Some Scripture-Digging Tips
Learn the culture.
Dig more into the Jewish culture outside of your typical, go-to resources to get a deeper understanding of Old Testament traditions. (My Jewish Learning is a great starting point!)
Pair the passages.
Read this passage alongside Psalm 37. How do the details of one help support the truth of the other?
If you’re keeping track of the timeline, you probably noticed that Nehemiah 9 begins with another calendar detail. We are still in Tishrei (the seventh month of the Jewish calendar), the seven-day Feast of Tabernacles has ended, and the story picks up just a couple of days after.
It feels a little jarring, doesn’t it, to go from the kind of indescribable joy unseen in God’s people in nearly a thousand years to sackcloth and dusty heads that only ever signified grief and mourning? That’s quite the emotional pendulum swing! (Just take a glance over at Job 2:11-13 to see what I mean.) But think back to Nehemiah 8:9-10 and the Feast of Trumpets when the priests urged the Israelites to not mourn, weep, or sorrow.
“The Levites quieted all the people,” verse 11 reads, teaching them to hold their peace and keep the sorrow over their sin quiet for a time. And now that the feast was over, they dealt with the collective and decisive sorrow for their sin. Because, at some point, you have to deal with your sin. You can’t sweep it under the rug. Just look at how keeping perpetually quiet about a pervasive sin for a full year worked out for David in Psalm 37.
“When I kept silent,” he said in verse 3, “my bones grew old.” In other words, he felt the weight of his unconfessed sin every single day.
The Jewish people of Nehemiah 9 were experiencing what Paul called godly sorrow in 2 Corinthians 7 – sorrow that is agreeable to God according to His Word, prepares for repentance, and leads to salvation. They had already spent an entire week celebrating the miracle of God’s salvation, living in rudimentary booths reminiscent of their after-Egypt dwellings on the other side of the Red Sea. How much more did their emotions overflow after celebrating all that God had previously done for them in the last week! How much more did they want to cry out their repentance, to express their changed minds that would be followed through by changed lives?
Even the “prodigal son” did that in Luke 15 – sure, he got cut off in another “now is not the time or place, let’s feast first and weep later” conversation. But still, he knew: he took it all for granted, and he was sick over it. So he began to ask for his father’s forgiveness, and I imagine that was a long and emotional conversation the two of them returned to after the party was over.
So, the second they were able, after the cleanup of the feast and taking a moment to breathe despite the weight of unconfessed sin sitting heavy on their bones, God’s people got to the work of repentance.
Let’s Get Personal
For six hours, God’s people stood on their feet to listen to His Word and to praise Him. And for another six, they confessed and worshiped the Lord.
The Hebrew word for confess, yada, means “to show oneself as guilty,” but it also means to throw or to cast stones, which gives new light to John 8 and that woman who was caught in the act of committing adultery. Everyone there in the temple that day knew the penalty of adultery from Leviticus 20:10 was death. (And we know today: the wages that sin pays? Still death.)
“The one who is without sin among you,” Jesus replied, “let him throw a stone at her first.” He referred to a law in Deuteronomy 17:7 that details a person caught in any kind of ethical wickedness in God’s sight. If someone witnesses their sin with their own two eyes and the offending person is found guilty, they were taken outside of the city gates and stoned with the corroborating witness throwing the first rock.
Here, God’s people had enough humility to throw their own rocks.
So, for twelve hours, the people stood before God. And, in verse 5, the Levites and the heads of the individual Levitical families began a discourse with five simple yet seemingly conflicting words: “Stand up and bless the Lord” (which is confusing because the Hebrew word for “bless” means “to adore with bended knee”). Sure, the Hebrew word for “bless,” barak, means to bend the knees and kneel down. But the main idea of barak is in the concept of breaking down, which is what they do here.
The next ten verses break down all that God has done, praising, celebrating, and adoring Him with the mention of every miraculous detail. And possibly the most intriguing part of this section of confession verses? There is no “me,” “we,” or “us” anywhere in sight. It is only about blessing God and His glorious name so highly exalted that their words cannot even begin to reach the edges of it.
If you follow the principle of first mention and the understanding that the first time a concept, word, or theme is mentioned in the Bible sets the pace for every other subsequent use of it, then this isn’t quite as surprising. Because the first time you see yada in the Bible is in Genesis 29 when Leah conceived her fourth son, Judah.
“Now I will yada-praise the Lord,” she said. So, as it turns out, the biblical art of confession always begins with praising God first and throwing your stones second. And, when you do? He takes those confession-stones that come straight from a heart of stone and gives you a new heart – a soft and fleshy heart to replace that stone and fleshly one (Ezekiel 36:26).
Because His kindness that we praise Him for only ever leads to repentance (Romans 2:4).
So, start there – by praising His kindness. And the rest will naturally follow.