The Joy of the Lord
“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.”” (Nehemiah 8:9b-10, ESV)
God’s covenant people in Judah had broken the covenant. Repeatedly. Impenitently. Though God had often sent them prophets to bring them to repentance and renewed covenant fidelity, they had repeatedly rejected the words of the prophets. Finally God unleashed the full weight of his covenant curses upon them (Deut. 28:15-68), sending upon them the Babylonians as his instruments of judgment. They broke down the wall of Jerusalem and destroyed God’s Temple in that city, slaughtered the king’s sons and many others, and they carried the people into exile in Babylon.
The Temple – a symbol of God’s gracious reign and holy presence – had been destroyed, and God’s faithless covenant people had been thrust out of the promised land, just as covenant-breaking Adam and Eve had been thrust out of the Garden as outcasts doomed to live as exiles “east of Eden”, away from Garden-Temple where they had enjoyed God’s comforting presence and communion in the sacramental Tree of Life.
In essence, God had excommunicated his faithless people. It looked like the church of that age, Israel, was doomed to utter extinction. The nation of Israel, an outpost of grace and revealed truth in the midst of a fallen, pagan world, had been destroyed. All hope seemed lost.
But God in his sovereign grace did something amazing. He preserved a remnant of grace in the midst of the Babylonian exile, and after 70 years (Jer. 29:10; Dan. 9:2) God in his providence opened a way for a faithful remnant of his people to return to Jerusalem and Judea. Over time they rebuilt the Temple and the wall of Jerusalem, symbolizing God’s gracious restoration of his repentant people. Just as today excommunicates may be restored to the communion of Christ’s church by his grace and through their repentance and amendment of life, so God restored his exiled people. And by restoring his people, he also restored their hope and their joy.
In the passage quoted above the priest Ezra, an expert in the Law of God, read the Law of Moses to the post-exilic community and the Levites assisted him in explaining the meaning of the Law to the people (see Nehemiah 8:1-8). We are told in verse 9 that the people wept when they heard the words of God’s Law. Why did they weep? Perhaps they cried tears of contrition as the Law of God confronted them with their faithlessness and that of their ancestors. Or perhaps they were overwhelmed with emotion as they realize the privilege of being able to hear the very words of God in the Scriptures. Whatever the reason for their weeping, this was not an occasion for tears of grief and sorrow. This was an occasion for joy! God in his sovereign mercy had restored his people, in spite of their many sins! God had not rejected his people, in spite of their covenant-breaking! As the hymn puts it, they had been “ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven”! Therefore, they as God’s restored, forgiven people should know the joy of Yahweh, their gracious covenant Lord, to be their strength! Amazing grace indeed!
We who live in this new covenant age have even more to rejoice in than our old covenant brethren in the post-exilic community. Jesus the Messiah has come to this earth and rendered perfect covenant obedience to the Father in heaven as the last Adam and true Israel. He has fulfilled the shadows and types of the old covenant, having merited a perfect righteousness for us believers by his covenantal obedience “under the law” (Gal. 4:4), and having offered a perfect satisfaction for sins by his atoning sacrifice on the cross (1 Pet. 3:18; Rom. 5:8; 1 Cor. 15:3; etc.). And he rose victorious from the dead, guaranteeing our ultimate restoration from the exile of death into the promise of life eternal. Having ascended into heaven and being coronated as “King of kings and Lord of lords”, He continually intercedes for us, preserving us in grace by His power. And one day he will return to take us to be with him in glory forever, just as he promised (1 Thess. 4:13-18).
During this season of Thanksgiving, and indeed always, we who are in Christ have much for which to be thankful, and much to rejoice in. We have been restored from the exile of our sin and separation from God into the favor and friendship of God our loving heavenly Father! In spite of our many daily failings and sins and covenant breaking, Jesus our Advocate before the Father, the perfect Covenant-Keeper, continues to intercede for us (1 Jn. 2:1-2), and the Father continues to forgive us through Christ! During this season of Thanksgiving may we recognize all that we have to be thankful for, and may the joy of the Lord be our strength!