1. A Desolate Sanctuary
For an illustration of genuine heart-felt confession of sin and true humiliation before God we turn, intuitively, to Daniel 9, Ezra 9, and Nehemiah 9; for each of these well-known chapters gives a lovely instance of this.
Daniel preceded the others. He was still a captive in Babylon, but instead of being blinded by its glories, or entranced by the dignities it had heaped upon him, his heart clung to that which, spite of its overthrow, had been, and in a sense still was, the centre of Jehovah’s interests on earth. Hence he had, when tested, flung open his window in the sight of his enemies, and, at all risk, had prayed toward Jerusalem; for that city asserted its ascendancy over him. But it was devastated and its Temple reduced to ashes. And what to him was the grandeur of Babylon when the sanctuary of God lay desolate? To that fond though shattered sanctuary his affections turned.
He had learned “from books” the length of time this desolation was to continue, and, no doubt, the seventy years had nearly fled as predicted; nevertheless he set his face to seek by prayer and supplications, with fasting and sackcloth and ashes, and thus he cried unto the Lord his God. He wants light, but he begins by confession. He goes down. He conceals nothing. He had learned that to the God with whom he had to do “all things were naked and open,” and who, above all else, seeks in His suppliants candour, truth, and sincerity. He knew that the eye of his all-seeing God had minutely traced the ways of his people from their beginning. “All Israel,” he cried, “have transgressed Thy law.” “To us,” he added, “belongs confusion of face, to our kings, our princes, and our fathers, because we have sinned against Thee.”
All are involved. Exceptions there are none. Stones are not thrown at others. Blame is placed on the shoulders that should have borne it. There was no such word as: “You did it.” When confession to God is true I see the beam in my own eye and not the mote in my brother’s; and it is this exquisite feature that shines pre-eminently in the confessions of our three chapters.
And so he concludes by saying: “While I was speaking, and praying, and confessing my sin, and the sin of my people Israel” (embracing the revolted tribes) “… the man Gabriel … touched me about the time of the evening oblation,” communicating to him, at the same time, not only what should befall the city, but announcing the advent of the Messiah Himself—His being cut off and its terrible effects in judgment on Jerusalem. A more striking or accurate prophecy cannot be found in Scripture.
And thus Daniel obtained, by confession, an answer to his prayer that was exceedingly abundant above all he had asked or thought. He sought information as to the seventy years of Jerusalem’s oppression, but received an unfolding of the events of the great prophetical period of the “seventy weeks.” On this intensely interesting theme, however, we cannot enter here.
2. The Holy Seed Mingled
Now we turn to Ezra. His life and history are charming. How deeply we are indebted to him, as a scribe in the law of his God. He threw all his heart and mind into the welfare of the people of God, of whom a remnant had escaped from Babylon and had returned to Jerusalem. There they suffered greatly from the enemies of Israel, whose opposition to their restoration of the temple was as bitter as it was subtle. To them came Ezra with help and provision, both most welcome.
Here he saw the “reviving,” and the “grace” shown to this remnant. The hand of God had released them from the ostensible bondage of Babylon. It was theirs now to take their harps from the willow trees and to sing the Lord’s song in their own land, to express their gratitude to Him for such a deliverance and to conduct themselves in ways of holiness and separation to Him from the godless habits of the nations around.
Alas, this separation—this one thing that ever marks off the people of God from the world—was lacking. Their true testimony was thus gone—and it must ever be gone, when the saints of God and the world go, freely, hand in glove. Separation, of this order, there must be, even as we, in our day, are commanded to “come out from among them and be separate.”
Ezra, to his grief, found that there had been unrestricted intermarriage between the remnant and the nations. The holy seed was mingled with the people, and the hands of the princes and rulers were chief in the trespass. Hence all was in moral ruin. The case seemed hopeless. He sat down astonied! But the example of his grief affected others, and every one that trembled at the words of the God of Israel assembled themselves to him. Then he confessed the sins of the fathers, and then the sins of the remnant, but without a word of recrimination. The blame was personal and was faithfully acknowledged. Yet such was his grief that he could not rise above it, and even the people “wept sore.” It was a Bochim indeed, but tears are not power; and so matters might have remained had not one man, Shechaniah after a confession of the trespass, risen in the vigour of faith in God, and declared that “there was hope in Israel concerning this.” Surely! So he urged Ezra to “arise … and do”—to lay hold of God, to give effect to his prayers and to expect divine help. He did so, and great was the reformation.
3. “We are in great distress”
So said the people in Nehemiah 9:37. The previous chapter ended with a scene of great gladness, consequent on the celebration of such a Feast of Tabernacles as had not been enjoyed since the triumphant days of Joshua. But here the little remnant had similar joy. During the seven days of the Feast the book of the law of God had been read to them; and on the day following they assembled with fasting and sackcloth, separating themselves from strangers, and confessing their sins and the iniquities of their fathers—blessed effect of proving “the joy of the Lord,” and the sanctifying power of His word.
The confession was voiced by some of the Levites beginning, however, with one of the richest outbursts of worship to be found in all the Old Testament, then rehearsing, in great detail, the failures and sins of the people from Egypt onward, but owning, at the same time, the exceeding mercy of God in bearing with them in all their waywardness and folly.
Then at the close, resting on the fact that they had to do with a merciful and covenant-keeping God, they say: “Let not all the trouble seem little before Thee that has come upon us … since the times of the kings of Assyria unto this day.”
Why those times? Because it was under those kings that part of the nation was carried away. The trouble began then. The ten tribes were primarily at fault, but no stone is hurled at them in this confession. All were involved in a common shame, and therefore a common ground of humiliation before God was taken unreservedly. Is there no lesson in this for us in the sad divisions of the church today, nothing for the hearts and consciences of the family of God, and the saints and members of Christ? “Behold, we are servants this day … and the land yields increase to kings whom thou hast set over us because of our sins … and we are in great distress.” Well that the servitude should be felt. They were out of Babylon and in the land, but they were no more worthy of trust than were the fathers and brethren whose sins they had just confessed, so that if Gentile kings could tax the land and have “dominion over their bodies and their cattle at pleasure,” the lesson of submission and humiliation would tend to check the pride which lay at the root of all their national degradation.
And so a verse in our New Testament may serve as a key for our own profit, as we ponder the moral of our three confession chapters: “If we are unfaithful He abides faithful; He cannot deny Himself” (2 Tim. 2:13). That were impossible, but, if He abides faithful, so is He also “faithful and just to forgive” when His failing people, whether personally or otherwise, confess their sins to Him.
And how loudly today sounds the call for such confession.