A NEW BEGINNING (NEHEMIAH 9:1-18)
Dan Crawford (1870-1926) spent most of his adult life serving as a missionary in Africa. When it was time to return home to Britain, Crawford described to an old Bantu the kind of world he was about to return to. He told him about ships that ran under the water, on the water, and even those that flew above the water. He described English houses with all of their conveniences, such as running water and electric lights. Then Crawford waited for the old African to register his amazement.
“Is that all, Mr. Crawford”? the aged man asked.
“Yes, I think it is,” Crawford replied.
Very slowly and very gravely, the old Bantu said, “Well, Mr. Crawford, you know, that to be better off is not to be better.” (The Wycliffe Handbook of Preaching & Preachers, Warren Wiersbe, p. 188)
The Jews that returned with Nehemiah had completed the building the walls of Jerusalem in a record-breaking fifty-two days (Neh 6:15). Previously in chapter 7, all the people assembled on the seventh month to hear Ezra the scribe read from the Book of the Law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded for Israel (Neh 7:73-8:1). In chapter nine, 24 days later, the Levites, in turn, led the people to respond to God’s word.
What makes us truly better, not just better off? How are we reconciled to God? Is it more material prosperity or spiritual revival?
Reconciliation to God Begins with One’s Contrition
1 On the twenty-fourth day of the same month, the Israelites gathered together, fasting and wearing sackcloth and having dust on their heads. (Neh 9:1)
Two little boys were playing together one afternoon. They had not been playing long when the larger boy took advantage of his weaker playmate. Georgie, the smaller one, too proud to complain, withdrew some distance and sat by himself, manfully winking back the ready tears.
After a short time, the larger boy grew tired of his solitary play and called, “Say, Georgie, come back. I’m sorry.” Georgie, warned by previous experience, did not respond to the invitation at once. “Yes,” he replied cautiously, “but what kind of sorry? The kind so you won’t do it again?” (from Illustrations of Bible Truths # 604)
The book of Nehemiah is a story of two halves, the first half about rebuilding the walls and the second half about rebuilding lives. The first is physical repairs and the second is spiritual awakening. Previously in the book Nehemiah on his own mourned and “fasted” and prayed (Neh 1:4), but this is the first instance that the congregation as a whole was “fasting,” wearing “sackcloth,” sprinkling “dust” on their heads, and “separated themselves” (v 11). Fasting was a late development in Israel’s history that began after the Pentateuch, as late as nearing the end of the book of Judges (Judg 20:26) in the new land. The most famous and most-mentioned case of fasting in the Bible is David fasting for his dying son (2 Sam 12:16x2, 21, 22, 23), but the most serious case of fasting, without a doubt, was observed by the exile community in Esther’s time, when Jews in every province were in great mourning, their fasting was accompanied by weeping, wailing and crying (Est 4:3, 9:31). Many lay in sackcloth and ashes (Est 4:3). Fasting in the exilic and post-exilic period was unlike most previous fasting. From exile onwards, fasting in the three books of Ezra, Nehemiah and Esther (Ezra 8:21, Neh 9:1, Est 4:3, 9:31) was always corporate, never personal. No one was left behind. The person, the neighbors, the community all joined in it.
Wearing sackcloth is an outward sign of regret, remorse, and repentance. It is an acknowledgement of the need for God’s renewal, revival, and reawakening. Wearing sackcloth has a rich and grand history. The first person in the Bible to wear sackcloth is Jacob, who was hit so hard by the news of Joseph’s death that he wore sackcloth (Gen 37:34). He mourned for his son many days. All his sons and daughters failed in their bid to comfort him (Gen 37:34-35).
You might be surprised to know of the three post-exilic non-prophet books of Nehemiah, Esther and Ezra, Nehemiah is the only book that reveals the sprinkling of dust (v 1), which was a lost practice by the time of the kings. Samuel was the last to do it when the ark was captured by the Philistines (1 Sam 4:12). It is a sign of one’s lowliness, worthlessness, defenselessness, helplessness, and powerlessness.
Reconciliation to God Begins with One’s Correction
2 Those of Israelite descent had separated themselves from all foreigners. (Neh 9:2)
Once a professing Christian sold a bale of poor hay to a certain colonel who rebuked him, and the church member whined, “I am a soldier too.” “You!” exclaimed the colonel in disgust. “What kind of soldier are you?” “I am a soldier of the cross,” said the skinflint with a detestable flourish of the hand. “That may be,” said the colonel, “but you’ve been on a furlough ever since I knew you.” (from Illustrations of Bible Truths # 940)