And at the evening sacrifice I rose from my fasting, with my garment and my cloak torn, and fell upon my knees and spread out my hands to the Lord my God, saying:
“O my God, I am ashamed and blush to lift my face to you, my God, for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has mounted up to the heavens. From the days of our fathers to this day we have been in great guilt. And for 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, to plundering, and to utter shame, as it is today. But now for a brief moment favor has been shown by the Lord our God, to leave us a remnant and to give us a secure hold within his holy place, that our God may brighten our eyes and grant us a little reviving in our slavery. For we are slaves. Yet our God has not forsaken us in our slavery, but has extended to us his steadfast love before the kings of Persia, to grant us some reviving to set up the house of our God, to repair its ruins, and to give us protection in Judea and Jerusalem.
“And now, O our God, what shall we say after this? For we have forsaken your commandments, which you commanded by your servants the prophets, saying, ‘The land that you are entering, to take possession of it, is a land impure with the impurity of the peoples of the lands, with their abominations that have filled it from end to end with their uncleanness. Therefore do not give your daughters to their sons, neither take their daughters for your sons, and never seek their peace or prosperity, that you may be strong and eat the good of the land and leave it for an inheritance to your children forever.’ And after all that has come upon us for our evil deeds and for our great guilt, seeing that you, our God, have punished us less than our iniquities deserved and have given us such a remnant as this, shall we break your commandments again and intermarry with the peoples who practice these abominations? Would you not be angry with us until you consumed us, so that there should be no remnant, nor any to escape? O Lord, the God of Israel, you are just, for we are left a remnant that has escaped, as it is today. Behold, we are before you in our guilt, for none can stand before you because of this.” Ezra 9:5-15 (ESV)
The book of Ezra was written by a priest who was a scholar of Moses’ Law (the Torah- what we know as the Pentateuch, the first five Books of the Christian Bible.)
This book was written when the people of Israel had been returned to Jerusalem after the 70 year exile in Babylon. The Persian king Cyrus had decreed that the temple was to be rebuilt and that the Israelites were free to return to their land and their culture.
As the Israelite people returned to Jerusalem, Ezra confronted the people with all the ways that the people were breaking God’s laws, as well as their need to turn away from sinful practices and to be obedient to God. He prayed intercessory prayers for the people and appealed to God’s mercy.
God always retains a remnant for himself. God’s people in the Old Testament kept on failing at keeping His Law. The Old Testament scholars and prophets all point us to Jesus, the one man who could keep God’s law perfectly on our behalf. We see the mercy of God in the return of the exiles and the restoration of the temple. We are directed to the promise of Jesus, the one who set us free from the bondage of sin and death forever.
GOD is the one acting in the story of the people of Israel. Even though the people went through generations of bad kings, corruption and taking on the sins and idolatry of foreign nations, God preserved them. He kept aside a remnant for Himself and made a way for His people to continue. God kept His promise to Abraham – time and time again- even when His people became debauched and faithless.
Today Christian people are becoming more and more of an oddity in this world. Our tolerance for the evil of this world increases the more we are exposed to it. The values the Bible teaches- and those who practice them- are continually under attack in popular culture. Throughout human history believers learn that even though we recognize that God’s laws are good, and that He sets up boundaries for our benefit, we aren’t capable of willing ourselves to “just be good.” We are constantly surrounded by temptation from the prevailing culture- temptation to indulge in every possible form of unbelief, idolatry (setting up ourselves as our own gods,) greed, immorality, and indifference to the needs of others.
All of humanity is condemned under the Law. We have all joined ourselves to various and sundry forms of corruption just as the Israelites married idol worshipers and bought in to the forbidden practices of foreign cultures when they were commanded not to do so. Not one of us could stand before God’s judgment- but for Jesus. The return of the exiles and the restoration of the temple is merely a foreshadowing of the love and mercy of God in Jesus. He restores us completely, fully and permanently, in a way that no earthly temple worship or sacrifice of bulls or goats can.
Our behavior and our hearts convict us as being completely unworthy of being people of God, but Jesus stands in front of us, ever interceding on our behalf. When God looks at us He sees only Jesus and His perfect sacrifice. He sees the completion of the Old Testament covenant and of the temple. We abide in the New Covenant that Jesus paid for on the Cross. We share in His death, and in this life we must bear our own cross, but we are also born into His forgiveness, salvation and eternal life.