9 – Sackcloth and Ashes


Nehemiah 9:1-3 (CEV)
On the twenty-fourth day of the seventh month,
the people of Israel went without eating,
and they dressed in sackcloth
and threw dirt on their heads to show their sorrow.
They refused to let foreigners join them,
as they met to confess their sins
and the sins of their ancestors.
For three hours they stood
and listened to the Law of the Lord their God,
and then for the next three hours
they confessed their sins and worshiped the Lord.




Confessing your own and others’ sins—how does that work for you?



  • Can I confess the other guy’s sins and skip my own?
  • I’m OK confessing my own sin. Someone else’s, not so much
  • I’d rather skip confession altogether

When we are confessing in the presence of another human, it is very tempting to focus on trivia and skip over the major truths. Who are we trying to impress?

God is all-knowing. Our confession doesn’t provide God with any new information. Confession is for our own good. Absolutely.




Nehemiah 9:3 (NIV)
They stood where they were and read from the Book of the Law of the Lord their God for a quarter of the day, and spent another quarter in confession and in worshiping the Lord their God.


Assuming “the day” (the time allotted for activity) is 12 hours, these people spent three hours in confession and worship. A close look at the rest of the chapter finds it almost evenly divided between confession and praise.

90 minutes devoted to confession. The time I spend in confession usually comes closer to 90 seconds. Granted, this passage is about a special occasion, not a daily routine. But truthfully, my lifetime total of genuine confession isn’t much more than 90 minutes.

I’ll start off, Lord, by confessing that I have short-changed confession.





Let’s take a closer look at what was happening in Jerusalem:



Nehemiah 9:1-2
. . . the Israelites gathered together, fasting and wearing sackcloth and putting dust on their heads . . . They stood in their places and confessed their sins and the sins of their ancestors.

They set aside food, fashion and vanity. Sackcloth and ashes are symbols of humility. Humility setts aside our pride and self-centeredness. It comes to God with nothing but sorrow for our sin. It acknowledges how great he is and how transient we are.

They confessed their personal sins. In public.

James 5:16
Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.

Confession isn’t just between me and God.

I should publicly acknowledge that I am quick with the cutting word and the snap judgment, when I talk unkindly about others, how I look to food for comfort, that I am selfish and rude, and I secretly rejoice when someone I don’t like stumbles. In particular, I need to confess the pride that makes me so reluctant to make public confession.

Might the knowledge that I must confess to others serve as a deterrent to the sinful deed? Hmmm, I wonder.

The Jerusalem believers also confessed their corporate sins.

2 Chronicles 7:14
If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.

Surely the “humble themselves and pray” of this familiar passage is a form of corporate confession.

Current corporate confession surely would include our national obsession with money, our greed (in wanting to hoard wealth for ourselves and in coveting what belongs to others). It would include the attention we give to sports, music and movie stars, along with the lack of attention given to God. It would include our vague efforts to fight poverty, all the while neglecting the needy souls who live next door. What about our casual acceptance of abortion and sexual immorality? Shouldn’t we confess our hypocrisy in overlooking corrupt behavior in those who share our political leanings, while exaggerating the faults of those on the other side of the aisle?

Come to think of it, maybe 90 minutes isn’t enough time to do justice to our corporate sins.

We must leave a few minutes to confess the sins of our ancestors.

Why bother? Because those sins put us at risk.

Numbers 14:18
The LORD is slow to anger, abounding in love and forgiving sin and rebellion. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.

My grandmother’s childhood tantrums were legendary, as was her adult stubbornness. I too threw impressive tantrums when I was young, as did one of my children. It is possible that obstinacy is in our genes. But I was witness to some of the problems wrought by Granny’s wrongheadedness. I want to be the generation that doesn’t pass this to my children and grandchildren.

I realize, Lord, that this level of stubbornness is sin. I cannot excuse it as “just the way I am.” It is wrong in your eyes.

That is the personal side of the sins of our ancestors. But this, too, has a corporate version.

Isaiah 5:20
Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter.

When our culture declares something right and good for decades, we often accept it as right and good without serious thought. But calling it good doesn’t make it good in the eyes of God.

Are there cultural norms we accept but God abhors? Could some historical truths we hold dear be tools of the enemy—perhaps our right to privacy, our pursuit of prosperity, our rugged individualism? What about “follow the money” and “look out for #1”?

When we call out sin publicly, we reduce its influence over us. Confession diminishes sin’s power.

Each one of us and all of us together have an impact on our families and our culture, for good or for evil. It behooves us to consider the legacy we leave for future generations.


Rock solid

Watchman Nee (1903-1972) was a man of sorrows and suffering. He struggled with TB and heart disease. He was imprisoned for his faith from 1956 until his death. His wisdom was based on his impassioned study of the Bible and spiritual books.


“Children of God should not make a general confession by acknowledging their innumerable sins in a vague manner, because such confession does not provide conscience opportunity to do its perfect work. They ought to allow the Holy Spirit through their conscience to point out their sins one by one. Christians must accept its reproach and be willing, according to the mind of the Spirit, to eliminate everything which is contrary to God.”

Deed by specific deed, thought by specific thought, we should confess what is contrary to God. We must set aside our vanity and pride, and put on our symbolic sackcloth and ashes. We must repent. We should pray for God’s help, the power  of the Spirit to overcome.




Take the time to carefully read Nehemiah 9. You will see the balance between confession and praise.



Their human weaknesses are listed. As are God’s strengths. God’s glorious gifts are listed. And so were their failings. They confessed their sins. And they thanked God for his blessings.

Humble confession opens up the gates of our souls and lets the grace of God fill us, personally and corporately.

We think that when we usher God into our souls, we should be dressed in our finest, with perfect hair and makeup. We want to look worthy. Truth is, we must stand at the gate dressed in our humble sackcloth and ashes. The glory and beauty are all God’s.

Nehemiah 9:38
In view of all this, we are making a binding agreement, putting it in writing, and our leaders, our Levites and our priests are affixing their seals to it.

God put this binding agreement in writing in his Word, the Bible. An agreement, by definition, involves more than one person. We add our names to that eternal agreement, signing with the ashes of humble and public confession.

sign dot com

lee 1

Have you been giving confession the short shrift? Is there any sackcloth in your prayer closet?

What practices or attitudes were passed on to you that might warrant confession?Shirlee