Praying Through the Bible project
Pure Confession—no requests, no excuses, no reasons
What is a prayer of confession? Often, such prayers are an admittance of guilt followed by a petition for forgiveness. But this prayer, by Ezra, is a pure prayer of confession—no requests, no excuses, no reasons. A difficult prayer to offer, but one of power.
The rest of the book of Ezra describes the reforms that Ezra instituted. There are three prayers in the section: the first is this one, a prayer of confession offered by Ezra himself. They are all part of the same situation.
What brought on this confession? About fourth months had passed, it seems, since the last scene (see 10.3). Part of what Ezra was to do in Jerusalem was to teach the proper ways of faith. Some officials came to him and said that there was a problem with the people having married non-believers—even leaders and religious officials.
Ezra, upon hearing this, tore his cloak and pulled out his hair and beard, in a traditional sign of mourning and repentance. He fasted—another humbling tradition—until the evening sacrifice. He then prayed the prayer above, confessing his embarrassment at the situation. He does not ask for anything; he merely confesses the sin of his people and himself.
He begins with his own shame and also prays on behalf of the people (vv6-7). He noes how merciful God has been for them in the past, which makes this unfaithfulness all the more terrible (vv8-9). He cites the sin specifically in vv10-11:
And now, our God, what shall we say after this? For we have forsaken your commandments, 11 which you commanded by your servants the prophets, saying, ‘The land that you are entering to possess is a land unclean with the pollutions of the peoples of the lands, with their abominations. They have filled it from end to end with their uncleanness.
Finally, he notes that God would be justified in destroying all of them since they have spat in the face of His mercies.
Why this great humility and guilt over marrying unbelievers? There are a number of factors at play. First, Ezra and the returnees to Jerusalem were tasked with restoring the faith and practice of Israel, in all its commands. Second, Ezra was responsible, for it is he that the king of Persia had commissioned to rebuild the Temple and restore the faithful life of the community of returnees. Third, the people are in a different situation now than back in Babylon, where they were a community surrounded by Persians. Here, they were surrounded by people who were descendants of the Jews who were left behind, but who had intermarried with pagans over the 80+ years of the Exile. They were facing a cultural shift and only just realizing the problems it could bring.
They reasoned this way: when God brought the Israelites out of Egypt and into the Promised Land, he forbid them to intermarry with the Canaanites. Why? Because God knew that they would be affected by their worship practices, and that it would cause them to stray from God’s ways.1 Joshua was even ordered to destroy all the towns and people for this reason. But he did not, and decades later we see that the people did stray because of the influence of the Canaanites who remaining in the land.
A prayer of pure confession is a powerful thing. We are tempted, when we confess our wrongdoing, to give reasons why it happened; to ask for forgiveness; to even blame others, perhaps!
Try offering a prayer of pure confession. Don’t ask for forgiveness, don’t give reasons why you did it, and don’t repent. Just tell God what you did, and praise Him for who He is and how he is justified to punish. Such a prayer brings into stark relief how meaningful it is when God offers his grace to us.
It is not an easy thing to do! But it is a powerful and rich prayer that speaks truth to the situation between God and his people.
- See Lev 18; 19:19; Deut 7:1-4, 20:10-18. ↩
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“O my God, I am too ashamed and embarrassed 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 ancestors to this day we have been deep in guilt, and for our iniquities we, our kings, and our priests have been handed over to the kings of the lands, to the sword, to captivity, to plundering, and to utter shame, as is now the case. But now for a brief moment favor has been shown by the LORD our God, who has left us a remnant, and given us a stake in his holy place, in order that he may brighten our eyes and grant us a little sustenance 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 give us new life to set up the house of our God, to repair its ruins, and to give us a wall in Judea and Jerusalem.
“And now, 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 possess is a land unclean with the pollutions of the peoples of the lands, with their abominations. They 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, so that you may be strong and eat the good of the land and leave it for an inheritance to your children forever.’ 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 destroy us without remnant or survivor? O LORD, God of Israel, you are just, but we have escaped as a remnant, as is now the case. Here we are before you in our guilt, though no one can face you because of this.”
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