Top 12 Scripture Texts: Number 10B
In the last posting on “The Benediction Project” I introduced the subject of “the joy of the Lord” from Nehemiah 8:10, our Bible text of the month. This has been one of my top twelve favorite scripture passages throughout my Christian life, and I want to look here at its biblical context and some of its practical application for today.
It is risky, I know, to try to write about joy—true, deep, inner joy—in such turbulent times as these. The world has gone mad, pure and simple. In addition, as I said in the last posting, I am struggling with some difficult health issues related to my heart transplant of five years ago. How can I be so bold as to write about joy, especially “the joy of the Lord?”
I am writing on the topic because I believe God has “wired” (created, designed, constructed) every human being to seek and experience joy, in the same way that he wired us to desire beauty, truth, love and creative expression. The Bible speaks often of joy, or uses similar terms such as rejoicing, delight, happiness, and gladness. If God’s Word mentions joy so frequently it is obvious that God intends us to understand the topic and live it out in daily life. The “fruit of the Spirit” is love, joy, peace and other virtues that radiate the presence of God from within us to others (Galatians 5:22-23). Joy is an essential mark of all Christians, not an optional quality for some special people who are naturally more optimistic than others.
The Historical Background
The date of the events in Nehemiah 8:10 was about 445-444 B.C. It was the first day of the seventh month, Tishri (September-October), the beginning of the civil new year. The time was after the captivity of the Jewish people in Babylon. Several groups of captives had traveled the four-month route (900 miles) to return to the land of Judea and to Jerusalem. When Nehemiah, the governor of the Jewish people, returned to the promised land, he viewed the broken-down walls of Jerusalem and stirred the people to rebuild them. After the walls were finished there was a great assembly in the city square before the Water Gate.
Because Ezra had been the priest, scribe and spiritual leader of the Jews in Babylon, and their ongoing spiritual guide for the 13 years since they had been back in Jerusalem, the people asked this highly-respected man to read and teach from the law of Moses. According to the scriptures,
“On the first day of the seventh month Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, which was made up of men and women and all who were able to understand. 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. All the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law.” (Nehemiah 8:2-3, NIV)
After a time of public worship there was a time of public teaching. The Levites “read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was being read.” Surprisingly “all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law” (vss. 8-9).
The scripture readings were from the first five books of the Bible, and some of it was obviously from Leviticus (compare Nehemiah 8:9-18 with Leviticus 23:23-44). The Feast of Trumpets, the Day of Atonement, and the Feast of Tabernacles all were to be observed during the seventh month, and Ezra and the Levites explained these matters in a way that touched the people powerfully.
Emotions of Sorrow and Joy
Notice the contrasting emotions of sorrow and joy as the people heard the Word of God read, interpreted and applied. Why were they mourning and weeping, and then turning from sorrow to great joy? Dr. H. G. M. Williamson, Professor of Hebrew at Oxford, offers some fine insights:
“The initial reaction [weeping] is probably not to be explained by the fact that the law was unfamiliar to them so much as that the interpretation which Ezra and the Levites provided (vss. 7-8) brought home its relevance to their situation in a fresh way…. Ezra (perhaps for the first time) developed a means of interpreting Scripture whereby parts which had been thought to be out-of-date were shown to reveal the underlying principles of God’s will which were of timeless relevance. The result of this was to stir the people’s consciences as they came to realize how far short of God’s standards their lives had fallen” [“Nehemiah,” in New Bible Commentary, 21st Century Edition, D. A. Carson, et al., eds. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), p. 437].
I have thought for years about the words of Nehemiah, Ezra and the Levites to all the people: “Do not mourn or weep.” “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is sacred to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” If the people were grieving over their collective sin of neglecting the Law of Moses—in this case, observation of the feasts of Leviticus 23—then wouldn’t it be appropriate for them to grieve and mourn? After all, the Feast of Tabernacles had not been celebrated properly for 1,000 years—since the days of Joshua (Nehemiah 8:17).
Surely it was not wrong for the people to grieve over their sin. Three weeks later there would be a major time of repentance, fasting, wearing of sackcloth and confession of sin—“their sins and the wickedness of their fathers” (Nehemiah 9:1-2). But, as Dr. Williamson notes so well,
“This [awareness of God’s high standard], however, is neither the sole nor the dominant message either of the OT law or of Scripture as a whole. By reminding them that this day [Feast of Trumpets, Leviticus 23:24] was sacred (vss. 9, 11)—a day on which they were especially to recall God’s past acts of grace and salvation towards Israel—and that the joy of the Lord was the source of their strength (v. 10) as they linked themselves by faith with the experience of their ancestors, Ezra set their legitimate sense of failure within the wider context of God’s grace and invitation. Confession would have its proper place (ch. 9), but the first response to hearing God’s word should be of joyful acceptance (vss. 10-11). It is a pattern of response not unlike that in Acts 2:37-39” (Williamson, pp. 437-38).
The Fullness of Divine Joy
This is such a important point that I felt it needed to be said before moving to the more practical aspects of joy in our next posting on Nehemiah 8:10. For many years I simply lifted the key words out of the chapter—“the joy of the Lord is your strength”—and sucked on them like a piece of hard candy. I even sang them, as some of you may have. While this text does bring gladness to my heart when I simply read it, sing it or recall it, it brings much deeper confidence and delight when I reflect on the whole chapter, and the following one as well. The book of Nehemiah makes it clear that the people celebrated “with great joy, because they now understood the words that had been made known to them” (8:8, 12, 17). This proper interpretation of the law of Moses, set within the context of God’s broad invitation and deep, full river of grace, brings inner gladness to our hearts even though we cannot forget some of our past failures.
Before we come together again I truly long for you—as I long for myself—to develop an increasingly deep awareness of God’s joy becoming our strength. The gracious, loving, pure, and delightful trinitarian life of Father, Son and Spirit, when properly understood, will pull us in toward the very heart of God, “charging” us with true divine joy and grace that become our daily strength. Yes, your circumstances may be difficult and even heartbreaking in some cases, but I encourage you—from a lifetime of experience and a solid confidence in the written Word of God—to “be still,” to “not grieve,” to “eat and drink,” and to “send portions of food and to celebrate with great joy” (vss. 11-12). As you come to see ever more clearly the remarkable, amazing grace of God, his joy will be your strength!