Well After the FactBy Nathan Mates
God's people are called to repent as soon as sin becomes apparent. A psalmist notes "If I had cherished sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened;" [Psalm 66:18], while John notes "If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness." [1 John 1:8-9] Repenting to God helps mend the broken relationship with God and with each other. Just as God has called us to forgive often [Matthew 18:22, 23-35], that forgiveness usually comes when one party repents.
It would seem, logically, that a few hundred years after a sin occurred that it's hard for everyone involved to repent. First off, they're all dead. And repentance isn't going to help the people sinned against-- they're all dead as well. One can hardly imagine digging up the participants in the gunfight at the OK Corral to get them to apologize for the whole matter. Neither can one dig up Napoleon or any other leader who started pointless wars.
Israel sinned many times against God throughout its history, culminating in their exile to Babylon when their sins grew too numerous. They were graciously allowed by God to return to Jerusalem, and rebuild their city, and their temple to God. For the first time in generations, God's law was read to them publicly: "He read it aloud from daybreak till noon as he faced the square before the Water Gate in the presence of the men, women and others who could understand. And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law." [Nehemiah 8:3]
Something interesting happened as a result of this: "On the twenty-fourth day of the same month, the Israelites gathered together, fasting and wearing sackcloth and having dust on their heads. Those of Israelite descent had separated themselves from all foreigners. They stood in their places and confessed their sins and the wickedness of their fathers. They stood where they were and read from the Book of the Law of the LORD their God for a quarter of the day, and spent another quarter in confession and in worshiping the LORD their God." [Nehemiah 9:1-3]
Here, the people repented not just their own sins, but also the sins of their fathers (and forefathers as well). They were convicted by the sin pointed out by God's law-- as Paul notes centuries later, "rather, through the law we become conscious of sin." [Romans 3:20b] Faced with the inescapable truth of their own sin, and of their forefathers, they wisely chose to repent that day. The rest of Nehemiah chapter 9 is their extended prayer of confession, going through Israel's history, and all the many places the nation had disobeyed God. So, in effect, they repented vicariously for their ancestor's sins.
This is part of the Bible, and not something explicitly asked for, or condemned by God. In some sense, it worked-- the Pharisees grew up in the centuries between Nehemiah and Jesus, and they managed to not forget God's law. [They blew it in all sorts of other ways-- see Matthew 23] So, the question is, what are we to make of this vicarious repenting?
First off, it is good to note that repenting for others can't change their relationship with God. We can't change the past, and can't help out their salvation. Israel's exile to Babylon would not and could not be erased, or modified by this. God's words on this is clear that the punishment for sin was to lie on the sinner: "Fathers shall not be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their fathers; each is to die for his own sin." [Deuteronomy 24:16]
The next thing to note is that God convicted these Israelites that they were sinning in the same ways as their fathers before them. They were intermarrying with non-Israelites [Ezra 9:14, others], and so could be in danger of being exiled once again. I believe that this is the reason for this repentance on their father's behalf: they were also repenting of the same sin in their present selves.
There has been much discussion about how far back to apologize for things done by God's people over the course of centuries. This passage in Nehemiah is an example of how it has been done. While it may be helpful for such repentance to be done, it shouldn't get in the way of confessing and dealing with present sins-- it's far easier to say "my ancestor/predecessor was an idiot" than to say "I was an idiot." We cannot fix the past, but we can fix ourselves, and our focus must be on constantly improving our relationship with God rather than dwelling on the past.