By Sam E. Stone
Today’s lesson comes immediately after last week’s text (Nehemiah 8:2, 3, 13-18). Following the observance of the Feast of Tabernacles, the people had a single day off. Then their feasting turned to fasting.
James B. Coffman points out, “A very important revelation of this chapter is that it was the Levites, and not the priests, who led Israel in this penitential prayer of confession and praise to God . . . . There is not a word in this chapter that even hints of any priestly participation in this great repentance, confession and prayer.” The text has several important lessons for God’s children today.
The people of Israel voluntarily renounced their connection both with the heathen people and their customs. By confessing not only their sins, but those of their forefathers as well, they identified themselves with the past generations who had moved away from God’s will. Later they said even more about their sins (Nehemiah 9:33-37) as well as those of their ancestors (vv. 16-39). Confession and repentance are prerequisites for God to forgive sin.
Nehemiah 9:6, 7
When they stood in their places, they were apparently at the same location where they had stood to hear the law read a few days earlier (8:5). This reading of the Law went on for “a quarter of the day” (v. 3), followed by another quarter of the day spent in confession and worship. Their prayer began with the affirmation, “You alone are the Lord,” echoing the basic belief of the Hebrews (Deuteronomy 6:4).
The prayer begins by speaking of God’s greatness and then proceeds to mention important turning points in their history. After alluding to the creation, the call of Abraham is mentioned, along with the wilderness wandering, and later their entry into Canaan.
Nehemiah 9:9, 10
Even while the Israelites had been slaves in Egypt, God was still watching over them. He heard their cry at the Red Sea. In the years that followed, the Lord’s power was clearly evident as he not only brought them out of Egypt and through the Red Sea on dry ground, but even took them to their new homeland (Exodus 14:31). Bible students have counted some 40 Hebrew words used to speak of “miracles” and they appear about 500 times in the Old Testament. Out of these some 250 refer to the miracle of the exodus.
The verses that follow (Nehemiah 9:11-29) are not included in the printed text. They contain additional words of praise to God, specifying how and when the Lord intervened to provide for and protect his people. Through all of this, they admitted, “Our ancestors . . . did not obey your commands” (v. 16). When the Lord allowed them to be conquered by their pagan neighbors, it was for the purpose of correcting them.
The people’s confession of sin is summarized. They offer no excuse. On the other hand, they do affirm that God’s mercy and patience have gone far beyond what anyone might expect or imagine. Over and over the Lord had sent prophets to encourage the people to obey God. Yet they paid no attention, so you gave them into the hands of the neighboring peoples. Even then God did not abandon them.
James E. Smith notes, “After this summary of the relationship of God and his people, the Levites made the only petition in this long prayer (v. 32). They asked that God note all the hardship which Israel had experienced from the days of the kings of Assyria unto that very moment.” Now, therefore, our God . . . do not let this hardship seem trifling in your eyes. Their present condition in no way impugned the justice of God. The people of Israel deserved what they had received. “You have acted faithfully, while we acted wickedly.”
It is significant to see the link between the confession of sin and the reading of Scripture (v. 3). This illustrates the power of God’s Word to reprove and correct (2 Timothy 3:16, 17). Confessing sin is important for a nation (2 Chronicles 7:14) just as it is for an individual (Psalm 51:1-4). The remnant has returned from Babylonian exile to their promised homeland. Now they want to be sure the slate is wiped clean. God’s forgiveness is the only sure way to be assured of the hope of Heaven.
Sam E. Stone is the former editor of Christian Standard. He continues his writing and speaking ministry from his home in Cincinnati, Ohio.