In our staff devotions this morning, we read from Nehemiah 9:26-38. While I was reading, two verses stood out to me. “Behold, we are slaves this day; in the land that You gave to our fathers to enjoy its fruits and its good gifts, behold, we are slaves. And its rich yield goes to the kings whom You have set over us because of our sins. They rule over our bodies and over our livestock as they please and we are in great distress.” (vs. 36-37)
A lot has been said about the rampant corruption and violent crime epidemic in South Africa for a while now as well as about the crippling effects of the worst drought in decades. If we take some of the warnings in Scripture seriously, we may conclude that these seemingly separate subjects are actually linked by the collective sins of our people…we are told that peace and prosperity is a byproduct of God’s blessing upon an obedient people…strife and struggle and suffering is a byproduct of the withholding of God’s blessing. And, according to this reading, the rulers we have are those whom God places over us because of our sins…
The chapter as a whole is about confession, contrition, and covenant commitment…in it the Levites recited the nation’s history from creation to their present day to point out a pattern of disobedience that eventually culminated in the nation being defeated and exiled. Now, they had returned to their land after 70 years in Babylon, but still they were not entirely free…indeed, they were never really free again, save for a short period under the Hasmonean Kings.
But what struck me in the reading of this passage was the willingness of the people to confess the sins of the nation as if they were their own. We see this in Daniel chapter 9 as well, where a man described as faithful to the Lord and His Law even to the point of dangerous civil disobedience, confesses the sins of the nation as if they were his own with “prayer and pleas for mercy with fasting and sackcloth and ashes”. “We have sinned and done wrong and acted wickedly and rebelled, turning aside from Your commandments and rules. We have not listened to Your servants the prophets…” We…not they.
It is so easy for us to point fingers at others and to blame them for the current state of affairs in South Africa. We can look back in time and blame our ancestors…we can look across the political spectrum and blame each other…but the blame game does not solve anything. It just serves to deepen the gulf that divides us from each other and to perpetuate the resentment and bitterness that robs us of the dream of unity as the rainbow nation.
But to confess the collective sins of the nation as a whole…to confess the sins of our ancestors and our contemporaries as if they were our own, may help to bring us together at the foot of the cross where the need for forgiveness, grace, and mercy places us all on level ground. And who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from His fierce anger, (Jonah 3:9), and may well hear from heaven and will forgive our sins and heal our land (2 Chronicles 7:14b).