Today we are looking at a prayer that was prayed just a short time after the prayer that Ezra prayed in our last reading. It is actually the longest prayer recorded in the Bible. Like Ezra, Nehemiah had also been exiled to Babylon and ended up working directly for the king. He received permission to lead another cohort of back to Jerusalem. He has led the people in rebuilding the city walls. In fact he was so successful, the walls were rebuilt in just 52 days!
I like to think there is some significance in it being 52 days but I am most likely projecting
In Chapter 8, to celebrate this rebuilding success the people stood and listened to scripture being read for several hours. They listened to the commands of God and to the history of their people. They listened to the epic successes, like God rescuing the people from Egypt. And they listened to the epic failures like the moaning that they didn’t have meat and the times they turned their back on God.
In listening they realised that their own lives didn’t match up to God’s commands. They were so moved, that they began to cry.
But it was festival time, a time for celebrating and feasting so Nehemiah tells them to go, celebrate, fill their bellies and enjoy themselves.
Days later, when the feast is over the people gather again. They come together fasting, wearing sackcloth and putting dust on their heads.
You may have read about this somewhat strange practice of wearing sackcloth and ashes around some of the previous prayers but it is worth looking at it a little deeper.
Fasting is when you refrain or abstain from something for a time, usually food but it can be other things too. Fasting is often used to develop a deeper relationship with God. If you are not focusing on food and what you might eat next, then you have more time to focus on God.
Fasting can be anything from missing one meal to going without for many days. It must have a purpose, for example to seek direction from God or like the people in today’s prayer, to seek forgiveness. Any hunger pains that you have can be redirected to prayer about the cause that you are seeking.
Fasting is also about sacrifice. It demonstrates that you are so desperate to hear from God that you are willing to go without your most basic needs in order to hear from Him. It is not about manipulation. You can’t make God do something for you because you are fasting, Instead, it is an outward sign of the longing that is in your heart.
And I will add a caveat here about fasting. Fasting for prolonged periods should not be attempted without medical advice. We also do not endorse fasting as a way to change your appearance or to lose weight, again, seek medical advice if that is your aim.
I understand that the sackcloth and ashes are similar in that they are an outward sign of what is going on inside. Sackcloth, a rough material made from goat hair was uncomfortable to wear and was often used as a sign of deep sorrow. People often wore it when they were in mourning over the death of a loved one. Here they are mourning over their mistakes and the mistakes of their ancestors.
The ashes represented desolation, bleakness and devastation. The people are devastated at what they have done and recognised the bleakness that is before them if they were to get what they deserved and God were to leave them.
When the people came to pray this day, they came ready to repent. They are already fasting. Having filled their bellies through feasting and plenty, today they are emptying themselves ready to be filled with something new, something from God.
Again, they listened to God’s word for long periods and allowed it to speak to their hearts.
During our 52 Days of Prayers we are generally reading small snippets of the Bible but sometimes it is good to read large chunks, 3 or 4 chapters or even whole books of the Bible in order to gain a different perspective.
The people reflected on all that God had done for them and their ancestors and they reflected on all that they and their ancestors had done. On realising the gap between the two the people repented.
I’ve said before that repentance is about a change of mindset. But it isn’t just ‘Ooops! I’ll try not to do it again.’ It must be deep and heartfelt.
For these people it wasn’t just about learning not to do something because they are told it is wrong, instead they really felt the weight of their sins and the wrong-doing of their ancestors. They were distressed and grieved over their mistakes so much so that it caused them to re-prioritise their values and change what was in their hearts and their minds.
I have found this a real challenge. I’ve realised how British I am, how stiff upper lip I am. I don’t know that I have ever allowed the reality of the distance that is caused between me and God when I sin to sink into my heart. And if I am really honest, I don’t want to face that feeling.
I don’t have any sackcloth or ashes for that matter, but tonight I am going to set aside time to reflect on this further. To open my heart, even a little so that God’s Holy Spirit can reveal to me the consequences of my sin, so that I can truly, truly repent.