If someone asked me, “Is the joy of the Lord your strength?” I can pretty well predict what my internal reaction would be.
First, I’d think “the right answer is yes, it has to be yes.” Second, “Well, my answer really is yes, right? I mean, I love Jesus.” And third, “What the what does that phrase even mean?”
I suspect this might not be off from your own reactions. It’s not because we couldn’t guess at what the phrase means—after all it’s made up entirely of words and concepts that are standard issue in Christian life. But isn’t it life, fresh pressed and served chilled, when God’s word opens up an old package for us to reveal new treasure? That’s what Nehemiah 8 did for me on this little phrase, quite by accident.
Let’s recall the scene in Nehemiah 8:1-15, against the back drop of God’s history with his people. He chose, first, a man named Abram to be the father of a family who would possess a special land and have a special relationship with God. When his descendants landed in slavery in Egypt, God recused them for relationship, promising to make good on his covenant with his people about the land and the relationship. One of God’s favorite images to communicate these things is himself as husband, his people as bride.
Heart warming, right? Except that his people had a sin problem, a rejecting the good husband for worthless lovers problem. And after centuries of mercy, patience, warning, pleading—God sent his bride away. Leaving the land was a brutal punishment, both in how it was accomplished, and in how it burned into the psychology and self-understanding of the people. Who were they without the land, without the temple in the land? How should they relate to God in the absence of these tangible blessings?
These types of questions still haunted them when they were brought back to the land. At a key point in rebuilding Jerusalem, the sacred city, which had been utterly lain to waste, Ezra the scribe gathered all the people. The text is explicit that it’s everyone, not just the men. And he read to them from God’s book, and had skilled ministers to explain the words and meanings to the people. Nehemiah 8:8 states “They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.”
And once the people understood, really got it—they wept.
Ok pause. Now, sometimes it’s easy to think of God’s Law, that stuff near the front of your Bible, as about as interesting as the Apple terms of service document you never read but click “yes” on so that you can set up your phone. Not exactly an emotion inducing document, right? But what if God’s Law is less like terms of service, and more like wedding vows?
God’s relationship with his people is very much like a marriage, which makes the covenant document between he and them very much like vows. Sacred promises, made in love, deep commitments. We say them on our wedding day with hope and promise, and a little naïveté.
It sometimes happens that married couples have a renewal of vows ceremony. Why do couples do this? As The Knot, a popular wedding propaganda site puts it, “Perhaps you've made it to 2, 5, 10, 25 or 50 years together and you want the world to know you'd do it all over again in a heartbeat. Maybe you want to reaffirm your commitment to each other after a rough period in your relationship.”
A rough period is a mild way to put what had happened between God and his people. But imagine, there they are at this vow renewal, and the words are read out clearly, to be understood. All those promises, all those commitments. And the people of God hear, and what is before their eyes is the destruction they caused—a city, barely rebuilt. And what is before their minds’ eyes are all the ways they and their ancestors had broken, sometimes with glee, every last one of those vows. They had been wretchedly unfaithful. There they are, standing in a beautiful dress as it were, and they feel intensely the weight of their adultery. How could they not weep?
Nehemiah, a leader of the people, steps in to comfort them, and to command them, “do not be grieved”—why?—“for the joy of the LORD is your strength” (8:10).
Imagine the scene again, the vow renewal. The bride is grief stricken, but there is the husband. He is immaculately dressed, just as his wedding day. His face is full on his wife, and his eyes shine. His cheeks ache from smiling. He holds out his hands expectantly, full of delight. The warmth of love that he feels when he looks at her radiates out in a posture of expectancy, of joy. He hears those vows and he is thinking yes, I’m still committed. Yes, these are the promises I will always keep to her, because I love her. I can’t wait to declare it again.
That, my friends, is a joy that could impart strength. God declared in that moment through his book and his leaders that he loved and delighted in his people. He was fully aware of what had transpired, and yet his commitment was ever more steadfast. There was no shaming, no “I told you so”, no clenched jaw hoping for a better turn this time. Only joy and love.
I had read Nehemiah 8 expecting to come away with tidy lesson about the importance of reading Scripture or something like that. Instead, I was overwhelmed at who God is, a desperately, even recklessly loving husband, brimming over with joy. My own record of wretchedness is long, but God looks at me and declares, “Beloved,” secured forever because Jesus kept my end of the vows perfectly and for credit to my account. And that love has the power to even make me a vow keeper, however imperfectly. I breathe that in, and I feel strength. I pray it does the same for you.