Day 22: the Joy of the Lord is your strength

Yesterday, I read Nehemiah 8 as part of my Bible reading for the day. I am quite familiar with the phrase, “the joy of the LORD is your strength” (thank you, Donut Man?), but it wasn’t until I read Sally Lloyd-Jones’s version in The Jesus Storybook Bible that I first began to grasp the context.

She writes about God’s people returning home after being slaves: “They had forgotten how God wanted them to live, or who they were supposed to be. So Ezra and Nehemiah read them the rules God had given Moses. But something odd happened: the more the sermon went on, the sadder they all got…As Ezra read the book of rules, it worked like a mirror. It showed them what they were like, and they didn’t like what they saw (170-171).” They grieved their sin and feared God’s judgment. But Ezra and Nehemiah would not allow them to wallow in fear and grief. Instead, they told them it’s time to celebrate:

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. (Nehemiah 8:9-12 ESV)

The Jesus Storybook Bible goes on to say,

All day they listened to stories about the wonderful things God had done for his people. How he made the world. How he gave a special promise to Abraham. How he rescued them from slavery. How he spoke to Moses and showed them how to live. How he brought them to a special land. How he rescued them – no matter what, time after time, over and over again – because of his Never Stopping, Never Giving Up, Unbreaking, Always and Forever Love. 

They remembered how God had always, all through the years, been loving his children – keeping his promise to Abraham, taking care of them, forgiving them. Even when they disobeyed. Even when they ran away from him. Even when they thought they didn’t need him. (172-173)

I grew up thinking the Old Testament was all wrath and judgment, but I have been continually awed by the presence of grace, even there. God rescued his people time and time again, and in so doing, He pointed to His plan to one day redeem His people once and for all, through the Lamb of God who would take away the sins of the world (John 1:29) – who would “deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery” (Hebrews 2:15). That is a reason to rejoice!

Oh give thanks to the LORD, for he is good,
for his steadfast love endures forever!
Let the redeemed of the LORD say so,
whom he has redeemed from trouble
and gathered in from the lands,
from the east and from the west,
from the north and from the south.

Some wandered in desert wastes,
finding no way to a city to dwell in;
hungry and thirsty,
their soul fainted within them.
Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble,
and he delivered them from their distress.
He led them by a straight way
till they reached a city to dwell in.
Let them thank the LORD for his steadfast love,
for his wondrous works to the children of man!
For he satisfies the longing soul,
and the hungry soul he fills with good things.

Some sat in darkness and in the shadow of death,
prisoners in affliction and in irons,
for they had rebelled against the words of God,
and spurned the counsel of the Most High.
So he bowed their hearts down with hard labor;
they fell down, with none to help.
Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble,
and he delivered them from their distress.
He brought them out of darkness and the shadow of death,
and burst their bonds apart.
Let them thank the LORD for his steadfast love,
for his wondrous works to the children of man!
For he shatters the doors of bronze
and cuts in two the bars of iron.
(Psalm 107:1-16 ESV)