1. Application

Unbelievers among the people of God

Ezra 10:1–44 (ESV)

1 While Ezra prayed and made confession, weeping and casting himself down before the house of God, a very great assembly of men, women, and children, gathered to him out of Israel, for the people wept bitterly.

The people of Israel were living under the terms of the old covenant, and there is no command that deals specifically with their situation.

When Shecaniah suggests that they must put away their wives according to the Law, it is not clear exactly which law he has in mind. He could have been referring to Leviticus 18:29 or perhaps Deuteronomy 13:6–11. Maybe there was another law he was thinking of. The basic premise of the matter was that these women could not be part of God’s people and live in their midst if they did not repent of their idolatry and worship the Lord.

We might not know exactly which particular law inspired the decision of Shecaniah and Ezra, but we do know that their actions were motivated by a desire to keep God’s commandments, specifically the first commandment (You shall have no other gods beside me).

Under the old covenant, this commandment required Israel to ensure that the Lord alone was worshipped in Jerusalem. Israel lived in a theocracy, which meant that you had to worship the Lord or you had to leave. There was no religious pluralism or any thoughts of tolerating different opinions. As a result, there was also no room for unrepentant pagans to live in the midst of God’s people. The presence of pagans worshipping idols and engaging in sinful practices would make the city and the land unclean.

When these foreign women refuse to repent and believe, they are sent away. They are sent away not because of their ethnicity (Ezra 6:21), but because of their idolatry. The marriages between them and Jewish men were not necessarily dissolved; we don’t read anything about a divorce. There would always be room for the women to join the covenant community again in the future; the door remained open. But no one, not even wives and children, can live among God’s people if they refuse to worship the Lord.

In the new covenant, the situation is different. When Paul gives instructions to married men and women in 1 Corinthians 7:12–14, he makes it clear that the coming of Christ has brought the old covenant to an end. Under the old covenant, the presence of an unbelieving wife resulted in uncleanness. She is unclean and the children are unclean, that’s why they are sent away with her. Under the new covenant, an unbelieving wife or husband is made holy. There is no longer a defilement that comes from living with an unbelieving spouse.