What was the most important news event you recall that took place in your lifetime? Do you remember where you were when you heard it? What did you do immediately after you heard the news? Did you sit down and reflect, or try to get more information? Did you run to share it with someone?
Some of the oldest walking the planet will recall the infamous words of President Roosevelt the day after the Pearl Harbor attack that took place on December 7, 1941. Others may recall the shooting reports of President John Kennedy, cut down by an assassin’s bullet in Dallas on November 22, 1963. Some five years later, just after 6 p.m. on April 4, 1968, 39 year old Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed while standing on the balcony outside his second-story motel room in Memphis. A few months later, Senator Robert Kennedy was killed in Los Angeles just after speaking at a campaign event. Perhaps you recall one of these moments…. Maybe yours was a more positive memory, like the 1969 Apollo 10 lunar landing – or the 1989 fall of the Berlin wall that divided East and West Germany. Maybe the 1991 dissolution of the USSR into twelve republics is more your memory. Perhaps you can’t shake the ever-played video clip of fall of the Twin Towers on 9/11, back in 2001. It is hard to believe, but today’s college students were in Pre-K or Kindergarten when that event occurred.
Facing bad news and responding to it is part of life – but it is especially difficult to do if you are the party responsible for the lives and actions of others. If you are “in charge” of people – the news about what happened “on your watch” must be even more powerful.
We think of leaders as power-brokers. We think of them as affecting the outcome of many things – and so they do. It is also equally true, however, that they are subject to the winds of history. Presidents, generals, governors and even sport’s coaches have watched judgment fall on them like a bitter rain when they had no control over events that were shaping the area that was supposed to be their responsibility.
The lesson of Ezra 9-10 is about a leader in a crisis. It is about right response to terrible news. It is about offering a pattern that is intended to replace panic.
Look at the scene…God seemed far away. Most of them wanted to do right, but they were in a strange place, and the opportunities were quite limited. They felt like they needed to take bold steps or nothing would get better. With few choices, they acted – but not in accordance with what God told them to do. In fact, one bad decision led to other bad choices…until they were no where near the path God intended for them. Some people knew they were going in the wrong direction, but they did not have the means to turn people back. When a new leader came on the scene, they saw an opportunity to bring to his attention the terrible choices, so they brought the violation to his attention.
They didn’t want to wound the leader – they wanted to fix the problem. Inevitably, he was brokenhearted. New to the scene, what should he do with a delicate and complex people problem caused by disregard to God’s instructions? Could they not understand what they were doing? The leader left a written record of his response, rooted in this truth…
Key Principle: There is a process to leading people from disobedience to a right standard.
Truthfully, I am very glad that is the case. God doesn’t drop people the first time they walk willfully away from His instruction. He doesn’t ignore their rebellion, but He offers a path back to obedience and blessing… and some of us need to hear about it. Drop into the scene of a “bad news” moment…
9:1 Now when these things had been completed, the princes approached me, saying, “The people of Israel and the priests and the Levites have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands, according to their abominations, those of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians and the Amorites. 2 “For they have taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves and for their sons, so that the holy race has intermingled with the peoples of the lands; indeed, the hands of the princes and the rulers have been foremost in this unfaithfulness.”
As the word came to him, what steps did he take?
Step One: He collected all the information. (9:1-2)
He grasped the nature and scope of the problem before he did anything else! Ezra heard about the sin of the people, and by the account, it appears that he was blind-sided. He was presented with a problem that he did not know – but the nature and complexity of it necessitated that he listen to those familiar with the scene. He allowed their approach and listened intently.
Every leader needs to learn to listen. The faster the pace, the higher the stakes, the more emotional the issue – the more the need to listen:
Charles Swindoll once found himself with too many commitments in too few days. He got nervous and tense about it. “I was snapping at my wife and our children, choking down my food at mealtimes, and feeling irritated at those unexpected interruptions through the day,” he recalled in his book Stress Fractures. “Before long, things around our home started reflecting the pattern of my hurry-up style. It was becoming unbearable. I distinctly remember after supper one evening, the words of our younger daughter, Colleen. She wanted to tell me something important that had happened to her at school that day. She began hurriedly, ‘Daddy, I wanna tell you somethin’ and I’ll tell you really fast.’ Suddenly realizing her frustration, I answered, ‘Honey, you can tell me — and you don’t have to tell me really fast. Say it slowly.’ I’ll never forget her answer: ‘Then listen slowly.‘” (Bits & Pieces, June 24, 1993, pp. 13-14.)
I like the advice of the late General George Marshall, a leader of men, when he offered this:
Formula for handling people: 1. Listen to the other person’s story. 2. Listen to the other person’s full story. 3. Listen to the other person’s full story first. (Gen. George Marshall, Bits & Pieces, April, 1991.)
The testimony was critical of the leadership – so it needed to be handled with special care. Many eyes were watching. As Paul warned the younger Timothy later in Scripture, leaders were under special scrutiny:
1 Timothy 5:19 Do not receive an accusation against an elder except on the basis of two or three witnesses. 20 Those who continue in sin, rebuke in the presence of all, so that the rest also will be fearful of sinning…
The testimony was verifiable. This was again underscored in Paul’s words to Timothy (1 I Tim 5:19: “two or three witnesses”). In the case of Ezra, it would certainly be easy enough to ascertain the truth of the accusation because the matter was public.
What made the leadership think that they could openly violate the Word of God? There are several scenarios that may be in view here:
• People don’t always know the Word, because the teaching of it is very scarce, in spite of the ‘religious environment” of their time. We wake up and find we have some leaders in Washington that were shaped by compromising Christian churches from their youth. Their values are a mix of ethical peculiarities shaped by a warped notion of justice and truth by poor teaching of the Word.
• People dismiss the Biblical injunctions as unduly limited – because they see their situation as different. They shape in their mind the notion that because the situation looks different to them, they need not fall into the timeless truths and principles of God’s unchanging Word.
• People don’t put together cause and effect – they don’t take sin seriously. Note the contrast with Ezra, who was broken because of the sinful practice.
Step Two: He identified the seriousness of the issue (9:3-4)!
Ezra recognized the issue as a violation of the Holy Word of God – and therefore it was serious and potentially devastating to the people if not corrected.
Note his “first response” was seen when he got quiet and personalized the pain (9:3).
9:3 When I heard about this matter, I tore my garment and my robe, and pulled some of the hair from my head and my beard, and sat down appalled (from shaw-mame: destroyed, crushed).
I cannot help but think of what Paul wrote to the Corinthians when there was immorality in their ranks. He told them: “You haven’t mourned for the sin!” (1 Corinthians 5). Ezra was shocked at what he heard from the men. Before responding to the problem, he took some time to get alone. Even before he left the others he showed the power of what he had heard in his life by plucking at his beard, tearing his garment, and sitting quietly in deep pain. It is significant that Ezra did not rush out to solve the problem. In our desire to do the right thing, we can react rather than respond. A mature believer must learn to take some time. A mature believer must process the emotion internally as well as before the Lord before making a response before other men. Our first response is often not our best response because it reflects our emotions much more than it reflects our long-term values.
Observe how he gathered quietly with other serious believers (9:4)
9:4 Then everyone who trembled (from charad: became fearful) at the words of the God of Israel on account of the unfaithfulness of the exiles gathered to me, and I sat appalled until the evening offering.
There are three specific helpful comments that Ezra gives us in chapter 9:4 –
• First, we see the kind of people he surrounded himself with when trouble came;
• Second, the text implies that some close by knew already what God’s Word instructed and were consulted at that time;
• Third, everyone in the room understood the power of God, the nature of God, and the truth of His Word. It was because of this they trembled.
A failure to take God seriously regarding His Word and presuming on His grace has often been a fatal flaw in the lives of believers. Those who witnessed the destruction and aftermath in Jerusalem should well have understood the words of the prophets and taken God seriously. It seems rooted within the nature of fallen man, to look at those who have gone before refusing God and his Word, and not heed carefully the lesson of their example. The bottom line is this: believers must take God seriously. Failure to do so will destroy their testimony, and their future. God is not playing games though God is patient. Peter warns that in the end times people will mistake God’s patience for impotence. Many a believer has fallen into that belief trap of the enemy.
How did Ezra take truth seriously?
• He surrounded himself with those who revered God.
• He consulted God’s word and stayed with those who took it seriously.
• He was thoroughly invested in understanding the nature of God as much as the nature of the problem.
Especially when facing times of crisis, we must learn to be as hungry to know God as we are to know the intimate details of the problems we face. Some of us act as though we are famished as we devour every ‘scrap of detail’ about a news item, but show little hunger to read, study and know of the Author of life itself. This allows us to be over-informed while under educated. We spend more time obsessing over celebrity behaviors and colored coffee cups than soaking up the goodness of the one who colored the Heavens and whose fame is sung among the stars above. That leads us from misery to misery – not glory to glory.
Step Three: Got alone with God and prayed (9:5-15)
Shocking news required time with God…
9:5 But at the evening offering I arose from my humiliation, even with my garment and my robe torn, and I fell on my knees and stretched out my hands to the LORD my God; 6 and I said,
Notice how he personally embraced guilt. Leaders take personal responsibility in intercession! He prayed:
9:6b…“O my God, I am ashamed and embarrassed to lift up my face to You, my God, for our iniquities have risen above our heads and our guilt has grown even to the heavens. 7 “Since the days of our fathers to this day we have been in great guilt, and on account of our iniquities we, our kings and our priests have been given into the hand of the kings of the lands, to the sword, to captivity and to plunder and to open shame, as it is this day.
I am always disappointed when I see leaders in our day deflecting responsibility – blaming the other party, or finding an excuse in the “chain of command”, etc. There are a number of places in Scripture where deep personal responsibility is reflected by a man of God when he looks at the fault of his nation. Daniel models this, as does Nehemiah. Every time I read one of the kinds of prayers I am deeply struck with the personal nature and responsibility that these men felt over the sin of others. We live in a time where it is easy to be outraged at others. Yet, seldom do I see believers who fall before God and take responsibility for their nation in our day. We may be tempted to “write that off” to culture and say that the Hebrews were collective in their thinking, but I am left to question whether or not there is some deep biblical truth behind taking responsibility for the greater nation and its sin.
• Do we call out to God on behalf of our nation feeling as though we are also partly responsible for its laxness regarding sin?
• Do we “pawn off” on others the disobedience of our day and claim it is simply someone else’s responsibility to repent? I am convinced that God will respond to believers who humble themselves not only for their own sin, but also for the sin of their nation, and their family. Though I understand that God’s promise to hear the prayers of his people if they call was specific to Judah in the ancient world, I agree that there is a broader principle of Scripture that reminds us to pray not only on our own behalf and on behalf of others.
• Do we not share some responsibility because of our own lack of testimony and fervent seeking of the Lord? I suspect we know the answer.
I am also struck by how he acknowledged God’s grace and thanked God for His goodness at that hour!
Judgment withheld is grace at work…
9:8 “But now for a brief moment grace has been shown from the LORD our God, to leave us an escaped remnant and to give us a peg in His holy place, that our God may enlighten our eyes and grant us a little reviving in our bondage. 9 “For we are slaves; yet in our bondage our God has not forsaken us, but has extended lovingkindness to us in the sight of the kings of Persia, to give us reviving to raise up the house of our God, to restore its ruins and to give us a wall in Judah and Jerusalem.
I think another significant insight into the prayer of Ezra is the fact that he was very aware of the goodness of God in his life. It is not enough to serve God out of fear, for that is not all there is to the vastness of our God. God is good, and He cares for us on so many levels throughout the day. Yet, I often find believers who mature into a negativity about the responsibility of following God without the delight of knowing him — walking with him in joy and in delight to be his!
Ezra acknowledges that they are technically still slaves, but he acknowledges that there is much that God has done for them! They are in the land now because of God’s goodness. The favor of the King was planted by divine decree. Ezra recognized that he had what he had because he followed the God he followed. It is important for us to grasp the goodness of God even when we’re facing very difficult decisions as a result of the sin of people around us. The occasion of this prayer was not marked by a moment of praise, but by a difficult moment — the facing of sin. Yet, it was necessary for Ezra to tell the truth. God is good and has been gracious toward us. Recognizing that, is simply recognizing the truth.
Note the emptiness Ezra expressed as he asked God what to say…
9:10 “Now, our God, what shall we say after this?
I have to admit that verse 10 is very helpful in peering into Ezra’s soul. He wasn’t sure what else to say! How do you defend the absurd actions of rebellious men? One need only read the daily newspaper today to ask such a question! Here is the truth: when we do not know how to pray we should honestly ask God to accept our hearts and read well past our words. Broken hearts pray with deep pain but not always great words. God is not your English grammar teacher, worried about the structure of your sentence. He delights in the surrender of the heart.
Ezra didn’t cover up, but rather carefully articulated guilt. He offered specific enumeration of their crimes…
9:10b “For we have forsaken Your commandments, 11 which You have commanded by Your servants the prophets, saying, ‘The land which you are entering to possess is an unclean land with the uncleanness of the peoples of the lands, with their abominations which have filled it from end to end and with their impurity. 12 ‘So now do not give your daughters to their sons nor take their daughters to your sons, and never seek their peace or their prosperity, that you may be strong and eat the good things of the land and leave it as an inheritance to your sons forever.’ 13 “After all that has come upon us for our evil deeds and our great guilt, since You our God have requited us less than our iniquities deserve, and have given us an escaped remnant as this, 14 shall we again break Your commandments and intermarry with the peoples who commit these abominations? Would You not be angry with us to the point of destruction, until there is no remnant nor any who escape?
In the careful articulation of the specific crimes Ezra turned to the Lord and:
• He flatly took responsibility for violating the command of Scripture.
• He specified the sin.
• He made note that God had already blessed them by not giving them the full punishment of their former deeds.
• He ended with a question: “How can any of us escape if we do all of this again?”
One of the things God responds to in Scripture is specific prayer. The prayers like “Bless the missionaries” seem like vain repetitions because they offered no specific request. It is not that God does not know how to bless missionaries, but the prayer of this nature often reveals the laziness with which we have approached our brothers and sisters in Christ and their needs. This same tendency can carry over into the issues of our own sin: we can simply ask God to forgive us all of “everything we may have done”. Yet, this lacks the sense of personal responsibility and big knowledge meant that is so required for God to teach us of his grace and goodness.
It is very important for us to note that we do not receive the full penalty of our sin. As believers, we know that we do not receive the ultimate penalty of an eternity apart from God, but there is much more. Even in this life, we do not receive the bill for all that we have charged against the account of our personal sin. The proverb “what you sow you reap” (Galatians 6:7) is a proverb — a truism. In my life, thankfully, Jesus has paid for much of my poor sowing.
Consider how Ezra accepted God’s right to respond, as he humbly opened to the consequences…
9:15 “O LORD God of Israel, You are righteous, for we have been left an escaped remnant, as it is this day; behold, we are before You in our guilt, for no one can stand before You because of this.”
Another essential feature of the prayer of Ezra can be seen in the close of his sharing with God. Ezra acknowledges that God is right to respond in judgment. He outlines the clear argument that there is no defense for what the people have done. He stands with his people “guilty”. Anything God decided to do as a result of their sin was justified. Ezra called on the mercy of God and recognized God’s rights and God’s just nature.
Even among believers the fighting and quarreling that we experience often is a reflection of our ego. Our prayer can reflect a wrong view of God’s plan. We are heavily invested in our own pleasures and easily led astray to work against the kingdom we represent. God deeply wants us to yield ourselves to Him and His Spirit. In the process of surrender, we open the doors of our life to God’s unmerited favor. Our resistance against the enemy grows in direct proportion to our submission to God’s gentle Spirit within. Our open desire to be nearer God sets in motion His drawing nearer to us. God cleanses our hands. God purifies our hearts. God shapes a single-minded man to please Him. Yet, all of this comes from a seriousness about sin, and the surrender to the Lord and his presence. James, led by God’s Spirit, could not have said it better.
Step Four: Refocused Confession to Hope (10:1-2)
The problem was prayed for – but not yet dealt with…
10:1 Now while Ezra was praying and making confession, weeping and prostrating himself before the house of God, a very large assembly, men, women and children, gathered to him from Israel; for the people wept bitterly. 2 Shecaniah the son of Jehiel, one of the sons of Elam, said to Ezra, “We have been unfaithful to our God and have married foreign women from the peoples of the land; yet now there is hope for Israel in spite of this.
Ezra was committed to complete repentance. He was not putting on a show for the people around him, but rather deliberately falling before the Lord and asking him for mercy. A contrite heart draws others toward God, while a self-centered heart deflects glory from God. Ezra did not wait for others to follow, nor did he put on a show for them. He lived his life before the Lord, and others saw it for what it was and were moved.
While the people gathered and wept bitterly, two leaders stepped forward and spoke with promise and hope about the future. Leaders cannot simply wallow in guilt and despair, they must offer the earnest expectation that people can change their behavior, and God will open his heart to them.
From Parade magazine comes the story of self-made millionaire Eugene Land, who greatly changed the lives of a sixth-grade class in East Harlem. Mr. Lang had been asked to speak to a class of 59 sixth-graders. What could he say to inspire these students, most of whom would drop out of school? He wondered how he could get these predominantly black and Puerto Rican children even to look at him. Scrapping his notes, he decided to speak to them from his heart. “Stay in school,” he admonished, “and I’ll help pay the college tuition for every one of you.” At that moment the lives of these students changed. For the first time they had hope. Said one student, “I had something to look forward to, something waiting for me. It was a golden feeling.” Nearly 90 percent of that class went on to graduate from high school. (Parade Magazine.)
The SS Stella left Southampton with Captain William Reeks at the helm. She was 253 feet long, with a beam of 35 feet. She was designed to carry 712 passengers and had aboard some 754 life jackets and 12 lifebuoys, but her lifeboats could only carry 148 people. Thick fog banks rolled in fast and her speed was reduced twice while passing through the misty darkness. Approaching the Channel Islands, more fog overtook her, but speed was not reduced. Unable to see, the Captain Reeks ordered his first and second mates to stand fast of the both starboard and port near the front to listen for the warning buoy bells or signals from a known nearby reef. When the signal was heard it was too late, as the rocks were directly ahead. Captain Reeks ordered the engines full astern and attempted to turn away from the rocks, but as the Stella scraped along two rocks, her hull was ripped open. She sank eight minutes later. Four lifeboats were successfully launched, while a fifth capsized. Women and children were ushered off first according to maritime protocol. One stewardess, Mary Ann Rogers, gave up her life jacket and refused a place in a lifeboat to allow others inside. Survivors remarked at the many mariners who helped the passengers (there is a memorial for her still in Southampton), and some who gave up their life vests for the ill-prepared. In all, 86 passengers were killed during the sinking, but also 19 crew members, in all, resulting in 105 fatalities. On board the vessel that day was the famed English opera soprano Greta Williams, who used her voice to comfort the ship’s frightened survivors as they rowed in the deep awaiting some rescuers. A poem by William McGonagall, published just after the shipwreck, contained the lines:
“But the sufferings of the survivors are pitiful to hear, And I think all Christian people for them will drop a tear, Because the rowers of the boats were exhausted with damp and cold; And the heroine of the wreck was Miss Greta Williams, be it told. She remained in as open boat with her fellow-passengers and crew, And sang “O rest in the Lord, and He will come to our rescue”; And for fourteen hours they were rowing on the mighty deep, And when each man was done with his turn he fell asleep.”
Some apparently sat aboard the lifeboats angered at the captain and crew, even voicing complaint about the cold, the loss, and the bitterness of it all. Yet, in the end, most survivors remembered what brought them through the ordeal. It was not mere stamina and energy – it was HOPE from one voice. Miss William’s song rang out repeatedly the source of hope. Survivors recalled those “songs of the Lord” from deep, fog-ridden places that night. They were rescued the next morning, but when they were, very few of them doubted they would be – because they heard the Lord was watching over them throughout the night. The call to “rest in the Lord” was in their ears, then their minds, and finally their hearts. Those who wanted to hurl blame helped no one. Those who sought God and trusted His salvation – helped everyone.
There is a process to leading people from disobedience to a right standard.
It doesn’t include blame or deflection.
It doesn’t include anger.
It includes brokenness.
It is bathed in humility.
It is kept alive by trust in God’s goodness.