by Al Maxey

Issue #85 ------- November 15, 2003
The lower sort of men must be indulged the
consolation of finding fault with those above them;
without that, they would be so melancholy that it
would be dangerous, considering their numbers.

--- Marquis of Halifax (1633-1695)
Political, Moral and Miscellaneous Reflections


The Mixed Marriages of Israel
And the Painful Reforms of Ezra

In the year 458 B.C., during the reign of the Persian king Artaxerxes I (also known as Longimanus, meaning "the long handed," because his right hand was reportedly larger than his left), Ezra secured permission to lead another group of Jewish captives back to the holy city of Jerusalem. In the company of about 1500 of his countrymen, Ezra left the land of his people's captivity and set out for his beloved homeland [Ezra 7-8].

Upon his arrival, this descendant of Aaron, the first high priest of the people of Israel, found the situation to be far worse than he had imagined. The Jews were displaying a total disregard for the Law of Moses in virtually every area of their lives. They were also divorcing their lawful Jewish wives and entering into marriages with the pagan women of the area. Their compromise with the ungodly influences around them had so contaminated them that they faced the distinct possibility of extinction as a chosen, set-apart people. The situation was critical, and Ezra, who "was a teacher well versed in the Law of Moses" [Ezra 7:6], soon determined that nothing less than a nation-wide reform of his people must be immediately initiated. Assisting him in this work of turning the people back to God was the prophet Malachi.

Ezra's first order of business on behalf of His God was to grapple with the complex problem of his countrymen's mixed marriages. The leaders in Jerusalem reported to Ezra the depth of this particular tragedy. "The people of Israel, including the priests and the Levites, have not kept themselves separate from the neighboring 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" [Ezra 9:1-2].

After receiving this report, note the impassioned reaction of Ezra: "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" [Ezra 9:3].

The Lord God has never looked favorably upon His people joining themselves intimately with the unrighteous peoples about them. Although they must of necessity dwell in the world, they nevertheless are frequently challenged by the Lord never to become part of the world. In the prayer He uttered shortly before His arrest and subsequent crucifixion, Jesus did not ask that the Father remove His people from out of the world, but that He keep them away from the evil influences of the world about them [John 17].

The apostle Paul pointed out, in a quotation from Isaiah 52:11, that as a condition for maintaining a covenant relationship with God, His people must "come out from their midst (referring to the ungodly peoples of the world and their evil actions and attitudes) and be separate" [2 Corinthians 6:17]. "Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? What does a believer have in common with an unbeliever? What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said: 'I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be My people'" [2 Corinthians 6:14-16].

The Jews of Ezra's time were violating all of these divine principles, and in so doing were in danger not only of losing their distinctiveness as a separate people, both racially and religiously, but also of losing their special relationship with their God. Furthermore, the Jewish men were dealing treacherously with the wives of their youth by casting them aside in favor of the foreign women of the land. Ezra was so appalled by the people's faithless behavior that he sat in a state of shock until the time of 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 9:5-6a]. Ezra's heartfelt prayer, which is recorded in verses 6b-15, is without a doubt one of the most moving appeals unto God, and confessions of a people's guilt and shame, found anywhere in the Bible. It obviously touched others among God's people as well, for "while Ezra was praying and confessing, weeping and throwing himself down before the house of God, a large crowd of Israelites -- men, women and children -- gathered around him. They too wept bitterly" [Ezra 10:1].

By intermarrying with foreign women, the people of God had broken a direct command of the Law. Moses charged the Israelites with these words: "Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, for they will turn your sons away from following Me to serve other gods, and the Lord's anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you" [Deuteronomy 7:3-6]. This was exactly what was happening among the returned captives, and as a result they were in grave danger of experiencing the consuming wrath of the Lord. Decisive action had to be taken if this impending destruction was to be avoided, and it had to be enacted quickly.

The only action that would suffice in this tragic and painful situation was the complete severing of all intimate, interpersonal relationships with these pagan peoples; relationships which had been entered into in direct violation of God's Law. The suggestion that this course of action was the one which should be taken was made by a man named Shecaniah, who said, "We have been unfaithful to our God by marrying foreign women from the peoples around us. But in spite of this, there is still hope for Israel. Now let us make a covenant before our God to send away all these women and their children, in accordance with the counsel of my lord and of those who fear the commands of our God. Let it be done according to the Law" [Ezra 10:2-3].

A proclamation was sent forth throughout the land instructing all the people of Judah to assemble themselves in Jerusalem within three days time. Those who failed to appear would forfeit all their possessions, and would additionally be expelled from the assembly of God's people.

On the twentieth day of the ninth month, the people gathered themselves together before the house of God. They sat huddled together in the midst of a driving rain storm, trembling because of the inclement weather and the distressing nature of that which had brought them together on this fearful occasion. Ezra stood before the throng and addressed them with words which pierced to the depths of their hearts: "You have been unfaithful; you have married foreign women, adding to Israel's guilt. Now make confession to the Lord, the God of your fathers, and do His will. Separate yourselves from the peoples around you and from your foreign wives" [Ezra 10:10-11].

Although there were a few who were simply unwilling to go along with this advice [vs. 15], most realized they had disobeyed the commands of their God and needed to restore their relationship with Him. Thus, "they all gave their hands in pledge to put away their wives, and for their guilt they each presented a ram from the flock as a guilt offering" [vs. 19]. This tragedy was compounded by the fact that "some of them had children by these wives" [vs. 44].

Nehemiah, the royal cup-bearer to King Artaxerxes I, returned to Jerusalem from the land of captivity about this time to assist Ezra and Malachi in this much needed spiritual reformation. The rebuke of Ezra was mild in comparison to the indignation felt by the righteous Nehemiah as he witnessed the transgressions of his people. "I rebuked them and called curses down on them. I beat some of the men and pulled out their hair" [Nehemiah 13:25]. He challenged them to reflect upon their own history so as to perceive the folly of their behavior. "Was it not because of marriages like these that Solomon king of Israel sinned? Among the many nations there was no king like him. He was loved by his God, and God made him king over all Israel, but even he was led into sin by foreign women. Must we hear now that you too are doing all this terrible wickedness and are being unfaithful to our God by marrying foreign women?" [vs. 26-27].

The passages which one must carefully note in this rather lengthy historical account are the following: "Now let us make a covenant before our God to send away all these women and their children .... let it be done according to the Law" [Ezra 10:3]. "Do His will. Separate yourselves from .... your foreign wives" [Ezra 10:11]. "We have been unfaithful to our God by marrying foreign women from the peoples around us. But in spite of this, there is still hope for Israel" [Ezra 10:2].

God's people were in violation of His Law. They were guilty of being unfaithful to their Lord, and to the covenant they had entered into with Him. But, they were not without hope! Their relationship with Him could still be restored if they would turn away from their pagan wives and turn back to Him. It is clearly stated that the putting away of these women would be an act of compliance with His will.

As might be expected, some believers are greatly troubled by these passages, and indeed by this whole series of events involving God's people and their pagan spouses. Is it not somewhat inconsistent, they reason, for God to declare "I hate divorce," and then insist upon it, or at least seemingly condone it, on such a massive scale?! Attempts have been made to "cast God in a more favorable light" by theorizing that these Jewish men were not actually married to the foreign women; that they were just "living in sin" with them. This, however, fails to seriously consider the clear statements within the text to the contrary. The relationships in question are referred to as marriages, not as continuing acts of fornication or adultery. The women are termed "wives," not mistresses, concubines, or harlots. The fact that these men are told to put away these wives, by whom many of them had fathered children, also implies far more of a relationship than would be evident in a casual affair.

One simply cannot gloss over the fact that these were actual marriages. The problem was: they were relationships entered into in direct violation of the will of God as revealed through the Law of Moses. The Lord had specifically informed His people, "Thou shalt not marry foreign women," and yet they had chosen to do so anyway.

The inevitable consequences of their sinful rebellion were many. The intermingling of the Jews with the peoples of the neighboring nations would eventually result in a people who were a mixture of numerous different races, religions and cultures. No longer would they be a unique, set apart people as God intended; no longer would their lineage be pure. Paganism, and its accompanying idolatry and immorality, would begin to infest the worship of the one true God. The Lord would ultimately be cast aside in favor of the false deities. As Nehemiah pointed out, this had happened to Solomon, and it was about to happen again.

It was absolutely critical that the Jews maintain their purity, both as a people and as a religion. This purity and distinctiveness was being endangered, however, by their violation of God's Law with respect to intermarrying with foreign women. In order to set the nation back on the right course, radical measures were called for. In this particular case, the only solution was to remove the cause of the impurity, which was the union with their pagan wives.

The covenant relationship of the Lord God with His people, which had been established prior to the unlawful unions of the Jews with their foreign wives, and the national distinctiveness of the Jewish people, was far more vital to God's eternal plan than the relationships of a few men with some of the local women. God's eternal plan to send the Messiah into the world for the redemption of mankind, sending Him through a specific lineage, was in great jeopardy by virtue of this rush to non-Jewish relationships. So much was at stake for the spiritual future of mankind that these unlawful marriages simply could not be allowed to exist. For the benefit of mankind throughout all future generations, both Jew and Gentile, they had to be terminated. For the ultimate good of the many, a few must suffer.

Were people going to experience hurt and pain as a result of this process? Yes. Anytime men willfully transgress God's will for their lives, people suffer. It is an inevitable consequence of sin. It is also a sad fact of our human existence that when individuals sin, innocent people often are harmed as well. One cannot help but experience deep feelings for the children of these unlawful unions, for example. But, at the same time, one must not overlook the central truth that all of this pain and tragedy was brought on by a willful refusal to obey God. Had His commands simply been obeyed, this entire agonizing situation could have been avoided. The blame for the suffering they were undergoing could be cast nowhere else than at their own feet.

God's eternal purposes for mankind would go forward; nothing would be allowed to stand in the way of the fulfillment of His will. God hates divorce, and He hates what happens when divorce occurs. Without question, God hated what had to be done in this unique situation in order that His divine, redemptive plan could be enacted for the good of mankind. Relationships were going to be terminated, and that meant a lot of pain and distress, and undoubtedly this greatly grieved our God. Nevertheless, this situation had deteriorated to the point where His plan for the ultimate salvation of mankind through the coming Messiah could well have been seriously jeopardized. The time for action had come, traumatic though it would prove to be.

At times, through their sinful, rebellious actions, men place themselves and others in situations and circumstances where there is simply no painless means of extrication. One has journeyed so far down the wrong pathway that no matter what course one adopts in an effort to return to the right path, others are going to be harmed. In such cases one is essentially faced with only two logical choices: Continue on the wrong path or turn back to God.

In the case of the Jewish men of Ezra's time, the plan they chose to adopt was the only one which would ultimately place them back on the right path, both individually and as a nation. It was a difficult and painful decision; a decision which caused tremendous grief to many innocent people; a decision which even pained God, for He takes no delight in the sufferings of mankind. Excruciating though it was, there was no other recourse.

There are those in the religious world who detect in this sorrowful account an indication of God's approval of the state of divorce. They infer that if God commanded it of His people in this particular situation that He must thereby find it acceptable in all situations. What God allows and what God approves, however, are often vastly dissimilar. Jesus pointed out that God permitted divorce, but it was far from pleasing in His eyes. It was God's will that the pagan wives be put away, but His feelings about the matter are reflected in the words of Malachi 2:16, "'I hate divorce,' says the Lord God of Israel." Remember, this statement is made in the writings of the very prophet who assisted Ezra and Nehemiah in bringing about the needed reforms in Judah, a major part of which was the severing of the unions with the pagan wives.

No, God does not approve of divorce. It fails to achieve His IDEAL for marriage, regardless of the extenuating circumstances. One should exercise extreme caution in such interpretive matters lest God be characterized as condoning, either directly or indirectly, the pain and suffering which men frequently inflict upon themselves and others by their sinful, selfish behavior. When men choose to reject His IDEAL for human relationships (marital or otherwise), the responsibility for the consequences subsequently suffered are man's alone. To view this account as a source of biblical justification for the termination of a covenant relationship with one's spouse is to completely misunderstand the purpose of the text. This dark page in the history of God's people has been preserved through the ages not for the purpose of justifying divorce, but to motivate mankind to increased efforts to achieve the IDEAL in light of the horrors that await should they fail to do so!

One thing which must absolutely be stressed at this point is that in spite of the somewhat negative nature of this narrative, God's people were still very much in possession of HOPE! In the words of Shecaniah to Ezra, "In spite of this, there is still hope for Israel!" [Ezra 10:2]. In counseling with those undergoing the trauma of marital distress and disunion, one will often hear them say, with despair in their voices, "I just don't feel like there's any hope for me." A shattered marriage is a terrible blow to the entire system: Physically, emotionally and spiritually. Physical illnesses often increase, emotional distress seems more frequent and acute, and spiritually one often feels cast off both by God and by His people. For far too many this knockdown blow soon becomes a knockout blow. It was for such men and women that I wrote my book Down, But Not Out. It is an examination of God's healing grace for those undergoing the trauma of divorce, or who are experiencing the stigma of a remarriage. To such people God extends hope.

A woman once remarked to me, "God could never love me or accept me. I'm divorced!" Another young woman described to me, between sobs of despair, how the wife of one of her church's leaders informed her that because she was divorced and remarried she was doomed to hell, but that she should bring her children to church so that at least they could have some hope of salvation. While living and preaching in Germany some years ago, I was approached by a family desirous of worshiping and serving with our local assembly of believers. Their concern was that they would not be accepted into our midst since they had been barred entrance to the building at their previous location for having committed "an unpardonable sin." "You blasphemed the Holy Spirit?!" "No," she replied dejectedly, "even worse. My husband divorced me and I remarried."

Such examples could be multiplied almost endlessly. The world is filled with hurting people, and, oftentimes, the very ones who should be promoting the healing and lifting up of the fallen, are instead guilty of inflicting even further pain. If the Lord God, in His infinite grace and mercy, is willing to extend forgiveness, acceptance and hope to those who have stumbled and fallen, His people dare not do any less! The physically, emotionally, and spiritually battered and bruised must be welcomed with open arms, and the healing salve of the Lord's love applied to their wounds. As ambassadors of God's wondrous grace, our message to the downtrodden and despairing must forever be the great truth immortalized in the wise counsel of Shecaniah --- "In spite of this, there is still hope!"

Reflections from Readers

From a Reader in Mississippi:

All I can say is .... WOW! "The Doctrine of Christ" is another GREAT article, Al. Once again you have expanded my thinking. I definitely fall into the plenary genitive meaning of the phrase. Your articles are getting more and more impressive, and my thinking is getting more challenged and more expanded with each one. This study really did blow me away. All your articles are good, but this one was GOOD!

From a Reader in Montana:

About five years ago, while discussing the church with a friend, the word "worship," and "worship services," came up. Afterwards, that thought stuck with me and it became apparent that what we so loosely use is not taught in the Scriptures. I found that our worship of God is not a Sunday only thing, as we find so commonly believed. I found that Jesus died on the cross to do away with all the old Jewish traditions of ritual worship. My brethren still fail to see what the Bible says the reason for assembling together is all about. Nowhere are "worship services" mentioned that I can find, and yet you hear that phrase used over and over. It wasn't until I began looking into this that I discovered I had never heard or been taught that worship is an ongoing process which occurs daily in our lives. So what I'm saying is, all those years I believed that my worship obligation was "doing church" on Sunday, and, if my guess is right, you'll find that most people out there really believe Sunday is their only worship time with God.

From a Reader in Texas:

Your essay on The Doctrine of Christ was very good, I thought. I rather tend to believe that, given the ambiguity of the passage, we ought to be careful about using it in a negative way to condemn sincere brethren who differ with us. I am from a Non-Sunday School background, but have long since realized that our faction is the result of imposing our interpretational opinion on others. There are many things to be said in a positive way about our practice, but nothing good to say about our exclusivist past. Our viewpoints on these various divisive issues are not necessarily wrong, but our attempt to bind them on others certainly is. Both the teaching of Christ and the teaching about Him should lead us to be more loving and forbearing.

From a Reader in North Carolina:

What you are saying seems to be congruent with my studies of God's word that have led me to see that the descriptions of "false teachers" and "false prophets" refer to people who deny that Jesus is God (2 Peter 2:1; 1 John 4:1-3; Jude 3-4). The fact that Jesus is God is certainly not the entire doctrine of Christ, but those passages should caution us about the labels we use. And it should be a red flag to us about those who do not love, but instead seek to tear down. Isn't it interesting that when James, Peter, and John said goodbye to Paul and Barnabas in Galatians 2, they just said to remember the poor? Not "stand for the Truth!" and not "make those Gentiles have the right worship services!" and not "don't let those Gentiles not have a Wednesday night service!" Just "remember the poor."

From a Minister in the Ukraine:

Dear Al, Greetings from the Ukraine, brother! Thank you for your last Reflections article. I have met the word "patternism" in your articles very often. I don't think I understand what exactly you mean by the term. Could you please tell more about the term in your articles and define it in a letter to me. Thank you, brother. May God continue blessing you in the ministry. Your co-servant in the Lord's Kingdom!

From a Reader in (Unknown):

Brother Maxey, I read your article on "The Doctrine of Christ" and I must say it came as no surprise that you believe it refers to the teaching about Christ. I have tried with an open mind to read your articles, but you no doubt have made shipwreck of the faith! I won't bore you with the arguments refuting your article, for I know you know them all. You no doubt are a very talented man, a good writer, but sadly you have "progressed on" and you have "ceased to abide in the teaching of Christ," and I say that with no joy at all.

From a Reader in Alaska:

Regarding your article "Joseph Contemplates Divorce," I'm so glad someone finally said this! I went through my divorce without representation. He closed our joint account and left me without means. It's so sad to see this happen ... and I believe it ought not to happen in the church! I hope your article makes someone, who may have been on the verge of "taking someone to the cleaners," stop and think about what he/she is about to do. The effects of what you do in hurt and anger do not so easily wear off.

From a Reader in Ontario, Canada:

Brother Al, I have given your name, Edward Fudge's, and Fred Peatross's to as many people as I can. Without exception all have been so extra thankful. You write with such depth and so often. I wonder if you ever sleep. You speak with such clarity. I can say, from the bottom of my heart, I respect you as the best scholar that I read in the church at this time. You three men have given me more good info and profitable knowledge than I knew was even possible. I really and truly love you and thank you for the gifts that have come in abundance.

From an Elder in Colorado:

Al, I print and pass on some of your messages to a fellow elder, and recently his wife commented, "Do his elders know he is writing this?" I find this humorous since their daughter attends the fellowship for which you preach and they have also been a part of your assembly. Your comments and shared study is an aid in my own study and I appreciate your efforts. I guess I am too far removed from those persons who feel they must "control the thinking" of others, rather than letting the Spirit do His work.

From a Reader in Alabama:

Brother Al, After I read "The Law According To Pa" (issue #21) I knew that I had to sign up for your Reflections! This has got to be one of the most thought provoking web sites around. This will be one of my mandatory "Sunday School Readings" every week so that we might learn of your wonderful insights into the Word of God. I notice that you served in Vietnam in 1969. I was in Thailand during that time at Korat and Sattahip. I also went TDY to Kaiserslautern, Germany (working at nearby Army Air Defense sites) while you were preaching there in the early 80's.

From a Reader in Arizona:

Why didn't you mention Hebrews 6:1-3, which specifically lists some of the foundations of the "doctrine of Christ"?

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