Nehemiah 9 has a recap of the story of the people of Israel. The leaders bring the people together and “the people of Israel were assembled with fasting and in sackcloth, and with earth on their heads…..stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their fathers….read from the Book of the Law”. Nehemiah and his leadership team have the people focused on getting right with God. After the wall was completed, after the wall was working, after the people had heard and obeyed God’s Word, after the Holy Spirit was doing a significant work in the lives of people – now there is a scene of dramatic, humble repentance.
The people are led to confess their sins. The English word sin comes from the idea “to miss the mark.” A sin might miss the target by an inch, or it might miss it by ten feet – but it is still a sin either way. We sin when we do what God has told us not to do (telling us either in His Word, in our conscience, or through legitimate authority), or when we do not do what God has told to do (telling us in Word, conscience, or authority). Not all sin is the same, but all sin is sin. The people see that they are guilty of sin, themselves and their ancestors.
They are also reminded of God’s mercy and grace. “You are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and did not forsake them”. God has stood by them through thick and thin. He never left them, although they certainly left Him. And unfortunately, this describes the reality of man’s journey on this earth. “Nevertheless, they were disobedient and rebelled against you and cast your law behind their back and killed your prophets….committed great blasphemies….did not obey your commandments, but sinned against your rules, which if a person does them, he shall live by them, and turned a stubborn shoulder and stiffened their neck and would not obey”.
This describes the cycle of our relationship with God. We sometimes feel as if God has gotten tired of us; that we can’t ask him to forgive us for something He has forgiven us for so many times before. But God never gets tired of us, and never turns away the repentant heart. The remnant had to come to this point of understanding where they were ready to write a covenant with God once again. “Because of all this we make a firm covenant in writing”. It needed to be formal – even writing it down – to commit themselves to His ways.