Don’t skip over this chapter. It looks grim, of course: “on the twenty fourth day of the same month, the Israelites gathered together, fasting and wearing sackcloth and having dust on their heads” (v.1). Sackcloth has rather gone out of fashion these days. So has confession. In fact, corporate prayer and gatherings of all sorts are also out of favour in the Christian world. But read this chapter closely. Its values may be counter to the Christian culture we live in at the moment. We might discover that our values are wrong. There is much to learn here.
They start with confession. Confession is not good for the soul. Confession is, literally, life-bringing. Confession doesn’t save us from our sins – only Jesus does that – but without confession there can be no salvation. So they listen to God’s Word, and confess their sins in the light of it (vv.2-3). How can they (and how can we) expect God to be serious in blessing us if we are so casual with the sins which offend us?
And then the priests lead the community in praise (vv.5-37). This whole lengthy prayer is a confession of who God is – majestic, worthy of honour (vv.5-6), the covenant-making Lord of His people (vv.7-8), the God who redeemed their forefathers from Egypt and led them through the wilderness (vv.9-15). But focus on God for any time, and we find ourselves facing up to who we are: Israel continually resisted God. The priests’ prayer alternates between great declarations of God’s goodness, generous love and patience with His people, and confessions of the hard-hearted arrogance of His people. Did they deserve His love? Absolutely not. “But in Your great mercy You did not put an end to them or abandon them, for You are a gracious and merciful God” (v.31).
The climax of the prayer is the admission that nothing has changed. God is the same, and His people are. Importantly, the priests recognise that life is very, very tough for this returning community. Even though they have returned from exile, it doesn’t feel like it to them. They are still being exploited, and missing out on the peace and plenty they long for. “We are in great distress” (v.37) – and they know that it is down to their sins.
Can you speak of God’s unfailing goodness to you? Can you speak of you unfailing ability to forget, resist and avoid the Lord? It’s painful, isn’t it, but it’s probably near the truth. God’s children, filled with His spirit as we are, are still disobedient and foolish. “Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (Jam. 5.14). “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn. 1.9). He will.
A Prayer to Pray
Merciful Father, nothing escapes Your eyes. I am a sinner. But I barely know it, and even when I do, I am so slow to grieve, to confess, and to delight in Your grace. Make me sensitive by Your Spirit to the things I want and do which displease You. Teach me a ready confession, and give me an eager grasp on Your grace. Amen