By Shelley Neese

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Welcome to Bible Fiber. I am Shelley Neese, president of The Jerusalem Connection, a Christian organization devoted to sharing the story of the people of Israel, both ancient and modern.

This week we are studying Chapter 9 when the people stopped feasting and began fasting. Although Chapter 9 is a continuation of the previous chapter’s theme of Torah revival, the national mood shifted from joy to sadness.

Feast to Fasting

When the High Holiday period ended on the 22nd of the month, the people gathered two days later for another general assembly in Jerusalem. This was their third public reading of the Torah in a month.

Ezra’s first public reading of the laws and statutes made the congregants cry spontaneously as they realized how far they had strayed from God’s calling (8:9). Although the scriptures stirred up a wellspring of emotion, Nehemiah and Ezra told the people to lock it up and swallow the lump in their throat, just maybe not in those words. They needed to put off any display of sadness because of the celebratory nature of the holiday season. Like Ecclesiastes says, there is “a time to weep and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance” (Eccl. 3:4).

Celebrating the feast and festivals put the people in a reflective mood, and they wanted to repent before going back to their regular lives. They gathered for the third public reading of the Torah intending to fast, mourn, lament, and confess. The memoir says the people arrived with “sackcloth and with earth on their heads,” outward signs of mourning for cultures in the ancient Near East (9:1). They also separated themselves from all foreigners. The process of recognizing their sin and the sins of their ancestors felt like an in-house family affair and did not need spectators. Plus, Ezra and Nehemiah insisted on the need to purge pagan influence from the families and the community.

Initially, the Levites lead the congregants in a call to worship. The people stood for the presenting of the sacred scroll with the Levites announcing, “Stand up and bless the Lord your God from everlasting to everlasting” (9:5). They exalted his sacred name revealed to Moses at the burning bush (Ex. 3:14). Understanding of Yahweh began with knowing his name.

Non-believers sometimes accuse Jews and Christians of bibliolatry, the excessive worship of the Bible instead of the God of the Bible. In this moment, the narrative clarifies that the participants were not idolizing the Bible; they were worshiping what the Bible represented, its divine author. The Torah is the covenant God made between himself and his elect; it offered a pathway for the Jewish people to commune with him.

In modern synagogue services, Jews recite this same call to worship, the Borachu, in their evening and morning prayers. As the congregation stands, the prayer leader announces in Hebrew “Praise the Lord, Source of all blessing.” The congregation responds in Hebrew, “Praise be the Lord, source of all blessing, forever.” While it is not an exact quotation, the daily prayer certainly derives from the Levites’ announcement in Nehemiah: “Stand up and bless the Lord your God.”

At the third public reading, the text describes the Levites reading for a “fourth part of the day,” the equivalent of about three hours (9:3). The three-hour reading provoked an additional three-hour service of worship, prayer, and confession. God’s word is like holding up a mirror that simultaneously reveals God’s righteousness and man’s unrighteousness. Also, for a Jewish person who thinks corporately, the Torah is a brutal chronicle of the nation’s wrongdoing through the centuries.

The British philosopher and scientist Sir Francis Bacon coined the phrase, “knowledge itself is power.” But Bacon’s conception of knowledge was different from the Bible’s conception of knowledge. To the prophet Hosea, well before the exile, God laments, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge!” (Hos. 4:6). Knowledge was the understanding of God’s laws, his character, and his working in the world. When the Jewish people ignored their covenant, history, and scriptures, they separated themselves from the knowledge of God. Godly knowledge does not bring the worldly version of power that Francis Bacon had in mind. Godly knowledge fosters humility. According to the prophet Isaiah, God dwells in heaven and “also with those who are contrite and humble in spirit” (Isa. 57:15). Where you find a humble heart, you find the spark of God.

Penitential Prayer

After the first five narrative verses set the stage, the bulk of Nehemiah 9 is a prayer of confession, or what bible scholars call a penitential prayer (Neh. 9:6-37). In fact, Nehemiah’s prayer is the longest prayer in the whole Bible. Old Testament penitential prayers follow the same pattern. They are confessions of sin uttered by an individual on behalf of the nation.

The prayers cover the full range of Israel’s failings because the best way to acknowledge and repent of sin is to name it. The prayer is like a sermon because it uses the lessons of Israel’s past to encourage obedience in the present. Penitential prayers ask God for forgiveness and recognize his grace and mercy.

We can find the same style of penitential prayer in two other places in the Bible. Ezra first prayed confessionally upon learning about the community’s intermarriage problems (Ez. 9:5-15). Daniel has another classic example of penitential prayer (Dan. 9:4-19). Daniel was reading the prophet Jeremiah’s prophecies about the period of captivity when he put on sackcloth and ashes and prayed.

Ezra 9, Nehemiah 9, and Daniel 9 were personal prayers by biblical heroes recorded as part of sacred scripture. In all three instances, the person praying also fasted and put on sackcloth. They each recapped Israel’s history of rebellion while also focusing on God’s historic love for Israel. The Psalms have examples of penitential prayer as well (Ps. 78, 106, 130, 135, 136).

Based on the biblical narratives, the exiles perfected confessional prayer in Babylon. Esther, Daniel, Nehemiah, and Ezra were all prayer giants who learned to approach God without a temple or sacrificial system. Before the Babylonians destroyed the First Temple, the Jewish people brought sacrifices to the temple to atone for their sins (Lev. 5:1). The priests accompanied the sacrificial offering with a prayer, but the offering was the focus. After the temple was gone, prayer became the main approach to God, not the secondary. Moses had promised the people, “seek the Lord your God, and you will find him if you search after him with all your heart and soul” (Deut. 4:29). During captivity, the Jewish people relied on prayer to access God since they had no temple, land, or independence. After the exiles rebuilt the temple and altar in Jerusalem, they resumed the sacrificial system while continuing to maintain their prayer life.

Ezra began the penitential prayer in Nehemiah 9 with an exaltation of God’s uniqueness and a creed about his exalted character. Unlike the gods of their neighbors who supposedly controlled only one sphere of land, earth, or sky, Yahweh was sovereign over every sphere. Worship of Yahweh extended to “the heaven of heavens” where even the angelic hosts worshiped Yahweh as infinitely glorious (9:6). Yahweh may have been the covenant God of one small weak people group, but he was also the great god of all creation. Worshipping him was an invitation to worship with the angels.

Praying the Bible

The prayer moves from God’s lofty role as creator to his encounter with one specific people group, the descendants of Abraham. Ezra’s prayer includes a historical overview of the history of the covenantal people: Abraham’s election, the Exodus, the wilderness, and the conquest. Ezra even includes the period of the judges, kings, and prophets. The thread connecting every biblical story is God’s love for his people, and their subsequent rejection of his love.

The biblical sequencing of events seems fresh in Ezra’s mind, especially after hours-long public readings. From creation to the exile, the Torah’s narrative arc shapes the prayer. The prayer is famous in biblical studies for the insight it gives to the scripture accessible to Ezra by 450 BCE. In Ezra-Nehemiah, all five books of the Torah are referenced or quoted with a close resemblance to their present form. Therefore, it seems logical that Ezra had access to the whole shebang.

The prayer indicates that Ezra had a deep understanding of the Bible and can easily paraphrase or summarize its stories. He also quotes specific lines from the Torah and uses the same terminology. If a modern editor formatted the prayer, certain sections would be indented as pull quotes and hyperlinked to their original source. Ezra, as a priest, knew the priestly laws pertaining to the temple practices and sacrificial system. He also displayed knowledge of the Torah’s historical narratives, the psalms, and select prophets as well. The Torah bolstered his prayer in every section.

Also, in Ezra’s day, the Torah was apparently authoritative. When Ezra presented the scroll, the people did not question the authority of the laws. The Torah teachings were common knowledge, even if they had lost touch with it. After weeks of intensive study and public readings, they were more biblically literate than ever! The prophet Malachi, a near contemporary to Ezra, accused the priests of knowing the biblical laws but teaching them with partiality (Mal. 2:6-9). If you have teachers of the law cherry-picking the scriptures to support their bias, it is a good sign that the text has long been in place. In Ezra’s case, he was earnestly using God’s own words to interpret the events of Israel’s past and to pray for a different future.

Ancestral Sin

Ezra’s prayer connects the remnant’s inheritance to that of their ancestors. They must own up to the stubborn sin patterns of previous generations. The prayer contrasted God’s faithfulness with Israel’s unfaithfulness. God’s grace and mercy abounded even when it was undeserved. The prophets used the same teaching tool when they juxtaposed God’s grace with Israel’s ingratitude. God performed mighty saving acts for his people, not because of who they were, but because of who he is. By shining a spotlight on the discrepancy between what God gave versus what they deserved, the narrative comes close to accusing the Israelites of blasphemy. Certainly, every act of rebellion against such a compassionate God horrified the listeners in the audience.

God delivered them from Egypt with nature-bending plagues and miracles. Still, they complained that slavery was better because at least they were not hungry in Egypt. God gave them the gift of the Torah, and they built a golden calf (9:16). God brought them to the promised land, but their fear of its inhabitants prevented them from experiencing its abundance (9:16-17). He overpowered their enemies, only for their satiated bellies to dull their hunger for him (9:25). He sent them one deliverer after another—whether it was Moses, the judges, or the prophets—but they ignored them all (9:26-30). Like Groundhog Day, they were stuck in a cycle of God’s deliverance matched by Israel’s obstinance. It was a merry-go-round that they could not seem to get off.

All is Not Well

Ezra finished his prayer lesson and moved on from the past to focus on the present challenges they faced. He signaled his change in focus by saying “now, therefore” or hinneh in Hebrew (9:32). Ezra asks God to not “treat lightly all the hardship” that the people have endured “since the time of the kings of Assyria until today” (9:32). Ezra is not blaming God for punishing Israel but asking God, in his mercy, to save them from the consequence of their wrongdoing. As his prayer outlined, their ancestors were deserving of the consequences of their rebellion. Ezra confirms, “you have been just in all that has come upon us” (9:33).

Ezra creates a link, not for the first time, between the restored community and the ancient Israelites God freed from slavery in Egypt. The returnees considered themselves as the people of the Second Exodus. Ezra even referred to them as slaves but instead of slaves in exile, they were slaves in their homeland (9:36). Just as God heard the groaning of the slaves in Egypt, Ezra hopes God recognizes the remnant’s distress signal. Subjects to the Persian empire, paying Persian taxes to fund imperial wars, they were in a sad state.

Ezra tells God that the land’s “rich yield goes to the kings whom you have set over us because of our sins; they have power also over our bodies and over our livestock at their pleasure, and we are in great distress” (9:37). This is the first time the postexilic leader revealed a crack in the relationship between Judah and the Persian empire. Ezra and Nehemiah were both beneficiaries of Persian benevolence. Until this point in the narrative, Ezra and Nehemiah have praised the Persian empire for its support and endorsement. Serving a foreign pagan empire was not the climax of God’s blessing, even if the king had allowed them to return to their homeland and rebuild their temple and walls. Ezra dreams of a fully independent remnant, fresh from a spiritual revival and free in her own land. God’s restoration promises will only be fulfilled then.


The public reading and Ezra’s prayer give the sense that the people are at a turning point in their spiritual development. Ezra will mold every piece of the revival into a full return to Yahweh. Like an evangelical pastor holding an altar call after a powerful sermon, Ezra will call the people to a covenant renewal ceremony.

Thank you for listening and please continue to participate in this Bible Reading Challenge.

Next week are reading Nehemiah 10. For all the Biblical references each week, please see the show transcript on our blog or by signing up for our emails at

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Shabbat Shalom