You would think that Ezra and Nehemiah should really be towards the end of our Old Testament as they cover the return of the Jews from Exile and the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the Temple. The scene is being set for the incarnation of Jesus Christ, albeit about five hundred years before the Nativity.
THE MIRACLE OF THE RETURN
The thing that stands out most is that the Return was a remarkable event. That the Persian king, Cyrus, would allow the Jews to go and rebuild the walls of their city is unusual. That he and his successors would actually help to finance the venture, acknowledging the “God of heaven”, is quite miraculous. It’s no wonder that Ezra records, “Praise be to the Lord, the God of our ancestors, who has put it into the king’s heart to bring honour to the house of the Lord in Jerusalem in this way and who has extended his good favour to me before the king and his advisers and all the king’s powerful officials.” (8:27-28). It’s another reminder that God is King over all nations, that he controls their fate and that his mercy continues to extend to his people, despite their past failures. While we think of history being shaped by kings, politicians and wars (and perhaps currently by multi-national corporations), the witness of Scripture is that Yahweh is the mover and shaker who will encompass the good and bad decisions of all people into his overall plans for humanity.
THE DIFFICULTY OF DIVORCE
I found it hard to come to terms with Ezra sending away foreign wives and their children (See chapters 9 and following). It seems harsh against today’s social background and particularly when you try to imagine what it must have been like in their place. Was this a pre-pharisaical sort of response, which the coming of Jesus would change? An exclusiveness which he would challenge, as he often commended the foreigners of faith and finally commanded his disciples to take the gospel to all nations?
I had to remind myself that once again the Jews were at a precarious stage of regrouping and re-establishing all they had lost seventy years earlier. It would still be all too easy to fall back into idolatry, and there were still hundreds of years to go before the Christ would arrive on the scene. A lot can happen in that time – and it did!
Another point is that Ezra is claiming that the Jewish men should not have entered into these marriages in the first place. Today the application of this principle has less to do with race but as much to do with faith. I have had occasion in the past, based on New Testament Scripture, to warn Christian young people to be wary of who they became romantically involved with. Marrying an unbeliever has too often marked the ending of their relationship with God through Jesus Christ. At the very least it has made commitment to God’s work more difficult as one person is pulling in a different direction or not pulling at all. I’ve seen it happen too many times and heart-breaking though it may sometimes be I believe that God honours and blesses those who put him first as they seek a partner.
OT RESPONSE vs NT RESPONSE
I note here that to the New Testament Church Paul advises those who converted to Christianity, and were already married to an unbelieving partner, should not seek a separation. There was a chance that the partner could be converted through the witness of the Christian (1 Corinthians 7).
So what had changed between the people of God prior to Christ and those after? Why didn’t Paul insist that Christians divorce unbelievers as Ezra had done with the returning Jews?
There are probably other reasons but the one that stands out for me is that the coming of Christ and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit created a generally stronger people spiritually. No longer held together by ritual observance, nor motivated by legal observance, Christians were in a New Covenant relationship, motivated by the Spirit from the heart. Those born of the Spirit had a new, natural bias towards God. The Kingdom of God was always a reality, but with the birth, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ, God’s Kingdom had come with power into the lives of all who truly responded with faith.
BACK TO EZRA
On re-reading Ezra I also realised that the business of sending away wives and children was not a hasty decision enacted over a weekend. There were actually one hundred and ten cases and they were dealt with by an investigative committee over seventy-five days with the names recorded. I can only trust that provision was made for all concerned under such difficult circumstances!