The Joy God Gives (Nehemiah 8:1-12)
Passage: Nehemiah 8:1–8:12
Joy: The Gift of Heaven’s Happiness
The Joy God Gives
December 4th, 2011
Way of Grace Church
I. Surrounded by Joy?
While there are many words that could and should be included in a Christmas vocabulary list, the word joy has to be placed near the top of the list. From ornaments and yard decorations, to greeting cards and stocking holders and wall plaques, there is no doubt we are surrounded by the word “joy” at Christmastime.
The importance of this word must come from Christmas verses like Luke 2:10…
And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.  For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. (Luke 2:10, 11)
But apart from the word, how many people would genuinely say they are surrounded by joy at this time of year? For many people, joy is hard enough to find throughout the rest of the year. But the holidays can add new levels of frustration when it comes to experiencing joy. Lonlieness, busyness, financial distress, and expectations of how things should be all contribute to these frustrations.
There is no doubt Christmastime can and does contain many joyous moments (e.g. holiday parties, giving gifts, good food), but if we’re honest with ourselves, those moments are fleeting.
How much do you know about joy? How much joy is in your life? Would people describe you as a joyful person? Where does true joy come from? Where does your joy come from? Do you recognize that all of us, every human being, is on a quest for joy?
This morning, and over the next few weeks, our aim is to discover what God has to say about this popular holiday term, joy. The Bible contains over 350 instances of the words joy, rejoice, joyful, and joyous. It contains another 258 instances of synonyms like glad, gladness, exult, and delight
As the Creator of all things, including joy, we must turn to God to understand this idea better. And let’s do that literally…let’s turn to God’s word and literally turn over to Nehemiah 8.
II. The Passage: “They Read from the Book” (8:1-12)
Now before we read from Nehemiah 8:1-12, let me briefly describe the historical pie out of which this slice is coming to us. Near the end of the 7th and the beginning of the 6th centuries BC, the Jewish people found themselves exiled from their land by the powerful Babylonians. But when Babylon fell to the Persians in 539 BC, the Jews were given permission to return to their homeland the next year.
The opening chapters of the book of Ezra describe the return of tens of thousands of Jews and how, over many years, they rebuilt the Temple of God that had been destroyed by the Babylonians. The temple was completed in 516 BC, and over 50 years after that, in 458 BC, a priest named Ezra returned to Jerusalem in order to teach God’s law among the people.
About thirteen years after Ezra’s arrival, a man named Nehemiah also returned to strengthen the people of God. But his goal of ‘building up’ was more literal: he came to help rebuild the wall that once surrounded Jerusalem, and thus, help restore the city’s glory and give it more security from its enemies. In Nehemiah chapter 5, we read that Nehemiah, in that same year, became the governor of Judea.
So as we come to Nehemiah 8, Nehemiah has just overseen the completion of the wall and is now focused on repopulating the newly enclosed city of Jerusalem. Look at where the story goes next.
A. Instructing with God’s Word (8:1-3)
Look with me at verses 1-3:
And all the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate. And they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses that the LORD had commanded Israel.  So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could understand what they heard, on the first day of the seventh month.  And he read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand. And the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law.
So we see here that the restoration of the people that had begun almost a hundred years before this gathering, this restoration was coming to a spiritual climax here in Nehemiah. Both Ezra and Nehemiah recognized that the restoration of God’s people was about more than a piece of land or a rebuilt wall.
They knew the most important thing was a restoration to God’s covenant.
The people had been taken out of the land because they failed to keep God’s covenant. And now, seeing that had God graciously brought them back to the land, they needed to understand what this covenant contained and how they could live as God’s people.
This is precisely why, as we see in verse 1, “the book [actually a scroll] of the Law of Moses” was brought and read to the people. This book may have been large sections from the first five books of our Bible, or it may have been the entire book of Deuteronomy. What is clear about this Scripture is that it was read to the people for 5-6 hours, according to verse 3. Wow!
And if you think the people were nodding off by hour three or four, the writer is clear in verse 3 that the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law.
But look at what else we read about this gathering.
B. Responding to God’s Word (8:4-8)
Look with me at verse 4:
And Ezra the scribe stood on a wooden platform that they had made for the purpose. And beside him stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah, and Maaseiah on his right hand, and Pedaiah, Mishael, Malchijah, Hashum, Hashbaddanah, Zechariah, and Meshullam on his left hand.  And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was above all the people, and as he opened it all the people stood.  And Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground.  Also Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, the Levites, helped the people to understand the Law, while the people remained in their places.  They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.
So we’re told that after Ezra finished reading the law, he (verse 5) “opened the book in the sight of all the people”. I think this means he unrolled the scroll and held it up to face the people. We’re specifically told that everyone could see him because they built some kind of elevated platform on which he and the other leaders were standing.
Now notice how Ezra and the people respond to God’s word. We read that “Ezra blessed Yahweh”, and the people responded with a double “Amen” and by falling on their faces in worship.
But I also love what we read in verses 7 and 8. After the reading, “while people remained in their places (v. 7), a group of Levites were doing the very thing Moses called them to do in his blessing on the tribe in Deuteronomy 33:10…”They shall teach Jacob your rules and Israel your law…”
These guys are leading the small group ministry, aren’t they? They are working with smaller groups of people, rereading parts of the Law and explaining the meaning and application of God’s word.
C. Rejoicing in God’s Word (8:9-12)
But this morning, I really want us to focus on the conclusion of this scene in verses 9-12. Look at what it tells us…verse 9….
And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the LORD your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law.  Then he said to them, “Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.” >>>
 So the Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved.”  And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them.
So we read in verse 9 that when the Law of Moses had been read, and reread, and explained to the people, everyone was starting to cry. In fact, even as God’s word was being read, people started weeping. And these aren’t tears of gladness! We’re told they were mourning.
So why was everyone so upset? Well the best explanation is that when God’s people were reminded of God’s commandments, the very commandments their ancestors had neglected and rejected, when they heard these things, they realized how sinful they were. They were reminded of all the things they should have been doing…but weren’t. And in light of this, they must have been wondering if it was only a matter of time before they were also removed from the land, according to the judgment of God.
But all the men who were involved in leading and instructing the people at this gathering began to exhort the people not to “mourn or weep” (v. 9). Two times, in verses 9 and 10, they remind the people that this is not a day of judgment from God, but a day that is holy to God. This was the first day of the seventh month, which was called the Feast of Trumpets in the Law of Moses. It marked the beginning of a new agricultural year and was the beginning of the month that contained both the Day of Atonement and the Feast of Booths.
As the leaders remind the people, this is not a day for grieving, but a day for rejoicing. Instead of weeping, they should be eating and drinking! Instead of mourning, they should be sharing their holiday meals with those not prepared. And we read in verse 12 that this is exactly what the people did: And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them.
III. Living in “The Joy of the Lord”
Now, there is a lot we could dig into here. But given our focus this morning, I want us to camp out right there at the end of verse 10. Look at that phrase again: “And do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.” I suspect most of us have heard that verse before. But what exactly does it mean?
Let me propose several things about that phrase that I hope will help us better understand it and encourage us in regard to this idea of joy.
First of all, what we see here is that the joy of the LORD is a particular kind of joy.
I think this point is clear from the phrase itself. Unlike psychologists today, the leaders in Nehemiah 8 don’t simply tell the people that being generally glad or happy or joyful will make them strong. No, they are specific about the kind of joy the people need. They need the “joy of the Lord”.
Remember what David said in Psalm 16: You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore. (Ps. 16:11) Speaking of God’s blessing on Israel king, David says in Psalm 21, …you make him glad with the joy of your presence. (Psalm 21:6)
Listen to how the church father Augustine described this joy:
“There is a joy which is not given to the ungodly, but to those who love You for your own sake, whose joy You yourself are. And this is the happy life, to rejoice to You, of You, for You; this it is, and there is no other.”
Along those same lines C.S. Lewis once wrote, “God cannot give us happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing.”
The particular kind of joy that comes from God, whose object is God himself, that joy should be the joy all of us are seeking. We should not find it surprising when the “joy of” anything else is fleeting and fading and far from filling us up. Only the “joy of the LORD” can give us real strength. Is that the joy you’re searching for this morning? On your quest for joy, is your spiritual GPS set with God as the destination.
The joy of…money, or the joy of…sex, or the joy of…success, or the joy of…family, or the joy of service, or accomplishment, or travel, or whatever…none of these will bring us strength. By themselves they will actually leave us weaker, because those joys are temporary.
But as we think about how to get this “joy of the LORD”, let’s look at the second thing we learn from the context here. We see here that the joy of the LORD is a joy that flows from the word of God.
There’s no escaping the fact that the word of God is the catalyst for what happens in the hearts of the people gathered here. What starts as grief eventually becomes joy. You see, the people were only focusing on one aspect of this book of the Law. They were filled with sorrow because of what the Law told them about God’s judgment.
But the books of the Law are also records of God’s deliverance and God’s grace and God’s goodness and God’s provision. Just as God redeemed the Israelites from Egypt and led them to the Promised Land, the people gathered here in Nehemiah 8 were part of another restoration to this Promised Land.
You see understanding God’s covenant and taking it seriously involved not only sorrow for sin, but also joy for salvation. I think the prophecy of Isaiah in Isaiah chapter 12 describes the response the people should have in light of God’s restoration:
Youwill say in that day: “I will give thanks to you, O Lord, for though you were angry with me, your anger turned away, that you might comfort me. 2 “Behold, God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid; for the Lord Godis my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation.” 3 With joy youwill draw water from the wells of salvation. (Isaiah 12:1-3)
Brothers and sisters, the extent to which we are experiencing “the joy of the LORD” in our lives, and the strength it brings, is directly related to the extent to which we are fed by the word of God. Do you believe that? Are you full of the joy of the LORD? If you are not, then look first at the condition of your walk in the word. Do you know the word? Do you believe the word? Are you reminding yourself daily of the incredible things it tells us? Yes, joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit (as Galatians 5:22 tell us), but the Spirit produces that joy in us through the truth of God’s word.
The “joy of the LORD” is rooted in the truth of who God is, the truth of what God has done to save us, the truth that God will never leave us or forsake us, the truth that God is using all things for our good, and the truth that He guarantees us a happy ending because of Christ.
The glory of God shines from the pages of God’s word, and that glory is the fire that fuels genuine joy.
The Scottish preacher Robert Murray M'Cheyne once said, A beam of God's countenance is enough to fill the heart of a believer to overflowing. It is enough to light up the pale cheek of a dying saint with seraphic brightness, and make the heart of the lone widow sing for joy.
If you are struggling to find joy in your life, then your struggle is a ultimately a struggle of faith, and specifically, faith in what God has said in His word. This is true for all of us. The lies out there and the lies in here fight against the word of God and try to snuff out the joy that God has given us through His word.
The joy of the LORD is a joy that flows from the word of God.
Finally, the third truth we see confirmed here in Nehemiah 8 is that the joy of the LORD results in joyful living.
Remember how the leaders encouraged the people in verse 10: “Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And the people listened to their leaders, as we see in verse 12: And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them.
One of the false ideas that has gained some traction in the Christian world is the idea that there is some kind of distinction between the word happiness and the word joy. Well, that is simply not a distinction you find in Scripture. Some want to say that happiness is a worldly thing or that it’s a feeling based solely on positive circumstances in our life, and positive according to worldly success.
But in the Bible, the same Greek word used to describe the celebration (the partying) that took place when the prodigal returned in Luke 15 is the same word used in Romans 15:10, where we are called to “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people.”
The same word used in Luke 15 when it says “there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:10), the joy that the Holy Spirit give in Galatians 5:22, is the same word Jesus uses to describe in John 3 a best man’s joy when he hears the groom coming before the wedding, or to describe the joy of a mother when her baby is born in John 16:21.
Why is the issue important? It’s important because God doesn’t want us to create a division between the basic idea of happiness that all of us understand deep down, and have experienced in many ways and at different times, a division between that and the joy that He wants to give us by His grace.
What I’m saying is that the distinction should not boil down to grammar. Happy, joyful, glad, blissful, cheerful, delighted, jubilant, gleeful…whatever word you use, we know the feeling!
The distinction must come from the source of our joy, from what inspires joy in us. And when God give us His gift of joy, the gift of Heaven’s happiness, then as we see here, this should inspire the kind of life that anyone, anywhere would recognize as joyful.
To drive this home, think about the ideas that are coupled with the term joy throughout the Scriptures: we read about joy and dancing (Psalm 30:11, Jeremiah 31:13); we read about joy and shouting (Psalm 20:5); about joy and laughter (Psalm 126:2); about joy and clapping (Psalm 47:1), about joy and singing (Ps. 71:23), about joy and leaping (Luke 6:23), about joy and eating and drinking (Ecclesiastes 9:7)(and as we see here in Nehemiah 8).
I think there are many Christians today who want to turn joy into only some kind of inner assurance. The problem comes when their outer lives are marked by mistrust, anxiety, pessimism, grief, weariness, bitterness, and indifference. But that is not what the “joy of the LORD” should look like on the outside when it is truly burning on the inside.
I like how the write Jerry Bridges describes this: God intends the Christian life to be a life of joy - not drudgery. The idea that holiness is associated with a dour disposition is a caricature of the worst sort. In fact, just the opposite is true. Only those who walk in holiness experience true joy. (Jerry Bridges)
Does mean that every day, and every second of the day, we need to walking around with a big smile plastered on our faces? Well, why shouldn’t we if we know “the joy of the LORD”? The reality is that we have to fight for joy on a daily basis. Yes, there will be times of grief and struggle and depression, “but joy comes in the morning” (Psalm 30:5). For the follower of Christ, joy should always win the day, because Christ has won the victory.
We’ll talk more about that next week, but let me just leave you with this: the author of Hebrews exhorts us with these words: 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)
Jesus endured the grief of the cross in order to secure the joy that He now makes possible for you and me. Are you living in that joy? Are you exploding with that joy? Joy can be a scary thing. Sometimes we’re afraid to let ourselves be happy like this. Many times we’re simply looking for this joy, this happiness in all the wrong things.
But as we’ve seen this morning, “the joy of the LORD” is what we should desire above all other joys. Because when we do, all other genuine joys become that much more joyful.
More in Joy: The Gift of Heaven's Happiness
December 18, 2011The Joy We Should Always Enjoy (I Thessalonians 5:16)
December 11, 2011The Joy No One Can Take Away (John 16:16-24)