Sing with me…
“The joy, the joy… The joy of the Lord is my STRENGTH!”
Whether you braved the rain this past Sunday to come to church or you watched the service online, chances are this song by Maverick City Music is still rolling around in your head. It’s one that lodges in there and replays over and over – unless you hear “It’s a Small World” or some other earworm song to replace it, you’ll be singing it for a while! I’m not saying that’s a bad thing – maybe the repetition of the song is what we need to absorb this important truth…
Have you ever read the book of Nehemiah and come across the phrase in context? It’s fascinating. Seeing the words in black and white, as they were first spoken, gives me a whole new meaning and insight to the phrase. For starters, it wasn’t said with the “my” pronoun. It’s said as a command – “The joy of the Lord is YOUR strength.” Who said it, and to whom? On what occasion?
Let’s set the stage a bit, which requires some Old Testament history.After years of continued unfaithfulness and rebellion on the part of God’s chosen people, despite many warnings from the prophets, Israel and Judah fell to surrounding nations and were exiled.
First the Northern kingdom, Israel, was conquered by the powerful kings of Assyria (2 Kings 17:7-23). The Southern kingdom of Judah survived for a few more generations before its rebellion also caused its fall, this time to the powerful king of Babylon in Persia, Nebuchadnezzar. Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed (2 Kings 25:1-30).
However, God preserved a remnant of his people and promised to save and gather them (Isaiah 11:11, Jeremiah 23:3). The book of Ezra provides an account of the exiles’ return to Jerusalem and the rebuilding of the temple.
After God had graciously allowed many of his people in exile to return to Jerusalem, word returned to Persia about the condition of the city. Nehemiah, a high-ranking Jewish official, was broken-hearted about the deteriorated walls surrounding the beloved city. He obtained permission from King Artaxerxes to return to Jerusalem and oversee the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem. There was so much opposition from the non-Jewish neighboring districts, that the workers had to do “their work with one hand and held a weapon in the other” (Nehemiah 4:17). Finally, the work was finished in an amazing 52 days!
This brings us to Nehemiah 8, when the remnant “came together as one in the square before the Water Gate” (Nehemiah 8:1). From daybreak until noon, these people had an epic church service. It included worship, prayer, and the reading of the Book of the Law.The peoples’ response to the reading of the Book of the Law was (wait for it)…
Wait, really? I know, it seems odd to me too. They should be happy, right? They got to go back to their homeland after being in captivity, the temple was rebuilt, the walls were rebuilt, and they were restored into right relationship with God! So…why the mourning?
I’m speculating here, but I think the reading of the Book of the Law that morning was like rehashing all the ways they and their ancestors had failed. In hearing about their faithful God, they saw clearly their own unfaithfulness. This caused them to weep and mourn. Theirs was a godly sorrow. (Can anyone relate? I’m raising my hand here.)
Enter Nehemiah, with these electric words of encouragement:
“‘Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.’ The Levites calmed all the people, saying, ‘Be still, for this is a holy day. Do not grieve.’ Then all the people went away to eat and drink, to send portions of food and to celebrate with great joy, because they now understood the words that had been made known to them… From the days of Joshua son of Nun until that day, the Israelites had not celebrated it like this. And their joy was very great.” (Nehemiah 8:10-12,17b)
“The joy of the Lord is your strength” just hits different after reading that story.
It was said by a beloved leader to a collection of very broken people, who were likely ashamed of their family history of generational sin. The strength they needed was not a physical strength. It was a strength to rise up against the accusing conscience, the part of their hearts that whispered, “You’re not good enough to have this relationship with God or this dwelling place in the holy city.” It was a strength to stand on the grace of God, rather than feeble human attempts at holiness. Once they heard those words, the joy came through like a rushing river.
I’ve been praying that this phrase will come to mind when I’m faced with my own sin. When the accuser would have me doubt my right standing with God, when I’m feeling “weak” – let me remember these words, “The joy of the Lord is my strength”!These words are not just about having courage when we face a difficult season in life. It’s deeper than that. These words kick the enemy in the teeth. And they remind ourselves that we are no longer in exile! That our sin, our weakness, is an avenue to show God’s strength. Our weakness is the touchpoint by which God’s strength can enter, bringing great joy with it.
Paul reminds us in 2 Corinthians 12:10 to delight in weakness. “For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (Delight, really, Paul? If you say so!) It’s all part of the mystery of how these things – our weakness, great joy, God’s strength – can coexist in us.
Therefore I declare it over you and over me, as Nehemiah declared it over the remnant at the Water Gate: Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength!
By: Tricia McCorkle