Nehemiah 8:9-12 falls within a section beginning at Nehemiah 8:1 and ending in Nehemiah 10:39. This section of the book is about the reading of the Law and Covenant renewal. In this section, the Book of the Law is read, the Feast of Booths is kept and a great act of covenant renewal is performed. For the first time in Nehemiah, Ezra enters the narrative. This section shows the unity of his and Nehemiah’s projects. With the walls securely in place, the centrality of the Mosaic Law is once again made prominent, since it is not security alone that is essential to the life of the community, not even the temple, but trust in God and obedience to God’s Word as revealed through Moses.
Nehemiah 8:9-12 is where the people are called to be joyful. Though sorrow for sin was a positive response, joy at renewed relationship with God was the teaching’s ultimate purpose. In verse 9, Nehemiah and Ezra together decide that this holy day (Lev 23:24) should be one of joy, though the reading has led many to sense the need to repent of their sins. They wept as they heard the words of the Law because when they heard and understood God’s law, they understood their violations of it. These were not tears of joy, but penitent sorrow which came forth as they were grieved by conviction over the distressing manifestations of sin in transgressing the Lord’s commands and the consequent punishments they had suffered in their captivity.
In verse 10 it says the joy of the Lord is your strength. As the people rejoiced in God and delighted in his presence, he would show himself strong to help them and defend them. Joy was a key because God had saved Israel, in both the remote and the recent past, and this story of salvation would have been told again in the reading of the book of the Law. In verse 12 it says eat, drink and send portions. These are important themes of worship in Deuteronomy, where worship was associated with God’s rich gifts and the privilege of sharing them (Deut. 12:12; 14:23, 26, 27-29). The event called for a day of holy worship to prepare them for the hard days ahead (Neh. 12:43) so they were encouraged to rejoice. The words they had heard did remind them that God punishes sin, but also that God blesses obedience. That was the reason to celebrate. They had not been utterly destroyed as a nation in spite of their sin and were, by God’s grace, on the brink of a new beginning. That called for a celebration. God’s Word is a doubled edged sword. The Word of God pierces into the innermost thoughts and motivations of our hearts, but it does so to bring us to repentance. Not only does the Word convict us but it also reproves us, corrects us, and encourages us.
The people who heard the Word through Ezra wept because they recognized their need for God. Central to worship of God is the hearing and responding to His Word. When the Word is preached to you, do sit attentively with your Bible open and with ears to hear what the Lord has to say through His appointed servant? Ezra does not stop the people from being sorrowful rather he calls them to joy in the Lord. He says, “For the joy of the Lord is your strength”. He does not just leave them with the Law but rather comforts them and assures them. As believers we have been called to the ministry of reconciliation. This means bringing the bad news of God’s judgment upon sin but we must never stop at proclaiming bad news. The bad news of the Gospel it has been said makes the good news of the Gospel that much more glorious. The good news of the Gospel is that God forgives sinners and calls them to Himself so that He can save them. The Lord wants people to find a superior joy in knowing Himself. Ezra stresses that the joy of the Lord is your strength. He says this into a context where the people of Israel have experienced great difficulty and in the future (Neh. 12:43) will continue to experience difficulty. Nehemiah 8:10 teaches that believers must know the joy of the Lord as their strength.
J.C. Ryle said that, “Growth in grace is one way to be happy in our religion. God has wisely linked together our comfort and our increase in holiness.” As believers grow in grace they will grow in joy. The Truth of Christianity is not dull and mundane but is joyful. Christianity is joyful because of Christ. Christ forgives people of their sin. He gives them a new heart, a new identity and a new name. Christ calls believers to live out their new identity in Christ. Christ is sanctifying a people for His own name. Christ is the One who offers joy. Often times as Christians, we forget that the joy of the Lord is our strength. We forget to rely on the God, and when that happens our Christianity becomes joyless rather than joyful.
People all around us everyday are watching to see if our Christianity is different. Our Christianity ought to be different because every day the joy of the Lord is our strength. Every day the mercies of the Lord are new. Every day we have a chance to grab hold of and rely on through enabling work of the Spirit, the joy of the Lord. The people of God ought to be a joyful people. We ought to be joyful because our sins have been washed in the blood of the Lamb of God! We ought to be a joyful people even in the midst of hard times because Jesus has risen again from the grave to give us new life! We ought to be a joyful people because King Jesus stands at the Right hand of the Father interceding for His own. Are you joyful today my brother or sister in Christ? In what areas are you lacking joy?
It was once said of a famous preacher from Scotland that before he would preach he would run up and down the list of his former sins. He did this because it helped to remind him of all that God has done in his life. Many of you today need to run down a list of your former or present sins and return to the Lord. Many of you need to return to your first love in Jesus Christ. You need do so because you know your Christianity is joyless rather than joyful. Christianity is not a duty filled religion- it is a joy-filled relationship with God. God has saved you from your own sin and rebellion. He did this to display His name and fame in and through your life, for His glory. Are you going to live a duty-filled Christianity or a joy-filled Christianity? The Lord invites you to be joyful, but first you need to see your need for Him by recognizing your sin, which will enable you to see all that He has done for you- is for you to have joy in Him.