“Behold, we are slaves this day; in the land that you gave to our fathers to enjoy its fruit and its good gifts, behold, we are slaves” (v. 36).
The Venerable Bede was an English monk who lived during the late seventh and early eighth centuries. He wrote The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, a key source on the history of the church in England. He also authored one of the few Christian commentaries on Ezra–Nehemiah that we have from the earliest centuries of the church. In his comments on today’s passage, he lifts up the confession of sin and hearing of the law as an example of devotion. That is because the Jews “gave themselves over to listening to the divine law in order to renew their mind in God and come back purer and more devout for imploring his mercy.”
Of course, listening to six hours’ worth of God’s Word and its explanation and then spending three hours in repentance and worship (“quarter of the day means” a quarter of the twelve daylight hours) is not required of us each day (see Neh. 9:1–3). Still, Bede rightly notes that we can learn from the assembly’s example in Nehemiah 9. Since “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17), spending much time in the Word of God both corporately in worship and in individual study is a sound practice. If we lament the state of the church, the only way to spiritual vitality is through worship centered on the Scriptures.
The Jews of the fifth century BC spent much time looking to God’s Word and remembering both the faithfulness of the Lord and their sin because they were coming out of a period of thoroughgoing failure to follow the Creator. Only if the people were honest about the history of the sin of the nation, their repeated, stubborn lack of obedience, and their flagrant breaking of the covenant could they be inspired to see what got them into the mess they were in and the way out of it through heartfelt repentance. Nehemiah 9:6–35 rehearses this history of failure that we have read about in Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1–2 Samuel, 1–2 Kings, 1–2 Chronicles, and Ezra. The people told this story honestly, at least in Nehemiah’s day—a good first step toward the postexilic spiritual renewal that was needed for God to pour out the promised restoration blessings (Isa. 1:27; 66:22–24).
As part of their confession, the people recognized that despite having returned to the promised land, they were still in captivity because they were controlled by the Persians (Neh. 9:36–37). They were crying out for rescue because the community as a whole was still suffering the consequences of their sin.
Coram DeoLiving before the face of God
Many individual Jews followed God faithfully in Nehemiah’s day, but ongoing suffering under foreign domination means that the nation as a whole remained in sin. The people needed a greater act of God to rescue them from exile: the coming of the Messiah to atone for sin. The failures of the postexilic community encourage us to look to Christ. Only He brings the glorious salvation of God’s people. That is why we trust Him alone for salvation.