When I taught my way through the book of Nehemiah with my Sunday School class this year, I was reminded of the context for one of the Bible’s most “quotable” verses on joy — it’s not what I expected! Thanks be to God that He is our infallible source of joy during Advent and throughout the year.
Then he (Ezra) said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat, drink the sweet, and send portions to those for whom nothing is prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord. Do not sorrow, for the joy of the LORD is your strength,” Nehemiah 8:10.
I wonder if people who sing and give testimonies about the most well-known verse in Nehemiah realize the irony of it:
A captive people impoverished by taxes and famine conditions returns to their homeland — a broken down city — and stands for six hours to hear their priest read aloud to them the record of their ancestors’ rebellion. Living in the grip of a distress which they have brought upon themselves, they are encouraged to rejoice! Yet, we see in verse 12 that they actually obeyed, because, in spite of their circumstances, they had been invited into the Lord’s joy which He delights to share with His people.
A careful reading of Scripture should banish from our minds, once and for all, the idea that God is a cosmic kill-joy, and yet the myth clings in spite of the writings of Paul (Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice!) and in spite of salient pronouncements such as Phyllis McGinley’s: “Dourness is not a sacred attribute.” Martin Luther had no patience with his friends who behaved as if it was. Melanchthon, his contemporary, was of a cool and reserved temperament, highly virtuous and still clinging to his monkish lifestyle even after having joined the reformers. Fiery Luther roared at him to relax, and with his gift of over-statement declared: “God deserves to have something to forgive you for!” Commentator Derek Kidner observes from Nehemiah 8:9-12: “Holiness and gloom go ill together.” In his commentary on the Psalms, he points out in Psalm 126 that the singers on their way to Jerusalem provided two metaphors for the joy of the Lord.
- Streams in the Negev: Utterly dry in the summer, the arid regions to the south flood in minutes when the spring rains come.
- Sowing and reaping: Crops require time and human effort in order to produce a harvest.
There is wisdom in these complementary images for those who would know the joy of the Lord. It is His to give, and it may come in a flood, but it may also require cooperation from a heart that seeks God’s perspective on life’s circumstances.
In Psalm 137, when the Israelites lament, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” they answer their own heart-wrenching question in the lyrics that follow — Jerusalem was to remain their “chief joy.” Being at home in God’s City is also the ultimate joy for the present-day believer. All the things that we chase after in our pursuit of “happiness” pale in comparison to the expectation that comes from having our spiritual roots at home in the City of God. Anticipation of that day allows the believer to sustain joy and confidence in the face of a terminal diagnosis, loss from a natural disaster, or the heartbreak of wayward children. In fact, the strength of which Nehemiah 8:10 speaks, in the Hebrew [maoz] implies a refuge, stronghold, fortress or place of protection. God’s joy is the believer’s safe haven at all times, and, dare we believe, in all circumstances?
In Christine Hoover’s new book Good to Grace, she expresses an honest response to the juxtaposition of God and joy:
“When I think of God delighting as He throws us a really good party, it surprises me a little, like I’ve got it wrong . . . Doesn’t it feel a little sacrilegious? If so, perhaps we’re missing that God is in fact a celebratory God. He delights and exults in those who accept His invitation to come to the party and sit at His table.”
Far from a pasted on smile and a forced “amen,” the joy of the LORD is not a requirement of the Christian life — it is a consequence! We’re not dependent on fleeting imitations of joy, or even to the temporary outbursts of joy found in Nehemiah 8 (and later in Nehemiah 12) but are invited to the robust and eternal joy that comes from taking God’s grace, trusting His promises, accepting His unmerited invitation to “the party,” and allowing His joy to be our joy.
This is the twentieth in a series of posts in which I ponder “just one thing” each week from my study of the book of Nehemiah, as I travel slowly and thoughtfully through the chapters with my Sunday School class. If you’d like to make a comment or leave a link to your own blog post about your wall-building stories, I’d love to read it. If you want to catch up with previous posts, here’s the link: https://michelemorin.wordpress.com/tag/nehemiah/.