Delights of dating
First love. Puppy love. First true love. Finally the real thing. Dating, courtship, engagement; what wonderful moments in our lives! Parents tell their teenagers that there is no more precious — or important! — time than dating. It can be a time of intense joy in the family circle as parents see sons and daughters pair off with partners of whom they can be proud and whom they can embrace as their very own sons and daughters. Truly the delights of dating are a major highlight in the life of every young person! You who are beyond the dating years can look back with nostalgia at those wonderful times, and you who are not yet there have much to look forward to — even though now you are not very excited about it.
Dateless parties. Rejection. Fear. Emotional blackmail. Sexual exploitation. Those too are part of the dating process. There can be no more sad and harrowing moments — or more important! — than those agonizing hours of disappointment in dating. It is a time of intense pain and agony in the family circle when parents see their sons and daughters pair off with partners of whom they cannot approve, accept young men and women who only with great reluctance can they call a son or a daughter. Truly the anguish of dating can be the greatest heartbreak and disappointment in the life of a young person — and the family! Those of you beyond the dating stage of life can look back either on the mistakes that you made or avoided, and you who are standing on the brink of that most important time in your lives, you now have the opportunity to learn from past generations to do it right. Dating is the most challenging and daring of all our human relationships.
A Lesson from Ezra
So it has been down through history. During the days of Ezra, Israel was at one of the great moments in her history. Years ago she had squandered the spiritual inheritance that God had given to her, she had neglected the spiritual heritage of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But God, through His powerful and miraculous hand, had brought back a small section of the people called "The remnant" who were rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem, building a new temple, and were preparing to serve God again as He had commanded them centuries before. What a great moment in their history! What a dramatic step in preparation for the Messiah's coming! Certainly at this high point in Israel's life you would expect a time of fervent prayer. Fervent prayer there was, but for a reason we might never suspect.
Ezra 9 contains one of the most fervent, emotional, touching prayers recorded in the Bible, and it is about the delights — and disasters! — of dating. Here at the very pinnacle of spirituality, the most pressing problem is a problem of courtship and marriage. Satan has often successfully used that as a tool of his trade. He employs it century after century, and almost always with a good measure of success. What Satan did at the pinnacle of Israel's spiritual growth, he can do at the pinnacle of ours — or any place below that. That is why the timeless prayer of Ezra has been prayed by generation after generation of pious parents, and why even the boys and girls of this morning will some day be praying this prayer when their children reach dating age. It is fitting that while we see the delights of dating, we also look at the dangers, and consider the pressing need to date as God desires.
The passage that probably pops into most parents' minds is, "Do not be yoked together with unbelievers" 2 Corinthians 6:14. That is a good verse, but remember that when a son or daughter is dating he or she can make almost any prospective partner sound like a wonderful Christian. Unbelief soon gets very difficult for them to define. That is why Ezra's prayer is of great help to me as I seek to lead young people through the delightful, yet dangerous stage of life. Let's take a closer look at the prayer.
Ezra opens the prayer with a confession of sins. He begins with the gross sins that Israel had committed, sins which caused them to be taken into captivity. Those sins were so serious that God determined they should no longer be a nation. It was a terrible penalty to pay, but the twin sins of idolatry and unfaithfulness had certainly been great enough to warrant this punishment. The continual rejection of the prophets and the debasing of the priesthood gave God's justice no other choice. So serious was the sin of this Old Testament people that they lost everything with God. Listen to the first paragraph of the prayer:
O my God, I am too ashamed and disgraced to lift up my face to you, my God, because our sins are higher than our heads and our guilt has reached to the heavens. From the days of our forefathers until now, our guilt has been great. Because of our sins, we and our kings and our priests have been subjected to the sword and captivity, to pillage and humiliation at the hand of foreign kings, as it is today.
No prayer ought to focus only on sin. Ezra proceeds to the mercy of God. There are two things that stand out in the second paragraph of the prayer. First, Ezra recognizes that whatever measure of success they have had is the result of God's gracious work. God's powerful mercy stands out. The second thing is that they now have a new lease on life. When it appeared that they could no longer be a nation, certainly not a nation in the land which had been given to them by God, they now had new life due to God's mercy. This new life is no longer a promise, but a reality. Ezra is standing in the sanctuary and he speaks of the "new life." Listen carefully to those two verses:
But now, for a brief moment, the Lord our God has been gracious in leaving us a remnant and giving us a firm place in his sanctuary, and so our God gives light to our eyes and a little relief in our bondage. Though we are slaves, our God has not deserted us in our bondage. He has shown us kindness in the sight of the kings of Persia: He has granted us new life to rebuild the house of our God and repair its ruins, and He has given us a wall of protection in Judah and Jerusalem.
Now the third paragraph comes to the heart of the prayer. Again there are two things that stand out in this part of the prayer. First, God warned them that the people who now inhabited the land were sinners and they should not associate with them. He gave the specific command that they should not intermarry nor advance their prosperity and welfare. The second thing that stands out is that in spite of all those warnings, they went ahead and intermarried with the heathens around them. How many had made that mistake before them! Samson and Delilah; Solomon and his wives from many countries; and the list goes on. Despite all of God's warnings, all of these examples, they had not learned their lesson. They continued to disobey and intermarry. Ezra put it this way:
But now, O our God, what can we say after this? For we have disregarded the commands you gave through your servants the prophets when you said: 'The land you are entering to possess is a land polluted by the corruption of its peoples. By their detestable practices they have filled it with their impurity from one end to the other. Therefore, do not give your daughters in marriage to their sons or take their daughters for your sons. Do not further their welfare or prosperity at any time, that you may be strong and eat the good things of the land and leave it to your children as an everlasting inheritance.'
The heart of the prayer and the key sentence of the prayer is our text, the first part of verse 12:
Therefore, do not give your daughters in marriage to their sons or take their daughters for your sons.
Ezra still was not finished. In the first paragraph he talked about sin and the second about mercy. In the third paragraph he talked about sin and the fourth he talked about mercy. He confessed to God that although their punishment was great, it was not nearly as great as it deserved to be. As seriously as they had sinned before, that is how they deserved to be punished — but God had been merciful. Now he asked God to be merciful again. This sin of intermarriage was greater than all the sins before. Marriage is a picture of God's love for His people. He had used prophets such as Hosea to graphically picture the unfaithfulness of His people. Would God now be so angry with this sin that He would punish without mercy? Then Ezra acknowledged God's justice and righteousness. He admitted that God had the perfect right to wipe them from the land and from the memory of the peoples. Ezra dared not plead for mercy as Abraham did for the cities of the plain or as Moses did for the rebellious children of Israel. Ezra knew well enough from Israel's record that there was going to be an end to God's patience with sin, and this sin of intermarriage was so great that he dared not entreat the mercy of God. The prayer ended with Ezra in the presence of God. What a dramatic ending to the prayer:
What has happened to us is a result of our evil deeds and our great guilt, and yet, our God, you have punished us less than our sins have deserved and have given us a remnant like this. Shall we again break your commands and intermarry with the people who commit such detestable practices? Would you not be angry enough with us to destroy us, leaving us no remnant or survivor? O Lord, God of Israel, you are righteous! We are left this day as a remnant. Here we are before you in our guilt, though because of it not one of us can stand in your presence.
We know from subsequent history that God was again gracious, God forgave and allowed the remnant to return. Of course, God desired to keep His promise and this was the way to have the Christ child born. But there is another reason why God forgave. The first four verses of the next chapter:
While Ezra was praying and confessing, weeping and throwing himself down before the house of God, a large crowd of Israelites — men, women and children — gathered around him. They too wept bitterly. Then Shecaniah son of Jehiel, one of the decendants of Elam, said to Ezra, 'We have been unfaithful to our God by marrying foreign women from the peoples around us. But in spite of this, there is stilt hope for Israel. Now let us make a covenant before our God to send away all these women and their children, in accordance with the counsel of my lord and of those who fear the commands of our God. Let it be done according to the Law. Rise up; this matter is in your hands. We will support you, so take courage and do it.'
And this they did. The list of those who were guilty and the sacrifices made for them is recorded in the rest of the chapter. In order for God to keep his anger away so that they would not be again sent into captivity, there needed to be sincere repentance for this serious sin of intermarriage, a sin so serious that it ranked with all the sins of Israel's past and threatened to undo the return of the exiles. Ezra's book ends on a strange note — a list of guilty people — but it is an entirely proper way to end because the people purged themselves of this sin.
A word for our time
God has not changed: and neither have sinful people. Unless we purge ourselves of this sin, we are in danger of God's righteous anger. This sin of intermarriage can spell the end of our generations of walking with God. Like Ezra and the remnant long ago, we look back in the history of our church and see how this sin has often led families away from faithful worship and finally from the fellowship of the church. Yet some, like the remnant in Ezra's day, prefer to be blind to history's mistakes rather than to learn from them. In our sin-sick, secular society, we cannot afford that! Dating is such a delight when two Christians meet and join in God's love, and dating is such a disaster when God is ignored in the dating process!
Parents, what a responsibility you have to instill in your children the proper Christian attitudes toward dating. You want this to be a delightful time in your lives and the lives of your children. You must create the climate and set the limits so that your child's dating can truly be delightful — not only to you and to them, but especially to God.
Young people thinking about marriage, what a great responsibility you have to date people who are a delight to God and to your parents. Sometime young people say to me, "But one little date doesn't mean I am going to marry that person." Samson and Solomon said that too: and so did the people of Ezra's day. Satan wants us to walk on the brink, because he knows some will fall off the edge of the cliff. Dating non-Christians should be forbidden. That is a tough stand to take, but it is the stand the Bible makes us take. We cannot wiggle out of it. We all know deep down inside that just as there was a list of guilty people at the close of the book of Ezra, so in the final judgment day there is going to be a list of the guilty. Satan will have successfully snatched these people through the sin of intermarriage. Don't you even tempt yourself to be one of them.
All Christians should pray that the days of dating in the Christian Reformed Church may be days of great delight. Pray that our people may walk in the way of the Lord, and that all of our marriages may be in the Lord. If we pray that together, if parents and teenagers will work at that together, we can avoid the disaster of dating that Ezra faced. Pray for the delights of dating which God so much enjoys — as do we all.
P.S. How does the church respond to those who are proceeding properly through courtship toward marriage, and how does the church help those who are not?