The Joy of the Lord
You know the routine. Relatives have come from afar and it is time for a family picnic. Of course everyone wants pictures of the event and so the cameras come out and somebody takes charge and lines everybody up and then a few people begin to take turns with a whole tableful of cameras. With each picture the command comes, “Everybody smile!” Mostly that works, but when you get back home and look at the pictures you have taken, you notice some people with “pasted on” smiles on their faces. They just are not able to smile on command and it looks like it.
Have you ever felt that the command in Scripture which says, “Rejoice in the Lord” is like that? Does it feel like you are being told to put on an act for the camera, or for the rest of the church? You are supposed to have joy, but you don’t feel joy. How can God tell us to rejoice, when there is so little reason sometimes to rejoice? What is the joy of the Lord and how does it function in our lives?
This summer I have had the opportunity on numerous occasions to attend concerts at Assiniboine Park. As some of you know, I really enjoy jazz and Winnipeg has some great jazz musicians who have performed at the Lyric. When I have attended these concerts, on a beautiful summer evening, with people whose company I enjoy, listening to the beautiful sounds made by very skilled musicians, I am happy. I can hardly keep my feet from moving. I truly enjoy it. Of course life can’t always be great concerts in the park.
When the Bible talks about the joy of the Lord, is it talking about the feeling and experience I have at the concerts in the park? I think we all know that that is not what the joy of the Lord is. When Philippians 4:16 says, “Rejoice in the Lord always,” we know that we do not always have those kind of feelings.
What then is the joy of the Lord?
As we look at Scripture we find some shocking things that are said about the joy of the Lord.
In 2 Corinthians 8:2, Paul was encouraging the Corinthians to fulfill their promise to take up a collection for the Jerusalem churches. In order to encourage their generosity, he points to the generosity of the churches in Macedonia and he says a most unusual thing. He says, “Out of the most severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity.” Please notice that these churches were experiencing “severe trial” and that they also lived in “extreme poverty.” However, they still were filled with an “overflowing joy.” They did not have the conditions of a concert in the park. They had great difficulty but still had great joy. How do you explain that? What does that say about what joy is?
One of the most powerful verses about joy in the Bible is Habakkuk 3:17-18. Habakkuk has just found out, by a revelation from God that his nation is going to be destroyed. The book of Habakkuk begins with a question by the prophet. He asks, “Why are your people so wicked and why do they seem to be getting away with it?” God answers him by saying, “I am aware of the wickedness of my people and I am going to punish them by bringing an evil nation against them to destroy them.” Habakkuk is shocked by this answer and wonders how God could allow a nation even more wicked than Israel to be the instrument of God’s punishment. God answers him again and by the end of the book, Habakkuk has heard something from God that allows him to say, “Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior.” That also is not the joy of a concert in the park, yet it exists in the most difficult circumstances and is present in the worst possible conditions. How do you explain that? What does that say about what joy is? What is joy? Let me suggest a definition and then explain it out of Scripture.
Joy is: A peace filled confidence about life because of the character, acts and promises of God.
This is not about feelings, but it is about a choice we must make each day. Why can we make this choice?
A moment ago I mentioned that Habakkuk heard something from God so that he was able to “rejoice in the Lord” even in the midst of complete crop failure and an absolute disaster in the livestock industry. What had he heard from God that allowed him to rejoice in those situations?
Habakkuk 3:19 is a partial answer to that question when he says, “The Sovereign Lord is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to go on the heights.” Also in Habakkuk 2:20, God had said, “But the Lord is in his holy temple; let all the earth be silent before him.”
What allows us to have a peace filled confidence about life is the character of God. These verses tell us that He is “the sovereign Lord” and that “the Lord is in His holy temple.”
When you take swimming lessons one of the things they teach is how to throw a buoy to a person who is struggling in the water. When I learned, I was taught to put my foot on one end of the rope then to gather up the rest of the rope and throw the buoy to the person and pull them in. They very specifically told us that if we did not step on the rope, it could very likely happen that the rope would go out with the buoy and we would have no rope with which to pull the person back in. Sometimes it feels like we are being tossed by the great waves of the sea and even if we might have a buoy to hold on to, no one has the other end of the rope and no one is able to help us. These verses assure us that God has the end of the rope and will never let go.
When we examine Scripture, we have declaration after declaration and story after story that tells us of the character of God. He is love, He is kind, He is holy, He is just, He is powerful, He is wise and the list goes on. When we know these things about God, we have reason to be filled with joy at all times.
If God is like that, then there should be all kinds of experiences of God actually acting on behalf of His people to help them, and indeed there are. A second reason we can live in joy is because of all that God has done.
This idea is expressed in Psalm 28:7 where we read, “The Lord is my strength and my shield; my heart trusts in him, and I am helped. My heart leaps for joy and I will give thanks to him in song.” This verse has an interesting order to it. The foundational confidence of the Psalmist is in the character of God when he says, “The Lord is my strength and shield.” The writer makes a decision about that truth, declaring “my heart trusts in him.” As he trusts in God, he has an experience of God’s acts. He says, “I am helped.” Because he has thus experienced God’s help, he has joy and declares, “My heart leaps for joy.” Joy is possible because he has experienced God’s gracious acts.
Isaiah also had a similar experience of God acting. He writes in Isaiah 61:10, “I delight greatly in the Lord; my soul rejoices in my God. For he has clothed me with garments of salvation and arrayed me in a robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom adorns his head like a priest, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.” In this verse the writer explains why he is able to have joy in the Lord. The reason is because of what God has done. Using beautiful poetic language, he explains that God has given him salvation.
Which acts of God do you recall?
I think about how God never lets go. Even when Adam and Eve sinned, God promised to restore His people. Even when things got so bad that He had to destroy the world in the flood, God promised to restore His people. Even when Noah and his descendents sinned, God still promised to save them. When Israel rejected God, when the Pharisees rejected Jesus, God continued to work out His plan of salvation in order to redeem His people and forgive their sins and give them eternal life. I rejoice in God because of these great acts.
We attended Faith Works on Thursday because our daughter was leading the worship in song. She sang a song which is a song about her life. It speaks about brokenness and emptiness, but also about how God guides and holds on in love. When I heard that I was rejoicing at what God has done in her life!
I think about the times when He has restored my soul, when He has provided wisdom and direction, when he has shown a path through a difficult situation, when He has protected and provided in ways that were beyond the bare necessities. As we meditate on the acts of God, we are encouraged and have reason to rejoice in Him.
The past acts of God assure us of His interest in us and give us reason to rejoice.
But joy also comes from the promises of God in which we can put our hope.
Isaiah 12:1-3 says, “In that day you will say: ‘I will praise you, O Lord. Although you were angry with me, your anger has turned away and you have comforted me. Surely God is my salvation; I will trust and not be afraid. The Lord, the Lord, is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation.’ With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.”
This message was spoken at a time when Israel was in the deepest darkness. The prophets were warning of devastation to come. Enemy nations were threatening and things were looking pretty grim. But the prophets also spoke of hope. In this passage, Isaiah speaks about what will happen “in that day.” He promises that “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.” These were not present realities for the nation of God at that time; they were the promises of God which pertained to a future day. We can rejoice because the promises of God are certain.
Similar thoughts are expressed in Isaiah 35:1-4, “The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom. Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom; it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy. The glory of Lebanon will be given to it, the splendor of Carmel and Sharon; they will see the glory of the Lord, the splendor of our God. Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way; say to those with fearful hearts, “Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you.” What a great promise to know that “God will come!”
When we are dragged down to discouragement and even depression because of our circumstances, it is hard to rejoice, even in the sense which I mentioned. We question the presence and care of God. But as we remind ourselves of the promises of God, which are as certain as the loving character of God, we can put our hope in those promises and find joy even in difficult time.
So, Joy is: A peace filled confidence about life because of the character, acts and promises of God.
What will happen if such joy is a part of our life?
After the Babylonian exile the Jews returned to the land. Under Ezra, they rebuilt the temple and under Nehemiah, they rebuilt the walls around Jerusalem. When the walls were finished, they returned to live in their own villages. After a time, Nehemiah called them together in Jerusalem. They set up a platform and with the people gathered around; Ezra began to read the Scriptures. They had not heard the Scriptures read for a long time and the ideas were new to them. The people listened attentively and the priests explained the meaning of the Scripture to them. As they listened they began to weep because they realized that they had not kept the law and that they had been disobedient to God.
But Ezra and the priests and scribes told them that they should not weep. They indicated that this was a day sacred to the Lord. It was not a day for weeping, but it was a day for rejoicing. In Nehemiah 8:10, we read the words of Nehemiah, “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is sacred to the Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” He was saying to them that this was a day of great spiritual renewal and so should not be a day to weep. Rather, it should be a day to rejoice. What is interesting is the phrase, “The joy of the Lord is your strength.”
The word for strength can also be translated, refuge. If joy is our choice, then it is able to give us the strength to face all things. We are secure in the refuge of joy because it protects us from the debilitating effects of discouragement and depression. We are secure in the refuge of joy because it gives us strength to choose to follow God. When joy is our choice, we are able to interpret life with the knowledge of the presence and guidance of God. How important it is to choose joy! What strength for all of life!
So then, since joy is not a feeling, but a choice to have a peace filled confidence about life because of the character, acts and promises of God, it means that we can choose to obey this command. Forcing yourself to feel a certain way is deceptive and psychologically dangerous. Choosing to trust is a spiritual exercise of obedience. And that is what it means when Scripture commands us to rejoice. There are many verses which speak about joy in this sense. Among them, Philippians 4:4 which says, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” We are called to make joy in the Lord a constant choice. How do we obey this command?
In the story about Israel in the day of Nehemiah, which we just looked at, it might be well to ask, “Why was a day when their hearts felt like crying, to be a day of rejoicing?”
What was happening that day? As the Scripture was being read, a great dread came over the people. They realized, deep in their hearts that they had sinned against God. The whole picture suddenly became clear to them. They had a long history of disobedience, which had resulted in the destruction of their nation, first by the Assyrians and then by the Babylonians. Their city and their temple had been destroyed all because of their sin. The nation had just spent 70 years in exile in Babylon. Now, they had returned to the land and they had rebuilt the temple and the walls of Jerusalem and they were beginning to settle into the land once again. As the Scripture was being read, they realized that they were currently engaging in some of the same sins which had gotten them exiled in the first place. They were overcome by a deep and profound realization of how desperate they were. Their hearts were overwhelmed with guilt and sorrow and fear.
Why was that a day to rejoice in the Lord? The answer to that question teaches us an important thing about how we can obey the command to rejoice in the Lord. The answer is that this was a day of renewal. It was a day when they realized their own weakness, sin and helplessness and turned to the Lord. The weeping was appropriate because it showed that they had come to the end of their own self centeredness and had turned to God. The rejoicing was appropriate because they had, in humility turned to God and found in God one who would forgive and restore and bring them to life.
We can obey the command to rejoice in the Lord when we humble ourselves and turn to God. There is great rejoicing there because that is where we find that God restores and strengthens and provides. Humility and trust are the keys to obeying the command to rejoice in the Lord.
James R. Davis in a message on this text writes, “The joy of the Lord becomes our strength as we realize that we can only come to God from where we are. As they stand there with their lives in shambles they are mourning over their sins. They were not told "I told you so" or "you should have known better" or "look what a mess your life is in" or "the next time you had better do better." But they are told ‘Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks . . . This day is sacred to the Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength’...It was the joy of the Lord that made this such a sacred day. God had deliberately led them to this moment in time...The Israelites were returning to God on this special day...The mourning of joy comes when we realize that we have put our lives together wrong and begin to discover God's instructions on how to take our lives apart and rebuild them.”
Paul made this same discovery in 2 Corinthians 12:8, 9 where he writes, “Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.” Paul desired God’s healing and asked for it, but instead was offered the strength of God’s grace. He humbled himself and accepted that answer and discovered joy in the Lord. To boast in weakness, is to rejoice that in our weakness we are able to experience the power of God in our lives. To humble ourselves is the path to joy.
We will also be able to obey this command through thankfulness and praise.
Thankfulness is a response to what God has done. Psalm 28:7 says, “The Lord is my strength and my shield; my heart trusts in him, and I am helped. My heart leaps for joy and I will give thanks to him in song.” In this Psalm there is a connection between thankfulness and joy. Thankfulness is based upon awareness. It is not blind thankfulness or forced thankfulness. Rather it is keeping our eyes opened to see what God is doing and has done and responding with declared gratitude. When we choose to give thanks, we choose to rejoice.
We also obey this command in praise. Praise is a response to who God is. This also is a choice to open our eyes to who God is and to what He has done and promised. When we see who God is in all of these ways and respond in praise, we choose to rejoice. Notice how in Psalm 104:33-34 singing, praising and rejoicing are expressions of the same thing, a response to God. There we read, “I will sing to the Lord all my life; I will sing praise to my God as long as I live. May my meditation be pleasing to him, as I rejoice in the Lord.”
Joy is: A peace filled confidence about life because of the character, acts and promises of God.
There was a pretty severe thunderstorm in Winnipeg one day this week. Our son was telling us that in the middle of the night their two little boys were frightened by the storm and came to sleep in their parent’s bed. It wasn’t long before the boys were asleep again because they were secure in the presence of their parents. That kind of peace is the posture we take in the presence of our Father when we choose to rejoice.
So I would encourage all of us to rejoice in the Lord and discover that the joy of the Lord is our strength.