Praying Through the Bible project
Prayer and Divorce?
While Ezra prayed and made confession, weeping and throwing himself down before the house of God, a very great assembly of men, women, and children gathered to him out of Israel; the people also wept bitterly.
Now make confession to the LORD the God of your ancestors, and do his will; separate yourselves from the peoples of the land and from the foreign wives.”
Why, in this story, is divorce the solution to the people’s sin? There are other passages of scripture which declare that God hates. It is the context of the story that can help us understand the prayer, the divorce, and the terrible and unintended consequences of wrongdoing.
These two prayers are part of the same series of events as the last prayer (9.6-15). Ezra had been told that many of the men had married women who were not of the Jewish faith—women whose people had been living in the land for centuries, not part of the returnees from exile. Ezra confessions to God his failure.
While he prays, a large group of Jews come to him, weeping (and presumably praying) with him. One of the leaders suggests, to Ezra, that they all make a new covenant with God and that they divorce these wives. He insists it be done properly under the Jewish law. Ezra instructed the priests to follow this plan, and give the people three days to assemble and comply. He then went to the newly-rebuilt Temple. He spent the night there, fasting and in mourning.
After three days, the people gathered in the square before the Temple. Ezra told them that they had been faithless to God by marrying foreign women, so they must confess, repent, and then work to be a separate people. They people affirmed that they have sinned, and that they would do as he said, but asked for a long-term plan because it would be a significant undertaking.
Most readers would read this story and be confused, and focus more on the solution (divorce) than the prayer itself. After all are many other passages in the Bible which declare that divorce was never a part of God’s plan for humans.
To understand the prayer, we have first to understand the situation. In the creation story, when God creates a woman, the two “become one” and the implication is that they will not separate (Get 2.18-24). In the Law of Moses, the command is given that, in many cases, divorce is not permitted (Deut 22.19, 29). However, in some cases, divorce was allowed (Deut 24; Isa 50.1; Jer 3.8), and this became a subject of debate among the rabbis—what was required for a divorce to be allowed under the law? Jesus entered into the debate with by taking a side.
Some have taken this passage, and the words of Jesus, to mean that if a believer marries an unbeliever, they should divorce. Of course, the words of Paul speak against this. Instead, we should see this as an example of how God understands our weaknesses. There are rules about the best way to live, but God is not a legalist. He commands us not to divorce not to punish us when we do, but to remind us of the importance of marriage! Once we fail, the law matters not—now that it’s done, what will we do? In the case of Ezra, the stakes were high and divorce was the only answer. (We should note here, too that sin often leads to bad consequences.)
We will not find ourselves in a situation where our decisions about marriage (or anything else) will affect the entire people of God, and put them in danger of apostasy. But we can learn from their example. When Ezra confronted the people, they were honest about their failure: “It is so; we must do as you have said” (10.13). We can do the same: when we recognize our sin, we admit it and confess.
The other element that can enrich our prayers is the effect we see of sin. Not only does sin have consequences for us, and probably for others, but also the solution to the situation created by sin the might be bad. The Jews in this story, not remembering why they were there, sinned by marrying unbelievers. The only solution, to save the community, was divorces—a bad solution with terrible human consequences.
Offer honest prayers of confession when required. And remember that sin can have consequences far beyond the immediate—we can pray for strength to make right decisions, too.
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