Shake it Out, Baby!

May 22, 2012 - 5:00 am

“I also shook out the folds of my robe and said, ‘In this way may God shake out of His house and possessions every man who does not keep this promise. So may such a man be shaken out and emptied!’ At this the whole assembly said, ‘Amen,’ and praised the Lord. And the people did as they had promised.” —Nehemiah 5:13

“It was an act of God . . .”

Often uttered in hushed, apologetic tones, these words evoke images of destruction wrought by the forces of nature – a tornado, or a wildfire. Indeed, the modern mind conceives of divine punishment in almost entirely catastrophic terms. One imagines the fiery fate of Sodom and Gomorrah – an exclamation point at the end of a harsh, divine admonishment.

In light of such preconceived notions, Nehemiah’s metaphorical illustration of the threat of God’s wrath seems inaccurate, even clumsy. In exhorting his countrymen to cease oppressing the destitute among them, Nehemiah characterizes the act of divine retribution as akin to shaking out a dirty garment. Of all the analogies Nehemiah might have selected, why on earth did he opt for this one? If Nehemiah had at his disposal fire, brimstone, plague or famine, why choose the rather mundane act of shaking out one’s clothing of dust or crumbs?

Perhaps the answer lies in a closer look at Nehemiah’s metaphor. When, generally, do we shake out a piece of clothing? Just prior to throwing it away? Of course not! The only reason we shake out the dirt and dust is to clear our clothing of clutter that has built up over time, so that we can wear it and use it again. In other words, the act of shaking out an item – in Hebrew, “ni’ur” – represents the initial step of preparation to make use of it once more.

Likewise, when God chastises His people, His wrath may be terrible to behold, but it is hardly final. On the contrary, when we misbehave, God wishes to help us repent, to help erase our sins and begin from scratch. The ills we suffer grant us an opportunity to start fresh – to serve God once again. Just as a tablecloth at the end of a meal – soiled and spent – may be rendered good as new through the process of ni’ur, so too, Nehemiah reminds us, does mankind benefit even from divine punishment.

Our task then is to examine any ill fortune that befalls us and ask ourselves:  Has God deemed it necessary to “shake us out”? And if He has, how might we ensure that we make the most of our being good as new?


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