I’ve been preaching on prayer (if you do not get the irony of that, let me know) and I’m finally getting around to examining some of the prayers in Scripture. This past Sunday I started with Ezra’s great prayer of confession. Some passages just preach themselves without any comment from preachers like me – but I went ahead and added my thoughts on this great chapter. Probably ruined the sermon. Here are some highlights (or low lights, depending on your perspective.)
I wrote my dissertation for my Doctor of Ministry on the topic of confession, so I guess you could say I’m kind of nerdy about the topic. Having worked for about 2 years in general, and several months intensively, on this subject, there are passages regarding confession that just jump out at me. It should be obvious that Ezra 9 relates to confession, but there are some aspects of this prayer that stand out to me as being unique – or at the very least – instructive regarding the practice of confession. Here are just a few (and you may discover others!).
First, this prayer is pure confession! There are no dodges, no excuses, no explanations, no sniveling. One of the major hindrances to our prayers of confession is the word “but.” We may have the intention of confessing, but that little three letter word sneaks in and blows the whole process up. We say things like, “God, you know I sinned today, BUT you know I am just a human.” Or this, “God, I sinned today, BUT honestly, the situation I was in was just too much for me to handle.” You will search in vain for anything resembling a “but” in Ezra’s prayer. It is pure confession, from beginning to end.
Second, Ezra owned the sins of his ancestors. He did not try to excuse the behavior of his generation by making his contemporaries look better than their fathers – in fact it was the exact opposite. He owned the sin of his ancestors, and therefore admitted to the sin of his own generation. In a common figure of speech, he admitted that the nuts did not fall very far from the diseased tree. But, look even deeper – by admitting the sin of his fathers, he actually compounded the contemporary sin of his generation. He is saying that instead of being more likely to sin the same sin, his generation should have known better, therefore are guilty of a greater sin – sin upon sin. It takes courage to admit our parents – or grandparents – were wrong. It takes monumental courage to admit that we have compounded the sins of our parents and grandparents.
In Ezra’s specific situation the sin was intermarriage with the pagan peoples surrounding Jerusalem – and therefore opening up the possibility (and even reality) that their worship of idols would soon follow. Ezra confessed the sins of his fathers, and then the sin of his compatriots. I am not suggesting here that every public prayer should include every single sin of every member – there is a clear line between confession and voyeurism. But in our private (or family) prayers I believe specificity is absolutely necessary. Don’t just say, “God, I sinned today.” Be specific. “God, you know I lost my temper and used profane language.” “God, you know I had impure thoughts and sinned with my eyes today.” “God, you know that story I told today was pure gossip, and damaged the reputation of another person.” I do believe that it is possible for a congregation to sin (read Revelation 2-3), and when that sin is realized it must be confessed as well. The point is let us be done with salving our consciences with generic prayers of confession when specificity is demanded.
Third, and this is what I find very interesting about this prayer, there is not a single word asking God for forgiveness. There is no seeking of absolution here – just pure confession (see point #1). I have been in church services ever since I was just days, or maybe weeks, old. I cannot remember a single prayer that was simply, pure, and unmotivated confession. In fact, except for the generic “Lord, forgive us of our many sins” I have not heard that many prayers of confession at all. Shame on us.
Our culture today teaches us not to make confession – it punishes those who confess and rewards those who dodge confession. Consider the most common form of apology today – “I apologize if I have hurt or offended anyone.” Did you catch what we did there – we put the blame of offense on the other person. In effect what we are saying is, “I don’t think I did anything wrong, but if you do, well, I am so sorry that you have this issue and I deeply regret your thin skin and your hyper sensitivity.” It’s what I call the “Bill Clinton Apology.” Or we could call it the “Donald Trump Apology.” (And, if you are offended that I used the name of Bill Clinton or Donald Trump, I am sorry that you are so thin skinned and hyper-sensitive.)
Just try that with God. “God, I did not do anything wrong, but I am very sorry that you were offended.”
Ezra is frequently seen as a second Moses. Just as Moses led his people out of Egypt and brought them to the mountain of Sinai, so Ezra leads his people out of Babylonian captivity and supervises the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem. There are striking parallels. Just one of those parallels is the manner in which Ezra “stands in the breach” here to intercede for the people of Israel. It is a beautiful prayer, a powerful prayer, a dangerous prayer if we fully comprehend it’s import.
What we see in this prayer is the essence of confession. It is pure, it is specific, and there is no begging or cajoling of God to wheedle out a statement of pardon.
It’s what I call ascending by descending lower.