The Joy of the Lord Is Your Strength
Returning to the book of Nehemiah, we find the city walls built, but the city within is still not populated, and is still not prosperous. Building a city involves more than building the infrastructure, and repentance brings gladness together with the sorrow.
Now it came to pass, when the wall was built, and I had set up the doors, and the porters and the singers and the Levites were apppointed, that I gave my brother Hanani, and Hananiah the ruler of the palace, charge over Jerusalem: for he was a faithful man, and feared God above many (Nehemiah 7:1-8:18).
Chapter 7 consists largely of genealogies and the results of census-taking. Apart from this, there are a few points made worth noting. Hananiah was given charge over Jerusalem because he was a faithful man, and excelled others in his fear of God (7:2). We are also given a glimpse of the condition of the city—the wall built, but it was still thinly populated (v. 4). Later we learn the importance of genealogy in the life of old Israel; there were some who thought they were Levites, but who couldn’t prove it (v. 61), and some who were excluded from the priesthood because the lines were polluted. We also learn that the Temple singers included women (v. 67).
In chapter 8, we see compelling reasons for the short chronology that we are using. Nehemiah describes the scene of reformation as it was led by Ezra the scribe (8:1). The people gathered—men, women, and children who could understand—to hear the reading and exposition of the law (v. 3). The people responded to the reading of the law with great faith (vv. 5b-6). The law was not honored in a superstitious way—the scribes were careful to give the sense of it (v. 8, cf. 13). We then come to one of the great passages of Scripture, one that contains wisdom that we really need to learn. The joy of the Lord is our strength (vv. 9-12). The result was great gladness (v. 17).
Honoring the Word:
One of the reasons why we read the entire text of chapter 7, genealogies included, is because of the example we find in chapter 8. What do Ezra and Nehemiah do here? What example do we find? What does a right approach to the Scriptures look like in Scripture, and particularly in times that call for great reformation?
First, the Scriptures are read aloud (v. 3). Secondly, the Scriptures were read aloud to the entire congregation—men, women, and children who could understand (v. 3). Third, the people were attentive to what was read (v. 3). Fourth, the people honored the Scriptures with their bodies. They stood when the Word was first opened (vv. 5, 7), and when Ezra blessed the Lord, they responded by speaking, lifting hands, bowing heads, and facing the ground (v. 6). And fifth, they received careful exegesis of the passages read (v. 8).
When You First Start to Understand:
Repentance refers to a complete change of heart and mind. It means turning away. But it does not mean turning away blindly, in the dark. When the apostle Paul talks about what his assigned preaching mission was, he put it this way. He was told by the Lord Jesus to “open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may
receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in me” (Acts 26:18). It is not just turning from darkness to light, it is turning from darkness to light with your eyes now opened. And when this happens, there is a transfer—from the power of Satan, the accuser, to the power of God the Defender.
But the natural reaction for someone who has had his eyes opened is to see (for the first time) how far behind he now is, how wrong he has been, how wrong he has been in so many ways, and how impossible it seems to “catch up.” But God takes us from where we are, and not from where we should have been. Coming to your senses in this way is like suddenly repenting of having been a bad student your whole life (manipulating, intimidating and bribing all your teachers), but having this repentance happen to you in the middle of an upper-division calculus class. So you have repented. Now what can you possibly do? Besides despair? Despair is the natural temptation, but please note that it is in fact a temptation. What do Nehemiah and Ezra tell the people to do in their repentance?
Eat the Fat and Drink the Sweet:
When the people heard and understood the words of the law, they understood how far out of compliance they were. They were God’s covenant people, but they did not know the content of their Bibles. When it was finally brought home to them, the reaction was natural and swift—they mourned and wept (v. 9). But those who were leading them in the reformation stopped them in this. “Do not weep,” they said. And why? Isn’t weeping a matter of justice? Yes, it is, but reformations are born of grace. “But we don’t deserve to rejoice.” Of course not. This is grace. That is the whole point.
So what are the people told? They are told that the day was holy to the Lord (v. 9). But the holiness of this day was the reason given why they should not mourn or weep. You are sinners; this day is holy; do not mourn or weep. This is the work of God. They are then dismissed from the assembly of reformation, and what are their instructions? Go, eat the fat and drink the sweet (v. 10), and be sure to share. They are told again that the day is holy (v. 10), and the people are therefore told that they must not be sorry, and that the joy of the Lord is their strength. But note that the joy of the Lord is not a great attainment by the virtuous; it is the relief of the forgiven. And the people are told a third time that the day was holy, and that they should therefore hold their peace, and not be grieved (v. 11). And so the people went their way to eat and drink, and to make “great mirth” (v. 12). And why? Because they had understood the words spoken to them. They had understood grace.
What Kind of Religion is This?
In the parable of the prodigal son, Jesus tells of the conflict between two brothers. One of them, the waster, went off into a far country and spent all his money on hookers and buying drinks for the house (Luke 15:11-31). When he repented of all his partying, what did he come home to? A party, filled with merry-making. Now was that was this young fathead needed? Another party? How does Jesus tell the story? “Bring hither the fatted calf . . be merry” (v. 23) “And they began to be merry” (v. 24). The older brother heard “music and dancing” (v. 25). It was fitting that we “should make merry” (v. 32).
This is what lies underneath the emphasis we have wanted to place on celebration, rejoicing, sabbath feasts, and all the rest of it. What is the kingdom of God? It is a group of losers, wasters, sinners, and moral lepers, invited to a stupendous banquet that none of us can even begin to comprehend. It is not an Awards Banquet organized by the Society of Fussy Older Brothers.