“Now on the twenty-fourth day of this month the children of Israel were assembled with fasting, in sackcloth, and with dust on their heads.” Nehemiah 9:1 (NKJV)
There are a couple of things we need to understand about this verse. The first is that their sorrow for sin is in connection with hearing the Law. In Nehemiah 8 the Law was read and explained to them. As the Law was preached they were made aware of their transgressions of God’s Law and this brought a deep conviction upon them. Conviction of sin is almost always connected to hearing God’s Word.
The second thing we have to notice is their response to this conviction. They assembled while fasting and wearing sackcloth and dust on their heads. This was all a sign of great mourning for their sin. When you read the Scriptures, particularly the Old Testament you find that the people fasted when they were mourning over sin. I’m not 100% sure of the significance of fasting when accompanying mourning unless it was to show that they were so distraught over their sin that they couldn’t even eat. The significance of the sackcloth and ashes was that of humiliation. They were showing outwardly what was going on inwardly. Inwardly they were so grieved over their sin against God that they were humiliated by it. So they demonstrated their grief and humiliation by wearing a burlap sack and putting dirt on their heads.
Biblical repentance always includes a godly sorrow for the sins committed.
“Now I rejoice, not that you were made sorry, but that your sorrow led to repentance. For you were made sorry in a godly manner, that you might suffer loss from us in nothing. For godly sorrow produces repentance leading to salvation, not to be regretted; but the sorrow of the world produces death.” (2 Corinthians 7:9-10 NKJV)
One of the things that’s important to take away from this passage is not all sorrow is a godly sorrow. The Bible says that there is a godly sorrow for sin that leads to repentance and salvation. There is also a worldly sorrow for sin that leads to death. We have to know the difference so that we can ensure that the sorrow we feel at our sin is the godly sorrow that leads to repentance and salvation.
Let me take a minute and explain what godly sorrow is not. Godly sorrow is not being sorry you were caught. If the only sorrow produced in your life when you sin is a result of someone finding out about your sins, you are not genuinely sorry for your sins. You are sorry you got caught in your sins.
Godly sorrow is not being afraid God is going to punish you for your sins. If the only sorrow produced in your life when you sin comes because you are afraid that God is going to break your leg, burn down your house, do something to your children or do something else to punish you, you are not genuinely sorry for your sin. You fear God’s punishment. To fear God’s punishment and to be sorry for sin is not the same thing.
To be sorry you were caught or be sorry because you are afraid of God’s punishment are examples of worldly sorrow that leads to death. The reason they lead to death is because they do not really turn us to God and they do not produce a change in our lives. When someone is sorry they were caught they are only sorry and only pretend to change while the shame of being caught remains. Once the shame is over the change goes out the window and they go back to doing what they were doing only this time they are more careful.
When someone is sorry because they are afraid of God’s punishment they are only sorry and only pretend to change while the fear of punishment remains. Once the fear of punishment is gone the change goes out the window and they go back to doing what they were doing before.
Godly sorrow is very different from this. With godly sorrow we feel grief or sorrow for the sin committed whether anyone finds out or not. With godly sorrow we feel grief or sorrow for the sin committed whether God chastises us for that sin or not. Basically it means that you are sorry you committed the sin regardless of any other circumstances. It is to be sorry you have sinned against God.
In the world we live in one of the greatest crimes you can commit against humanity is to make someone feel bad about themselves. We live in a world where people feel they are entitled to always feel good. On the other hand the Bible teaches that if we sin against God, we won’t always feel good about ourselves because Biblical repentance always involves a godly sorrow for the sins we’ve committed against God.
For further study read Nehemiah 8-9. What in chapter 8 lead to the events in chapter 9? What in chapter 8 shows that they were genuinely repenting of their sins? What in chapter 9 shows genuine repentance?