The Joy of the Lord is our Strength
Nehemiah 8:1-12 23 January 2022
Jesus once said that in this world we will have tribulation, hard times. For many families, the past several weeks have been difficult due to the latest COVID virus. I know a number of people who are dealing with it. And, I’m sure you know people who are struggling with it. One of the things humankind has often dealt with is some form of plague. I remember a nearly 90 year old woman who spoke to me about the Flu Epidemic in 1919 as though it were yesterday. In the early 1950’s a number of my friends contracted polio. Now some in their old age are suffering from Post Polio Syndrome. When the Salk vaccine was distributed, we children did not know what a blessing it was. We received it at school on little sugar cubes. God has blessed many of us with strong immune systems that kept us from serious illnesses. However, the people of Israel had a serious problem. While God blessed them over and over again, they were unfaithful and disobeyed His Law.
When one reads through the Old Testament one finds that the people of Israel went through periods when they were faithful to the Lord God but much of the time they were unfaithful and broke God’s Covenant. They often got caught up in the paganism of their time and worshiped the various gods and goddesses of the land. That was worse than insulting the Lord God. They were so unfaithful to the Lord that He permitted King Nebuchadnezzar leader of the Babylonian Empire to conquer Jerusalem and lead the leaders and skilled craftsmen to captivity in the great city of Babylon. The Babylonian king destroyed the temple and the city of Jerusalem. This was a direct result of their unfaithfulness to the Lord God. Their disobedience led to defeat and exile. However, through the prophets, God promised that he would one day bring back a remnant to Jerusalem.
The people of Israel were in exile for seventy years. In 539 BC, King Cyrus of Persia defeated the Babylonian Empire, and the next year he gave permission to the exiled Jews to return to Jerusalem. The return of the exiles came in three groups. The first group of around 50,000 people left Babylon and settled in Judea. They were led by a man named Zerubbabel. Some 80 years later, Ezra the priest led a second group. There were perhaps 5000 people in this group. And a third group came in 445 BC under the leadership of Nehemiah. He came specifically to rebuild the walls of the city. An unknown number of people came with him. He quickly organized the rebuilding of the city walls and gates. There were hostile people in the area so those rebuilding the walls were guarded by men with spears. Half worked on rebuilding and half guarded them. The rebuilding project took only 52 days. We pick up the story after the temple, the city walls and the gates were rebuilt.
The people gathered in the square near the Water Gate and Ezra brought out the Scroll of the Law of Moses. People were not familiar with the Law of Moses but knew it came from God Himself. While in exile they were caught up in a different culture and lost contact with their own culture. While the Scroll of the Law of Moses was written in Hebrew, the people spoke a different language. In the crowd gathered before the Water Gate were all who could understand, that is, comprehend what was being taught. The crowd even included woman and children who would normally not be present in such a time of holy reading. Ezra stood on a high platform so everyone could see and hear. Present on the platform with him were the leaders of Israel. He unrolled the Scroll of the Law of Moses and began to read. He actually read from daybreak to Noon. And the people listened attentively and were hungry to hear the Word of God. Ezra spoke for five or six hours as the people carefully listened. Imagine people today standing in the city square listening to the Scriptures being read for five or six hours. That is not going to happen. Today’s attention span is somewhere between eleven and seventeen minutes. We moderns could not focus for six hours as the people of Israel did.
The people stood up out of respect. Ezra began with praising the Lord and the people responded with “Amen! Amen!” They then bowed down and worshipped the Lord with their faces to the ground. They knew this was a special holy occasion and responded accordingly to honor the Lord. This is the first time that they had heard the Law of Moses read. They may have known something about it but this is the first time they heard it completely read. The seventy years in exile in Babylon erased much of their cultural memories. While Ezra read, the Levites instructed the people. I get a sense that Ezra paused occasionally so the Levites could teach small groups of people and expand upon what Ezra was reading. Given that this is the first time the people had heard the Law of Moses read, I am certain they had many questions and wanted to understand what Ezra was reading.
In response to hearing the Law of Moses read, the people began weeping and weeping. Why were they crying? Were they crying out of joy? The Bible experts do not think their tears were tears of joy. They were tears of repentance. They knew why they were exiled in Babylon. They knew that disobedience to God lead directly to their defeat at the hands of the Babylonian army. They listened to the Law of Moses and realized how seriously they had violated God’s law. No, these were not tears of joy but tears of penance. They likely realized that if they continued to violate God’s law as their ancestors did that they too would find disaster. They would have heard about the blessings of obedience and the curses of disobedience. These former exiles listened to the Law of Moses read and responded with tears of repentance.
At this point, Nehemiah spoke up. He said, “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to the Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength (Nehemiah 12:10).” He told them that this is a time for rejoicing, not grieving. And the people left rejoicing and had a feast.
We recently moved through the Christian season of Christmas. It is truly a time of joy and celebration. We heard the story of the shepherds in Luke. “But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord (Luke 2:10-11).’” We sang the old Christmas hymns and rejoiced. The Isaac Watts hymn speaks loudly about Christmas joy: “Joy to the world, the Lord is come! Let earth receive her King; let every heart prepare him room, and heaven and nature sing…Joy to the world, the Savior reigns! Let all their songs employ; while fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains repeat the sounding joy…” Not only do people sing joyfully due to the birth of our Savior but even the all nature sings out. I know Christmas is a burden to some but if we divest the season from all the triviality we will see joy springing forth. Our faith is a faith not of gloom and doom but of joy.
Joy is a central part of our faith. In the Bible we find 350 instances of the words joy, rejoice, joyful and joyous. We also find 258 synonyms of joy, like glad, gladness and delight. The Psalms are filled with joy. “You make known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand (Psalm 16:11).” “Rejoice in the Lord and be glad, you righteous; sing, all you who are upright in heart (Psalm 32:11).” In Proverbs we find joy too. “The prospect of the righteous is joy, but the hopes of the wicked come to nothing (Proverbs 10:28).” Throughout the Bible we read of joy that comes from the Lord.
The New Testament follows the Old Testament’s lead in revealing that our faith is one of joy. Paul gives a powerful blessing in Romans: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit (Romans 15:13).” Paul’s joy was centered on the Lord Jesus Christ. Our Lord spoke to his disciples on the night before he was arrested and crucified. He spoke of joy: “Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy (John 16:22).” There are times of grief but for people who trust the Lord joy is central.
Recently, I looked out the window and noticed an Amazon truck driving by. It’s a common sight in some neighborhoods. What impressed me were the words on its side: “Warning: Contents may cause happiness.” Is our joy contingent on the contents of the Amazon delivery truck? No, our joy is contingent on our faith in Christ Jesus, not packages in a truck. Warren Wiersbe, Bible scholar and teacher wrote: “The secret of joy is to believe what God says in His Word and to act upon it. Joy that isn’t the result of faith is not joy at all; it’s only a good feeling that will soon disappear. Faith based on the Word will produce joy that will weather the storms of life.” The joy of the Lord is our strength. Apart from God we cannot find genuine happiness and joy.
The writer of Hebrews speaks to the joy of Christ Jesus. He wrote, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God (Hebrews 12:1-2).” For the joy set before him, Jesus endured the cross. Our faith is about joy, not doom and gloom.
Nehemiah told the people that it was a time of celebration. He told them the joy of the Lord is their strength. The people went home and had a feast of celebration and joy. Jesus gave us a special meal in which we celebrate his life, death and Resurrection. The Lord’s Supper is not for grieving but Joy. Today we celebrate his gifts to us and know that the joy of the Lord is our strength. God in Christ Jesus is our strength.
CH (COL) Michael W. Malone, AUS, RET
Sermon preached at Veterans Memorial Chapel