As with many books in Scripture, the opening verses typically set the stage for what is to follow. Nehemiah is no exception. Early in the first chapter we hear Hanani’s reconnaissance report to Nehemiah in which he says “The remnant there in the province who had survived the exile is in great trouble and shame” (Neh 1:3 ESV). This word combination of “trouble and shame” is variously translated in English versions as “trouble and disgrace” or “distress and reproach”. For the word here listed as either “trouble” or “distress”, the Greek version of the Old Testament (LXX) uses the word poneria, meaning wickedness, maliciousness, sinfulness – the intentional practice of evil. For the word listed as either “shame”, “disgrace”, or “reproach”, the sense is that the remnant brought this unfavorable situation upon themselves and are now suffering the consequences.
The subject of shame pops up for the first time in scripture in Genesis 2:25. There we read “And the man and woman were both naked and were not ashamed.” Here the implication is that of total innocence. Thus, to be ashamed or in shame carries the sense of guilt - in particular the guilt that comes about through broken relationships – not only between one another (as with Adam and Eve) but more importantly with God.
Shame is not only a moral state reflecting the effects of sin, but it is an emotional state as well. According to Paul, to not be ashamed of one’s own sin, i.e. to “glory in their shame” makes “one an enemy of the cross of Christ” whose end is “destruction” (Phil 3:18-19). But though sin leads to shame and reproach, forgiveness which comes through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ, “who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame” allows us to “lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely” (Heb 12:1-2).
Another kind of shame comes from outside of us. It is shame that is imposed upon us. We who have parented children may have used such expressions as “shame on you” or “you should be ashamed of yourself.” Such expressions are meant to bring about an awareness that might not otherwise be experienced by the child. When such an awareness of ones sin takes root, the door is opened for the acts of confession and repentance. Nowadays, such an approach might be regarded by some as child abuse. This reflects the age in which we live – an age of shamelessness. Think of this in relation to our culture today. There is a lot of “shaming” taking place. And yet there is very little evidence that the “shamers” have any sense of their own sin. The marginal relationships sustained in this culture with one another and with God seldom translate into shame.
In the Bible, shame is often associated with justice. On the one hand, the one who carries their shame without remorse is the one who is under the judgement of God. On the other hand, we could say that shame itself is a deterrent – an unpleasant condition that every child of God wishes to avoid. The recognition that we ourselves are culpable for our sinful actions and thus subject to God’s judgment ought to bring about a sense of shame which we should be eager to eliminate.
The remnant who are at the center of Nehemiah’s account were ashamed. Whether it was self-inflicted or brought upon them from outside we cannot say. I’m inclined to think that for them it was a double – whammy. They were brought low by their own shame because of past sin and they were shamed because their present circumstances showed a lack of unity with one another and with God. They had all but forgotten who they were as God’s chosen people and had failed to bring Him the glory He deserved by completing the restoration of Jerusalem. A friend of mine summarized it all by saying that the city which was ordained to represent God’s magnificent glory “lay in shambles because of their sin.” Brought low in shame, they were now in the place where God could do a mighty work in their lives. First came the physical restoration of the wall. Then God would embark on the spiritual restoration of their hearts, and as a result eliminate the shame they carried.
The world is inclined to worship itself far more than to worship the one true God. Having no place for God, there is no room for shame and thus no path to forgiveness. In its attempt to “make the world a better place”, humanity has left God out of the equation. Instead of building a New Jerusalem, the world has succeeded only in building another Babylon.
As those who represent the church of Jesus Christ, may God grant us the discernment, strength, courage and resolve to make His Name great among the nations. Instead of trying to build a city with human hands in this age – which by the way, none stand a chance of surviving into the age to come- let us work to receive the Kingdom that has already been established and is ours by inheritance. And let any shame we may experience due to our sin be the catalyst that drives us ever more into the arms of our Savior Jesus Christ where salvation full and free rests.
Questions for reflection:
1. What is the purpose of shame in God’s economy?
2. Are we too easily apt to be “shamers”?
3. How is shame lacking in our own culture?
4. How is shame lacking in our own lives?
5. Is shame healthy or harmful?
6. Is there a “cure” for shame?7. When will we be truly unashamed?
Reverend Timothy Dubeau