There are many great examples of humility and repentance in scripture. One of those examples is found in the opening chapter of Nehemiah.
Nehemiah is a man of Jewish heritage who is in exile in Babylon. He has just learned that the city of Jerusalem, the center for worship to the LORD, is in ruins. The scripture tells us that Nehemiah “sat down and wept and mourned for days; and I was fasting and praying before the God of heaven,” with these words:
“‘I beseech You, O Lord God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who preserves the covenant and lovingkindness for those who love Him and keep His commandments, let Your ear now be attentive and Your eyes open to hear the prayer of Your servant which I am praying before You now, day and night, on behalf of the sons of Israel Your servants, confessing the sins of the sons of Israel which we have sinned against You; I and my father’s house have sinned. We have acted very corruptly against You and have not kept the commandments, nor the statutes, nor the ordinances which You commanded Your servant Moses. Remember the word which You commanded Your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful I will scatter you among the peoples; but if you return to Me and keep My commandments and do them, though those of you who have been scattered were in the most remote part of the heavens, I will gather them from there and will bring them to the place where I have chosen to cause My name to dwell.’ They are Your servants and Your people whom You redeemed by Your great power and by Your strong hand. O Lord, I beseech You, may Your ear be attentive to the prayer of Your servant and the prayer of Your servants who delight to revere Your name, and make Your servant successful today and grant him compassion before this man.’ Now I was the cupbearer to the king.”
It is interesting to see that Nehemiah mentions not only his own sins but also “the sins of the sons of Israel” which “we” have sinned, including “I” and “my father’s house.”
Normally we think of confession as something that we would only do for ourselves. Passages like Ezekiel 18:20 teach us that sons are not responsible for the sins of their parents, nor parents for the sins of their children. If this is so, what is the benefit of confessing sins that other people have done, as if they could gain forgiveness based on our confession instead of their own, or as though we bore the guilt for what they did in ourselves?
One benefit that might come from confessing the sins of our forefathers and of the communities in which we live, is that it can help us to recognize how pervasive and serious the brokenness of the world around us really is.
This might also help us to recognize how we got in such bad shape and what must be done to turn things around.
Furthermore, in attributing these sins both to “I” and “my father’s house,” Nehemiah may also be articulating the fact that he learned a lot of his bad habits from the culture and the environment into which he was born, and thus rather than “inheriting” their sins automatically, he has nonetheless adopted their sins into his own life and replicated them for himself by his own free will.
We tend to think of past generations as being the backward ones, while our generation has learned from the mistakes of the past. But often times, we are making our own mistakes that may be superficially different, but are in many ways analogous to the sins of those before us.
Isaiah said “Woe is me! I am ruined! I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips!” Before we point the finger solely at our forefathers or at the world around us, maybe we should make sure that we ourselves are not doing the same kind of things.