Safe inside the new walls of their capital city, the people of Israel gathered to focus on spiritual renewal. Having been brought up in captivity in a pagan nation, they needed to reconnect with the one true God — their God. They didn’t get in a hurry about it, but spent nearly a month in Jerusalem worshiping together and studying God’s Word. God was speaking to their hearts, drawing them into a deeper understanding of His love, and leading them to a new level of commitment to Him.
The defining moment of the protracted meeting is described in this chapter. The people had heard the Scripture read aloud by Ezra, who repeated it over and over. God’s truth exposed their sin and revealed how far they fell short of His holy standards (God’s Word still has that power, Hebrews 4:12). In response, the people repented of their sins, openly confessing their personal and corporate violations of God’s Law (v.1-2). The sackcloth on their bodies and the dirt on their heads indicated the depth of their repentance and the intensity of their contrition. They spent half the day letting the Word of God wash over them and responding to God in reflective worship (v.3).
Then the Levites called the people to praise (v.5-6). (Note: our praise is purest when it comes from clean hearts. The praise described here came after an extended time of confession and repentance, and it was as good as it gets this side of heaven.) What followed next was a beautiful summary of the Word of God, sort of a sermon that emphasized God’s steadfast love for His people (v.6-31). Throughout their history, Israel found that He never stopped loving them — even when they stopped loving Him. God never lowered His holy standards, but neither did He lower the level of His grace and mercy. He required unconditional obedience to His commands, but He gave unconditional love to those who repented of their disobedience.
That is a good summary of my history with the Lord, too. When my faith wavers, His faithfulness is rock-steady. When I break my promises to Him, He keeps His promises to Me. When my love for Him grows cold, His love for me never fails. When I shame His name and then return to Him in embarrassment, He is still proud to call me His child. When I sin and ask His forgiveness, He washes me clean and refuses to hold it against me. What an awesome God! His goodness ought to lead us to a place of dependence on Him (v.32-37) and faithfulness to Him (v.38).