And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law. Then he said to them, “Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” So the Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved.” And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them.
In the book of Nehemiah, the people go through three phases that we go through ourselves, perhaps in big ways over the courses of our lives, but also in small ways even in the course of a day.
For much of the book, the people have forgotten about the Lord altogether, and when we forget the Lord we have no purpose. When we forget that there’s a god–God–and we go about our lives like humans are the pinnacle and the point of the universe, we quickly become discouraged by death, pettiness, injustice, and failure.
However, in the beginning of chapter 8, the people hear the word of the Lord, remember their God, remember their sin, and remember that they have failed God. When we first remember this about the Lord, it seems as if we have no hope. After all, we’ve lived our lives or our mornings having forgotten about Him entirely. We’ve lived like He’s not there, and that’s a frightening realization.
Yet, as the people weep, Nehemiah, Ezra, and the Levites say, “do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” They take their hands and look in their eyes and remind them of “the joy of the Lord.” Is this joy the Lord feels? Is this joy the Lord puts in us? Is this joy that simply arises when we encounter the Lord? The Hebrew is as unclear as the English. Whichever sense Nehemiah means to emphasize, the others and more can’t be far behind–they seem to come together. We’ve remembered God and we’ve remembered our failure, but when we look up and see not a frown but a grin, a beckoning, a just-breaking laugh, the joy of the Lord is our strength.
That’s not to say we shouldn’t be troubled by our sin, nor that God says “it’s nothing.” Rather, God taken care of this terrible problem in the most terrific possible way, through His Son Jesus Christ, through his death and resurrection, through His “Spirit of adoption as children, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs–heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.” So go and eat, drink and share, and let the joy of the Lord be your strength. “Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved.”