Church reformer John Calvin said that when we worship, we say something about God and something about ourselves. The latter is done through confession and repentance, which are important dimensions of true worship. We recognise these elements in this passage.
The Israelites’ joyful celebration is followed by heartfelt confession of sins in a service of repentance led by the Levites (Nehemiah 9:1-5). The people gather to fast, ″wearing sackcloth and putting dust on their heads″ (v. 1)-a traditional way of expressing grief and repentance (Joshua 7:6; Job 2:12; Jonah 3:5). They ″separated themselves from all foreigners″ (Nehemiah 8:2), as that has led to them absorbing the idolatry of their pagan neighbours. This was what had led their forefathers to sin, which was ultimately why God had handed them over to foreign powers who took them into exile.
The reason for the separation from the surrounding world is to keep Israel faithful to God and holy like Him. Any interaction that could corrupt the nation is to be discarded. This, of course, doesn’t mean that we should form a holy huddle and do away with all contact with the world-assuming this were actually possible. Separation from the world must always be seen together with the call to be a witness to the world (Mark 16:15; Genesis 12:2-3). Holiness and mission must always go together.
The service lasts six hours, with three hours spent reading the Book of the Law, and the rest of the time confessing and praising God (Nehemiah 9:3). In particular, they ″confessed their sins and the sins of their ancestors″ (v. 2). The simple order of service should be noted: first, the reading and exposition of God’s Word; then, second, a response to God’s Word through confession and praise. The weightage given to each of these components serves as a model for worship today.
The people then pray the longest prayer in the Bible (vv. 5-38). The prayer starts off with acknowledging God as the Creator and giver of life to all (vv. 5-6). He is the only true God who deserves all our worship. This great God revealed himself to Abraham and led him into the promised land (vv. 7-8). He made a covenant with His people and blessed them. He rescued them from Egypt and brought them again to the promised land (vv. 9-15). He gave them His law (vv. 13-14).
It is good to base all our prayers on the foundation of who God is, His relationship to us, and what He has done for us. Even our confessions to Him make sense only because of who He is. When we worship God, we focus on who God is (almighty, holy, loving, and merciful) and who we are (sinners in need of God’s forgiveness, and helpless in an uncertain world). The more we know God, the more we will know ourselves. The result is high praise, deep confession, and sturdy trust in God.
Why are holiness and mission necessarily connected to one another? What happens when the two are disconnected? Consider how your life reflects both holiness and mission, and pray for any area that may need strengthening.
Why is our knowledge and trust in God the bedrock of all our prayers? How can we ensure that this is so? How is confession of sins deepened and made more real when we consider who God is?