Weekly Thought: Encouragement from Every Book Nehemiah: The Joy of The Lord is Your Strength
What happens when we hear the Word of God? When God speaks, things happen. Worlds are formed. Light appears and darkness scatters. The foundations of the earth tremble at his voice. But what happens in us when we hear the Word of God? What is supposed to happen? Because if we truly listen to the voice of God in Scripture, we cannot but help but be massively affected in some way. If the same Lord who said “Let there be light” speaks into our lives, something amazing can occur.
As with the book of Ezra, in the book of Nehemiah we see both physical and spiritual rebuilding among God’s people returning from exile. Once again, God works in the heart of a pagan king so that Nehemiah is allowed to return to Jerusalem and help rebuild the city walls. Nehemiah comes up against trials from all fronts in this task. He must deal with crafty enemies and a difficult undertaking but because of his servant leadership, the people have a mind to work, and they accomplish the mission of rebuilding the city walls.
Yet again, however, the spiritual restoration is the major focus in the book of Nehemiah rather than the physical walls. We see over and over that it’s the Word of the Lord that is at the center. God’s own Word is what truly create change in the hearts of the people. For instance, in Nehemiah 5, when it is discovered that the people are oppressing the poor and exacting interest from their neighbors, Nehemiah is greatly disturbed and points the people back to the foundational principles of God’s Law. And in the same chapter, Nehemiah leads by example in not participating in all the wealth and privileges afforded by his position in order to not lay a heavy burden on the people. Nehemiah was living with a fear of God and his Word.
Not only did Nehemiah seek to live out the Word by example and service, but he also desired greatly for it to be taught among the people. In Nehemiah 8, Ezra reads the book of the Law and he and other leaders explain it to the people:
“And Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground. Also Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, the Levites, helped the people to understand the Law, while the people remained in their places. They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading” (Nehemiah 8:6-8).
This is a wonderful moment for Judah. The covenant is being renewed; they are being reminded of God’s holy standard for them. And not only are they simply hearing it, but great care is taken so they understand it as well. So what happens when these people hear and understand the Word of God? What is the result of their understanding? Notice what happens next:
“And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law. 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.” So the Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be
grieved.” And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them.”
What is the result of their understanding? It is not the moment of happiness that we might first expect. It is great weeping and mourning. Why? It’s because they see the standard so clearly set before them, and it is unmistakable that they have fallen woefully short. They are convicted by the truth of God’s Word. They have not kept their side of the covenant; they have been miserably unfaithful. This is not a wrong response. It is good and right that they feel this way because it reflects the reality. They had been faithless; they were guilty.
Yet, the leaders insist that they cease their weeping and mourning. Why? The answer is there in the text: “And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” Understanding God’s Word certainly creates in us a sense of sorrow and inadequacy, as it should. However, he also imparts a superior power—his own joy. This moment was not about their failures but about God’s great faithfulness and his covenant-keeping love. As they came to him in repentance and renewed fervor to obey the covenant, they could have joy because God did not give up on his people, even in exile. Our strength is not in our obedience or power; it is in God’s joy. His steadfast love and joy in his people supersedes their failures, their guilt, and their shame. The leaders remind the people that this a holy day of rejoicing in all that God had done in working for them. Godly grief and repentance are good and appropriate—as is demonstrated by the people’s prayer in the next chapter—but joy in God should always triumph His mercy and strength turns our rightful shame and guilt into rejoicing over what God has done. This allows us to be free from reliance of our own works and free from the overwhelming burden of guilt so that we are sustained by the Lord’s mighty working, despite our weakness.
Understanding God’s Word should routinely convict us and make us mourn over the gravity of our sin. We aren’t really grasping his truth if we aren’t brought to our knees by our grievous sin and his great holiness. Yet, if we are truly hearing what God has to say, we will not be left in shame for long. His Word always provides a joy and hope because of his faithfulness. Who he is provides us a solid hope amidst our wickedness. It constantly reminds us to cast off our ways and to continually pursue his way by his strength and grace. As a result, our change comes from a trust in his unchanging goodness rather than from a reluctant, guilt-induced desire to modify our behavior. The joy of the Lord is our strength.
This is one of the great meanings of the cross of Jesus Christ. Certainly, we cannot see the cross without seeing in it the horrors of our sin. The consequences of our rebellion puts the Son of God to death. Every person with a soft heart will weep concerning his part in the death of God’s beloved one. We know, however, that our mourning over the cross is not the dominant, ultimate reaction that we should have. In the cross, we see the strengthening joy of God because he faithfully removes our sin in Jesus and allows us to be reconciled to him by his grace. His indestructible life and his infinite joy overpower the sorrow of our unfaithfulness. It is by this grace and joy that we are empowered to love and serve this faithful God. As we saw in Ezra, repentance and grief are essential, but they are not final. God replaces that sadness with happy hope for those who come to him in love and humility. The joy of the Lord is our strength.
“For his anger is but for a moment, and his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Psalm 30:5).