The Joy of the Lord is Your Strength

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. 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. And he read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand. And the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law… . And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was above all the people, and as he opened it all the people stood. 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.

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.

(Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-12, ESV)

Have you ever read a portion of Scripture, and it moved your heart so much that tears formed in your eyes? Or, have you ever been in a worship service and the words of a song caused your eyes to “leak”? I have. Sometimes, as we reflect on the message of the Scriptures, that is the most fitting response we could have. They may be tears of sorrow or of joy. In either case, engaging our hearts is an important part of the process of learning and growing.

Here, in the book of Nehemiah, the people of Israel have finally completed the work of rebuilding the city walls. It has been a long, hard process, with many challenges and threats from their neighboring communities. But the hard work is now done and they have much to celebrate. But instead of throwing a party, Nehemiah and Ezra know that more needs to happen. It is not enough to have rebuilt walls, or a rebuilt temple. God’s greater concern is with His people’s hearts. There is work to be done to rebuild their covenant relationship together. This begins with the reading of God’s Word.

I love reading and seeing in this passage how the people gathered for the reading of the Book of the Law. This was the first time in generations it had happened, and everyone wanted to be there. Not only were the adults there (men and women), but older children as well (“all who could understand what they heard”). As Ezra read to the people, several Levites took turns explaining it so that everyone could understand its meaning. This wasn’t just a ceremonial reading, but a time of instruction to ensure God’s Word be clearly understood. And, as we see the impact the reading had on the assembly, it clearly was! “For all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law.”

Sometimes the Scriptures we teach stir our hearts, and we grieve because we recognize our failures and our sin. This is what happened as Ezra and the Levites read and explained the Scriptures to the people. Their tears were a fitting response, given how far the people had wandered from following God’s law. However, Nehemiah, Ezra, and the Levites didn’t just rub it in, leaving them with their sense of guilt. Rather, they offered hope and encouragement to the people. That day, they sent them home to feast, assuring them that “the joy of the Lord is your strength.” The next day, they began to celebrate the Feast of Booths, commemorating God’s provision for His people in the years of desert wandering before they came into the Promised Land, and they continued to read from the Book of the Law (Nehemiah 8:13-18). All of this led up to a day of repentance and reaffirming of their covenant relationship with God (Nehemiah 9). What began with broken-hearted grief ends in repentance and renewal of their walk with God!

God’s Word is not just meant to stir our thinking; as we reflect on it, it should also stir our hearts. Paul had a similar experience when the Corinthians read one of his letters and grieved. In 2 Corinthians, he wrote: “… I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting” (7:9a). As you teach, be prepared both to explain God’s law, which points out our sin, and the hope we have in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Sorrow and grief can be a good thing, if it leads us to repent and renew our walk with God. As unpleasant as struggles can be, sometimes they are exactly what we need!

Father, thank you for your steadfast love, your patience as you appeal to me through your Word to recognize where I have strayed from what you desire. Help me to so teach and lead others to better understand your Word that your Holy Spirit is able to convict my heart where that is needed. Help me to grieve well and turn to you for forgiveness and renewal. Thank you that your joy is my strength, and my grieving can give way to joy as I receive your grace in and through Christ Jesus. I praise you for this reassurance of your steadfast love for me! Amen.

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