Chapter 9:1-5 (ESV) - Now on the twenty-fourth day of this month the people of Israel were assembled with fasting and in sackcloth, and with earth on their heads. And the Israelites separated themselves from all foreigners and stood and confessed their sins and the iniquities of their fathers. And they stood up in their place and read from the Book of the Law of the Lord their God for a quarter of the day; for another quarter of it they made confession and worshiped the Lord their God. On the stairs of the Levites stood Jeshua, Bani, Kadmiel, Shebaniah, Bunni, Sherebiah, Bani, and Chenani; and they cried with a loud voice to the Lord their God. Then the Levites, Jeshua, Kadmiel, Bani, Hashabneiah, Sherebiah, Hodiah, Shebaniah, and Pethahiah, said, “Stand up and bless the Lord your God from everlasting to everlasting. Blessed be your glorious name, which is exalted above all blessing and praise.
Question to consider: Why did the people dress in sackcloth and rub dirt on their heads?
After celebrating the feast of Tabernacles, the people assembled for a day of repentance. The feast was to celebrate that God restored them to the land. This day of repentance was not only for the people to mourn over their sin, but to start afresh.
Repentance is a willful act of recognizing our sin, turning away from it and returning to the face of God. When we walk in holiness, the image is of someone walking toward the face of God. When we sin, the image is of us turning our backs to God and moving away from Him. We picture it this way because we know that while God sees our sin, our desire is to look away from God and pretend He doesn’t. Somehow, if our sin is done in secret, we can deceive ourselves into thinking nobody knows about it.
The first act of contrition was to rub dirt or ash on their heads and dress in sackcloth. The dirt was a recognition that they had come from dust and to dust they would return because of their sin. The sackcloth was a reference to the original clothes God fashioned for Adam and Eve to mercifully cover over their shame. The combined action served to humbly ask God to remember His mercy as they confessed their sin.
The Israelites separated themselves from all foreigners to confess their sins. This was not an act of pride as if the foreigners were not good enough to come before God. It was to reset themselves as the holy line through which God would send the Messiah. The Levites read the entire Law from the stairs above the crowds like the voice of God delivering the Law to Moses on the holy mountain. The first time this happened, the people were afraid. “Now when all the people saw the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled, and they stood far off and said to Moses, ‘You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die.’ Moses said to the people, ‘Do not fear, for God has come to test you, that the fear of him may be before you, that you may not sin.’ The people stood far off, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was.” (Exodus 20:18-21)
Now instead of recoiling in fear at the reading of the Law, the people confessed their sin, stood and began to bless the Lord in prayer. When the Lord blesses us, we receive good things from Him like His mercy or healing or provision. However, there is nothing we can give to God other than our love and gratitude. So they blessed the Lord by recognizing all that He had done.
Dear heavenly father, praise You for giving us life, joy and peace through Christ. Thank You for showing us mercy when we sin. May we continually seek Your face and turn from our sin until the day when Christ returns, and we have been perfected in our faith. Amen.