Ezra was born to be the spiritual leader of his people. He was the descendent of Aaron, Israel’s first Chief Priest, so he was a man of good reputation and status (Ezra 7:1-5). He didn’t, however, simply live off his reputation. Rather, Ezra spent his life studying God’s Law. He was described as being a “scribe skilled in the law of Moses” who enjoyed “the hand of the Lord upon him” (Ezra 7:6). In other words, Ezra was a scribe and priest skilled in the art of studying God’s Word, communicating God’s Word, and teaching God’s Word. He also enjoyed certain divine blessings, protection, and enablement that contributed to his ability to serve his people.
In 538 BC, Persian King Cyrus, having been stirred up by God (Ezra 1:1), issued a decree that allowed Zerubabbel to lead a wave of Jews out of captivity in Babylon back to Jerusalem to rebuild God’s temple. Almost 60 years later, with the endorsement of King Artaxerxes, Ezra led a second wave of Jews out of exile back to Jerusalem to rebuild God’s people spiritually (Ezra 7). This had to be Ezra’s dream job. It was what God had prepared him for all his life. All of his reputation and skills were geared towards this place in time.
Ezra led approximately 40,000 of his people out of Babylon on the 4 month journey to Jerusalem. Imagine his dismay when he arrived to discover that the Jews living in Jerusalem had begun falling back into the sinful practices that led to their captivity in the first place! Chapter 9 of Ezra reveals that God’s people had once again been taking wives from the pagan nations around them and having children (9:1-2). This wasn’t a matter of simple racism, rather, God had expressly forbidden the practice in his Law (Exodus 34:11-16, Deut. 7:1-5). The practice exposed the hearts of God’s people as disobedient, ungrateful, and faithless. It represented not just the intermingling of peoples but rather the intermingling of pagan religions with the worship of the One True God. Such intermingling with pagan religions had led to dire consequences in the past (1 Kings 11:1-8) and Ezra was stunned to learn his people had fallen back into it.
His reaction is a lesson for all of us.
Ezra is so distraught by what he has learned that he appalled. He begins tearing at his clothes and pulling hair from his head and beard. He is genuinely broken over the sin of his people (Ezra 9:1-4). He then begins to pray. Falling to his knees and stretching out his hands before God, Ezra pours out his heart.
Dr. Thomas Constable writes that Ezra’s prayer contains four primary elements: solidarity, confession, readiness to change, and faith in God’s mercy. I fear that too often, when we respond to the sins of our people, our prayers contain only one element – condemnation. We could learn from Ezra’s example.
Ezra identifies with his people even though he himself isn’t guilty of their sins when he says, “I am ashamed and embarrassed to lift up my face to You [God] for our iniquities have risen above our heads” (Ezra 9:6). He then confesses the sin of his people, “Since the days of our fathers to this day we have been in great guilt, and on account of our iniquities we … have been given into [captivity, plunder, and shame]” (Ezra 9:7). Ezra then acknowledges God’s grace and expresses a desire and readiness for his people to change, “… yet in our bondage, our God has not forsaken us, but has extended lovingkindness to us in the sight of the kings of Persia” … “After all this has come upon us for our evil deeds and our great guilt, since You our God have requited us less than our iniquities deserve … shall we again break your commandments and intermarry with the peoples who commit these abominations?” (Ezra 9:9-14).
I am impressed by the passion of Ezra’s burden for his people. I am also shamed by it. I can not remember ever praying in such a manner for my own people. The church today is highly skilled at calling out the sinners in our culture (and I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t), however, rarely do I see my fellow Christians pouring out their hearts on behalf of the people around us. The Word says we are all sinners who fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23) so it shouldn’t be hard for us to feel compassion for the unsaved people around us. We should feel solidarity for those people around us because it was purely by the grace of God that we were saved! We should confess not only our own sins but the sins of our culture. We should express a readiness to change and to share our faith with those people who desperately need Jesus Christ as their Savior. And we should express our confidence in the faithfulness of the God who restored His people from exile and sent His Son to die on a cross for us though we were sinners.
Christians everywhere should learn from Ezra’s example. Perhaps, we should take a break from looking down our noses at the people around us and take the time to genuinely pour our hearts out to God on their behalf. Ezra’s prayer birthed a change in his people (Ezra 10). There is no reason our prayers can not birth a change in ours.