Last week, we explored the prayer of Hezekiah, carrying the weight of his kingdom’s safety on his shoulders. This week, we move along in history, to hear the prayer of Ezra, who was carrying the weight of the people’s sins on his shoulders. But in order to better understand his plea, we need to explore the context and culture of his time.
The Assyrians, as we heard last week, were ineffective against Hezekiah, and pretty much everyone else, so their empire waned as Babylon appeared on the scene and took over. They came against Jerusalem, and this time, far more effectively. They deported the “leading citizens” to Babylon and scattered the rest. But as nations rise and fall, their dominance was soon replaced by the Persian empire, under the leadership of Cyrus.
According to one commentator, the primary claim of the Old Testament is that Persia revised the harsh Babylonian policies of displacement and permitted local populations to return to their homelands. The only condition was that the people would acknowledge Persia’s rule in the form of tax payments to the Persian Empire. That seemed a small price to pay for being able to return to their home, their land, and their worship of God. And in fact, at one point, Israel wondered if Cyrus was their promised Messiah, as the one who had returned them to their homeland. And while Cyrus wasn’t the fulfillment of the messianic prophecy, it was a win-win situation for the two countries: Israel was home in Jerusalem, and Persia was able to collect an income from the Hebrew people.
Upon resettling in Jerusalem, two leaders emerged. Nehemiah was appointed by Persia as governor of the province, and set about rebuilding Jerusalem and restoring some kind of civic order. Alongside Nehemiah, restoring the Jewish community as a religious-political entity, was Ezra. While Nehemiah was the administrator, Ezra was the recognized theological leader. Although he has been called a priest, he was actually a scribe who managed, interpreted, and taught from the old authoritative scrolls. As an interpreter, he would read and preach on the Torah.
Included in Ezra’s teachings was that the people of Israel would be an intentional community, known for their obedience to the Torah. They were considered “the holy seed” dedicated to YHWH God alone. They would be the genesis of the new faithful community. But there was a problem. During the period of the exile, they had intermarried with the Babylonians, and thus, became “mixed” and no longer pure. They were no longer a separate or distinct people. As we learned back in the time of Solomon, marriages outside of the Jewish faith risked the assimilation of the pagan gods of the spouses. In Ezra’s eyes, the outcome of this intermarriage, often involving some very prominent Jewish individuals, was faithlessness. And Ezra felt guilty for allowing that to happen. Thus, he felt the need of taking on the sins of the people; fully aware that he has led a failed community that has not maintained its identity as the people of God, through obedience.
It is against this background that Ezra comes to God in prayer. This is, in its entirety, one of confession of sin, with no petition or request of any kind. Although Ezra was not personally guilty of these sins, he identifies himself with his people in his prayer. He acknowledged that all the horrible afflictions which had come upon them as a nation were far less than they deserved.
In this time of confession, we can note a number of things he did to show his penitence on behalf of his people. He showed sorrow. He tore his robe. Tearing of the garment was symbolic of mourning. Additionally, he prayed for hours. Not a hasty “Sorry, God”, but a deep, heartfelt prayer. He also showed humility before God. He fell on his knees and spread out his hands before God, a posture of humility before God. And he confessed his nation’s sin. He identified with them, and asked for mercy on their behalf. And finally, he gave thanks to God for his grace. He thanked God that the remnant was allowed to return, that there was to be repair of God’s house and rebuilding of the ruins.
For you see, that although there was a deep sense of loss, there was also hope. Despite all they had suffered, all they had lost, there was a chance to rebuild, to create new life, all due to God’s steadfast love. While still under the rule of the Persians, there was a chance for a new beginning for this faithful remnant.
Perhaps that’s what we can take away from Ezra’s prayer. We have all erred, by commission -or omission- of sin. Some of our sins are small, some huge, but all hinder our relationship with God. As a child, I remember doing something I thought was wrong, and for which I would be punished. While I do not recollect what I may have done, I remember being ashamed and hiding in my closet so as not to be found. And of course, there was no hiding from my mother. Likewise, there is no closet dark enough or deep enough to hide from God. It is our sin, and our recognition of it, that separates us from God. But we know that when we confess our sins, God is faithful to forgive, and as Ezra points out, loves us with an unwavering love and offers us hope for a second chance, a new beginning.
There may be some of us who have found ourselves at one time, in the depths of disobedience, alienated from God. I can assure you that is not a happy place to be. Yet, God’s love is steadfast, and always welcomes us back. God is like the father of the prodigal, waiting, hoping, ready to receive us with open arms.
Perhaps you know someone who is in need of rescue from themselves. Hold them in prayer, ask God to come alongside them, and be available to share with them the good news of the gospel, that we have mercy and grace. And for our own sins, thanks be to God that we ourselves have a God of mercy and grace, which is new and available to us each and every new day. Thanks be to God. Amen.