Sabbath School Lesson for December 14-20, 2019
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This week we see how two leaders dealt with the same problem of intermarriage with idolaters at different times.
- Nehemiah’s reaction was visible outrage (Sunday)
- Nehemiah’s reproof was well-directed and firm (Monday)
- Ezra’s reaction was overwhelming sadness and indignation (Tuesday)
- Ezra’s actions were decisive (Wednesday)
- How these two episodes of misconduct inform our attitudes about marriage today (Thursday)
Aside from our commitment to God, there is perhaps no other choice we make in life as important as who we choose as a marriage partner. Both decisions are related, whether we realize it or not. Our level of dedication to God leads to the type of person we desire to spend time with. And who we spend time with enhances or hinders our level of dedication to God.
The people of Israel failed repeatedly when it came to marital choices. Despite God’s repeated warnings, they continued to become entangled with idolatrous tribes by intermarrying and thus endangering their relationship with God.
It wasn’t just their own relationships that suffered. The children born to these unequal partners were denied opportunities to know God. This became particularly threatening to the nation of Israel, because God’s intention was to bless a people that would eventually bear the Messiah, a Savior for all the world.
Memory Text: “And I said: ‘O my God, I am too ashamed and humiliated to lift up my face to You, my God; for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has grown up to the heavens.’ ” Ezra 9:6 NKJV
Ezra’s prayer of confession here was intensely emotional and repentant. He was one of the few who realized the dire consequences that would result from their unwise marital choices. His shame and humiliation was enormous.
The fact that his countrymen had ignored God’s instructions time and time again caused this overwhelming shame. He could hardly bear to face God, because of all the guilt they had brought upon themselves.
Sunday: Nehemiah’s Reaction
Even though Ezra had earlier faced a similar situation when it came to illegitimate intermarriages, Nehemiah, not surprisingly, was addressing it again, along with other reforms that were necessary after his fifteen-year absence from Jerusalem.
We can be sure that Nehemiah fell to his knees in prayer over the sorrowful plight of these unlawful marriages. His rage was hard to disguise, as he too saw all their efforts of rebuilding in danger of complete failure. The spiritual life of God’s people was at stake here, and Nehemiah could hardly contain his outrage at their unthinking actions when it came to these marriages, and the irreligious, godless families they would produce.
Before we criticize Nehemiah’s reaction as being too harsh, Bible scholars can help us understand the true nature of the language used in Nehemiah 13:25.
- When it says he “cursed them”, it didn’t mean he used foul language, like it would mean today. Rather, he spoke over them the curses that had been stated in the Covenant (See Deuteronomy 28:20).
- When it says “he struck some of them and pulled out their hair”, Nehemiah wasn’t acting in a furious rage as we might picture it. He was most likely referring to a prescribed form of public punishment, reserved for those who had caused and promoted this wrong behavior.
Read Nehemiah 13:23, 4:7. How did they know these tribes mentioned were still enemies of the Jews?
Read Nehemiah 13:24. How were children affected by these unequal marriages? What is God’s purpose and desire for families?
Read Nehemiah 13:25, Proverbs 28:4, and 1 Kings 18:18. Why were Nehemiah’s actions justifiable and understandable? Who had brought about these curses, or bad consequences?
Monday: Nehemiah’s Reproof
Nehemiah’s reproof included a reminder of King Solomon’s offensive practice of marrying not only multiple wives, but idolatrous ones who led him away from God. They should have learned from this wayward king’s example that their choices held much danger for God’s people.
But, the caution of not intermarrying did not involve Israel alone. Even before the flood, we find unwise marriages taking place. See Genesis 6:1, 2.
And it was not just because they were foreigners that they would not be suitable marriage partners. After all, Moses was married to Zipporah, a Midianite. And Boaz married Ruth, a Moabite. However, these foreign women did not practice idolatry, with its very cruel and offensive pagan rituals, and this led to their successful marriages with godly men.
Nehemiah’s response to the circumstances of pervasive intermarriage among God’s people saddened, as well as outraged, the prophet. It showed their shallow commitment to God, who had brought them through so much.
These marriages with idolatrous partners were a slap to God’s face. But they were also a threat to their national security, as the families produced from these unions would most often bring them even further away from God.
Read Nehemiah 13:26, 27, Genesis 2:24, and 1 Kings 11:1, 2. What two mistakes did Solomon make regarding marriage?
Read Genesis 6:1, 2, Deuteronomy 7:3, 4, and Exodus 20:4. Why does the practice of idolatry make God jealous? What other forms of idolatry exist today that draw us away from God?
Read 2 Corinthians 6:14 and 1 Corinthians 5:9. What is dangerous about a mixed marriage, where spouses are of different faiths, or one of them has no faith? Why should we not even consider entering into these kinds of marriages? What does it do to us, and our families?
Tuesday: Ezra Reacts
Chapter 9 of Ezra tells how Ezra discovered that many Israelites had intermarried with idolaters, in direct opposition to God’s command to separate themselves from pagan tribes. He was given this sad news by civil leaders, because, sadly, the priests and Levites were blatantly guilty of this offense themselves.
Ezra was totally grief-stricken with the report, and after openly displaying his grief and fasting over what he should do, he began a prayer of confession. In this prayer before the assembly, he humbly expressed their guilt and shame, and threw himself and the Jews on the mercy of God, begging Him once again preserve His remnant people.
Read Ezra 9:1 and Deuteronomy 12:30, 31. Why do you think pagan worshipers offered human sacrifices, and why would that be so distasteful to God that He would forbid these intermarriages?
Read Ezra 9:2. Why does Satan especially target those in leadership to sin? Why did God tell them and us to separate from evildoers?
Read Ezra 9:14, 15 and Ezekiel 6:8. Why is Ezra worried about a remnant? Why is it important for there to be a remnant, not just at Christ’s first coming as a Babe in Bethlehem, but at His Second Coming as well?
Wednesday: Ezra Acts
Ezra’s prayer of humiliation and penitence was before a full assembly, who were so moved by his words that they offered to put away their wives from these unlawful unions. All but four men made a vow to correct their bad choices by separating themselves from their pagan wives.
It appears that these separations weren’t the same as divorce, because the words for “separate yourself” and “put away” are not used anywhere else in Scripture to mean divorce. Instead the marriages must have been considered invalid and were thus nullified.
The unfortunate separations that resulted from this vow were during a time of unusual circumstances for the Jewish nation. They were trying desperately to rebuild Jerusalem and establish themselves as a people who would represent and glorify God. Understandably, these radical times called for radical measures.
As Nehemiah discovered later, however, the practice of intermarriage once again became prevalent, indicating a fluctuating commitment to God. Today, we still see God’s people struggling to put God first in their lives, despite these vivid examples in the history of Israel.
Read Ezra 10:1-3, 5. What part did Ezra play in the decision to separate from their pagan wives?
Read Ezra 10:6. Why do you think Ezra still fasted and mourned, even after they had made the decision to change their course and follow God’s command about marriage?
Read Ezra 10:16, 17. How did this indicate that they were not acting hastily in this decision to correct their former bad choices?
Thursday: Marriage Today
The problem of marriage between unequal partners has presented itself differently down through the ages. For Ezra and Nehemiah’s time, it drew them away from God in different ways, and it was dealt with in different ways than we might choose today.
Paul also noticed that the problem of unequally yoked marriages was causing concern among God’s people in the early Christian church. With the Christian faith spreading so rapidly among the Gentiles, often only one spouse became converted, leading to friction and difficulties for the families involved.
Paul’s counsel was helpful in showing them how to navigate these marital challenges. He advised them not to separate from their unbelieving spouses, but to stay in the marriage if at all possible, honoring the vows they had taken for each other. Only if the unbelieving spouse chose to separate was a partner to end the marriage.
Today, marriage continues to be an area Satan targets in order to weaken God’s work of saving humanity. Divorce rates indicate that people are still entering into unwise partnerships that hinder spiritual growth and affect generations that follow.
Therefore, utmost care must be used as we prayerfully choose our marriage partner. Ideally, a partner not only upholds our faith, but enhances it. The purpose of marriage should include strengthening our Christian witness. Merely allowing the expression of faith does not give God the place of high honor He might have in our homes.
Unfortunately, we don’t always put God first when we enter the state of matrimony. God understands our fluctuating levels of commitment, however, and He has promised to bless us, despite our former decisions.
The consequences of unwise choices may be sharp, but God is always there to guide us when we turn to Him for answers and allow Him to be our highest priority.
Read 1 Corinthians 7:12, 13, 16. Why did Paul not recommend divorce or separation for unequal marriages?
Read 2 Corinthians 6:14 and Ephesians 5:8. In what ways is it harder to walk in the light, if you are married to an unbeliever? Why does this also include those of a different faith?
Read Ephesians 5:17, 31, 32. What does marriage represent and why does this make our marital choices so critical?
As we have seen, our marital decisions have lifelong consequences. We can’t afford to sacrifice our commitment to God or compromise our spiritual growth by entering into unions that will, in any way, draw us away from God.
Although one can’t always predict how a marriage will turn out, we do know that living in these end times will be a factor that will jeopardize our families even more than in times past. Therefore, today utmost care must be taken when the choice of a marriage partner is concerned.
Safeguarding our own commitment to God is perhaps the surest way to have a positive outcome for our marriage and families. We can’t begin to fathom all the possible pitfalls that might occur that threaten our personal happiness.
But God knows the way to peace and happiness for our families. Clinging to Him, no matter where we find ourselves in life, will make a difference in how we navigate these difficult times. God has promised His presence when we deal with bad outcomes that may happen, no matter what our previous choices have been. Clinging to God will always be our safest ticket to survive any personal trial that involves marriage and family.
Next Week’s Lesson: Leaders in Israel
To read the Sabbath School Lesson Quarterly or see more resources for its study, go to https://www.absg.adventist.org/
Other Outlook blogposts by Teresa Thompson, are at http://outlookmag.org/author/teresathompson/