In the book of Nehemiah we have been observing Nehemiah’s work and how he had the strength to do the work that God had given to him. In Nehemiah 6 we see that the walls of Jerusalem were completed in only 52 days. In spite of the intense opposition, Nehemiah showed great determination to complete the work God had given to him. Even though the walls are completed, there is still more work that must be done. Even though the visible work of the walls were finished, there was still a spiritual, internal work that needed to be done in the hearts of the people. Nehemiah has shown us how to have the strength to do the work when facing hardships and opposition. In the second half of the book, Nehemiah is going to show us how to have the strength to do the work of restoring hearts to the Lord.
The setting to chapters 7-8 is that, with the walls rebuilt, we need people to move back into the city. The city has been defenseless and essentially uninhabitable without walls (7:1-4). But Nehemiah assembles the people and possesses the book of genealogy (7:5). To us, a long list of names of families and peoples is not something we find too exhilarating to read. But there is such an important message in this genealogy. The promises of God have not been revoked. God has not only brought the people back to the land as he promised, but he has kept their bloodlines intact so that they can have a priesthood before God and continue to trace for the anointed king to be the Savior.
The Hope (8:10)
The title of the message comes from Nehemiah 8:10. “And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” I want us to think about this declaration. Your strength for life is in the joy of the Lord. You might have heard this sentence before or even it sung it from our songbooks. The joy of the Lord is your strength. It is easy to say but it is important that we think about what this is saying. The strength you need comes from the joy that is found in the Lord. The word translated “strength” can also be translated as stronghold, protection, refuge, or fortress. In fact, it seems that this is the primary meaning of the Hebrew word. The updated NASB 2020 reads, “The joy of the Lord is your refuge.” This carries a similar idea. When you are in need of help and protection, the joy of the Lord is the place to run to as your fortress. The joy of the Lord is your stronghold for life. It is to be your place of refuge. So this is an important truth that we need to let sink into our hearts. When we need strength, the joy of the Lord is the place to find it. Now let’s look at how we get to this point in the text. Go back to the beginning of Nehemiah 8.
Preparing For The Word (8:1-8)
The people are assembled and they asked Ezra to bring to the Book of the Law to read it to them (8:1). Friends, you have to love the heart of the people right here. They are gathered and what they want is the word of God. They are not asking for something else. They are not asking for food. They are not asking for fun. They are not asking for entertainment. They are not asking for anything else but for Ezra to bring the book that contains the Law of the Moses that the Lord had commanded Israel. So Ezra comes with the word of God and he read it in front of the assembly from early morning until noon. Perhaps Ezra was reading from the book of Deuteronomy as he read the law to them. But he read to them for 5-6 hours straight. The end of verse 3 says that the people listened attentively while the word of God was read. It probably says a lot about our conditioning because our attention span can struggle with a five minute reading from God’s word. Ezra read to the people all morning and the people listened attentively all morning. When Ezra opened the book of the Law in the sight of the people, all the people stood (8:5). What a declaration of honor and preparation to stand at the opening of God’s word! They are ready to hear what God has to say. Ezra blessed the Lord and the people responded with Amen as they worshiped the Lord with their faces on the ground.
Verse 8 explains what happened. The Levites read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly. They gave the meaning so that the people understood the reading. Friends, here is the definition of expository preaching. Here is the essence of preaching: read from the scriptures clear and give the meaning so that everyone can understand what was read.
The Response (8:9-11)
Notice what the people are doing as the word of God is being read to them and the Levites are giving them the meaning. Look at the end of verse 9. The people are crying as they heard the words of the Law. They are crying as they hear the proclamation of the God’s word. Now I want you to think about why the people are crying when they hear God’s word. As you think about that, I want you to see how the teachers respond to the people’s crying.
In verse 9 we read that Nehemiah, Ezra, and the Levites who were all teaching the people said, “This day is holy to the Lord your God. Do not mourn or weep.” So the leaders and teachers tell the people to stop crying. This day is holy to the Lord. So now we have two questions. Why are the people crying and why are the teachers telling them to stop crying? Look at verse 10. Nehemiah tells the people to go and feast. Enjoy food and drink and give portions to those who do not have anything ready. Look at the end of verse 10. “This day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” Nehemiah says it again to the people. This day is holy to the Lord. Do not be grieved because the joy of the Lord is your strength. Look at verse 11. The Levites are calming the people. They say, “Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved.”
Three times the people are being told to stop grieving but be quiet and feast. There are two reasons given to feast and not weep. The day is holy to the Lord and the joy of the Lord is your strength. So back to our two questions. Why are the people weeping and why are they being told to stop? You would think that the people weeping at the proclaiming of God’s word would be a wonderful outcome at this moment. But they are being told to stop. Why are they being told to stop weeping and start feasting?
Undoubtedly, their weeping is right as they hear the word of the Lord and the explanation. But for six hours they listened to the Book of the Law of Moses that the Lord commanded. Think about what the people have been hearing. The Law proclaimed that the people were to be holy (Deuteronomy 7:6). The Law proclaimed that the Lord keeps his covenant to those who love him and keep his commands but will repay those who hate him (Deuteronomy 7:9-10). They would have heard that they are a stubborn people who have provoked the Lord to wrath (9:6-7). They would have heard the blessings that God would give to them if they obeyed and the curses from God if they disobeyed (27-28). It would remind them how they would lose everything if they disobeyed, how they would be enslaved, and would not have rest (29). In other words, when you read the law, what does it tell you? The law tells you that you have catastrophically failed. We have not kept the law. We received a righteous judgment from God. We have provoked the Lord to anger. We were stubborn and did not listen to his commands or keep them. We did not live as the holy people of God. The law of the Lord is convicting. Receptive hearts who want to hear God’s word are cut to the heart because the message of God’s law is our utter failure. I believe this is the reason why the people are weeping. This is exactly what the Law of Moses was supposed to do. The apostle Paul said it this way:
For “no human being will be justified in his sight” by deeds prescribed by the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin. (Romans 3:20 NRSV)
But the leaders respond by telling the people that this is a great day. This is a holy day. This is a day to eat and drink. This is a day to feast and share with others portions of what you have. Why should they stop grieving? Because the joy of the Lord is your strength. What is the point? The point is that the people’s failure is not the end of the story. God did not close the book on these people because of their failures and repeated sinning. Deuteronomy 30 continued by proclaiming that God would bring his sinful people back, circumcise their hearts, and make them prosper again. The Lord is going to take delight in you and you are going to turn to the Lord with all your heart and soul (Deuteronomy 30:9-10). Stop grieving but take joy and feast because your story is not over.
Here is the focus from Nehemiah 8:10. Your strength to overcome your sadness and pain comes from the joy in the Lord. God has not left us condemned. Our strength for our times of failure is to look to the God of mercy who rescues us from our sins. How many times has the scriptures been preached where the only message is that God’s wrath is against us because we have failed him? This is true but it is not the whole story. Grieve over your sins. But do not give up because of your sins because your story is not over. God is not done with you. You can come back to him. God delights in you and you can turn to the Lord with all your heart. The gospel message is not that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. That is not good news. That is a hopeless message that leaves us in the darkness. The gospel message is to read the whole sentence that Paul proclaimed.
For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. (Romans 3:23–25 ESV)
God’s mercy and grace are what give us the strength to continue forward when we fail. God’s grace that is found in Christ is what gives us hope when we are convicted by our sins and cut to the heart. When you are decimated by your sinful life, the strength you need is seeing the joy of the Lord. God’s joy is bringing you back to him.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1–2 ESV)
What was the joy that was set before Jesus? The joy was our reconciliation. The joy was to make sure that God’s wrath was not the end of our story. This is what happens in Nehemiah 8:12. Then all the people began to eat and drink, send portions, and have a great celebration because they understood the words that were told to them.
God’s Word, Our Joy, Our Strength (8:13-18)
In verse 13 we read that the next day the people want to know more. The heads of the fathers’ houses, the Levites, and the priests all come to Ezra to study the words of the Law. The picture is that the heads of the families would learn the law and then go home and teach it to their families. So the people are initiating the study with Ezra so that they can know God’s word and share God’s word with others. In the process of their study they read about needed to keep the Feast of Booths in the seventh month. So they make a proclamation in the towns and in Jerusalem to make booths and keep the feast. Verse 17 tells us that the feast had not been keep in this way since the days of Joshua. This would be approximately 800 years earlier. They learned from the scriptures and they kept what they learned. This becomes the new pattern for the people. Verse 18 tells us that each day Ezra read from the law and the people listened and learned.
There are two things I want to quickly observe from our text as applications for us today. First, restoration has no time limit. It had been over 900 years since the law and been given. But when they heard the law proclaimed, they kept the law as it had been originally given. They did not adjust for time or culture. They did not adjust for geography. They kept the command that they heard. Restoration has no time limit. It does not matter that 2000 years have passed since Jesus gave his teachings. We must continue to study and restore our lives back to what the scriptures taught. What was commanded in the first century must still be followed today.
Second, I want us to see the chain for life. Your strength for life comes from the joy that is found in the Lord. The joy of the Lord is found in hearing and studying God’s word. Or to consider the chain from the other direction: our time in God’s word is to generate joy in who the Lord is and what he has done which will generate the strength we need to endure life. If you are lacking strength, turn to the joy that is found in the Lord. If you are lacking joy, then turn to the scriptures to find the good news of joy that God has accomplished for you. The mourning over our sins must turn into a celebration of God because he has reversed our condition so that we can be in relationship with him for eternity. God wants you to have joy. But joy is found in the Lord. God wants you to be strong. But strength is only found in the Lord. It is a great day to seek the Lord to find the joy and strength we need to bring us home to eternity.