“You have acted faithfully while we have acted wickedly.” Nehemiah 9:33.
The book of Nehemiah depicts a unique time in the history of Israel. Following seventy years of exile in Babylon, the Israelites have returned to their homeland and are attempting to rebuild their lives and reclaim their identity. For many, reclaiming their spiritual identity and covenant with God is not a priority, nor is it even a concern; after all, the Israelites had been conquered and exiled to Babylon for seventy years because of their unfaithfulness–why would God want them back? Nehemiah, however, understands that Israel’s spiritual identity, being God’s chosen people, is the only identity that needs to be reclaimed. It is this identity that separates them from all the peoples of the world. It is this identity that Israel needs to rebuild and restore.
Nehemiah goes to great lengths to help convey this point to the people of Israel. He leads the building project to rebuild the destroyed walls of Jerusalem that everyone else were willing to let lie in ruins. The rebuilding of the City’s walls are a powerful image in the Book of Nehemiah. The walls represent Israel’s broken and destroyed spiritual state, that everyone is trying to ignore and live without. Nehemiah knows that Jerusalem is vulnerable to physical danger without walls, just as Israel is vulnerable to spiritual danger without their covenant with God. Because of this, Nehemiah has the Law read publicly to the people, to remind them of their duty to God and their covenant with Him. Nehemiah also has the people begin to celebrate the various holidays and festivals the Law requires that had not been celebrated for years, even before the Babylonian Captivity. Nehemiah does everything within his power to reinvigorate and revive Israel’s spirituality.
And then the people get it.
After a public reading of the Law, the leaders of Israel lead the people in a public confession of their collective transgressions. Verse 33 of Chapter 9 sums everything up: “You have acted faithfully while we have acted wickedly.” While Israel worshipped every pagan god they encountered, God was still there. While Israel prostituted itself to foreign powers, God was still there. While Israel was defeated politically and militarily, God was still there. While Israel forgot its covenant and neglected its spirituality, God was still there. God never left Israel. Yes, He allowed them to suffer these defeats as punishment for their transgressions, but He was still always right there waiting and listening for their call to Him. Every time the people of Israel collectively repented and called on God, He was always quick to respond and forgive.
The same is true for us today. We are just as apt to wander in our own spiritual lives as Israel was. At times, we forget our spiritual identity. We forget that we are God’s people as well. We get mired in our own sins and our own Babylonian Captivities. However, God does not stray from us. Though we act wickedly, He is faithful. He is ready to forgive and restore us, all we need to do is call on him.