The Grace of Grieving

I recently read Ezra 9 in my morning devotions and was struck by the character of Ezra’s sorrow over the sins of God’s people. His grief was intense; it was profound. His sorrow over the sins of God's people had tangible evidences to it and true effects on God’s people. There are lessons here for us to learn--lessons that will help us understand the nature of sin, the nature of repentance and confession, and the nature of God’s mercy and grace. Consider the following:

  1. Ezra’s grief was in reaction to sin: “The people of Israel and the priests and the Levites have not separated themselves from the people of the lands with their abominations…” (Ez. 9:1). They had inter-married with the pagan nations. This was a direct contravention of God’s earlier commands. I wonder what are the comparable sins of today’s church: certainly, marrying unbelievers would feature, but we can identify others? A failure to love the worship of God and the assembling of God’s people; a disregard of the authority of the church and of the family; gossip, slander and wicked speech; a love of theology not of people. My point is this: is the church at large any better than the state of Israel in Ezra’s day. Our sins are as great as theirs in many ways, but do we see it?
  2. Ezra’s grief was intense: he tore his garments; he pulled out hair from his head and beard. He sat appalled (9:3). This was genuine grief over the “faithlessness or the returned exiles”. Grief over sin. I wonder whether we grieve over our own sin and over the sin of the church. Note also, the extent of this grief: Ezra was so sorrowful over the state of God’s people he pulled his hair out – literally. That is a sorrow, I think, I can only imagine. Do we, as God’s people, mourn over sin? Or is sin too comfortable for us: is it an understandable failing on our part or a most horrific offense in the sight of God? The people’s sin reduced Ezra to a disheveled beggar with torn robes and hair, fasting until evening. That is, I think, how sin should affect us.
  3. Ezra’s grief was worked out through prayer of confession: “O God I am ashamed and blush to lift my face to you, my God for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads” (9:6). Notice the prayer does not commence with a request for healing or help, but rather confession of sin. And what a concentrated confession it was! He was ashamed; he confessed his deep embarrassment; he acknowledged that sin has overtaken them. He did not sugar-coat the sin but confessed its full heinousness before God and their “great guilt” before God. He also acknowledged that their punishment, as great as it was, did not reflect the full extent of their sin, “…seeing that you, our God, have punished us less than our iniquities deserved” (9:13)
  4. Ezra’s grief was worked out through prayer for mercy: “but now for a brief moment favor has been show by the LORD our God… he has extended to us his steadfast love” (9:8,9). Pleas for mercy followed confession. The plea for mercy is founded upon the unchanging character and gracious acts of Almighty God. God is holy therefore we must confess our sin. God is gracious therefore we may plead his character and promise.
  5. Ezra’s grief prompted grief in the people: a “very great assembly of men, women and children gathered to him out of Israel for the people wept bitterly” (10:1). That is to say, sanctified grief on Ezra’s part appeared to have a blessed and positive effect on the people of Israel. That makes us as a question: are those in authority in the church or the home grievers over sin? If leaders do not take sin seriously how will the people ever do such?
  6. Ezra’s grief also prompted repentance in the people: “they pledged themselves to put away their wives and their guilt offering was a ram of the flock for their guilt” (10:19). Notice that the people acknowledged their guilt, confessed it and made sacrifice. Our repentance of personal or corporate sin must be of a nature which turns us away from our sin and endeavors after new obedience. It is also costly, not only the sacrifice given, but what we give up. Israel gave up wives. What are we prepared to give up since our Lord gave himself as the mostly costly sacrifice of all?

Ralph Venning, in his work The Sinfulness of Sin describes sin in this way, “Sin is the dare of God’s justice, the jeer of his patience, the slight of his power, the contempt of his love, the upbraiding of his providence, the scoff of his promise, the reproach of his wisdom and the rape of his mercy.” May God grant us the grace to see sin for what it is, and yet to see the healing grace and mercy of God in Christ, who has paid the debt for even the “vilest of offenders.”

Matthew Holst

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