Nehemiah 9:1-5, 16-18, 26,28-30, 33-35
Now in the twenty and fourth day of this month the children of Israel were assembled with fasting, and with sackcloths…
The feast of tabernacles, held in such wise as Israel had not known since the days of Joshua (ch. 8:17), concluded, "according unto the manner" of that festival, with a "solemn assembly" on the eighth day (ch. 8:18) - "the last day, that great day of the feast" (John 7:37). After one day's interval,.when nothing unusual was done, "on the twenty-fourth day of the month the children of Israel were assembled with fasting" (ver. l), and a very great day was held of confession, adoration, and prayer. This was entirely an optional act on their part; it was not done to conform to any injunction' it was felt to be a suitable and desirable thing. Under the law there was some - under the gospel is more - room for spontaneous service. Not only the ordinances and services that are prescribed, but such and so many as the cultivation of our spiritual life requires, are what the wise and the good will practise. These should not be
(1) So many as to keep us from taking a fair share in the duties of daily life and of citizenship, or as to lead insensibly to formality and ceremonialism; nor should they be
(2) so few as to starve the soul or withhold from it the full nourishment it needs. Ezra and Nehemiah may have felt that the intense and prolonged exaltation of heart in which they had been luxuriating was not without its dangers, and would be wisely followed by a calmer service. In the cultivation of our religious character, one kind of service should alternate with another - the contemplative with the social, the spiritual with the practical, and the joyous and congratulatory with the penitential. Confession of sin was the key-note of this entire service. It found utterance in two ways.
I. OUTWARD SIGNS OF HUMILIATION (ver. 1). "The children of Israel were assembled with fasting, and with sackcloth and earth upon them" (ver. 1). They took those measures to indicate humility which in their age and land were natural to them:
(2) wearing sackcloth,
(3) putting earth or "sprinkling dust" (Job 2:12) on their head.
Whenever outward manifestations of this kind - "bowing down the head as a bulrush, or spreading sackcloth and ashes" (Isaiah 58:5), or fasting - become purely formal or simply ostentatious (Matthew 6:16), they become unacceptable or even positively repugnant to him who demands sincerity and spirituality (Psalm 51:2; John 4:24). But the bent head, the downcast eye, the uncontrollable tear, the unconscious sigh - these are often the inarticulate but eloquent utterances of contrition which the eye of the all-seeing, the ear of the all-hearing Father fails not to see and hear.
II. WORDS OF PENITENCE. One "fourth part they confessed, and worshipped the Lord their God" (ver. 3). "With a loud voice" (ver. 4) the eight Levites led their devotions, calling on them to "stand up and bless the Lord their God for ever and ever" (ver. 5), and then the people followed them in their confession; thus: - "Our fathers dealt proudly, and hardened their necks, and hearkened not to thy commandments, and refused to obey, neither were mindful of thy wonders that thou didst among them" (vers. 16, 17); they "wrought great provocations" (ver. 18); "they were disobedient, and rebelled against thee, and cast thy law behind their backs" (ver. 26); "they did evil again before thee" (ver. 28); "they dealt proudly, and sinned against thy judgments,... they withdrew the shoulder" (ver. 29). "We have done wickedly: neither have our kings, our princes, our priests, or our fathers kept thy law;... they have not served thee.., in thy great goodness." Here is ample and unreserved confession of their own and their fathers' guilt: -
1. Manifold shortcoming - not hearkening to commandments, being unmindful of wonders, not serving God in his great goodness.
2. Positive and aggravated transgression - dealing proudly, working great provocations, rebelling against God, casting law behind them, etc.
3. Backsliding - "withdrawing the shoulder" that had been given to the yoke. We are summoned to "take with us words and turn to the Lord" (Hosea 14:2). "With the mouth confession is made unto salvation" (Romans 10:10). Our confession should be
(1) ample and unconstrained, including
(b) transgression, and, if called for,
(c) backsliding; it must be
(2) sincere - not a mere repetition of becoming words which other penitents have employed, but the utterance of what our own heart feels. - C.
Parallel VersesKJV: Now in the twenty and fourth day of this month the children of Israel were assembled with fasting, and with sackclothes, and earth upon them.