The JOY of the LORD is ‘OUR’ STRENGTH: And Nehemiah, who was the governor, 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 nor weep." For all the people wept, when they heard the words of the Law. Then he said to them, "Go your way, eat the fat, drink the sweet, and send portions to those for whom nothing is prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord. Do not sorrow, for the joy of the Lord is your strength." (Nehemiah 8:9-10)
The remarkable thing about the spiritual renewal in Nehemiah’s day was that it was initiated by the people themselves and not by the governor, priest, or some other leader. They gathered in the plaza near the Water Gate “as one man” and asked Ezra to read to them “the book of the law of Moses” (8:1) that would be the book of Deuteronomy (Deut. 31:24–26). The occasion was New Year’s Day (now called Rosh Hashanah), the perfect time for beginning again (8:2).
Standing high on a wooden platform, Ezra read God’s Word to the people the whole morning time (8:3). With him stood a number of assistants who clarified the reading and meaning of the text for these Aramaic-speaking Jews (8:4–8). Their deep reverence for the Scriptures is reflected in their standing to their feet as Ezra started the reading (8:5). He would read a verse or two and then the interpreters rendered a translation with appropriate comments designed to provide a running commentary (8:7–8).
The reaction of Ezra’s audience to his reading of God’s Word should be noted here. God Himself was speaking through His word, and the people were listening to God’s voice. God’s word brought deep conviction as well as nostalgic memories, and the people began to weep. The people’s tears showed that the message was taken seriously (v. 9). Ezra and Nehemiah told them to stop, however, for it was a day of joy and not sorrow. They were right in taking the Word of God seriously, but they did not need to be overwhelmed by grief. The feast was not for weeping but for rejoicing!
When we closely examine the feasts that were celebrated by the children of Israel, only one occasion for mourning and fasting was found among all these feasts and that was the Day of Atonement. The rest of the feasts were to be kept with joy and celebration. The fruit of the Spirit was to be visible: love, in sharing with the less fortunate; joy, in eating and drinking before the Lord; peace, in calming their fears and putting their hearts at rest. Their sadness was turned to joy, and the joy of the Lord was their strength (v. 12).
The joy of the Lord is the joy that springs up in our hearts because of our relationship to the Lord. It is a God-given gladness found when we are in communion with God. When our goal is to know more about the Lord, the byproduct is His joy. Strength here means “place of safety,” a “refuge,” or “protection.” The people’s refuge was God. They had built a wall and they carried spears and swords, but He was their protection. The joy of God was to be their fortress!