The Problem of Intermarriage (Ezra 9) December 19-20
After settling in and completing the business of securing the support of the regional governors (see 8:36-9:1), a shocking report is brought to Ezra. This was apparently about four and a half months after his and his company's initial arrival on the first day of the fifth month (see 7:9), as the measures to deal with this issue are rather speedily announced on the 17th day of the ninth month (compare 10:8, 9).
Ezra is informed that the people, priests and Levites included, had entered into mixed marriages with the neighboring pagan peoples (9:1-2)—a direct violation of the law that God had given through Moses (see Exodus 34:16; Deuteronomy 7:3). The law in this regard was intended to keep the covenant people distinct as a nation and to protect them and their children from being influenced into false religious concepts and practices.
While it is possible that some of the new arrivals could have been guilty, it seems unlikely that any of them would have entered into marriages with foreigners in just a few months' time. More likely, the guilty were only of those Jews who already lived in the land when Ezra arrived. In stating that the transgressors were "of those who had been carried away captive," Ezra must have meant they were the descendants of those who returned with Zerubbabel. Certainly those who already had children by these illegal marriages had to have been in these marriages prior to Ezra's arrival.
It is pointed out to Ezra that the leaders and rulers of the people led the way in this transgression (Ezra 9:2). Leaders always have an opportunity to serve as examples for others to emulate—whether for good or ill. When those in such responsible positions are corrupted, they often lead others astray.
Specific motivations behind what happened are not given. "Humanly speaking there may have been reasons for such intermarriages, such as a disparity between the number of returning men and available Jewish women" (Expositor's Bible Commentary, note on verses 1-2). Yet it would have been far better to remain single, even if it meant living alone with no perpetuation of one's family lineage, than to so flagrantly disobey God. The One who created marriage desires for people to experience its benefits, but only within the boundaries He has set. This is important for all of us to remember. Christians in the New Testament are instructed to not marry unbelievers (2 Corinthians 6:14; compare 1 Corinthians 7:39). This is for our own sake and that of any children we might produce—and that of the rest of the Church. Of course, many when they are first converted and become part of God's Church are already married to a spouse who is not yet called of God—and in this case the apostle Paul instructs that the marriage be maintained if the unbeliever is willing to continue the marriage in fidelity and peace (see verses 12-16).
Ezra is utterly distraught at the news that has been brought to him, rending his garment in grief and even tearing out some of his own hair (Ezra 9:3)—a unique occurrence in Scripture, as shaving one's hair is otherwise given as a symbol of shame. As others gather about him in dire concern, Ezra collapses into a fast of mourning, rising from it at the time of the evening sacrifice to pour out a confession of guilt to God. The next chapter reveals that he did this before the temple (see 10:1).
Verses 10-12 of chapter 9, while stated as if a single quotation from the law regarding the present sin, actually draw from many passages (see Deuteronomy 7:3-4; 11:8-9; 23:6; Proverbs 10:27; 13:22; 20:7; Isaiah 1:19).
Ezra ends his prayer with a declaration that God is righteous—and that the remnant of Israel is deserving of being wiped out (Ezra 9:13-15). Perhaps he was going to now ask that the people be led to repentance and for forgiveness but, as we will see in the next chapter, his prayer is cut short—for a good reason.