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"The Joy of the Lord Is Your Strength"

Nehemiah 8-9

James R. Davis

To appreciate this message we must understand where the Israelites are standing when they are told "the joy of the Lord is your strength." In Nehemiah 8 the walls of Jerusalem have just been completed. But there is something lacking. Life is more than brick and mortar. They have finished rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem, but their lives are in shambles. They have spent seventy years in Babylonian captivity and they have finished the walls but their distress continues. Their condition is revealed in the words of Nehemiah 9:36, "But see, we are slaves today, slaves in the land you [God] gave our forefathers so they could eat its fruit and the other good things it produces. Because of our sins, its abundant harvest goes to the kings you have placed over us. They rule over our bodies and our cattle as they please. We are in great distress."

They had forgotten their spiritual heritage as they were held captive in a foreign land. They had forgotten their native language, but most of all they had forgotten God. As a result their lives were in great distress. These people see the connection between the sins of their own hearts and their distressful situation. They see their slavery as a result of their own sin. They see the relevancy of sin to their own lives. They have experienced its destruction. As they lay there on rock bottom flat on their backs looking up, they began to realize that God has a wonderful message of salvation. It is in his joy that they can find strength to put their lives back together.

Now they are going to see the relevancy of the Word of God to their lives and experience the joyful strength of the Lord as their salvation.

The Joy of Returning to the Word of God

Someone suggested the way we will bring America back to God is to write your congressman, vote and seek to change legislation. But a revival begins with the Word of God not with politics. It also begins with personal lives rather than the body of Christ of  large.

The people from the captivity have assembled as one person in the square before the Water Gate. It is here that they ask Ezra to bring out the Book of the Law of  Moses and read it to them.

Nehemiah 7:73b-8:3
When the seventh month came and the Israelites had settled in their towns, all the people assembled as one man in the square before the Water Gate. They told Ezra the scribe to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses, which the LORD had commanded for Israel. So on the first day of the seventh month Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, which was made up of men and women and all who were able to understand. He read it aloud from daybreak till noon as he faced the square before the Water Gate in the presence of the men, women and others who could understand. And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law.

As Ezra stood on a high wooden platform built for the occasion, everyone's attention is focused on him. He opens the Book of the Law of Moses and all the people stood up. Ezra blessed the Lord the Great God and all the people answered Amen, Amen. Then they bowed down, worshipping the Lord with their faces to the ground.

Nehemiah 8:8 says, "They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was being read." They spoke the message of God in a language they could understand. The people had grown up in captivity in a foreign country. They had adapted by learning the language of the land of their captivity. They didn't understand the Hebrew language in which the Law of Moses was written. They needed interpreters to make the message distinctive, understandable and relevant.

Ezra read from the book of the law of God distinctly. The priest went through the crowds giving the sense of the message. The Bible has meaning, and it has a distinct message for our lives. There is absolutely no doubt that they saw the relevancy of the message to their lives because they are presently experiencing the fulfillment of God's promises to them. God's word begins to make sense to them, for they see themselves in it.

As we study the Bible we can see God's concern and care for his people. Jeremiah had prophesied the very destruction that the Israelites were now suffering as we read the book of Nehemiah. Yet, in the same breath Jeremiah gives them a promise that their mourning will turn to a morning of joy. He promises to bring them from the land of captivity and he describes how they will return.

Jeremiah 31:8-9, 16
"Behold, I will bring them from the north country, and gather them from the coasts of the earth, and with them the blind and the lame, the woman with child and her that travaileth with child together: a great company shall return thither. They shall come with weeping, and with supplications will I lead them: I will cause them to walk by the rivers of waters in a straight way, wherein they shall not stumble: for I am a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn . . . Thus saith the LORD; Refrain thy voice from weeping, and thine eyes from tears: for thy work shall be rewarded, saith the LORD; and they shall come again from the land of the enemy.

What a relevant message of care and hope God's word reveals. The book of Nehemiah reveals the fulfillment of Jeremiah's prophesy.  God is leading them with supplications . . . that means he is caring for them. He is causing them to walk by rivers of water in a straight way and they are not stumbling . . . that means that God is sustaining them . . .  for He is their Father. The Israelites are experiencing the joyous realities of the fulfillment of Jeremiah's prophecy. They are experiencing the relevancy of the message.

The Joy of the Lord is Your Strength

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 . . . The priests calmed the people and said, " . . . this is a sacred day, Do not grieve . . . then the people went away to eat and drink . . . and to celebrate because they now understood the words that had been made known to them.

When they understood the message of salvation, Nehemiah says, "Then all the people went away to eat and drink, to send portions of food and to celebrate with great joy, because they now understood the words that had been made known to them. (8:9-12)

This day is sacred to the Lord. It was the joy of the Lord that made this such a sacred day. God had deliberately led them to this moment in time. It wasn't a day of good fortune or good luck. It was the day of the Lord! The Israelites were returning to God on this special day. The Jews were not the only ones celebrating. There was a celebration in heaven, as the angels in heaven are gathered around rejoicing over all these sinners coming home.

Luke 15:1-7
Now the tax collectors and "sinners" were all gathering around to hear him. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, "This man welcomes sinners and eats with them." Then Jesus told them this parable: "Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, 'Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.' I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.

The people were told "do not grieve." The most sacred day in a person's life is when he/she weeps as the relevancy of the Word of God is being made known to them. This was also a sacred day for the Lord. Weeping was only for a moment. The Psalmist writes, "Sing to the LORD, you saints of his; praise his holy name. For his anger lasts only a moment, but his favor lasts a lifetime; weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning." (Psalms 30:4-5)

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. When the Word of God is opened up and understood, people begin to understand themselves. It is through knowing God that you begin to come to know yourself. After all you are made in God's image. It is here that you can discover the joy of the Lord as your strength to recover your losses.

They now understood the words that had been made known to them. The people heard the message explained in their own language. It was a simple message and it was a relevant message. The message revealed that the joy of the Lord is their strength. Joy comes when we discover, "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work." (2 Timothy 3:16-17)

It is difficult to build upon what is right until you confirm what is wrong. It is the wrong that keeps us on rock bottom. As we come to the Bible seeking God's instruction he rebukes the wrong in our lives and teaches us the correct way to live. We don't like to be rebuked, it usually brings mourning, but God must teach us his ways in order that our lives can be put back on the proper course. The design of God's Word is to train and equip us in what is right, so that we might work at building a good life.

God's Word is designed to change our minds about the way we are living. If we listen it will bring us to a mourning of joy. Verse 12 of chapter 8 says, "Then all the people went away to eat and drink, to send portions of food and to celebrate with great joy, because they now understood the words that had been made known to them."

The Joy of Their Salvation

The resounding message of repentance runs through out the Bible.We don't like negative messages and initially repentance comes across as a negative message, but it is the only thing that can lead us to a very positive step forward. When we take that step into God's will, we discover that our strength is the joy of the Lord.

 Jesus says, "Except you repent . . . you will perish." Until we approach God with an attitude of repentance, the Bible's message for us will remain forever foreign. There is a dire need for the world to change the direction it is headed. A change of direction only comes through changing our minds about where we are headed. It requires knowing and acknowledging what is wrong with our lives.

Turning to God in repentance always creates a joyous hunger for more. It is in turning to God that we realize our emptiness. There was a void in Israel's life that mere brick and mortar could not fill. They had experienced the famine that Amos had prophesied to Israel before the Babylonian captivity, "The days are coming," declares the Sovereign LORD, 'when I will send a famine through the land-- not a famine of food or a thirst for water, but a famine of hearing the words of the LORD. Men will stagger from sea to sea and wander from north to east, searching for the word of the LORD, but they will not find it'. In that day 'the lovely young women and strong young men will faint because of thirst.'" (Amos 8:11-13) As a result of this experience they are hungry and they begin to feast upon God's Word.

When we understand the relevancy of God's word and the joy it is seeking to bring to our lives, we began to hunger and thirst for more. The joy of their salvation was so great that they wanted to hear more. After hearing the word of God proclaimed they are sent away by Ezra to celebrate this sacred occasion. But "On the second day of the month, the heads of all the families, along with the priests and the Levites, gathered around Ezra the scribe to give attention to the words of the Law." (8:13)

Nehemiah 8:14-18
They found written in the Law, which the LORD had commanded through Moses, that the Israelites were to live in booths during the feast of the seventh month and that they should proclaim this word and spread it throughout their towns and in Jerusalem: "Go out into the hill country and bring back branches from olive and wild olive trees, and from myrtles, palms and shade trees, to make booths"-- as it is written. So the people went out and brought back branches and built themselves booths on their own roofs, in their courtyards, in the courts of the house of God and in the square by the Water Gate and the one by the Gate of Ephraim. The whole company that had returned from exile built booths and lived in them. From the days of Joshua son of Nun until that day, the Israelites had not celebrated it like this. And their joy was very great. Day after day, from the first day to the last, Ezra read from the Book of the Law of God. They celebrated the feast for seven days, and on the eighth day, in accordance with the regulation, there was an assembly.

As they were returning their lives to the Word of God they found even more reason to rejoice in their salvation. As they began their journey through the Word of God, they began rediscovering how God had led their fathers out of Egypt into the wilderness. There he sustained them as they lived in makeshift booths for forty years. It was there that the Feast of Tabernacles came into being. Their fathers, in accordance with the Law of Moses, had set aside a week each year when all the Israelites would dwell in booths as a memorial to God's sustenance in the wilderness. As they were reading the Law, they realized that the Feast of Tabernacles was celebrated at this very time of the year. So they began, right then and there, restoring the worship of God through a celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles. They celebrated for seven days and on the eighth day according to the Law there was an assembly of all the people.

As they read the Word of God, their understanding and appreciation for God increase. You can't celebrate what God has done for you without appreciating what he has done for you. You can't appreciate what God has done for you without celebrating. The deeper the appreciation, the greater the joy. They celebrated what God had done for them through their forefathers as he brought them to the Land of Promise. The beauty of this scene is that they rediscover God.

What would happen if we could just put aside all our misinformation about God and his Word? Think about what happened to the Israelites as they return to God through the teaching of his Word. The same could happen for us as we endeavor to build out lives on the Word of God.

True Praise Results when Our Mourning Turns to Joy

Nehemiah 9:1-3
On the twenty-fourth day of the same month, the Israelites gathered together, fasting and wearing sackcloth and having dust on their heads. Those of Israelite descent had separated themselves from all foreigners. They stood in their places and confessed their sins and the wickedness of their fathers. They stood where they were and read from the Book of the Law of the LORD their God for a quarter of the day, and spent another quarter in confession and in worshiping the LORD their God.

They stood where they were and read from the Book of the Law of the LORD their God for a quarter of the day. Worship always  begins as we approach God through his Word.

"They stood in their places and confessed their sins and the wickedness of their fathers." They spent a quarter of the day just studying the word of God. They spent another quarter of a day confessing their sins. In Nehemiah 9:37 it says, "Because of our sins . . . .We are in great distress." Their confession is unbelievable and their remorse is even more unbelievable. As they stand there praying and confessing they are dressed in sackcloth and have dust sprinkled on their heads . . . these were signs of great remorse, but they were also signs of great distress. They are brought face to face with their God! God has been revealed. Their lives are turned around and they are led into the presence of God praising his name. That is the purpose of Scripture.

They understand their terrible condition as they journey back to God. They see their sin and shame, but more importantly, they understand God's joyous message of salvation. At this they burst out in praise. You really can't understand and know how to worship and praise God until you realize the distress your sins has cause you and those in your world.

Conclusion:

"The joy of the Lord is your strength."  This phrase is pregnant with meaning. It cuts like a two edged sword. It is the Lord's joy that is our strength. It is his rejoicing that gives reason to rejoice. It is his joy that fills us with hope. It is his joyous wish to save me just as I am, in spite of all my sins. It is God's joy to stand me back upon my feet and strengthen my feeble legs and wobbly knees so that I might discover his joy as my strength. It is truly a sacred day in heaven when a sinner discovers that "the joy of the Lord is his strength."

"The joy of the Lord" remains our strength today. His faithfulness continues throughout all generations. For his kingdom extends from generation to generation. Today we see God from a much different vantagepoint. But he is still the same faithful God. As we look back to Abraham from the cross, we see God's continued faithfulness to the promise he made to Abraham. Today that same God seeks to bless all men through Jesus Christ the seed of promise to Abraham. He seeks to fulfill the promise he made to Abraham that all the families of the earth would be blessed through his seed. But we must commit our lives to him.

It is great to realize that no matter how bad things get, the joy of the Lord will forever be our hope and strength to return to the Lord.
 
 

 

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