10 Then he said unto them, Go your way, eat the fat, and drink the sweet, and send portions unto them for whom nothing is prepared: for this day is holy unto our Lord: neither be ye sorry; for the joy of the LORD is your strength. (Neh. 8:10)
I heard something today that disturbed me. I sat outside and smelled the night air and pondered it. What I heard is that this verse, particularly the last phrase, is used to rebuke those who are downhearted, gloomy or weeping.
I have heard this phrase. It seems to be a frequent guest lodging itself in annoying praise tunes. The idea is this:
Dance, be happy, rejoice, laugh – because God has commanded you to be full of joy in the Lord. Otherwise you will be weak and pitiful.
What bothered me is this – what about all of the times when God’s beloved people wept, or cried out to him? What about God keeping our tears in his bottle?
What about those times when violence and hatred assail our soul and we are trapped?
Or what about those times when we are bowed down by sin, crushed by the knowledge that we have offended a holy God?
That is actually the context of this verse. The people of Israel were mourning over their sins, and Nehemiah was giving them comfort.
Was he comforting by adding another commandment – be joyful!
Knowing that scripture never contradicts itself this is like an itch. I mull. I sit on the porch in quiet and think it over.
And then it occurs to me. It was like a light, a flash of joy and a thought so profound and wonderful that it doesn’t seem quite real!
What if the one with joy isn’t me? But God himself?
The word “of” can mean a variety of things. It can mean here that Israel’s joy in the Lord is their strength. OR it can mean that God’s joy in Israel is their strength.
In the context, there can be only one interpretation that fits. Israel, although convicted by the law, is told to stop weeping, get out the food, eat and drink and give generously to those who have nothing.
Why? Because even though they have sinned before God, God takes great joy in them. The joy is the Lord’s for Israel, not Israel’s for the Lord! And this changes everything.
Rather than being a command to Israel, it is a motive for OUR joy. In Christ, God’s anger is taken away. He rejoices over us. He even sings over us. He delights in us.
THIS is our strength. God’s joy in his people.
If we look within to see our joy in God and try to work some up so that God doesn’t zap us, we will never succeed. How can we rejoice? How can we love, if we view God as a harsh lawgiver ready to stomp us down any moment?
The answer is that we cannot. We can only rejoice when we fully understand that God delights in his people. The joy of the Lord is our strength.
Meditate on that. Think about how God delights in you. You are acceptable, loved, wanted, desired. Yes, your sins are many. But God’s grace is far greater.
Yes, the pain is real and the tears are real. But God isn’t in heaven scoffing at you for weeping at his harsh providence. He is holding your hand; walking with you. He is leading you to quiet pastures because he actually WANTS to. He loves you freely, not from compulsion – but that love means that he actually delights in you.
Do you know those parents that tell their kids, “I love you, but I sure don’t like you very much right now.”
And you see the child just crumple. How painful it is to not be wanted, to not be delighted in. We were created to be delighted in.
And yet in the cursed world, we are very used to the door slams, the unfriending on Social Media, the booting out of the inner circle – Jesus even said that they would throw his people out of the synagogues.
But being an outcast isn’t who you are before God. You are accepted and loved.
The joy that comes from the Lord, freely given to his people, is their strength.