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142

Chapter XIII.

THE HOME SACRIFICED TO THE CHURCH.

Ezra x.

Ezra's narrative, written in the first person, ceases with his prayer, the conclusion of which brings us to the end of the ninth chapter of our Book of Ezra; at the tenth chapter the chronicler resumes his story, describing, however, the events which immediately follow. His writing is here as graphic as Ezra's, and if it is not taken from notes left by the scribe, at all events it would seem to be drawn from the report of another eye-witness; for it describes most remarkable scenes with a vividness that brings them before the mind's eye, so that the reader cannot study them even at this late day without a pang of sympathy.

Ezra's prayer and confession, his grievous weeping and prostrate humiliation before God, deeply affected the spectators; and as the news spread through the city, a very great congregation of men, women, and children assembled together to gaze at the strange spectacle. They could not gaze unmoved. Deep emotion is contagious. The man who is himself profoundly convinced and intensely concerned with his religious ideas will certainly win disciples. Where the soundest arguments have failed to persuade, a single note of sincere faith often strikes home. It is the passion of the orator that143 rouses the multitude, and even where there is no oratory the passion of true feeling pleads with irresistible eloquence. Ezra had not to speak a word to the people. What he was, what he felt, his agony of shame, his agony of prayer—all this melted them to tears, and a cry of lamentation went up from the gathered multitudes in the temple courts. Their grief was more than a sentimental reflection of the scribe's distress, for the Jews could see plainly that it was for them and for their miserable condition that this ambassador from the Persian court was mourning so piteously. His sorrow was wholly vicarious. By no calamity or offence of his own, but simply by what he regarded as their wretched fall, Ezra was now plunged into heart-broken agony. Such a result of their conduct could not but excite the keenest self-reproaches in the breasts of all who in any degree shared his view of the situation. Then the only path of amendment visible before them was one that involved the violent rupture of home ties; the cruel severance of husband and wife, of parent and child; the complete sacrifice of human love on what appeared to be the altar of duty to God. It was indeed a bitter hour for the Jews who felt themselves to be offenders, and for their innocent wives and children who would be involved in any attempted reformation.

The confusion was arrested by the voice of one man, a layman named Shecaniah the son of Jehiel, who came to the assistance of Ezra as a volunteer spokesman of the people. This man entirely surrendered to Ezra's view, making a frank and unreserved confession of his own and the people's sin. So far then Ezra has won his point. He has begun to gain assent from among the offenders. Shecaniah adds to his confession a sentence of some ambiguity, saying, "Yet now there is144 hope for Israel concerning this thing."109109   Ezra x. 2. This might be thought to mean that God was merciful, and that there was hope in the penitent attitude of the congregation that He would take pity on the people and not deal hardly with them. But the similarity of the phraseology to the words of the last verse of the previous chapter, where the expression "because of this"110110   Ezra ix. 15. plainly points to the offence as the one thing in view, shows that the allusion here is to that offence, and not to the more recent signs of penitence. Shecaniah means, then, that there is hope concerning this matter of the foreign marriages—viz., that they may be rooted out of Israel. The hope is for a reformation, not for any condoning of the offence. It means despair to the unhappy wives, the end of all home peace and joy in many a household—a lurid hope surely, and hardly worthy of the name except on the lips of a fanatic. Shecaniah now proceeds to make a definite proposal. He would have the people enter into a solemn covenant with God. They are not only to undergo a great domestic reformation, but they are to take a vow in the sight of God that they will carry it through. Shecaniah shows the unreflecting zeal of a raw convert; an officious person, a meddler, he is too bold and forward for one whose place is the penitent's bench. The covenant is to pledge the people to divorce their foreign wives. Yet the unfeeling man will not soften his proposal by any euphemism, nor will he hide its more odious features. He deliberately adds that the children should be sent away with their mothers. The nests are to be cleared of the whole brood.

Ezra had not ventured to draw out such a direful145 programme. But Shecaniah says that this is "according to the counsel of my lord,"111111   Ezra x. 3. using terms of unwonted obsequiousness—unless, as seems less likely, the phrase is meant to apply to God, i.e., to be read, "According to the counsel of The Lord." Shecaniah evidently gathered the unexpressed opinion of Ezra from the language of his prayer and from his general attitude. This was the only way out of the difficulty, the logical conclusion from what was now admitted. Ezra saw it clearly enough, but it wanted a man of coarser fibre to say it. Shecaniah goes further, and claims the concurrence of all who "tremble at the words of the God of Israel." These people have been mentioned before as forming the nucleus of the congregation that gathered about Ezra.112112   Ezra ix. 4. Then this outspoken man distinctly claims the authority of The Law for his proposition. Ezra had based his view of the heathen marriages on the general character of the teaching of the prophets; Shecaniah now appeals to The Law as the authority for his scheme of wholesale divorce. This is a huge assumption of what has never been demonstrated. But such people as Shecaniah do not wait for niceties of proof before making their sweeping proposals.

The bold adviser followed up his suggestion by rallying Ezra and calling upon him to "be of good courage," seeing that he would have supporters in the great reformation. Falling in with the proposed scheme, Ezra there and then extracted an oath from the people—both clergy and laity—that they would execute it. This was a general resolution. Some time was required and many difficulties had to be faced before it could146 be carried into practice, and meanwhile Ezra withdrew into retirement, still fasting and mourning.

We must now allow for an interval of some months. The chronological arrangement seems to have been as follows. Ezra and his company left Babylon in the spring, as Zerubbabel had done before him—at the same season as that of the great exodus from Egypt under Moses. Each of these three great expeditions began with the opening of the natural year, in scenes of bright beauty and hopefulness. Occupying four months on his journey, Ezra reached Jerusalem in the heat of July. It could not have been very long after his arrival that the news of the foreign marriages was brought to him by the princes, because if he had spent any considerable time in Jerusalem first he must have found out the state of affairs for himself. But now we are transported to the month of December for the meeting of the people when the covenant of divorce is to be put in force. Possibly some of the powerful leaders had opposed the summoning of such a gathering, and their hindrance may have delayed it; or it may have taken Ezra and his counsellors some time to mature their plans. Long brooding over the question could not have lessened the scribe's estimate of its gravity. But the suggestion of all kinds of difficulties and the clear perception of the terrible results which must flow from the contemplated reformation did not touch his opinion of what was right, or his decision, once reached, that there must be a clearing away of the foreign elements, root and branch, although they had entwined their tendrils about the deepest affections of the people. The seclusion and mourning of Ezra is recorded in Ezra x. 6. The next verse carries us on to the preparation for the dreadful assembly, which, as we must conclude, really147 took place some months later. The summons was backed up by threats of confiscation and excommunication. To this extent the great powers entrusted to Ezra by the king of Persia were employed. It looks as if the order was the issue of a conflict of counsels in which that of Ezra was victorious, for it was exceedingly peremptory in tone and it only gave three days notice. The people came, as they were bound to do, for the authority of the supreme government was behind the summons; but they resented the haste with which they had been called together, and they pleaded the inconvenience of the season for an open-air meeting. They met in the midst of the winter rains; cold and wet they crouched in the temple courts, the picture of wretchedness. In a hot, dry country so little provision is made for inclement weather, that when it comes the people suffer from it most acutely, so that it means much more distress to them than to the inhabitants of a chill and rainy climate. Still it may seem strange that, with so terrible a question as the complete break-up of their homes presented to them, the Jews should have taken much account of the mere weather even at its worst. History, however, does not shape itself according to proportionate proprieties, but after the course of very human facts. We are often unduly influenced by present circumstances, so that what is small in itself, and in comparison with the supreme interests of life, may become for the moment of the most pressing importance, just because it is present and making itself felt as the nearest fact. Moreover, there is a sort of magnetic connection between the external character of things and the most intangible of internal experiences. The "November gloom" is more than a meteorological fact; it has its psychological aspect. After all, are we148 not citizens of the great physical universe? and is it not therefore reasonable that the various phases of nature should affect us in some degree, so that the common topic of conversation, "the weather," may really be of more serious concern than we suspect? Be that as it may, it is clear that while these Jews, who usually enjoyed brilliant sunshine and the fair blue Syrian sky, were shivering in the chill December rains, wet and miserable, they were quite unable to discuss a great social question, or to brace themselves up for an act of supreme renunciation. It was a season of depression, and the people felt limp and heartless, as people often do feel at such a season. They pleaded for delay. Not only was the weather a great hindrance to calm deliberation, but, as they said, the proposed reformation was of a widespread character. It must be an affair of some time. Let it be regularly organised. Let it be conducted only before appointed courts in the several cities. This was reasonable enough, and accordingly it was decided to adopt the suggestion. It is easy to be a reformer in theory; but they who have faced a great abuse in practice know how difficult it is to uproot it. This is especially true of all attempts to affect the social order. Wild ideas are floated without an effort. But the execution of these ideas means far more toil and battle, and involves a much greater tumult in the world, than the airy dreamers who start them so confidently and who are so surprised at the slowness of dull people to accept them ever imagine.

Not only was there a successful plea for delay. There was also direct opposition to Ezra's stern proposal—although this did not prove to be successful. The indication of opposition is obscured by the imperfect rendering of the Authorised Version. Turning to the149 more correct translation in the Revised Version we read, "Only Jonathan the son of Asahel and Jahzeiah the son of Tikvah stood up against this matter: and Meshullam and Shabbethai the Levite helped them."113113   Ezra x. 15. Here was a little knot of champions of the poor threatened wives, defenders of the peaceful homes so soon to be smitten by the ruthless axe of the reformer, men who believed in the sanctity of domestic life as not less real than the sanctity of ecclesiastical arrangements, men perhaps to whom love was as Divine as law, nay, was law, wherever it was pure and true.

This opposition was borne down; the courts sat; the divorces were granted; wives were torn from their husbands and sent back to their indignant parents; and children were orphaned. Priests, Levites, and other temple officers did not escape the domestic reformation; the common people were not beneath its searching scrutiny; everywhere the pruning knife lopped off the alien branches from the vine of Israel. After giving a list of families involved, the chronicler concludes with the bare remark that men put away wives with children as well as those who had no children.114114   Ezra x. 44. It is baldly stated. What did it mean? The agony of separation, the lifelong division of the family, the wife worse than widowed, the children driven from the shelter of the home, the husband sitting desolate in his silent house—over all this the chronicler draws a veil; but our imaginations can picture such scenes as might furnish materials for the most pathetic tragedies.

In order to mitigate the misery of this social revolution, attention has been called to the freedom of divorce which was allowed among the Jews and to the inferior150 status assigned to women in the East. The wife, it is said, was always prepared to receive a bill of divorce whenever her husband found occasion to dismiss her: she would have a right to claim back her dowry; and she would return to her father's house without the slightest slur upon her character. All this may be true enough; and yet human nature is the same all the world over, and where there is the strong mutual affection of true wedded love, whether in the England of our Christian era or in the Palestine of the olden times, to sever the tie of union must mean the agony of torn hearts, the despair of blighted lives. And was this necessary? Even if it was not according to the ordinance of their religion for Jews to contract marriages with foreigners, having contracted such marriages and having seen children grow up about them, was it not a worse evil for them to break the bonds by violence and scatter the families? Is not the marriage law itself holy? Nay, has it not a prior right over against Levitical institutions or prophetic ordinances, seeing that it may be traced back to the sweet sanctities of Eden? What if the stern reformer had fallen into a dreadful blunder? Might it not be that this new Hildebrand and his fanatical followers were even guilty of a huge crime in their quixotic attempt to purge the Church by wrecking the home?

Assuredly from our point of view and with our Christian light no such conduct as theirs could be condoned. It was utterly undiscriminating, riding roughshod over the tenderest claims. Gentile wives such as Ruth the Moabitess might have adopted the faith of their husbands—doubtless in many cases they had done so—yet the sweeping, pitiless mandate of separation applied to them as surely as if they had been151 heathen sorceresses. On the other hand, we must use some historical imagination in estimating these sorrowful scenes. The great idea of Ezra was to preserve a separate people. He held that this was essential to the maintenance of pure religion and morals in the midst of the pagan abominations which surrounded the little colony. Church separation seemed to be bound up with race separation. This Ezra believed to be after the mind of the prophets, and therefore a truth of Divine inspiration. Under all the circumstances it is not easy to say that his main contention was wrong, that Israel could have been preserved as a Church if it had ceased to keep itself separate as a race, or that without Church exclusiveness religious purity could have been maintained.

We are not called upon to face any such terrible problem, although St. Paul's warning against Christians becoming "unequally yoked with unbelievers"115115   Cor. vi. 14. reminds us that the worst ill-assortment in marriage should not be thought of as only concerned with diversity of rank, wealth, or culture; that they are most ill-matched who have not common interests in the deepest concerns of the soul. Then, too, it needs to be remembered in these days, when ease and comfort are unduly prized, that there are occasions on which even the peace and love of the home must be sacrificed to the supreme claims of God. Our Lord ominously warned His disciples that He would send a sword to sever the closest domestic ties—"to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother," etc.,116116   Matt. x. 35. and He added, "He that loveth father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me."117117   Matt. x. 37. In152 times of early Christian persecution it was necessary to choose between the cross of Christ and the nearest domestic claims, and then faithful martyrs accepted the cross even at the cost of the dear love of home and all its priceless jewels, as, for instance, in the familiar story of Perpetua and Felicitas. The same choice had to be made again under Catholic persecution among the Huguenots, as we are reminded by Millais' well-known picture, and even in a quasi-protestant persecution in the case of Sir Thomas More. It faces the convert from Hindooism in India to-day. Therefore whatever opinion we may form of the particular action of Ezra, we should do well to ponder gravely over the grand principle on which it was based. God must have the first place in the hearts and lives of His people, even though in some cases this may involve the shipwreck of the dearest earthly affections.


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