Scripture for the Day: Nehemiah 9:1-8
Now on the twenty-fourth day of this month the people of Israel were assembled with fasting and in sackcloth, and with dust on their heads. 2Then those of Israelite descent separated themselves from all foreigners, and stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their ancestors. 3They stood up in their place and read from the book of the law of the Lord their God for a fourth part of the day, and for another fourth they made confession and worshipped the Lord their God. 4Then Jeshua, Bani, Kadmiel, Shebaniah, Bunni, Sherebiah, Bani, and Chenani stood on the stairs of the Levites and cried out with a loud voice to the Lord their God. 5Then the Levites, Jeshua, Kadmiel, Bani, Hashabneiah, Sherebiah, Hodiah, Shebaniah, and Pethahiah, said, ‘Stand up and bless the Lord your God from everlasting to everlasting. Blessed be your glorious name, which is exalted above all blessing and praise.’ 6 And Ezra said: ‘You are the Lord, you alone; you have made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them. To all of them you give life, and the host of heaven worships you. 7You are the Lord, the God who chose Abram and brought him out of Ur of the Chaldeans and gave him the name Abraham; 8and you found his heart faithful before you, and made with him a covenant to give to his descendants the land of the Canaanite, the Hittite, the Amorite, the Perizzite, the Jebusite, and the Girgashite; and you have fulfilled your promise, for you are righteous.
I imagine that many of us are feeling the weight of sin right now. When we do things wrong – and we all do at one time or another – it hurts to come to the realization of our action or inaction that led to someone else’s suffering. It hurts to know the pain of separation from God and neighbor. It hurts to know that we have done something or have left something undone. It just hurts.
Even if we have a solid understanding of sin, that still does not make sin a comfortable concept to think or talk about. Sin as a concept is very complicated. Lack of clarity on what we mean when we refer to sin and confession can lead us down the wrong paths of finger-pointing at others, determining what keeps some “in” and others “out” of worshiping communities, or even falling into extreme guilt, shame, and self-deprecation.
But God’s news is always better than that! 1 John 1:9 tells us that when we confess our sin, God, who is faithful and just will forgive us and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. That is but one part of the good news. Another part of the good news is that realizing and confessing sin hurts because we care. It hurts because we are faithful people. It hurts because we desire to know and love God and neighbor. It hurts because we are human. And being human is just hard.
The book of Nehemiah teaches us a lot about sin, forgiveness, and repentance. In chapter 9, the Israelites have rebuilt the wall around Jerusalem and have prepared to settle again. Back in chapter 5, Nehemiah heard about how the elites of Israel had been taking people’s land as collateral in exchange for grain during the famine. The people also had to borrow against their land, with interest, to pay the king’s taxes. Of course, all the things Nehemiah found out about and addressed were against God’s law. The people lamented in 5:5, “‘Now our flesh is the same as that of our kindred; our children are the same as their children; and yet we are forcing our sons and daughters to be slaves, and some of our daughters have been ravished; we are powerless, and our fields and vineyards now belong to others.’”
Notice that in the lament of the people who were victims of others’ sin, the language is “we” language. Even though those lamenting are the victims, they include themselves in the sin of the nation: “We are forcing our sons and daughters to be slaves.” As a result of the sins of the powerful, the not-so-powerful – the victims – end up having to sin, just to survive.
Chapter 9 verse 2 tells us that the Israelites separated themselves from all foreigners to engage in this confession. While the sins mentioned in chapter 5 deal with actions against their own people, God’s law in general mentions a great deal about caring for the foreigner and even commands the Israelites to treat the foreigner as the citizen among them (Leviticus 19:33-34). Even though the sins they are confessing here in chapter 9 are about breaking God’s law for their own kind, it would not be a stretch to assume that because God commanded them to treat foreigners as citizens, sins against foreigners could be one and the same as sins against their own people. The Israelites had to hold and confess their sins as a group, without including other groups in that accountability.
So from Nehemiah, we learn that sin can be both an individual or a group (in this case, national) choice to break God’s law. We also learn that the sins/sin of an oppressing group can force the oppressed to sin in order to survive. (Notice that here, the sin/sins of the oppressor are the ones that need confessing.) Finally, we learn that sin or sins against our neighbors in our own ethnic, social, national, racial, or other group is just the same as sin or sins against neighbors outside those groups.
Despite all that we learn about sin here, Nehemiah also provides us a great example of how realization and confession of sin does not have to turn into self-deprecation, self-destruction, or feelings of guilt, shame, and depression. After confessing their sins in Nehemiah 9, the Israelites turn to praise God and remember all the good things God has done for them. We learn that God forgives and continues to bless because God is righteous. The Israelites’ reading of the law they have broken, their mourning in sackcloth and dust, almost immediately turns into celebration and joy. They repent – turn away – from the things that hurt, and they turn toward God’s joy, which leads them to repair all that was broken. And in chapter 11, they repopulate their land and enjoy the fruits of their labor, for both Israelites and those in other groups. Restoration, not guilt and shame, is the endpoint in God’s story.
In addition to the confidence that the Israelites’ confession gives us in knowing that God is faithful and righteous and forgiving, we have that same assurance amplified in the life, death, resurrection, and future reign of Christ. Although sin is powerful and needs daily confession and repentance, it is also not forever. Indeed, God always forgives us and sets us on right paths, each and every moment of each and every day.