The Word Made Fresh
1On the twenty-fourth day of the month they were gathered, fasting, and wearing sackcloth, with sand on their heads. 2Those of Israelite descent separated themselves from all foreigners and stood and confessed their sins and the sins of their ancestors. 3For a fourth part of the day they stood and read from the book of the law of the LORD their God, and then for another fourth part of the day they confessed and worshiped. 4Jeshua, Bani, Kadmiel, Shebaniah, Bunni, Sherebiah, Bani, and Chenani stood on the stairs with the Levites and cried out to the LORD their God. 5The Levites, Jeshua, Kadmiel, Bani, Hashabneiah, Sherebiah, Hodiah, Shebaniah, and Pethahiah said, “Stand up and praise the LORD your everlasting God. Exalted be your glorious name above all praise and glory.
6“You alone are the LORD. You have made the heavens and everything in them, the earth and all it contains, the seas and everything that they hold. You give life to all, and the hosts of heaven worship you. 7You are the LORD, the God who chose Abram and brought him out of the land of Ur of the Chaldeans and gave him the name Abraham. 8You found that his heart was faithful and agreed to give his descendants the land of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Jebusites, and Girgashites. You have kept your promise because you are righteous.
9“You saw the suffering of our ancestors in Egypt and heard their cry for help at the Red Sea. 10You did extraordinary things against Pharaoh and his officials and the people of his land because you knew they had acted terribly against our ancestors. You made a name for yourself which still remains to this day. 11You separated the sea before them so that they walked across on dry land, but their pursuers you dropped into the depth like stones falling into deep waters. 12You led them with a bank of clouds during the day and a glowing fire by night to guide them on the way they should go. 13You came to Mt. Sinai and spoke with them from heaven and gave them rules and laws and good statutes and commandments. 14You told them about your holy sabbath and presented them with commandments and rules and laws through your servant Moses. 15When they were hungry you gave them bread from heaven. When they were thirsty you made water come from the rocks. You told them to go in and possess the land you had promised to give them.
16“But they acted arrogantly and were stubborn and did not obey your commandments. 17They refused to obey the laws and forgot about the wonderful things you had done for them. They were stubborn and said they would rather return to their slavery in Egypt. But you are a God who is ready to forgive. You rule with grace and mercy and are slow to anger, and are filled with abiding love, and you did not turn your back on them. 18Even when they cast a statue of a calf for themselves and called it the god who brought them up out of Egypt; even when they committed such terrible blasphemies, 19you who are merciful did not abandon them in the wilderness. The cloud bank that had led them remained with them by day, as did the bank of fire that lighted their way at night. 20You gave them the gift of your spirit to teach them and did not take the manna from them and gave them water for their thirst. 21For forty years you preserved them in the wilderness, and they lacked nothing. Their clothes did not wear out. Their feet did not suffer. 22You turned kingdoms and races over to them and gave them every corner of the land. They took possession of the land of King Sihon of Heshbon and the land of King Og of Bashan. 23You blessed them with offspring that numbered like the stars of heaven. You brought them into the land you had given their ancestors to enter and possess. 24So, their descendants went in and took possession of the land, and you restrained the inhabitants of the land before them – the Canaanites – and gave them over with their kings and their peoples, to do with them as they wished. 25They conquered fortified cities and took a land rich with houses and goods, cisterns and vineyards, olive orchards and fruit trees. They ate and were filled and grew fat and celebrated your great goodness.
26“In spite of all you did for them they disobeyed you and rebelled and set your law behind them and killed your prophets, the very ones who had warned them in an attempt to turn them back to you. They committed terrible atrocities. 27So, you handed them over to their enemies and they suffered. But in their suffering, they cried out to you, and you heard them from heaven and because you were merciful you sent them rescuers who saved them from the hands of their enemies. 28But after a period of peace they were again evil before you, and you abandoned them to their enemies. But when they turned and cried out to you, you heard them from heaven. Many, many times you rescued them because you were merciful. 29You warned them in an effort to return them to the rule of your law. But they behaved selfishly and disobeyed your laws and sinned against them even though obedience guaranteed life. They turned their backs and refused to obey. 30You were patient with them for many years, and warned them through your prophets, but they would not listen. So, you handed them over to the people around them. 31But even then, because you were merciful, you didn’t destroy them or turn your back on them because you are gracious and merciful.
32“Now therefore, great and mighty and awesome God who keeps covenants and whose love is steadfast, do not think all the hardship we and our kings and officials and priests and prophets and ancestors and people have experienced since the time of the kings of Assyria is of little consequence. 33You have been fair in every circumstance that has befallen us while we have been wicked. 34Our kings and officials and priests and our ancestors have not obeyed your law nor heeded the commandments and warnings that you gave them. 35Even though you gave them a great kingdom out of your own goodness, and in the vast and rich land you placed before them, they did not serve you, and did not turn away from their wickedness. 36Here we are, to this very day, slaves in the land you gave our ancestors to enjoy its fruitfulness and goodness. 37Its richness goes to the rulers you have set over us because of our sinfulness. They have power over our bodies and over our livestock, and we are in great distress.
38“Because of these things, we are making a firm promise in writing, and on that sealed document are the names of our officials and Levites and priests.”
1-5: The Festival of Booths with Ezra’s daily reading of the Law has ended. It is now the 24th of the month, two days after the festival, and the people have spontaneously begun to fast with sackcloth. This is a surprise, since the people were rejoicing during the festival (8:17). Apparently on the 8th day of the festival, a day of “solemn assembly,” the people’s attitude turned from joy to penitence, an attitude more appropriate to Yom Kipper, the Day of Atonement. So, the 24th is a sort of delayed Yom Kippur. The reading of the Law seems to have in the end hit them pretty hard. The Israelites separate themselves from all the foreigners in the city. They spend another three hours listening to the Law being read and then for three hours confess their sins. A spontaneous worship service erupts, led by Jeshua and the other priests.
6-8: Ezra prays, recalling their history as the descendants of Abraham, and praising God for being faithful.
9-15: Ezra continues reciting their history: their slavery in Egypt; the plagues God sent against Pharaoh; the crossing of the Red Sea and the destruction of the Egyptian army; the pillars of cloud and fire that guided them; God’s appearance on Mt. Sinai and the giving of the Law to Moses; how God fed them with manna and miraculously brought water from the rock to quench their thirst.
16-25: The recitation continues, remembering how the people rebelled and made a golden calf to worship; how God was faithful and did not forsake them but provided for them; their victory over Heshbon and Bashan; how their numbers grew; how they entered into and settled the land and took possession of a fertile and productive territory.
26-31: Ezra continues, reminding them of how their ancestors turned away from God time and time again. He remembers the time of the judges and kings and how Israel alternately turned away from God and came back to God until God’s patience finally was exhausted and God “handed them over” to their enemies.
32-37: Ezra ends his prayer by asking God to be merciful and consider all their suffering. It has all been because of their sins, he says, but now they have surely suffered enough. They are still slaves, he says, slaves in the very land that God has given them.
38: A written statement is produced, renewing the people’s covenant with God, and Ezra invites them to sign the agreement.
Ezra and Nehemiah lead the people in a national day of confession and repentance and renewal of faith. It is a powerful action that can draw the people of any nation together. I can think of one such example in our country’s history: Sunday September 16th, 2001, was a day when Americans attended worship in record numbers following the terrorist attacks on September 11th.