by Heather Bock
The people of Israel waited with bated breath to hear Ezra read the book of the law of Moses to them. These were the people who had recently chosen to come out of captivity when they were given the opportunity by King Artaxerxes of Persia, an extremely understanding man among few others, especially for that time period of empires conquering and dominating whole cultures. The Persian Empire spread from modern-day Libya to what is now the western border of India. It stretched from the Caucasus Mountains in the north to the Arabian Sea.
Not all the people of Israel had decided to go back to Jerusalem. Some were comfortable in Persia. Some hadn’t worshiped the true God in so long, He wasn’t familiar or desirable to them anymore. However, a remnant went back as soon as they were given permission, following Ezra and Nehemiah. They rebuilt God’s temple and the wall protecting Jerusalem. Now they all stood together, standing from morning until midday listening to Ezra read and explain and translate into Persian the book of the law.
They wept. They realized they had not been following God’s laws. Many hadn’t even known what the laws were. They were grieved about their sin before God.
Nehemiah, their governor, responded by commanding them to celebrate with fatty foods and sweet drinks, sharing with those who didn’t have those types of foods prepared. Then he gave a remarkable imperative: “Do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength” (Neh. 8:10).
The joy of the LORD is your strength?
I recently heard these words in a worship song sung at my church, and I stopped and wondered what exactly the words meant. I didn’t want to sing them until I knew what I was saying, and I really wanted to understand them because I can tell you, in the midst of a very busy season, I need strength.
What did Nehemiah mean? We can draw some conclusions by the people’s response. They celebrated a great festival, choosing not to focus on how they had been falling so short of the truth of the law but on the fact that they were now able to understand it. They came back the next day to learn more and began to practice what they understood. After they did, “there was great rejoicing” (Neh. 8:17). They continued to listen to more of God’s words written down in the law. Next, they confessed their sins with repentance and worshiped God. Finally, they took an oath to follow Him forever afterwards.
I’m still not sure I fully understand what exactly the joy of the LORD is and how it gives strength, but after studying this more in context and reading commentaries and sermons, I think I’m starting to get some ideas.
First, I don’t believe the joy of the LORD is just a feeling over which a person has no control. After all, Nehemiah told the people to stop grieving and be joyful. This sounds a lot like a choice to me, like the choice the people of Israel had to make to return to their land rather than stay in comfortable Persia.
It’s a hard choice, though. I woke up this morning frustrated with another night of little sleep because of all the work I must complete each day. I thought about how I would be up late again tonight and up early tomorrow morning, and I just wanted to cry. I was not grieving over my sin, but I felt grief anyway. I thought about this post I’ve been preparing, and how I could choose God’s joy instead, but it would be a hard task. I certainly was not able to do it right away, and I didn’t do it without God’s help. I asked God for help to give me His joy, and like the people of Israel, I chose to focus on the good.
On the way to my home school community, I didn’t madly rush to make it on time, even though we were running late (as usual). I stopped myself when I started to complain about construction making traffic worse than normal. I let myself laugh at my daughter’s joke. When we arrived and my littlest distracted me while I was trying to prepare for the morning teaching, and when he later wriggled in my lap during opening assembly, trying to put his dirty shoes on my bright pink skirt, I chose to look at him as my beloved son instead of a hindrance to my tasks. I picked him up, looked him in the eye, told him he couldn’t stand on me, but then told him I loved him so much and kissed him. All of these were small bits of joy, adding up to a much more joyful day than how I had started it.
Where did I get this joy? It’s the joy of the LORD. It is not to be manufactured completely out of our own will, no matter how strong a will we have (and God has given me a strong one). The joy of the LORD doesn’t COME from our strength; it GIVES us strength. We obtain this joy by praying, as I did this morning. We get it from communion with the LORD. Then we use our God-given will to choose the joy.
I also believe it comes from focusing on His goodness and being thankful to Him. The people of Israel focused on the blessing of God teaching them the right way to go instead of continuing to mourn the wrong way they used to go.
Next week, I’d like to continue exploring this topic, so please come back to see what I’ve learned about how the joy of the LORD can be our strength. I’d love your prayers that God would open this up to me more. If you have any thoughts, please share them in the comments below!
Thank you to those who participated in the drawing for the Bible giveaway. The winner is Christfollower85! You can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org to give an address where I can send your new Bible. I will try to contact you through your blog as well. Thanks!