Nehemiah chapters 8 and 9 record the formal spiritual restoration of a nation. Having returned from deportation to Babylonia, the Jewish people renew their allegiance to God. Their devout governor has helped refocus their attention on prayer and integrity. A priest and scribe named Ezra now leads a movement in worship to reintegrate faith with knowledge and practice of God’s will. This episode in the history of God’s people helps us to assess the viability of corporate, even national, confession of sin.
The restoration begins with public reading of the law: “Accordingly, the priest Ezra…read from it facing the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law. . . So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the meaning” (Nehemiah 8:3,8). The reading and understanding of the word of God provides an anchor for spiritual discipline.
Study of the law of God, observance of prescribed ritual and events, acts of repentance and self-denial, and the confession of sin precede a prayer of confession led by Ezra the priest. Prayer does not have to be fancy; it must be sincere. Prayer does not constitute all of our relationship with God. We speak to God in prayer; we listen to him in the reading of his word and obeying of his commands. A worshiper may pray alone or in community, but over time successful relationship to God occurs in the context of a faithful community of worshipers.
Ezra prays for his community. He praises God as creator and initiator of the covenant with Abraham and his descendants. He prays, “You are the Lord, you alone; you have made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth and all that is in it, the seas and all that is in them. To all of them, you give life, and the host of heaven worships you. You are the LORD, the God who chose Abram and brought him out of Ur of the Chaldeans and gave him the name Abraham; and you found his heart faithful before you and made with him a covenant . . . you have fulfilled your promise, for you are righteous” (Nehemiah 9:6-9).
Ezra recounts God’s care for Abraham’s descendants; he notes that the LORD provided for their physical and their spiritual needs, giving liberated slaves manna to eat and a law to order their lives. Despite God’s provision for their needs, they rebelled against his commands, driven by pride. Even as they rebelled, God demonstrated his mercy and his capacity for forgiveness. Ezra continues to pray: “Nevertheless they were disobedient and rebelled against you and cast your law behind their backs and killed your prophets, who had warned them in order to turn them back to you . . . Many years you were patient with them, and warned them by your Spirit through your prophets; yet they would not listen. Therefore you handed them over to the people of the lands. Nevertheless, in your great mercies you did not make an end of them or forsake them, for you are a gracious and merciful God” (Nehemiah 9:26-31).
Ezra concludes by noting again that God keeps his part of the covenant and loves reliably. He calls for fire now, having confessed his people’s sins (“do not treat our present hardship lightly”), and asks God to note their present circumstances. Then, in a unique middle-of-a-prayer moment, Ezra and the leaders of the people sign a contract that they will keep their part of the covenant, then conclude their prayer a with a promise that they “will not neglect the house of their God” (Nehemiah 10:32-10:39).
Ezra’s prayer recognizes the impact of disobedience on others; worshipers do not live in isolation. The consequences of the acts of one generation resonate in the lives of later generations. Ezra and his generation confess their own sins and the sins of their ancestors; they praise the faithfulness of God; they call on God to show mercy and forgive as he has in the past. They promise (in a signed contract!) to remain faithful.
We may hesitate to confess the sins of our ancestors, especially when we have never espoused their values or acted as they did. The cleaning of our spiritual “house” may require cleaning out corners where we have not ventured but where our family (physical or spiritual) has transgressed the law of God. In societies that focus on the individual, such corporate acts of repentance seem unusual, but they remind us that our obedience (or disobedience) to God will set the conditions for future generations. We decide individually to follow God, but we follow him as part of a covenant people, the family (or household) of God. . Prayer works best when offered in a context of biblical literacy and membership in a community of faith. We pray, but faithfulness requires moving our prayers from word to actions and values that are consistent with the word of God.
God of holiness and peace, our ancestors sinned against you; we sin against you now. Grant us humility and discernment, so that we may recognize the traditions in our families and society that violate your will. Help us to see and to repent of our own sin. Give us the courage to live in compliance with the “contract” we have with you through your word and your Son. We pray in His name, Amen.