“and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength” – Nehemiah 8:10b (RSV)
The longer I study the Bible the more I realize that we very often overlook important items in our reading and reflection. This is another gem from God’s Word, and its preciousness is greater than seems often to be appreciated.
The expression, “The joy of the Lord” is rather rare in the Bible. Perhaps it is for that reason that there is some uncertainty as to its meaning. This uncertainty centers about these questions: Whose joy is the strength of God’s people? Is it God’s joy in us, or our joy in him?
Various translations and commentaries express or imply that this is our joy, our joy in the Lord, or that joy which the Lord gives to us. The trouble with this explanation is that it does not agree with the context of this passage, and that is fatal for any attempt at biblical exposition! In that context we find Ezra the priest reading the “law of Moses” to a people hungering for God’s Word (8:1–3). God’s people stood for hours to hear Ezra read, and afterwards stayed still longer to hear it explained (8:7, 8).
This reading-preaching made such a deep impression on the hearers that they wept openly because of the consciousness of guilt and in brokenness of heart. Is it possible to imagine that Ezra and his helpers would say to the people then, “do not grieve, for your joy in the Lord is your strength?” It is quite clear that this would not make good sense.
What is the situation in our text? It is that the people of God completely missed “the sense of God’s favor” (Canons of Dort, V, 5) until the Word had aroused in them a true sense of guilt and shame. But now that they changed their course by serious repentance, God’s spokesman may say, “do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” He is well pleased with the sinner who pleads guilty and prays for grace! Never does he despise a broken and contrite heart (Ps. 51:17). What is “the joy of the Lord?” It is God’s sovereign good pleasure unto his people. This joy is “our strength” in the way of realization and confession, which is repentance and faith. There is forgiveness with the Lord, that he may be feared! Our sins notwithstanding, he adopts us to he his children in Jesus Christ. The deep sense of Nehemiah 8:10 is readily seen in the light of Zephaniah 3:17,
The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival. (RSV)
The joy of tho Lord has its roots in God’s eternal council and its ground in the perfect sacrifice of Jesus Christ our Redeemer. It is good to be able to draw strength from him whose joy in us is so great that we can always find forgiveness and courage and hope in every circumstance! Are we doing so?