August 5, 2014

The Joy of the Lord

It is a good day today. I am feeling GREAT, feeling OPTIMISTIC, and feeling as if THINGS ARE GOING MY WAY! Yes, today is a very good day.

The words of Nehemiah (Chapter 8: 9-10) popped into my head this morning. I heard myself saying:

Do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.

As I considered these words, pondered on them, I decided I should go and read chapters 7-8 to understand the full context of this particular verse. It is always a good thing to read before and after the verses in order to see the events that led up to the verse, and the resultant actions that occurred after it.

In the case of Nehemiah 7-8, we need to dig a little deeper (as is the case with most of the Old Testament). To place this verse in context then, we need to understand what has just happened. This verse comes at the very end of the reading of the Law of Moses. Historically, the following occurred:

588 - The seige of Jerusalem
586 - Jerusalem falls and the Babylonian exile begins
537 - The exiles begin to return from captivity
536 - The temple work begins (beginning)
445 - Nehemiah begins work on rebuilding the wall
444 - Nehemiah takes a census of all the people
444 - Ezra reads the Law
432 - Nehemiah restores the Laws of God

We enter the story at the point when the walls of Jerusalem had just been rebuilt. The people were assembled together, and Ezra reads the Law (the Book of the Law of Moses) to the people. The Levites (the Priests) explained the law to the people, and the Bible says that this was done so that every man, woman and child would understand (v. 2). The people were weeping as the Law was read to them. Nehemiah then spoke these words to them:

Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who were interpreting for the people said to them, “Don’t mourn or weep on such a day as this! For today is a sacred day before the Lord your God.” For the people had all been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law. And Nehemiah continued, “Go and celebrate with a feast of rich foods and sweet drinks, and share gifts of food with people who have nothing prepared. This is a sacred day before our Lord. Don’t be dejected and sad, for the joy of the Lord is your strength!”

The Israelites had returned from a long captivity in a foreign land. They worked hard to repair the walls of the city so that they could live safely, and without fear of their enemies. It was a great day to be home! It was a great day of celebration, yet the Word of the Lord cut them, called them to account, and they were dejected and sad (v. 10). However, Nehemiah encourages them to find joy in their return, to see the whole picture of God's rescue, His redemption from captivity and slavery.

The people are then instructed to live in shelters and observe the Holy ritual or Festival of Booths (or Tabernacles) as commanded in the Law. The Sukkoth (Season of Our Joy) was a festival that was to be celebrated to remember the huts [plural: sukkot] Israel lived in during their 40 year sojourn in the desert after the exodus from Egypt. After the Israelites entered the land of promise, this celebration was associated with the fall harvest. It was a time to celebrate the blessing of God's provision and care (Deut. 16:14-15).  Leviticus 23:39-43 and in Nehemiah 8:14-17 record a description of this festival or celebration.

I particularly like these two verses from Nehemiah 8:16-17 (in NLT):

So the people went out and cut branches and used them to build shelters on the roofs of their houses, in their courtyards, in the courtyards of God’s Temple, or in the squares just inside the Water Gate and the Ephraim Gate. So everyone who had returned from captivity lived in these shelters during the festival, and they were all filled with great joy! The Israelites had not celebrated like this since the days of Joshua son of Nun.

This celebration, which had been commanded by God as lasting festival, had not been celebrated during the period of exile (some 142 years). During this time, the people likely forgot the Law. This is the period of the Prophets -- Jeremiah, Daniel, Ezekiel, Esther, Ezra, and Nehemiah. The Israelites had been living amongst the Babylonian people for a long time, and more than likely had been acculturated to the customs of the dominant culture (Daniel's account of his testimony to remain committed to the Law is specific).  The reading of the Law reminded the people of the sovereignty of God, of His promised restoration for Israel, and His future coming as King over His chosen people.

I find it interesting that God commanded the people to celebrate, to rejoice, and to remember His blessing on their lives. God called the Israelites to set aside seven days to commemorate His faithfulness to the people, and to do this on into perpetuity.

I don't mean to downplay the significance of sorrow, suffering or trial in our lives. The Lord knows that we all suffer. Some of us are suffering now, some of us are weighed down with incredible sorrow. Yet, as Christian's we have great reason to rejoice. God is faithful. God keeps His promises. God will redeem and restore His people. His Word is truth.

The Israelites had lived under extreme conditions for many years. The opportunity to return to Jerusalem was not without issue. There was work to be done before the people could return. The temple had to be rebuilt. The walls had to be repaired. This was hard and laborious work. Yet, the people did it. They worked together to rebuild the city of God. At the end of that time of hard work and trial, they were commanded to celebrate, to relax and to enjoy the blessing of God upon their lives.

Today, I think about this story, and I marvel at the fact that God still calls us to relax, to rest, and to enjoy His blessing on our lives. The trial, the sorrow, the hurt -- these things still remain with us -- yet there is opportunity to rejoice in the strength of the Lord. The Lord is our Joy. He is our strength.

As I consider this call to rejoice, I remember all that the Lord has brought me through the past ten or so years. Yes, if I am honest, I can recall His presence in my life over the course of my days -- all my days. He has been a constant companion, my very present help in times of trouble (Ps. 46:1).

God is our Refuge and Strength [mighty and impenetrable to temptation], a very present and well-proved help in trouble.

Yes, the Lord has been with me. He has kept me safe and secure. He has provided for every need in my life. He has promised good to me, and He has been faithful (is faithful) to bring to pass all the good I experience in my life.

So while I travail, I struggle, and I suffer at times (John 16:33):

I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world."

I can rejoice and and with James (chapter 1, verse 1-2) say:

Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy.

So as I prepare for this Season of Joy (I am not speaking of Christmas -- I am speaking of this time in my life), I remember all that the Lord has done for me. I look forward with great excitement and expectancy to the future -- to what the Lord has planned and prepared for me. I know that I will struggle, I will stress, and at times, I will suffer -- but I believe that the "joy of the Lord is my strength," and it is in Him that I will overcome because He has already overcome this world.

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