The Jews Renew Their Commitment
The problem of sin is that sin is a problem. It’s an annoying reality that plagues us every day of our lives. We see it in ourselves, the members of our family, our friends, our coworkers and other members of the church. Most of what we read in the newspaper is about sin. No matter how long we live, we never cease to deal with sin and its effects in this life.
Further, sin raises a number of theological questions. The one that most Christians are afraid of is, Did God decree sin, thereby rendering its entrance into the world inevitable? If he did, what then does that say about his holiness? Another question might be, If God forgives the sins of his people on the basis of Christ’s atonement, why does he allow us to continue to sin? On a more practical level we should ask, Since sin is unavoidable in this life, how do we deal with it when we see it in ourselves or others?
These are serious questions and the answers that we come up with will affect every aspect of our theology. Our understanding of sin impacts what we believe about God, ourselves, salvation and our responsibility to serve God in this world. So, let’s see what the first few verses of the ninth chapter of Nehemiah say about it.
The events recorded in this chapter took place on the twenty-fourth day of the seventh month, i.e., two days after the conclusion of the Feast of Tabernacles recorded in the previous chapter. According to the twenty-third chapter of Leviticus, the Feast of Tabernacles lasted from the fifteenth to the twenty-second day of the month.
Nehemiah mentioned the date here because he wanted you to see a transition. The Feast of Tabernacles was a joyous celebration, commemorating the deliverance of the Jews from Egyptian slavery and God’s care of them during their forty-year wilderness sojourn. It would not have been appropriate, therefore, to fast and mourn during the celebration. But once the feast was over, the joy of the people quickly turned to sorrow as they became more and more convicted of their sins. In fact, according to the previous chapter, this is what the people had begun to do before they learned that they needed to keep the feast (8:9–12). And the fact that the Day of Atonement had been celebrated just days before the Feast of Tabernacles, though not mentioned by Nehemiah, was not seen by them as a free ticket to do whatever they wanted. Rather, they gathered together to mourn their great sin, which they demonstrated outwardly by fasting, wearing sackcloth (a coarse cloth made from goat hair) and putting dust on their foreheads.
Fasting, or abstinence from food and other luxuries, is mentioned both in the Old Testament and in the New Testament not only as an expression of humiliation, but also as an aid to intense worship. The principle here is that we are better able to draw near to God when we separate ourselves from the things of earth. Instead of using our time to eat, for example, we spend it in communion with God. Jesus fasted in the wilderness, knowing that he would soon suffer the direct assault of the devil himself. This was a major battle for which he had to prepare. John Calvin was also given to fasting. From the time he entered college until his death in 1564, he ate only one meal each day. Many scholars believe that this may have contributed to his chronic ill-health, but, even more importantly, it gave him time to write so much for the church’s edification. His writings — his Institutes, commentaries, doctrinal statements, apologetic works and letters —occupy fifty-nine volumes in the Corpus Reformatorum, a collection of sixteenth-century theological writings.
In the Old Testament, sackcloth and dust signified humiliation before God. It reminded the people of the awful condition that they had been in and would still be in apart from his grace. It was used primarily in two circumstances: national emergencies (e.g., famines, plagues, wars, etc.) and national sins. There are no emergencies mentioned in our text, but there was great national sin. In the previous chapter, the people learned that they had failed to keep the Feast of Tabernacles for many years. Since they had corrected this issue, the sin for which they mourned must have been something else. In fact, their reading of the law disclosed many sins, which we’ll look at in just a minute.
One commentator noted that the Jews’ celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles and their subsequent repentance marked a new beginning for them and for their city. This is perfectly true. A right estimation of our misery before God and of the greatness of the remedy that God himself provided must bring forth in us a sense of gratitude, which finds expression in our lives in a pursuit of holiness. The Lord said to the Jews of Moses’ day, And ye shall be holy unto me: for I the LORD am holy, and have severed you from other people, that ye should be mine (Lev. 20:26).
Congregation, the same thing is true for you. Paul wrote, Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new (II Cor. 5:17). Likewise, Peter reassured you with these words: But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light: which in time past were not a people, but are now the people of God: which had not obtained mercy, but now have obtained mercy (I Pet. 2:9–10).
Sackcloth and dust were symbols of an old era in which one’s faith was expressed more outwardly. They helped to encourage repentance. But Jesus expressly warned against using such things when we fast now, as they are not fitting for the joy of the gospel era. By focusing on the outward acts instead of the inward reality, these things had become more hypocritical than helpful. Therefore, your fasting should be unknown to others. Jesus said, Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face; That thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly (Matt.6:16–18). Rather, your repentance must be an inward change of heart towards sin. As you reflect on the Bible and come to grips with the full extent of your depravity as well as the vast benefits that you have in Jesus Christ, you must loathe not only your sinful acts but even your very nature that produce them.
And beloved, let your repentance be violent! In the Old Testament, but people often tore their clothes and plucked out their beards. But such outward acts were never ends in themselves. To the contrary, they were to teach the people that they must rend their hearts before the Lord our God (Joel 2:13). The excision of sin must never be done gently. Jesus was also very graphic when he said such things as, If thy hand offend thee, cut it off…. And if thy foot offend thee, cut it off…. And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out (Mark 9:43–47).
Sin has the power to destroy if it is not dealt with quickly and decisively. So, when God through his Word calls you to repentance, do not delay your obedience!
Separation and Confession
A further evidence of the Jews’ repentance is that they separated themselves from all strangers, as we see in verse 2 of our text. These strangers would have been the pagans who lived within the vicinity of Jerusalem and therefore had significant contact with the Jews. It would have been inappropriate for these strangers to have participated in a ceremony in which the main object was God’s people reaffirming their covenant with him. The strangers simply could not fellowship with them as they recited the history of God’s dealings with them, nor share in their sorrow or in their new decision to obey his law. But it also meant that the Jews were cutting off all unholy relations with the neighboring pagans.
One particularly unholy relationship was the intermarriage of Jews with their pagan neighbors. The book of Ezra reports that Ezra had to deal with this matter approximately twelve years earlier (chs. 9–10). He instructed the Jews to put away their pagan wives and children, and excluded from fellowship anyone who did not comply. The severity of his response was due to the fact that this was a religious offense, not a racial problem. The intermarriage of God’s people with those who practice a different religion generally spells disaster. We see this, for example, in Genesis 6, where the sons of God (i.e., the descendents of Seth) married the daughters of men (i.e., the descendents of Cain) and thereby increased the wickedness in the earth, which ultimately brought on God’s judgment in the form of a worldwide flood. Solomon is another example. After taking unto himself numerous wives out of various pagan nations, his heart turned from Jehovah and he began to worship the pagan deities of his wives.
Those of you who are not yet married must take these warnings to heart. Being young, you tend to be idealistic. You think that it will all work out, that your case is different. But you need to know two things. First, the law of averages is against you. When you disobey God, you have no right to expect him to show you mercy. And second, your ethics should never be based on future probability. The only sure foundation for Christian living is divine revelation, i.e., the Word of God. Nowhere does the Bible say, “Give it a try. Maybe it will work.” What it says with unmistakable clarity is, Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers (II Cor. 6:14).
Even Rahab and Ruth were not exceptions to this, though they both came from pagan backgrounds. Rahab demonstrated her commitment to the true God when she hid the spies that Joshua had sent to Jericho and sent them out by way other than what she told the authorities. Ruth did the same when she said to her mother-in-law, Thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God (Ruth 1:16). Thus, she was a suitable wife for Boaz, but only because she had denounced her paganism and embraced the truth faith beforehand. Don’t think that these two women offer any comfort to those who contemplate marriage outside of Jesus Christ.
Sadly, the intermarriage of the Jews with pagans became an issue that Nehemiah also had to deal with. Ezra had done what he could, but he had not eradicated the problem completely. Note in verse 2 that the people not only confessed their sins, but also the inequities of their fathers. They confessed their fathers’ sins because they had followed their fathers’ miserable example. However, the intermarriage between the Jews and pagans is only one of the sins mentioned in this book. The people were also guilty of breaking the Sabbath and not paying the temple tax, among other things. Later in the book, Nehemiah explains how each of these sins was dealt with.
Here the point is that they confessed their sins. Having been convicted by the Word of God, they acknowledged that they and their fathers had broken God’s law. They sought God’s forgiveness, with the confidence that God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all in righteousness (I John 1:9).
Repentance and confession of sin, when sincere, produce a powerful longing and desire for an increased knowledge of Scripture. The Reformation recorded in our text began with the Word of God in the previous chapter and continued with the Word of God in the present chapter. The Bible was first and foremost in their thinking. This is true of every real Reformation.
It seems that the Jews that Nehemiah’s day could not get enough of the Bible. In the previous chapter, they had asked Ezra to read to them and he read from morning until midday (8:3) — approximately six hours. The same or a similar practice continued throughout the Feast of Tabernacles. Verse 18 of chapter 8 says, Also day by day, from the first day unto the last day, he read in the book of the law of God. And in our text they listened to the Word of God for one-fourth of the day, i.e., approximately three hours. They understood what David wrote in the one hundred thirtieth verse of Psalm 119, viz., The entrance of thy words giveth light; it giveth understanding unto the simple.
After three hours of Bible reading came three hours of prayer. Developing a meaningful prayer life, especially one in which the confession of sin is prominent, is an evidence of genuine repentance and spiritual renewal.
There seems to have been two prayers made on this occasion. The first one is mentioned in verse 4. Eight Levites cried with a loud voice unto the LORD their God. This was most likely a prayer of corporate confession and repentance for the nation. The second is mentioned in verse five, where another group of eight Levites stood up and blessed God. Today our only interest is the first of these prayers.
There is no doubt that unrepented sin disrupts our fellowship with God. David wrote, If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me (Ps. 66:18). Isaiah 59:1–2 says, Behold, the LORD’S hand is not shortened, that it cannot save; neither his ear heavy, that it cannot hear: but your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you, that he will not hear (Isa. 59:1–2). Confession of sin, then, is not an end in itself, but the first step in seeking restoration to God’s favor.
Verse 4 says that the Levites stood up upon the stairs when they cried out to the Lord. In other words, they went up on the platform that Ezra had used in the previous chapter. In our day, when microphones and sound systems make it easy to communicate with large crowds, we might not think too much of the importance of the Levites ascending a platform. But this was of tremendous importance to them. It shows that they were zealous for all the people to be united in this prayer of confession, so that God would hear them as a corporate body and have mercy on them.
Three things stand out clearly in today’s text.
First, Nehemiah made it abundantly clear that any genuine renewal of interest in and commitment to the Lord must begin with sincere, heartfelt repentance. Until and unless we understand how grievous our sin is to God, we will never be able to approach him with a full recognition of his own greatness and glory. We must come to him as miserable and condemned sinners, pleading no righteousness of our own but looking only to the shed blood of his dear Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.
Second, our renewal and commitment to the Lord must be grounded squarely in the Bible. That is the only place where we learn the greatness of our sin and misery, the wonders of our redemption, and how to express our gratitude to the Lord in lives of thankful obedience and piety. The reading of holy Scripture must be prominent both in our private devotions and in our public worship. Our God is not silent. He has made himself and his will known inerrantly and infallibly only in one place. His Word is one of his greatest gifts to his church.
And finally, the reality of our renewal and commitment can only be judged by the results that it produces in our hearts and lives. Does it produce repentance? Does it make our lives conform more and more to the standards of God’s holy law? If not, the problem is not God’s nor the Bible’s, but ours. In that case, we have quenched the Spirit and not allowed the Word to change our thinking or behavior. As my theology professor used to say, “If you don’t have the fruit, you don’t have the root.” It should be one of our highest priorities to reflect the marvelous grace of God in every aspect of our lives.
Nehemiah summons you to a more faithful walk with Jesus Christ. Look now to the cross and to the precious blood shed there. Trust the power of God’s indwelling Spirit to make it a reality for you, the members of your family, this church and the kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ! Amen.