Look at Jerusalem, as we visit it in imagination to-day, and take a bird’s-eye view of the city. The whole place is mad with joy. They are keeping the gayest, the merriest, the prettiest feast in the whole year, the Feast of Tabernacles. It was a saying amongst the Jews, that unless a man had been present at the Feast of Tabernacles he did not know what joy was. And in Nehemiah’s time this feast was kept more fully and with more rejoicing than it had been kept for a thousand years; no one had ever witnessed such a Feast of Tabernacles since the days of Joshua.
The city was a mass of green booths, made with branches of olive, pine, myrtle, and palm; and in these the people lived, and ate, and slept for eight days; whilst the whole city was lighted up, and glad music was constantly heard, and the people feasted, and laughed, and made merry.
It was the 22nd day of the month Tisri when the Feast of Tabernacles was ended, and only two days afterwards there came a remarkable change.
Look at Jerusalem again, you would hardly know it to be the same place. The green booths are all gone, they have been carefully cleared away. There is not a branch, or a banner, or a bit of decoration to be seen. The bright holiday dresses, the gay blue, and red, and yellow, and lilac robes, the smart, many-coloured turbans have all been laid by; there is not a sign of one of them. We see instead an extraordinary company of men, women and children making their way to the open space by the water gate. They are covered with rough coarse sackcloth, a material made of black goats’ hair and used for making sacks. Every one of the company is dressed in this rough material; not only so, but the robe of each is made like a sack in shape, so that they look like a crowd of moving sacks, and on their heads are sprinkled earth and dust and ashes.
The rejoicing has turned into mourning, the feast into a fast. A great sense of sin has come over the people; they feel their need of forgiveness, and they are come to seek it.
The meeting seems to have assembled about nine o’clock, the time of the morning sacrifice. For a quarter of the day, for three hours, they read the law of God, for three hours more they fell prostrate on the ground, and confessed their sin. Their prayers were led by Levites, standing on high scaffoldings where everyone could see them, where all could hear them as they cried with a loud voice to God.
Then just at the time of the evening sacrifice, at three o’clock in the afternoon, the Levites called to the kneeling multitude and bade them rise, ’Stand up and bless the Lord your God for ever and ever: and blessed be Thy glorious name, which is exalted above all blessing and praise.’
Then the Levites went through the history of God’s wonderful goodness to His people, to Abraham in Egypt, in the wilderness, in the land of Canaan; everywhere, and at all times He had been good to them, again and again He had delivered them. But they—what had they done?