I CONFESS THE SINS... 2500 years ago, the Jewish patriot Nehemiah took on the task of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem. At the time, he wasn’t even a citizen of the Persian kingdom where he lived. He was a second-generation Jewish refugee, born into forced exile in a foreign land. He could have pointed his finger at a multitude of other people and nations and played the blame-game. Instead, Nehemiah prayed to God Almighty and confessed His sin, his father’s sin and the sins of his entire nation.
“Lord, the God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and keep his commandments, let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer your servant is praying before you day and night for your servants, the people of Israel. I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s family, have committed against you. We have acted very wickedly toward you. We have not obeyed the commands, decrees and laws you gave your servant Moses." Nehemiah 1:4-6.
Nehemiah understood why Israel had been decimated as a nation, split in two with the surviving remnant of Judah forced into Babylonian exile, then ruled by the conquering Persian Empire for 150 years. He helped document it all. According to the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, after the sixth-century capture of Jerusalem, there were thousands of skilled craftsmen, warriors, citizens of middle class and above exiled to Babylon, with more deportations in the ensuing decades.
Also, according to the books of Ezra–Nehemiah, around 538 BC, the Jews in Babylon began their return to the Land of Israel, by decree of King Cyrus, who also ordered the rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple, dedicated in 515 BC. The return of the exiles to Judah during the next 110 years is known as the “return to Zion”, a synonym for the return to Jerusalem as well as to the biblical Land of Israel. The word “aliyah”, the act of “going up” came from the ancient event of “going up to Jerusalem” and has now become the term used for Jews returning to Israel. Right after the decree, around 50,000 Jews made “aliyah” as described in Ezra, but most remained in Babylon.
Nehemiah was born in Babylon during the exile of Judah. The book of Nehemiah begins when he lived in the capital city of Susa in Persia. While serving as cupbearer to King Artaxerxes, Nehemiah was given the unenviable task of guarding the King's cup and tasting it to insure it was not poisoned. On the positive side, the position required that one be regarded as totally trustworthy, which usually carried the reward of a high position in the kingdom. Indeed, Nehemiah was appointed as master of ceremonies in the palace of King Artaxerxes, who ruled Persia from 465-423 B.C.
Historical records also suggest that the position of cupbearer was as influential a position as the Queen was to the King. Ironically, through the influence of the great Queen Esther in the court of King Xerxes in the very same palace, the people of Israel had been saved from annihilation several decades earlier. Some historians even speculate that King Artaxerxes was the stepson of Queen Esther, and son of King Xerxes.
The rest of Nehemiah's prayer is just as powerful as the beginning when he confessed his sins, his father’s sins, and the sins of his entire nation. “Remember the instruction you gave your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the nations, but if you return to me and obey my commands, then even if your exiled people are at the farthest horizon, I will gather them from there and bring them to the place I have chosen as a dwelling for my Name.’ They are your servants and your people, whom you redeemed by your great strength and your mighty hand. Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of this your servant and to the prayer of your servants who delight in revering your name. Give your servant success today by granting him favor in the presence of this man.”
His prayer petition ends with the curious statement about granting him favor in the presence of a man. Then Nehemiah identifies himself as "cupbearer to the King." This is clarified in the following chapter when Nehemiah asked God to grant him success when he humbly asks the King's help for the people of Judah who were attempting to rebuild. Further in chapter 2, Nehemiah privately gave God all the credit for the plan to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. “I had not told anyone what my God had put in my heart to do for Jerusalem.” Nehemiah 2:12
Not only did Nehemiah receive the King's help, but because Nehemiah was a close confidant of the King, he was also allowed to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, which could have threatened the Persian kingdom itself. He returned to Jerusalem as its appointed governor for 2 separate terms.
"So the wall was completed on the twenty-fifth of Elul, in fifty-two days. When all our enemies heard about this, all the surrounding nations were afraid and lost their self-confidence, because they realized that this work had been done with the help of our God." Nehemiah 6:15-16.
Nehemiah led the remnant of Judah who had made “aliyah” to Jerusalem, to come together and work toward a common goal. Indeed, it was never about rebuilding a physical wall. God’s plan was for their nation to be spiritually rebuilt under His watch-care and the authority of His Word. United, they moved forward accomplishing social reforms for the poor, forgiving debts, and bonding together in praise of the Almighty for His mercy and long-suffering love for them, spiritually influencing the world around them.
God continued to work through Nehemiah's governorship in Jerusalem to bring about a spiritual awakening to the people of Judah. Not only did they confess their sins as a nation, but also the sins of their fathers. "...The Israelites gathered together, fasting and wearing sackcloth and putting dust on their heads. Those of Israelite descent had separated themselves from all foreigners. They stood in their places and confessed their sins and the sins of their ancestors. They stood where they were and read from the Book of the Law of the Lord their God for a quarter of the day and spent another quarter in confession and in worshiping the Lord their God." Nehemiah 9:1-3
Wonder what would happen here in America if we Christians followed ancient Judah's example. Instead of playing the blame-game and pointing fingers at everyone else for their problems, Nehemiah led in a national confession of sin, and freed them to praise God in an awesome and magnificent way with these immortal words: "Stand up and praise the Lord your God, who is from everlasting to everlasting. Blessed be your glorious name, and may it be exalted above all blessing and praise. You alone are the Lord. You made the heavens, even the highest heavens, and all their starry host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them. You give life to everything, and the multitudes of heaven worship you."
No time like the present for each and every one of us in America to change our focus and stop blaming others for all our national problems. The 25th of Elul on God’s calendar, the date of Nehemiah’s completion of the wall, is the 13th of September on our 2020 Gregorian calendar. Despite resistance from surrounding nations and national turmoil, even their enemies could clearly see that God was behind it all.
This is not just a bible story. It DID happen. Biblical Archaeology Review 35:2, March/April 2009 confirms that Nehemiah rebuilt portions of the walls of Jerusalem around 445 BC.
And it all began with the humble words uttered by just one man in repentant prayer on behalf of himself, his ancestors, and his nation.
I CONFESS THE SINS…