Most of us have probably heard the words “The Joy of the LORD is your strength”, even though you may not know it comes from the book of Nehemiah in the Old Testament. But just what does this mean? Is it simply a call to have upbeat worship services that stir up enthusiasm for the church? Or is something more implied here?
Some of you also may have done a small group study on Nehemiah as an example of how to build God’s church. He dreamed a dream and made it happen despite terrific odds. In the same way, we have visioning conferences where we are encouraged to dream and make it happen. But is that all there is to Nehemiah? Let us see.
Exposition of the Text
The Book of Nehemiah was one of the last books written in the Old Testament, about 450 years before Christ was born. Nehemiah had been appointed to the high position of cup-bearer by the Persian king Xerxes. When he had heard of the plight of Jerusalem, he asked the king to be sent there as governor. The city walls were broken down, and the state of affairs among the inhabitants was deplorable. The king must have held Nehemiah in high regard and gave him leave. When he got to Jerusalem, the situation was every bit as bad as he had heard. There was also stiff opposition by some of the surrounding inhabitants to the rebuilding of the wall which was for the city’s protection. The inhabitants had to keep their weapons at the ready of all times. But Nehemiah helped the inhabitants of Jerusalem despite both intense lobbying of the king against Nehemiah as well as threat of guerilla warfare.
There was more that needed rebuilding than the external walls. The citizens were also broken down spiritually. Only a relatively small number had returned from the Babylonian captivity as many Jews found the relatively safe conditions of the Gentile cities they lived in as better than the poor economic and security prospects of returning to a city that had been thoroughly been destroyed. Only an occasional small wave of Jews had returned over the almost eighty years from the time of Cyrus until Nehemiah. Apparently, most of them were ignorant of the Scriptures, and in particular, the Law of Moses. This ignorance threatened the very identity of the Jewish nation. It is what had made them stand out from all the nations. Without the knowledge of the Scripture, the Jews would simply melt into the surrounding Pagan culture and lose their cultural, religious, and national identity. This had essentially happened to the Northern Kingdom of Israel when Assyria swallowed them up some 250 years before Nehemiah. The few inhabitants of the land who were allowed to remain mixed with other peoples with the result that their religion was half Jewish and half Pagan. These people became the Samaritans.
Some of the reforms Nehemiah instituted seems quite racist to us. The Samaritans were excluded from the work, and the Jews who had Pagan wives were to divorce them and disown the children of these marriages. This was what we would call "ethnic cleansing” today. Only those who could prove that they were pure Jews were allowed in the assembly, and this was doubly true of the priests. All I can say is that Nehemiah’s comprehensive reforms had to strictly define who was a Jew for the sake of identity.
It is interesting to see in Nehemiah that there is nothing resembling a “Thus saith the LORD” statement. We can discern the hand of God working in the background, such as Nehemiah’s desire to return, his courage in rebuilding the wall, and here with Ezra in this text to rebuild a spiritual wall as well by the teaching of the LORD. This discernment of the LORD is sometimes difficult to see in the works of men. We can safely discern that the LORD wanted the city rebuilt and the nation to continue for the sake of Christ who would come through the Jewish nation. But does this mean that God necessarily agreed with all of the reforms that were done? This is certainly a slippery slope. We also know that Jesus would come and talk to a Samaritan woman at the well. So we can see the harshness of the reforms as a temporary one under the conditions.
In the text, It is said that Ezra who stood upon a specially made platform and opened the scroll(s) of the Law in the sight of the people. If it was a single scroll. It was probably the book of what we call today “Deuteronomy”. I would think that though Ezra may have started here, he would have continued with the rest of Scripture in its turn. The Book of Deuteronomy was a covenant treaty made between the LORD and the Children of Israel before they entered into the Promised Land. Like the rest of the Law, it was based upon a special relationship that existed between Yahweh and Israel. The stipulations were intended to enforce this distinctiveness.
The people responded quite favorably to the reading of the Law as they saw how important it was to their identity. This is what they had fought off opponents like Sanballat for. They showed reverence for the Word of God first by standing, then giving their “Amen”. They raised up their hands and then bowed in worship. It must have been an incredibly moving experience.
Ezra continued his verse by verse exposition of the Law so that the listeners could clearly understand it. They listened for hours to the exposition. They wanted to drink in every word. Apparently the people audibly wept, probably when they realized how greatly they had transgressed the covenant. So Nehemiah intervened and told them to stop weeping and instead consider it to be a holy day of feasting instead. He told them to make sure everyone had good food to eat. This was a time to be joyful. There is a sense of the return of the Prodigal Son in this. The son returned ready to beg and was instead feasted. The son had returned home, and this is all that mattered.
“The joy of the LORD is your strength” was Nehemiah’s conclusion to the matter. One cannot continue to be motivated by tears and sorrow. Repentance had occurred and it was seen in the attention of the assembly. The Lord must put considerable stock into the power of joy. When Matthew the Levite returned home, a great feast was prepared. Jesus himself says there is more joy in heaven over a repentant sinner that has come home. In the sorrows of the Last Supper when Jesus mournfully told His disciples of their upcoming desertion gave a promise of joy afterward. He would drink the cup again with them in the Kingdom. Jesus told them that they would indeed be sorrowful, but that their sorrow would be turned into joy.
Application of the Text
As we can see, this text addresses a far more important issue than the need for courageous leadership in the church as this text is often used to teach. I certainly do not deny this principle. Nor do I deny the importance of joy in worship, so long as it isn’t just worked up. At the heart of this passage is the identity of who are the People of God? The church is made up from people of all nations, cultures, and former religions. It is made up of repentant people who hunger to hear the word of God and not people who yawn if the sermon is more than ten minutes long or fear that they will not beat the other churches to the restaurants.
Today, the understanding of the Scriptures is at an all-time low in the church. We seem to be open to religious ideas from other faiths. We are tolerant to the point that we are virtually losing what makes us a peculiar people, if I can quote Peter. We have compromised the distinctives of our faith to the point that it is hard to tell the Christians from the Pagans. Many Christians don’t have problems marrying those of other faiths or even converting to the spouse’s faith. I am not talking about a Baptist becoming a Presbyterian, but a Christian becoming a Muslim or Buddhist. Anyone who so casually puts aside their faith is either totally ignorant of it and needs to be properly instructed or an apostate.
Are we being diligent to proclaim the Word of God from the pulpits or in our Sunday School classes. Do we want to ground the faith of the flock in the solid ground of Scripture or in the thin air? What are we doing to promote the reverence of the Word to the point that the people respond by weeping and worship. How are we modeling these behaviors so that the flock sees the importance of the Word. Nothing else can replace sound biblical preaching and teaching, not praise and worship, nor plays and skits, nor any of the gimmick we use to “draw” people to the church. Some even advertise their assemblies with words which disparage the word “church”. “We don’t do church here”. I can appreciate the fact that there is a lot to be desired in the “traditional” church that needs addressing, but a church that is not grounded in the word of Christ is no church at all. Ironically, those who say they aren’t a church speak all too well.
If you are a church member, you have a hold obligation to study the Bible for yourself and seek competent help if there are things you do not understand. You should demand pastors and Sunday School teachers who value the Word. If we do not wake up, Christianity will fade into the background. Church, it is high time to wake up!