Verses 5–15

What the meditations of Ezra’s heart were, while for some hours he sat down astonished, we may guess by the words of his mouth when at length he spoke with his tongue; and a most pathetic address he here makes to Heaven upon this occasion. Observe,

I. The time when he made this address—at the evening sacrifice, Ezra 9:5. Then (it is likely) devout people used to come into the courts of the temple, to grace the solemnity of the sacrifice and to offer up their own prayers to God in concurrence with it. In their hearing Ezra chose to make this confession, that they might be made duly sensible of the sins of their people, which hitherto they had either not taken notice of or had made light of. Prayer may preach. The sacrifice, and especially the evening sacrifice, was a type of the great propitiation, that blessed Lamb of God which in the evening of the world was to take away sin by the sacrifice of himself, to which we may suppose Ezra had an eye of faith in this penitential address to God; he makes confession with his hand, as it were, upon the head of that great sacrifice, through which we receive the atonement. Certainly Ezra was no stranger to the message which the angel Gabriel had some years ago delivered to Daniel, at the time of the evening sacrifice, and as it were in explication of it, concerning Messiah the Prince (Dan. 9:21, 24); and perhaps he had regard to that in choosing this time.

II. His preparation for this address. 1. He rose up from his heaviness, and so far shook off the burden of his grief as was necessary to the lifting up of his heart to God. He recovered from his astonishment, got the tumult of his troubled spirits somewhat stilled and his spirit composed for communion with God. 2. He fell upon his knees, put himself into the posture of a penitent humbling himself and a petitioner suing for mercy, in both representing the people for whom he was now an intercessor. 3. He spread out his hands, as one affected with what he was going to say, offering it up unto God, waiting, and reaching out, as it were, with an earnest expectation, to receive a gracious answer. In this he had an eye to God as the Lord, and as his God, a God of power, but a God of grace.

III. The address itself. It is not properly to be called a prayer, for there is not a word of petition in it; but, if we give prayer its full latitude, it is the offering up of pious and devout affections to God, and very devout, very pious, are the affections which Ezra here expresses. His address is a penitent confession of sin, not his own (from a conscience burdened with its own guilt and apprehensive of his own danger), but the sin of his people, from a gracious concern for the honour of God and the welfare of Israel. Here is a lively picture of ingenuous repentance. Observe in this address,

1. The confession he makes of the sin and the aggravations of it, which he insists upon, to affect his own heart and theirs that joined with him with holy sorrow and shame and fear, in the consideration of it, that they might be deeply humbled for it. And it is observable that, though he himself was wholly clear from this guilt, yet he puts himself into the number of the sinners, because he was a member of the same community—our sins and our trespass. Perhaps he now remembered it against himself, as his fault, that he had staid so long after his brethren in Babylon, and had not separated himself so soon as he might have done from the people of those lands. When we are lamenting the wickedness of the wicked, it may be, if we duly reflect upon ourselves and give our own hearts leave to deal faithfully with us, we may find something of the same nature, though in a lower degree, that we also have been guilty of. However, he speaks that which was, or should have been, the general complaint.

(1.) He owns their sins to have been very great: “Our iniquities are increased over our heads (Ezra 9:6); we are ready to perish in them as in keep waters;” so general was the prevalency of them, so violent the power of them, and so threatening were they of the most pernicious consequences. “Iniquity has grown up to such a height among us that it reaches to the heavens, so very impudent that it dares heaven, so very provoking that, like the sin of Sodom, it cries to heaven for vengeance.” But let this be the comfort of true penitents that though their sins reach to the heavens God’s mercy is in the heavens, Ps. 36:5. Where sin abounds grace will much more abound.

(2.) Their sin had been long persisted in (Ezra 9:7): Since the days of our fathers have we been in a great trespass. The example of those that had gone before them he thought so far from excusing their fault that it aggravated it. “We should have taken warning not to stumble at the same stone. The corruption is so much the worse that it has taken deep root and begins to plead prescription, but by this means we have reason to fear that the measure of the iniquity is nearly full.”

(3.) The great and sore judgments which God had brought upon them for their sins did very much aggravate them: “For our iniquities we have been delivered to the sword and to captivity (Ezra 9:7), and yet not reformed, yet not reclaimed—brayed in the mortar, and yet the folly not gone (Prov. 27:22)-- corrected, but not reclaimed.”

(4.) The late mercies God had bestowed upon them did likewise very much aggravate their sins. This he insists largely upon, Ezra 9:8, 9. Observe, [1.] The time of mercy: Now for a little space, that is, “It is but a little while since we had our liberty, and it is not likely to continue long.” This greatly aggravated their sin, that they were so lately in the furnace and that they knew not how soon they might return to it again; and could they yet be secure? [2.] The fountain of mercy: Grace has been shown us from the Lord. The kings of Persia were the instruments of their enlargement; but he ascribes it to God and to his grace, his free grace, without any merit of theirs. [3.] The streams of mercy,—that they were not forsaken in their bondage, but even in Babylon had the tokens of God’s presence,—that they were a remnant of Israelites left, a few out of many, and those narrowly escaped out of the hands of their enemies, by the favour of the kings of Persia,—and especially that they had a nail in his holy place, that is (as it is explained, Ezra 9:9), that they had set up the house of God. They had their religion settled and the service of the temple in a constant method. We are to reckon it a great comfort and advantage to have stated opportunities of worshipping God. Blessed are those that dwell in God’s house, like Anna that departed not from the temple. This is my rest for ever, says the gracious soul. [4.] The effects of all this. It enlightened their eyes, and it revived their hearts; that is, it was very comfortable to them, and the more sensibly so because it was in their bondage: it was life from the dead to them. Though but a little reviving, it was a great favour, considering that they deserved none and the day of small things was an earnest of greater. “Now,” says Ezra, “how ungrateful are we to offend a God that has been so kind to us! how disingenuous to mingle in sin with those nations from whom we have been, in wonderful mercy, delivered! how unwise to expose ourselves to God’s displeasure when we are tried with the returns of his favour and are upon our good behaviour for the continuance of it!”

(5.) It was a great aggravation of the sin that it was against an express command: We have forsaken thy commandments, Ezra 9:10. It seems to have been an ancient law of the house of Jacob not to match with the families of the uncircumcised, Gen. 34:14. But, besides that, God had strictly forbidden it. He recites the command, Ezra 9:11, 12. For sin appears sin, appears exceedingly sinful, when we compare it with the law which is broken by it. Nothing could be more express: Give not your daughters to their sons, nor take their daughters to your sons. The reason given is because, if they mingled with those nations, they would pollute themselves. It was an unclean land, and they were a holy people; but if they kept themselves distinct from them it would be their honour and safety, and the perpetuating of their prosperity. Now to violate a command so express, backed with such reasons, and a fundamental law of their constitution, was very provoking to the God of heaven.

(6.) That in the judgments by which they had already smarted for their sins God had punished them less than their iniquities deserved, so that he looked upon them to be still in debt upon the old account. “What! and yet shall we run up a new score? Has God dealt so gently with us in correcting us, and shall we thus abuse his favour and turn his grace into wantonness?” God, in his grace and mercy, had said concerning Sion’s captivity, She hath received of the Lord’s hand double for all her sins (Isa. 40:2); but Ezra, in a penitential sense of the great malignity that was in their sin, acknowledged that, though the punishment was very great, it was less than they deserved.

2. The devout affections that were working in him, in making this confession. Speaking of sin,

(1.) He speaks as one much ashamed. With this he begins (Ezra 9:6), O my God! I am ashamed and blush, O my God! (so the words are placed) to lift up my face unto thee. Note, [1.] Sin is a shameful thing; as soon as ever our first parents had eaten forbidden fruit they were ashamed of themselves. [2.] Holy shame is as necessary an ingredient in true and ingenuous repentance as holy sorrow. [3.] The sins of others should be our shame, and we should blush for those who do not blush for themselves. We may well be ashamed that we are any thing akin to those who are so ungrateful to God and unwise for themselves. This is clearing ourselves, 2 Cor. 7:11. [4.] Penitent sinners never see so much reason to blush and be ashamed as when they come to lift up their faces before God. A natural sense of our own honour which we have injured will make us ashamed, when we have done a wrong thing, to look men in the face; but a gracious concern for God’s honour will make us much more ashamed to look him in the face. The publican, when he went to the temple to pray, hung down his head more than ever, as one ashamed, Luke 18:13. [5.] An eye to God as our God will be of great use to us in the exercise of repentance. Ezra begins, O my God! and again in the same breath, My God. The consideration of our covenant-relation to God as ours will help to humble us, and break our hearts for sin, that we should violate both his precepts to us and our promises to him; it will also encourage us to hope for pardon upon repentance. “He is my God, notwithstanding this;” and every transgression in the covenant does not throw us out of covenant.

(2.) He speaks as one much amazed (Ezra 9:10): “What shall we say after this? For my part I know not what to say: if God do not help us, we are undone.” The discoveries of guilt excite amazement: the more we think of sin the worse it looks. The difficulty of the case excites amazement. How shall we recover ourselves? Which way shall we make our peace with God? [1.] True penitents are at a loss what to say. Shall we say, We have not sinned, or, God will not require it? If we do, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. Shall we say, Have patience with us and we will pay thee all, with thousands of rams, or our first-born for our transgression? God will not thus be mocked: he knows we are insolvent. Shall we say, There is no hope, and let come on us what will? That is but to make bad worse. [2.] True penitents will consider what to say, and should, as Ezra, beg of God to teach them. What shall we say? Say, “I have sinned; I have done foolishly; God be merciful to me a sinner;” and the like. See Hos. 14:2.

(3.) He speaks as one much afraid, Ezra 9:13, 14. “After all the judgments that have come upon us to reclaim us from sin, and all the deliverances that have been wrought for us to engage us to God and duty, if we should again break God’s commandments, by joining in affinity with the children of disobedience and learning their ways, what else could we expect but that God should be angry with us till he had consumed us, and there should not be so much as a remnant left, nor any to escape the destruction?” There is not a surer nor sadder presage of ruin to any people than revolting to sin, to the same sins again, after great judgments and great deliverances. Those that will be wrought upon neither by the one nor by the other are fit to be rejected, as reprobate silver, for the founder melteth in vain.

(4.) He speaks as one much assured of the righteousness of God, and resolved to acquiesce in that and to leave the matter with him whose judgment is according to truth (Ezra 9:15): “Thou art righteous, wise, just, and good; thou wilt neither do us wrong nor be hard upon us; and therefore behold we are before thee, we lie at thy feet, waiting our doom; we cannot stand before thee, insisting upon any righteousness of our own, having no plea to support us or bring us off, and therefore we fall down before thee, in our trespass, and cast ourselves on thy mercy. Do unto us whatsoever seemeth good unto thee, Jdg. 10:15. We have nothing to say, nothing to do, but to make supplication to our Judge,” Job 9:15. Thus does this good man lay his grief before God and then leave it with him.