Have you ever been struck by your own sins and mistakes, to the point that you were upset with yourself and in great emotional pain? It’s a blessing to see our sins before their consequences catch up to us, but sometimes we are struck by the consequences first, and they cause us pain that helps us reflect on our sins, and we can get overwhelmed. Today, we can learn from the Jews who came back from captivity in Babylon and rebuilt the temple (Ezra 6:15), which had been destroyed when the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem. The people gathered for a time of worship (Nehemiah 8:1), and heard the words of the Book of the Law of Moses, perhaps for the first time in many years, as the Torah was read to them. Ezra the priest read from it all morning long, and made sure the people understood what was being read. As the people heard the words of the law, many were full of sorrow for their sins.
“Well, good for them” we might say. “They needed to be sorry.” But that isn’t how their leaders responded. In verses 9-12, they were instructed “do not mourn or weep.” Instead, they were told to feast on good food and wine, and to share with others; “and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” Whaaaat? They’ve just been convicted of their sins, having heard the law they and their ancestors had ignored, and were expressing pain and regret. But they were told to rejoice instead, and they did, “because they had understood the words that were declared to them” (v. 12). The sense of this passage is that they were given all the reasons in that reading of the Law, that their ancestors were punished and the city destroyed; but they were being forgiven, given a fresh start, brought back from captivity by the Lord, and able to live in the land again. They got a “do-over” from the Lord!
I love that one line, “the joy of the Lord is your strength” in 8:10. It’s so plain in the Hebrew that the translation is identical in every version I have. Joy? We tend to get depressed and worried when things aren’t going our way (I’ve had hundreds of those occasions in my life, I can tell you!). We regret the past or we don’t see a way into the future, and get in a funk. Then we read “the joy of the Lord is your strength.” If it’s so good, how can I get it? I can’t just tell myself to have joy, can I? No, we can’t. But we can decide what we focus on, and that makes all the difference.
Jesus told the disciples in John 16:22, “you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.” Their joy would come from seeing the resurrected Lord, knowing that he, in his resurrection power, would be their strength forever (through their coming trials, and even martyrdom!). So, how do you and I have joy, even in difficult times? It depends on what we give our focus. As the hymn goes, “Turn your eyes upon Jesus/Look full on his wonderful face/And the things of earth will grow strangely dim/In the light of his glory and grace.” No, that’s not a psychological trick, or ignoring facts; it’s focusing on Who is more important. I have plenty to worry about, just like you, I’m sure. But you and I can choose, every day, to let “the joy of the Lord be our strength.” Will you?