The Book of Nehemiah is remembered mostly as the story of the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem under the leadership of Nehemiah in the fifth century BC—and that is exactly what the first six chapters are about. The rest of the book tells of the organization of the city, and more importantly, the spiritual revival that followed, spearheaded by Nehemiah, who was then governor, and by Ezra the scribe/priest.
We are told in Ezra, the book that precedes Nehemiah, that “Ezra had prepared his heart to seek the Law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach statutes and ordinances in Israel.” (Ezra 7:10) He is described as an “expert in the words of the commandments of the Lord, and of His statutes to Israel.” (7:11) As Ezra read God’s Law and the Levites helped the people to understand the reading, the hearts of the people were broken and they began to mourn and weep when they understood the words of the Law—weeping for joy that they understood it; mourning as they realized how they had failed to keep it.
Shortly thereafter, Nehemiah 9:1 records, the “children of Israel were assembled with fasting, in sackcloth, and with dust on their heads”—all signs of brokenness and contrition before God. The following verse took me by surprise when I read it. “Then those of Israelite lineage separated themselves from all foreigners; and they stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their fathers.” (9:2)
I must admit that when I think of people of faith separating themselves from others, I assume it is because they think that they are more holy than the rest and don’t want to contaminate themselves with the sins of others. Not so with these people on that day! Their purpose in separating themselves was to “[confess] their sins and the iniquities of their fathers.” And it was no brief prayer of the general nature we often offer to God: “Oh God, please forgive us our sins. Amen.” Verse three goes on to tell us that they “stood up in their place and read from the Book of the Law of the Lord their God for one-fourth of the day; and for another fourth they confessed and worshipped their God.” (9:3, emphasis mine) The rest of the chapter—31 verses—is their detailed confession. And when they had finished their confession, they were ready to ratify a new covenant with God to keep His Law. (9:38)
Perhaps, as the people of God, we need this sort of separation, too. What do you think?