation is set that Ezra is on the scene to get it started again. Fitting the emphasis on genealogy that we have seen, Ezra is introduced with his priestly lineage all the way up to ”son of Phinehas, son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the chief priest.” We are told, ”this Ezra went up from Babylonia.” Thus Ezra, who was still in exile in the land of Babylon, was sent home by the Persian king Artaxerxes.
Ezra is further described this way: ”He was a scribe skilled in the Torah of Moses that YHWH, the God of Israel, had given, and the king granted him all that he asked, for the hand of YHWH his God was on him” (Ezra 7:6). So Ezra was a scribe of the law. A few verses later the author adds, ”For on the first day of the first month he began to go up from Babylonia, and on the first day of the fifth month he came to Jerusalem, for the good hand of his God was on him. For Ezra had set his heart to study the Torah of YHWH and to do it and to teach His statutes and rules in Israel” (Ezra 7:9-10).
Teaching the statutes and rules of the Torah of YHWH is one of the major roles of priests, of whom Ezra was one. Notice then that again Ezra is introduced to us in the next verse: ”Ezra, the priest, the scribe, a man learned in matters of the commandments of YHWH and His statutes for Israel” (Ezra 7:11). It is Ezra who makes the scribes important in Israel, as they continued to be in the days of Jesus. What then follows is a letter by King Artaxerxes to ”Ezra the priest, the scribe of the Torah of the God of heaven” with a decree that sends Ezra, Torah in hand, with offerings to Jerusalem.
It is clear throughout the whole chapter that Ezra is not a builder in the traditional sense of someone who builds physical walls. However, Green explains his work this way: ”These laws are the tools of his trade, and the hearts and minds of the people of God are the materials he works with.” So Ezra then is a wall builder. Just instead of building physical walls he will strive to build a spiritual wall.
Ezra 8 continues Ezra’s memoir with a genealogy of those who went up with him from Babylon during the reign of Artaxerxes. Later in the chapter he tells us about proclaiming a fast ”that we might humble ourselves before our God, to seek from him a safe journey for ourselves, our children, and all our goods” and how he was ashamed to ask the king for an armed guard to protect them since ”the hand of our God is for good on all who seek Him, and the power of His wrath is against all who forsake Him” and so they went without an armed guard (Ezra 8:21-22).
Indeed, Ezra describes the journey including this observation: ”the hand of our God was on us, and He delivered us from the hand of the enemy and from ambushes by the way” (Ezra 8:31). But he reports arriving safely and offering up the sacrifices and offerings as planned. Ezra does not make himself a hero in any of this description, nor does he really focus on himself but rather on the priests.
Ezra 9 then introduces the problem that has broken down the spiritual wall between Jews and Gentiles. This problem is that of intermarriage. Ezra reports that officials approached him with the problem and described it this way: ”The people [i.e. laity] of Israel and the priests and the Levites have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands with their abominations, from the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and the Amorites for they have taken some of their daughters to be wives for themselves and for their sons…” (Ezra 9:1-2).
Eight nationalities are mentioned in the list – not all of whom are under the curse concerning Ham. After all, Lot’s descendants the Ammonites and Moabites are included as well as Ham’s other descendants the Egyptians. The rest of the nations mentioned are Canaanites. This is important because the problem is seen not simply in terms of intermarriage with Canaanites living in the land but intermarriage with Gentiles in general. It is described as ”the holy seed has mixed itself with the peoples of the lands” (Ezra 9:2).
We find here the danger of history repeating. King Solomon had built the first temple and then things went very badly for the nation because he married women from many nations. Now the people of Israel have completed the Second Temple and they are intermarried with women from many nations. In fact, it was not just that the people had done this but the officials reported to Ezra: ”And in this faithlessness the hand of the officials and chief men has been foremost” (Ezra 9:2).
Ezra’s immediate reaction to this report is the traditional sackcloth and ashes kind of response. He tore his garment, cloak, pulled hair from his head and beard and sat appalled (Ezra 9:3). He says, ”Then all who trembled at the words of the God of Israel, because of the faithlessness of the returned exiles, gathered around me while I sat appalled until the evening sacrifice. And at the evening sacrifice I rose from my fasting, with my garment and my cloak torn, and fell upon my knees and spread out my hands to YHWH my God” and he prayed (Ezra 9:4-5).
Ezra tells us the content of his prayer at length. It is a prayer of confession as is clear from the start: ”O my God, I am ashamed and blush to lift my face to you, my God, for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has mounted up to the heavens” (Ezra 9:6). As the prayer continues Ezra acknowledges all that God had done for them in letting them return to Jerusalem and ”to set up the house of our God, to repair its ruins, and to give us protection in Judea and Jerusalem” (Ezra 9:9). Interestingly, the ESV footnote clarifies that ”protection” is literally ”a wall.”
The confession continues acknowledging that the people have forsaken His commandments, which ”you commanded by your servants the prophets, saying, ‘The land that you are entering, to take possession of it, is a land impure with the impurity of the peoples of the lands, with their abominations that have filled it from end to end with their uncleanness. Therefore do not give your daughters to their sons, neither take their daughters for your sons, and never seek their peace or prosperity, that you may be strong and eat the good of the land and leave it for an inheritance to your children forever” (Ezra 9:11f).
The way that Ezra puts this is particularly curious given the following words of the prophet Jeremiah for the people of Israel in exile: ”But seek the shalom (ESV: welfare, KJV: peace, NIV: peace and prosperity) of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to YHWH on its behalf, for in its shalom you will find your shalom” (Jer 29:7). And back up a verse: ”Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease” (Jer 29:6).
How do we deal with the apparent inconsistency of whether they should intermarry with Gentiles or they should not intermarry with Gentiles and whether they should seek the peace or prosperity of Gentiles or they should not seek the peace or prosperity of Gentiles? The answer seems to lie in the question of whether they are in the Promised Land. In exile they were free to intermarry – although assuredly they were to do so with those willing to become Jews. However, in the land they were not free to intermarry with the Gentiles. Likewise with the other question.
The concern for Ezra 9 is that the exiles have returned to the land and rebuilt the Temple but following in the steps of Solomon they have then intermarried with Gentiles in the land. Thus just as the people of Israel before went into exile, so too the new generation in the land deserves to be sent into exile. This sin was not only a problem for those men who had intermarried with the Gentiles but for all of the remnant in Israel. Moreover, we should remember that the problem was a religious one – these women were not becoming Jews as would be the norm in those places where Israel went into exile.
Ezra 10 begins in the third person, “While Ezra prayed and made confession, weeping and casting himself down before the house of God, a very great assembly of men, women, and children, gathered to him out of Israel, for the people wept bitterly” (Ezra 10:1). What then happened was they put away all these wives and their children. In other words, the solution to this problem was divorce. Of course, it is important to remember as well that they should never have entered into these marriages in the first place.
Ezra then called to the people: ”Now then make confession to YHWH, the God of your fathers and do His will. Separate yourselves from the peoples of the land and from the foreign wives” (Ezra 10:11). Ezra is clearly saying that the will of God is that they separate themselves from the Gentiles and divorce those wives. The chapter ends listing the priests, Levites, and lay Israelites who had intermarried with foreign women.
Remember the analogy – the walls of Jerusalem had been broken down physically and needed to be rebuilt to separate the Jews from the Gentiles but also now intermarriage had broken down the spiritual wall separating Jews and Gentiles and needed to be rebuilt. The concern is one of the Jews separating themselves from the abominations of their Gentile neighbors (cf. Ezra 9:1, 11).
As Green explains so well, ”By placing this account of Ezra’s activities (Ezra 7:1-10:44) in the middle of the narrative of the rebuilding of the temple and city walls (Ezra 3:1-6:22, Neh. 1:1-6:16), the people’s adherence to the Law and specifically their separation from foreign wives becomes an integral part of what it means to rebuild the ‘house of God.’ It suggests that the ‘house of God’ will never be fully complete until a qualified people—separated from the foreign nations—is found to inhabit it.”
But as Shecaniah said to Ezra: ”We have broken faith with our God and have married foreign women from the peoples of the land, but even now there is hope for Israel in spite of this” (Ezra 10:2). God had not punished them as much as their sins deserved and if the continued they could expect nothing more than total destruction. So the hope was that on account of their repentance the wrath of God would turn away from them. But in truth we know their only hope was in Jesus who took that wrath upon Himself and will purify for Himself a bride to live in the new Jerusalem.