The book of Nehemiah chapter 8 holds a beloved passage of Scripture: “…the joy of the Lord is your strength.” We sing these words in a chorus, but what do they mean?
Nehemiah is a story of restoration. God’s people had been exiled because of their sin and unbelief, but now a portion of them have returned to the promised land and were rebuilding. In chapter 8, the wall around Jerusalem has been rebuilt, but now there needs to be a rebuilding of the people. The building project brought safety, but it couldn’t change their sinful hearts. To begin this internal rebuilding, Nehemiah asks Ezra the priest to publicly read the law of God. Nehemiah makes it clear that before there can rebuilding, there needs to be an acknowledgement that things are broken and the law does just that.
They held the gathering at the “water gate.” In the Scriptures, water is a picture for the Word of God, which cleanses (John 15:3, Eph. 5:26). It is also a picture of the Spirit of God, Who gives joyous life which satisfies our parched soul (John 7:37-39).
When they heard the Word, the people mourned over their sins, “for by the law is the knowledge of sin.” They had just observed the Day of Atonement, and had spent 10 days examining their hearts. Now the Word confirmed their guilt.
But revival doesn’t end with people feeling guilty. When they repent (lit. a change of mind that brings a change of heart that brings a change of will that brings a change of life), they are cleansed, and they should rejoice in their forgiveness. True repentance brings joy and restoration with their God! The Feast of Tabernacles (a fun, celebratory festival) follows the Day of Atonement. During the Feast, they lived in “booths” to remind them of their 40 years in the wilderness that resulted in their entering of the Promised Land. What joy! Warren Wiersbe said, “Conviction is followed by cleansing, then celebration.”
The Word brings conviction which leads to repentance. It also brings joy. “Your words were found, and I ate them, and Your word was to me the joy and rejoicing of my heart; for I am called by your Name (Jer. 15:16).” “The statutes of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart (Ps. 19:8).” “Your testimonies I have taken as a heritage forever, for they are the rejoicing of my heart (Ps. 119:111).” “Blessed is the man who fears the Lord, who finds great delight in His commands (Ps. 112:1).” “But his delight is in the law of the Lord, and in his law he meditates day and night.”
When we truly repent, we are forgiven! The past is gone. The Feast of Tabernacles in the book of Zechariah (14:4, 9, 16-20) is a feast that looks forward to a glorious future when Jesus will return. That is why the “joy of the Lord is your strength (8:10).” When your hope is gone, when your joy is weak, think about where you have come from. Think about where you are going because of Christ. That gives you the strength for today. We can live lives of obedience today (8:13-18) because of the joy of the Lord. The joy of the Lord is your strength!