Yanking out handfuls of hair
I pulled hair from my head and beard…Ezra 9:3
I pulled out their hair…Nehemiah 13:25
What different reactions to similar situations! Ezra yanked hair out of his own head; Nehemiah grabbed fistfuls out of the heads of others. What’s up with all this?
The books of Ezra and Nehemiah are about how God began to restore and rebuild the church in Jerusalem after the time of exile. In 586 BC, God had sent his idolatrous and unfaithful people into exile in Babylon. Some fifty years later God moved the hearts of the kings of the new Persian empire to allow the Jews to resettle Jerusalem.
The first group went back in 538 BC to re-erect the Temple. This was during the days of the prophets Haggai and Zechariah.
The second wave of people arrived in Jerusalem about sixty years later under the leadership of Ezra the priest. Ezra’s task was to enforce the law of Moses. When he arrived he discovered a very shocking thing: many who had returned in the first wave had intermarried with heathen Canaanite people. Even many priests and Levites were guilty of intermarriage. They had mingled the holy race with the peoples around them (Ezra 9:2). How could the church be rebuilt if God’s people intermarried with unbelievers?!
When Ezra heard this, he tore his clothes, pulled hair from his head and beard, and sat down appalled until the evening sacrifice. At the time of the evening sacrifice he prayed a very moving prayer of repentance on behalf of the people (Ezra 9:6-15). He began his prayer by confessing his own shame and disgrace because of the sins of the people. He cast the whole prayer of confession and repentance in the first person plural. Ezra, the priest, identified with the people, took their sins upon himself, and even inflicted suffering upon himself because of the sins of God’s people. Like the priests were to do, he prayed to God on the people’s behalf upon the basis of the sacrifices offered to God at the temple.
A decade later Nehemiah arrived on the scene to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem and serve as governor. Much to his dismay, he discovered that the sin of intermarriage had persevered in Jerusalem. Although the kingship was not restored in Jerusalem after the exile, Nehemiah functioned as a king. He applied strict discipline against the people. Nehemiah 13 sketches out his church-disciplinary actions. Among other measures, he publicly rebuked, cursed, and beat the men who had intermarried and he pulled out their hair.
Why this difference? Why did Ezra pull out his own hair while Nehemiah pulled out the hair of the offenders? The reason for the different responses to the same sin lies in their offices. Nehemiah, filling the royal office, applied discipline to the offenders. Ezra, a priest, took the sin of others upon himself and accepted the consequences.
Our Lord Jesus Christ bears both offices. When He chased the moneychangers and livestock dealers out of the temple with a rope whip, He acted as king. When He took our sins upon Himself and allowed Himself to be beaten and spat upon, He proved Himself the priest.
In one of the suffering servant songs the servant laments:
I offered my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard; I did not hide my face from mocking and spitting.
These songs in the prophecies of Isaiah are about the Lord Jesus Christ. He is the priest who took our sins upon Himself, who suffered the humiliation of the punishment we deserved. He let them yank out his hair because of our sin. Like Ezra the priest, He suffered for the sins of the people.
But He is also king. Today church discipline is exercised in the name of Christ against church members who persist in unbelief and rebellion. No, elders do not yank hair out of unbelieving and rebellious church members. In this dispensation, church discipline is purely spiritual. But when Christ returns He will come as king. Like Nehemiah the “king,” He will deal physically with rebels and unbelievers. Getting one’s hair yanked out will seem to be a trivial punishment compared to the measures King Jesus will take against rebels and unbelievers.
All praise to Jesus who let his hair get yanked out for our sins so that we may never experience the wrath of God!