"Then he said to them, "Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength." Nehemiah 8:10 ESV
Returning from Exile
You've seen it on water bottles. You've seen it in craft store signs and on coffee mugs: "The joy of the Lord is my strength." You know it comes from the Bible, and you were likely a Sunday school kid if you already know that the verse it is found in is the book of Nehemiah.
Nehemiah was a Hebrew living in Persia. The Hebrew nation had been destroyed and the people had been exiled into captivity in Babylon years before. Now they were allowed to return to their homeland and rebuild their temple. Nehemiah was so favored by both God and the king of Persia that he was sent back to Jerusalem and appointed governor.
It was there that he oversaw the rebuilding of the temple and he was influential in the Hebrews' lives. Ezra, a contemporary of Nehemiah, was also a key player in the return to Jerusalem. Ezra was a scribe and a priest who worked alongside Nehemiah in restoring the Hebrews to their homeland and to proper worship of God.
When we come to chapter 8, we see that Ezra and Nehemiah have gathered the returned exiles together (a total of 50,000 people!) in order to read the Law to them.
The Word of God Opened
What did the people of God do when their city walls had been rebuilt and they were worshipping together as one people again? They listened to the word of God read aloud:
1 And all the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate. And they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses that the Lord had commanded Israel. 2 So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could understand what they heard, on the first day of the seventh month.
This was a people that had been broken and destroyed. They had turned away from God, had not obeyed God, and broke covenant with God over and over.
God was patient, but eventually, his patience with their rebellion had ended and they suffered mightily for their sin. Now that God was restoring them to their homeland, they worshipped and bowed down as they heard His word read aloud.
Repentance and Sorrow
Verse 9 tells us that the people wept and were overwhelmed with sorrow when they heard the word of God read aloud. Their sin hung heavily on their shoulders and they felt the sting of conviction. We can trust from their continued faithfulness that this was a godly sorrow that led to repentance (2 Corinthians 7:10).
This was not a woe-is-me sorrow. The Israelites were repentant! This is why Nehemiah tells them to go on and celebrate the coming feast. He encourages them not to stay in their grief, but rather to enjoy the blessing that God is setting before them.
Finally, we come to our familiar passage. Nehemiah doesn't just tell the Israelites not to grieve. He tells them not to grieve because of something, and that something is the promise that the joy of the Lord is their strength.
The Happy God
Did you know that the Apostle Paul refers to God as "the happy God"? You've read it many times and never caught it because we have largely lost a definition of "blessed" that includes happiness, but Paul refers to our glorious God as "the happy God" in 1 Timothy 1:10-11.
Jesus encourages us in John 15:11 to trust that what He has done for us has been for our joy, and that joy comes from God Himself! Our God is a joyful God! He is infinitely happy, and he wants us to be happy with Him.
Why Would God's Joy Strengthen Me?
You and I have a basis for happiness that is not dependent on ourselves or our current circumstances. Because our God is a joyful God, we can rest content. We do not serve a vengeful, angry god. Unlike mythological gods, or people we may idolize, the one true God does not have moods that might fluctuate with circumstances.
Not only is He in control of all that comes to pass, everything is working out according to His perfect plan! He is never taken by surprise. He is never confused about any situation. He is working it all out for our good and His glory (Romans 8:28).
Because we can anchor our hope in a God that does not change, we are free to enjoy whatever situation He has placed us in, whether painful or pleasant. Remember what Paul said in Phillippians:
11 Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. 12 I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me.
Paul doesn't say that now that He knows God, he hasn't experienced trial. He says that in trials or in abundance, he can face it all because it is Christ who is upholding Him. When we rely on God's strength instead of our own, we will be upheld.
Back to the Word of God
The question remains, dear Christian, if God's joy is a sure a steady anchor (and it is), why do we often fail to be joyful? Sin is the answer and Christ is the cure! Your restlessness and easily disquieted heart is no surprise to the Lord. He knows our weaknesses and frailty.
In His infinite grace toward us, He has not left us to our own devices. Not only did he sent the ultimate Comforter to us, the Holy Spirit, He left us a powerful weapon in the fight against despair when He gave us His Word.
The Bible is God's choice food perfectly suited for the strengthening of His children. It is no mistake that Jesus called Himself the "bread of life" and promised that those that come to Him would not hunger or thirst (John 6:35). Jesus is the very Word of God made flesh (John 1) and it is when we eat of the great table of spiritual food put before us in Scripture that God equips us to battle for joy.
A Cloud of Witnesses
The Israelites in Nehemiah's day knew what it meant to be convicted and led back to God through the public reading of the Word. The gathering of the saints on Sunday is another way that we are to be strengthened by the Word of God.
During corporate worship when Scripture is read aloud, when we partake of the Lord's Supper, and we raise our voices with other saints, offering worship to God, we are obediently doing what God has commanded, and this brings Him glory.
The writer of Hebrews describes the blessing of Christian life in community this way:
12 Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, 2 looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.
The "cloud of witnesses" are our brothers and sisters in the faith who have gone before us. Allowing their example to encourage us, we should strive to live joyful, godly lives that are unencumbered by doubt, discouragement, and sin.
We do this the same way they did, the way Hebrews describes: by running the race set before us in hopeful expectation of the coming glory that God has promised us in eternity.
The Joy Set Before Us
“It is said that the wise men which came from the East to worship Christ, when they saw the star, standing over the place where the babe was, were exceedingly glad [Matt. 2:10]. How much more shall the elect rejoice, when they shall see Christ not lying in a manger but crowned with immortal glory in the kingdom of heaven? Wherefore, this joy of the elect after this life is most wonderful and cannot be uttered.”
—William Perkins, Works V, p. 411.
One day, we will not be loaded down by sin. There will be no unpleasant circumstances. We will have no race to run, no battle to fight. We will live in perfect unity with God and with our fellow heirs in Christ. Let us join with those who have gone before us in looking forward to that day.
As we journey heavenward together, let us fight the good fight of faith using the weapons against sin that God has kindly left for us in His word and in the fellowship of other saints. Rely on God and His strength. There is so much joy to be found in Him!