It Is Raining (Ezra 10 : 13)
‘It is raining’ is a common place observation for us living in this part of the world. Why would such a phrase find its way into Holy Scripture? In Scotland you might reply ‘What else is new?’ If you stayed in Greenock or in Fort William particularly, it would not count as a special or important piece of intelligence. Indeed, the opposite would be note worthy, ‘It is sunny’. In the middle east however, rainy days were in the minority and much blessed for their appearance. We Scots long for warmth and sunshine which we count as blessing. We are used to weather related greetings to one another. Parliamo Glasgow had it thus. ‘Sanaffy? ‘Whit?’ ‘Sanaffy coldae’. Partick parlance has it ‘Ro’in day’, ‘It’s poorin’, ‘It’s comin doon cats an' dugs’. There is no reliable explanation for the phrase ‘raining cats and dogs’. It was used by the Anglo-Irish minister Jonathan Swift (1667 – 1745) who wrote ‘Gulliver’s Travels’. He gave no reason and no one knows how the phrase came into being. You might deduce that both cats and dogs describes completion or even excess. Cats and dogs do not always get on. There is a hint of trouble. Heavy rain then?
‘It is raining’. Is this a significant addition to the text of Ezra chapter 10? It roots the narrative in real circumstance. Why else include it? Many people today dismiss the Bible as a wholesale fiction. For centuries theologians have had doubts about the reliability of both the Old and New Testaments. Since the Enlightenment and the rise of knowledge through observation, mathematics and science, doubters and sceptics have readily discounted the stories of the Bible specifically because they relate to God who is invisible and whose existence is unprovable according to contemporary empirical methods. ‘It is raining’ is one of those little details with a sense of reality. It also allows us to suggest that this was the equivalent of our month of December because that is when the rains come to that part of the middle east. If the meteorological fact is true might not the rest of the narrative be true also?
The Book of Ezra is a composite document with multiple authors including Ezra himself. Ezra had been a high ranking member of the Persian King Artaxerxes’ administration perhaps being in charge of all affairs relating to the Jews. Chapter 7 verses 8 - 10 tell us ‘Ezra arrived in Jerusalem in the fifth month of the seventh year of the king. He had begun his journey from Babylon on the first day of the first month, and he arrived in Jerusalem on the first day of the fifth month, for the gracious hand of his God was on him. For Ezra had devoted himself to the study and observance of the Law of the Lord, and to teaching its decrees and laws in Israel’. Scholars date this as 458 BC. They think Ezra returned to Persia and later returned to Jerusalem where he was present in 444 BC. The Book of Nehemiah confirms this ‘I had the leaders of Judah go up on top of the wall.....Ezra the teacher of the Law led the procession. At the Fountain Gate they continued directly up the steps of the City of David on the ascent to the wall and passed above the site of David’s palace to the Water Gate on the east.’ (Nehemiah 12 : 31 and 36 - 38)
Ezra means ‘helper’. The name came down through the centuries. Some may remember Sir Derek Ezra born of Sephardi Jewish lineage who became the humane chairman of the National Coal Board from 1972 – 82.
Ezra chapter 9 : 1 – 6 gives us the immediate context. ‘After these things had been done, the leaders came to me and said, “The people of Israel, including the priests and the Levites, have not kept themselves separate from the neighbouring peoples with their detestable practices, like those of the Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, Jebusites, Ammonites, Moabites, Egyptians and Amorites. They have taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves and their sons, and have mingled the holy race with the peoples around them. And the leaders and officials have led the way in this unfaithfulness.” When I heard this, I tore my tunic and cloak, pulled hair from my head and beard and sat down appalled. Then everyone who trembled at the words of the God of Israel gathered around me because of this unfaithfulness of the exiles. And I sat there appalled until the evening sacrifice. Then, at the evening sacrifice, I rose from my self-abasement, with my tunic and cloak torn, and fell on my knees with my hands spread out to the Lord my God and prayed’. Ezra embarked on a prolonged vicarious confession of the sins of the Jews accompanied by fasting. He hoped and indeed expected that God would hear his prayer and forgive his people.
The former Church of Scotland minister John McLeod Campbell (1800 – 72) wrote a book on The Atonement in which he suggested that Jesus accomplished vicarious atonement for the sins of humanity by making a perfect confession of our sins during his prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane just before his arrest. This meant that Jesus did not actually have to die on Calvary. Campbell was departing from the Calvinistic doctrine of substitutionary atonement whereby Jesus was sacrificially substituted for our sins. Ezra was a scribe but he was also a spiritual leader and he stood in the tradition of the prophets who interceded with God on behalf of the people.
Moses, of course, did this. 'Then once again I fell prostrate before the Lord for forty days and forty nights; I ate no bread and drank no water, because of all the sin you had committed, doing what was evil in the Lord’s sight and so arousing his anger. I feared the anger and wrath of the Lord, for he was angry enough with you to destroy you. But again the Lord listened to me. And the Lord was angry enough with Aaron to destroy him, but at that time I prayed for Aaron too. Also I took that sinful thing of yours, the calf you had made, and burned it in the fire. Then I crushed it and ground it to powder as fine as dust and threw the dust into a stream that flowed down the mountain'. (Deuteronomy 9 : 18 - 21)
David interceded on behalf of the people who were suffering from plague. Araunah had offered to give his property to David. But he would not have it. '“No!” the king replied to Araunah. “I will buy them from you at full price. I won’t offer to the Lord my God burnt offerings that cost me nothing.” So David bought the threshing floor and the oxen for 50 silver shekels, built an altar to the Lord there, and presented burnt offerings and peace offerings. So the Lord answered David’s prayers for the land and the pestilence on Israel was averted'. (2 Samuel 24 : 24 -25)
Elijah contended with the priests of Baal. ‘So Obadiah went to Ahab and told him where Elijah was. Then Ahab went to meet Elijah. When he saw Elijah, he asked, “Is it you—the biggest troublemaker in Israel?” Elijah answered, “I have not made trouble in Israel. You and your father’s family have made all this trouble by not obeying the Lord’s commands. You have gone after the Baals. Now tell all Israel to meet me at Mount Carmel. Also bring the four hundred fifty prophets of Baal and the four hundred prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel’s table.” So Ahab called all the Israelites and those prophets to Mount Carmel. Elijah approached the people and said, “How long will you not decide between two choices? If the Lord is the true God, follow him, but if Baal is the true God, follow him!” But the people said nothing’. (1 Kings 18 : 16 – 21) The confrontation between Elijah and the 450 priests of Baal ended with their mass murder. ‘Then Elijah said, “Capture the prophets of Baal! Don’t let any of them run away!” The people captured all the prophets. Then Elijah led them down to the Kishon Valley, where he slaughtered them’. (1 Kings 18 : 40)
Jeremiah too mediated between heaven and earth. ‘This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.” Yes, this is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: “Do not let the prophets and diviners among you deceive you. Do not listen to the dreams you encourage them to have. They are prophesying lies to you in my name. I have not sent them,” declares the Lord’. (Jeremiah 29 : 4 -9)
Today there is no world Christian leader who is bold enough to intercede with God on behalf of humanity. There is no-one confident of being heard and answered. Maybe among some devout congregations such a petition might be made but Ezra lived a public life and his prayers and fasting were seen by all. The detestable practices instanced by Ezra were the worship of the gods of other peoples and tribes in the area. In Deuteronomy 18 : 9 – 13 these were enunciated. ‘When you enter the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not learn to imitate the detestable way of the nations there. Let no one be found among you who sacrifices their son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. Anyone who does these things is detestable to the Lord; because of these same detestable practices the Lord your God will drive out those nations before you. You must be blameless before the Lord your God.’
Ezra chapter 10 deals specifically with the issue of intermarriage. This was not a racist issue as such. It was a spiritual issue. It was not about the relationships themselves. Ruth was a Moabite woman who married an Israelite. Ruth 1 : 16 tells us that she said to her mother-in-law Naomi, ‘Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God’. Her lifestyle, practice and faith were towards the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. She became King David’s great grandmother. He, of course, was an ancestor of Jesus. The issue Ezra had to deal with was what we call syncretism, the mixing up of faiths and practices. The women who had married Israelites had not all like Ruth became proselyte Jews. They had continued with their animism, spiritualism and idolatrous worship of false gods. Thus they had become a danger to the identity and calling of the people of God.
The prophets of the Old Testament wrestled with this issue in later generations also. How to keep the people of God distinct, faithful and obedient to the revealed Law of Moses. Jeremiah 2 : 1 – 9 offers a good example. ‘The word of the Lord came to me: “Go and proclaim in the hearing of Jerusalem: “This is what the Lord says: “‘I remember the devotion of your youth, how as a bride you loved me and followed me through the wilderness, through a land not sown. Israel was holy to the Lord, the first fruits of his harvest; all who devoured her were held guilty, and disaster overtook them,’” declares the Lord. Hear the word of the Lord, you descendants of Jacob, all you clans of Israel. This is what the Lord says: “What fault did your ancestors find in me, that they strayed so far from me? They followed worthless idols and became worthless themselves. They did not ask, ‘Where is the Lord, who brought us up out of Egypt and led us through the barren wilderness, through a land of deserts and ravines, a land of drought and utter darkness, a land where no one travels and no one lives?’ I brought you into a fertile land to eat its fruit and rich produce. But you came and defiled my land and made my inheritance detestable. The priests did not ask, ‘Where is the Lord?’ Those who deal with the law did not know me; the leaders rebelled against me. The prophets prophesied by Baal, following worthless idols. “Therefore I bring charges against you again,” declares the Lord. “And I will bring charges against your children’s children.”’
Is this not equally a commentary on today? In this country? In the West? Have we not abandoned Christianity? Do we not live by self, by idols and false gods, myths, fictions, spiritualistic practices and alternative gurus, healers, idols, influencers and cult leaders? There is another dimension too. Critical race theory seeks to replace the dominant centuries of western Christian learning and cultural narrative with one which equalises the lived experience of minorities. The beliefs and practices of first nation tribes in North America and those of pre-colonial peoples in Africa are such examples. Therefore contemporary practices of animism, myth and superstition are held to represent alternative equally valuable truth. This is stated without attendant proof. Disagreement is described as multiplication of racist attitudes.
The denunciation of the detestable practices which accompanied the intermarriages of Israelite men and non-Israelite women would be seen today as racism, according to proponents of critical race theory. There is also a strange worldwide anti-Semitism abroad at the moment. It implicitly and explicitly rejects Jewish exceptionalism. It was to maintain this exceptionalism that Ezra struggled. This was not to be universal dominance however. The servant nation was to be a moral light to the world. And it did become so. It was not for itself that it was to exist. It was to witness to the reality of God. When it departed from that calling it lost its way. At no time more so than its rejection of its Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth.
V1 ‘Now while Ezra was praying, and while he was confessing, weeping, and bowing down before the house of God, a very large assembly of men, women, and children gathered to him from Israel; for the people wept very bitterly’. This then was the beginning of a revival. Tears, weeping, sorrow and repentance are prerequisites of revival. In his book The Second Evangelical Awakening, Dr. J. Edwin Orr quoted the observations of a high-ranking army officer upon the work of the Spirit in his Scottish town (in the mid 19th century) : “Those of you who are at ease have little conception of how terrifying a sight it is when the Holy Spirit is pleased to open a man’s (and a woman’s) eyes to see the real state of heart… Men (and women) who were thought to be, and who thought themselves to be good, religious people… have been led to search into the foundation upon which they were resting, and have found all rotten, that they were self-satisfied, resting on their own goodness, and not upon Christ. Many turned from open sin to lives of holiness, some weeping for joy for sins forgiven.” American missionary William Newton Blair, the author of ‘The Korean Pentecost and the Sufferings which Followed’ describing the great 1907 Korean revival, declared: “We may have our theories of the desirability or undesirability of public confession of sin. I have had mine, but I know that when the Spirit of God falls upon guilty souls, there will be confession, and no power on earth can stop it.” (Taken from the Enduring Word Commentary)
V2 – 4 ‘And Shekaniah the son of Jehiel, one of the sons of Elam, spoke up and said to Ezra, “We have trespassed against our God, and have taken pagan wives from the peoples of the land; yet now there is hope in Israel in spite of this. Now therefore, let us make a covenant with our God to put away all these wives and those who have been born to them, according to the advice of my master and of those who tremble at the commandment of our God; and let it be done according to the law. Arise, for this matter is your responsibility. We also are with you. Be of good courage, and do it.” This was a severe response. ‘Put away’ means divorce. Moses allowed divorce. Deuteronomy 24 : 1 – 4 reads ‘If a man marries a woman who becomes displeasing to him because he finds something indecent about her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, and if after she leaves his house she becomes the wife of another man, and her second husband dislikes her and writes her a certificate of divorce, gives it to her and sends her from his house, or if he dies, then her first husband, who divorced her, is not allowed to marry her again after she has been defiled. That would be detestable in the eyes of the Lord. Do not bring sin upon the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance’.
Today this teaching is disparaged by feminists as ‘patriarchal’. But we also might reject the imbalance of power in the marriages in ancient Israel. Women were regarded as possessions, adjuncts to the males. Men could divorce women, women could not divorce men. Few Christian men today would not accept that men and women are equal in God’s sight. Different but equal. Islam however holds to the ancient way. Muslim men can divorce their wives and they can have as many wives as they can afford, but only four at a time! Jesus spoke about divorce in regretful terms. ‘Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery’. (Matthew 19 : 8 - 9) In Mark however, there is no compromise. ‘It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law,” Jesus replied. “But at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female.’ ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate’. (10 : 5 – 9)
Shekaniah was putting God first, and sought to re-establish the Covenant between God and Israel. To us it sounds harsh and legalistic and it may have been so. But it may also have been in great sorrow and with a deep sense of guilt, regret and personal loss. As the account progresses we learn that Ezra and the others put a lot of time and thought into what was to happen. They were genuinely concerned about fairness, justice and provision for abandoned wives and children. The separate identity of Judaism as a direct witness of God and to God mattered most. They accepted that what they had done was wrong. Privileged in their calling, they had squandered their inheritance.
V3 ‘Those who have been born to them’: It was understood by the ancient culture – that the women would stay with their children. In ancient societies, as in ours, mothers were given custody of their children when marriages were dissolved. (Though not among the Romans) It is likely that they were provided for. This would have been humane and obedient to God. Ezra 10 : 44 suggests that there were in fact very few such children. Social science data shows that divorce harms children. But today there are so many divorces and so many consecutive marriage and partner relationships that it is commonplace and unremarkable. So great is the imbalance in legal proceedings in favour of the mother over the father in divorces that organisations supporting fathers have sprung up. Fathers 4 Justice was founded in 2001 aiming to gain public and parliamentary support for changes in UK legislation on fathers' rights. But in the time of Ezra, the men called all the shots. They though, had to be obedient to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. They had responsibilities. They could not just do as they pleased. In today’s culture, abandonment of children by men is commonplace. But just as frequent is the sending away of the man by the woman from the family home in cases of break up of marriage or partner relationships. State financial provision of housing and benefits makes all this possible.
V5 - 6 ‘Then Ezra arose, and made the leaders of the priests, the Levites, and all Israel swear an oath that they would do according to this word. So they swore an oath. 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 there, he ate no bread and drank no water, for he mourned because of the guilt of those from the captivity’. Fasting was an ancient practice of devotion to God. It is not exclusive to Judaism and Christianity. Indeed the most famous people in the world known for fasting are Indian fakirs. Jesus fasted for 40 days before embarking on his public ministry. We assume that he took water but not food. We all eat too much. And we eat too much of the wrong stuff. In Scottish times past Christian leaders would call fasts for specific causes such as emergencies, warfare, disease and pestilence. In evangelical circles fasting is sometimes practised for spiritual purposes, for closeness with God, for missions, for revivals and for specific answers to prayers. But you will never hear today’s leaders in the Church of Scotland calling for fasting to arrest the decline of the Church and bring recovery and renewal. ‘He ate no bread and drank no water, for he mourned’. Ezra’s no food and water fast was severe but we do not know how long it was for. In my African days I had a colleague who boasted that he fasted every day – between 2 o’ clock and 4 o’ clock. Ezra’s kind of fast is rare in the Bible but was observed twice by Moses (Exodus 34 : 28; Deuteronomy 9:18) and also by the people of Nineveh (Jonah 3 : 7). Luke 4 : 2 says that during Jesus’ fast for 40 days in the wilderness he ate no food. It does not mention deprivation of water. Perhaps that is implied. Normally we humans need water after four days at the most if we are to survive. Food we can do without for much longer. Fasting clears the mind and detoxifies the body. It hones the spirit and clarifies our relationship with God. This only happens if the fast is used positively for these spiritual purposes. Fasting can inspire new understanding and help set a new course for life. It can also simply be a healthy exercise. But its best purpose is to intensify prayer and the hope within it. It can help to be reconciled with God and to make our peace with God.
Ezra did not waffle or beat about the bush. He was no Sergeant Wilson from Dad’s Army. He was a leader and an organiser. He did not offer a democratic choice to agree or disagree, participate or not. Confiscation of property and excommunication from Israel would be the price of non-cooperation.
V9 - 11 ‘So all the men of Judah and Benjamin gathered at Jerusalem within three days. It was the ninth month, on the twentieth of the month; and all the people sat in the open square of the house of God, trembling because of this matter and because it was raining. Then Ezra the priest stood up and said to them, “You have transgressed and have taken pagan wives, adding to the guilt of Israel. Now therefore, make confession to the LORD God of your fathers, and do His will; separate yourselves from the peoples of the land, and from the pagan wives.”’ This was evidence of the moving of the Holy Spirit among the people. In March 1859, some unordained men with a passion for revival preached at the First Presbyterian Church in Ahoghill, Northern Ireland. There was such a large crowd at that meeting that they had to dismiss the meeting out of fear that the balconies would collapse under the weight of so many people. They took the meeting to the street right outside the church, and in the freezing rain James McQuilkin preached to 3,000 people in the streets, with many of the listeners falling to their knees in the wet and muddy street because they were so moved by the conviction of sin under the preaching of these laymen. (Taken from Enduring Word Commentary)
Ezra’s was a bendy Bible repent or be damned type of occasion. It was not even as gracious as a Billy Graham rally. But it was an invitation to change, reform and be reconstituted as people of God. That kind of preaching is little heard in our land today. No-one has the courage to speak thus. It might be designated a hate crime. The positive Gospel message is heard in evangelical circles and in the now world wide Pentecostal movement with its emphasis on upbeat music, physicality of worship and youthful leadership. Such repentance was not to be a one off thing. It was to be a way of life. ‘ We shall need to believe and to repent as long as ever we live’, said Charles Spurgeon.
Organisation and logistics were required. Billy Graham crusades were meticulously planned. Those who came forward for conversion or rededication were accompanied by a similar kind of person. Prayers were offered. Contact details were taken. Introductions to congregations were made. In Ezra 10 we read ‘It was raining’. Some of those under condemnation saw the need for order. ‘Please, let the leaders of our entire assembly stand; and let all those in our cities who have taken pagan wives come at appointed times, together with the elders and judges of their cities, until the fierce wrath of our God is turned away from us in this matter’ (V 14). This was involved members of families. Divorce and custody of children had to be settled and provision agreed and made. There was humanity in the process. Each individual case was investigated. It took Ezra and his helpers three months. If the pagan wife wanted to keep to her indigenous beliefs and practices she could not live among the covenant community and had to be divorced. Only about 114 of these pagan wives refused to embrace the God of Israel. This may have represented less than one half of one per cent of the population. Most of the foreign wives came over to the God of Israel. In the New Testament Paul specifically commanded that if a believer is married to an unbeliever, they are to remain in the marriage if at all possible, both for the possibility of a witness to the unbelieving spouse and for the benefit it brings to the children (1 Corinthians 7:12-17).
‘It is raining’
Our church Christianity lacks such seriousness and purpose. It is pleasant pastime activity. It is far from being a life and death matter, an eternal life or damnation prospect. We simply do not want to think of God in those terms. We thirl to Jesus meek and mild. We emphasise love to the exclusion of truth and depth. We do not consider Jesus’ teaching and example in its totality. We turn away from the struggle for Jesus in the world at this time. Enthusiasm and fanaticism are feared. Ebb and flow, rise and fall – this has been the pattern of Christianity in the world. We live in a down time. It is no fun. It is raining. Yet within the perspectives of our faith inheritance lie the possibilities of revival. It is there for the asking and for the seeking.
‘I hear thy welcome voice that calls me, Lord, to thee, for cleansing in thy precious blood that flowed on Calvary.
I am coming Lord! Coming now to thee! Wash me, cleanse me in the blood that flowed on Calvary!
Though coming weak and vile, thou dost my strength assure; thou dost my vileness fully cleanse,
till spotless all, and pure.
'Tis Jesus calls me on to perfect faith and love, to perfect hope and peace and trust, for earth and heav'n above.
'Tis Jesus who confirms the blessèd work within, by adding grace to welcomed grace, Where reigned the power of sin.
And he the witness gives to loyal hearts and free that every promise is fulfilled, if faith but brings the plea
All hail! atoning blood! All hail! redeeming grace! All hail! the gift of Christ our Lord, our Strength and Righteousness.
I am coming Lord! Coming now to thee! Wash me, cleanse me in the blood that flowed on Calvary!’
Lewis Hartsough (1828 - 1919)