How do godly people respond when a church, community, city, or a country is guilty of great sin? The Biblical answer has always astounded and challenged me. When God rebuked the Israelites for their marriage to foreign women, Ezra the priest, one who was not guilty for breaking the law of intermarriage, responds, “O my God, I am ashamed and blush to lift my face to you, my God, for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has mounted up to the heavens. From the days of our fathers to this day we have been in great guilt” (Ezra 9:6-7). Notice how he groups himself in with the rest of his people: ‘for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has mounted up to the heavens” (emphasis added).
Daniel prayed in a similar fashion: “To us, O Lord, belongs open shame, to our kings, to our princes, and to our fathers, because we have sinned against you. To the Lord our God belong mercy and forgiveness, for we have rebelled against Him and have not obeyed the voice of the Lord our God by walking in His laws, which he set before us by his servants the prophets” (Daniel 9:8-9). Up to this point, Daniel has been portrayed as a godly, uncompromising young man (Daniel 1:8). It is probably very safe to assume that Daniel himself was not directly guilty for the indictments he brought against himself and Israel. Nonetheless, he groups himself in with the rest of his people and takes the guilt upon himself as a member of the guilty community.
Nehemiah did the same: “And they said to me, the remnant…is in great trouble and shame…As soon as I heard these words I sat down and wept and mourned for days and I continued fasting and praying before the God of heaven. And I said, O LORD God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments…I now pray before you day and night for the people of Israel your servants, confessing the sins of the people of Israel, which we have sinned against you. Even I and my father’s house have sinned. We have acted very corruptly against you and have not kept the commandments, the statutes, and the rules that you have commanded your servant Moses (Nehemiah 1:3-7, emphasis added).
This is a demonstration of true humility. How easy—and perhaps legitimate—it would have been for these godly men to denounce the sins of the people and say things like, “O God, your people have sinned; they have acted corruptly, please be merciful to them, etc.” But that is not the response; instead these men are broken, not only for the sin of their people, but for for their own sin and for any part they have played in rebelling against God. God’s discipline of the community prompts these men to consider their own ways and to be humbled for their own sin.
More recently, Jonathan Edwards has captured this kind of humility a resolution he wrote when he was a young man. “Resolved, to act, in all respects, both speaking and doing, as if nobody had been so vile as I, and as if I had committed the same sins, or had the same infirmities or failings as others; and that I will let the knowledge of their failings promote nothing but shame in myself, and prove only an occasion of my confessing my own sins and misery to God.” What a resolution!
So how should godly people respond when confronted with a humankind that is in wholesale rebellion against its Creator, a nation that is rapidly departing from any real sense of right and wrong, and a Church that is weak and infected by the world? They repent for their own sins and the participation they have had in the tarnishing of God’s name. They load upon themselves the guilt of the community and confess the role they have played in the rebellion.
In each case, Ezra, Daniel, and Nehemiah, God worked great things as a result of their prayers: Ezra organized and completed the building of the temple, Nehemiah rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem, and Daniel was visited by the angel Gabriel who brought Daniel significant “insight and understanding.” Perhaps what is needed at the present hour to bend God’s ear toward us is not merely more prayer, but prayer saturated in broken-hearted humility for our involvement in the rebellions against which we pray.