Fill in the blank. “The joy of the Lord is my _________________”
I bet you guessed the word. If you didn't, I'll give you a few hints. What picture comes to mind when I say Luisa from Encanto? Or Sampson from the Bible? Arnold Schwarzenegger? Or…say…a VERY stubborn stiff-legged toddler who has determined not to let you change her diaper? Haha! The common denominator here is strength. Yet I'm sure we all know this phrase from the Bible is likely not referring to how "swole" you are!
The phrase "The joy of the Lord is my STRENGTH" is one I've heard often throughout my Christian upbringing. When I think of people who embody that phrase, usually people leap to mind who have endured great hardship and have done so with praise on their lips. My grandmother, for instance, was certainly not a bodybuilder (she was all of 5'5" tall and as skinny as a rail), but her joy/strength combo packed a punch. The final decades of her life were spent watching the love of her life deteriorate from Parkinson's disease, but the twinkle in her eye and her enduring love for the Lord made her a superhero in my eyes. During those heartbreaking years, she penned her "magnum opus" – rewriting the entire Bible in rhyming poetry. I can still hear her cheery sing-song voice saying "Aha!" whenever a visiting grandchild would descend the stairs of her Iowa homestead in the morning. This woman would not let disease steal her joy, and in that resolve, she found her strength.
The other day I was reading in Nehemiah and came across the phrase in context. I confess I hadn't really paid attention to its reference before. (Whoops, that's on me!) Seeing the words in black and white, as they were first spoken, gave a whole new meaning and insight to the phrase. For starters, it wasn't said with the "my" pronoun. It's said as a command:" The joy of the Lord is YOUR strength." Who said it, and to whom? On what occasion?
Let's set the stage a bit, which requires some Old Testament history.
After years of unfaithfulness and rebellion, God punished his people by sending them into exile. First, the Northern Kingdom, Israel, was conquered by the powerful kings of Assyria (2 Kings 17:7-23). The Southern Kingdom of Judah survived for a few more generations before its rebellion also caused its fall, this time to the powerful king of Babylon in Persia, Nebuchadnezzar. Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed (2 Kings 25:1-30). However, God preserved a remnant of his people and promised to save and gather them (Isaiah 11:11, Jeremiah 23:3). The book of Ezra provides an account of the exiles' return to Jerusalem and the rebuilding of the temple.
After God graciously allowed many of his people in exile to return to Jerusalem, word returned to Persia about the condition of the city. Nehemiah, a high-ranking Jewish official, was broken-hearted about the deteriorated walls surrounding the beloved city. He obtained permission from King Artaxerxes to return to Jerusalem and oversee the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem. There was so much opposition from the non-Jewish neighboring districts that the workers "did their work with one hand and held a weapon in the other" (Nehemiah 4:17 NIV). Finally, the work was finished in an amazing 52 days!
This brings us to Nehemiah 8, when the remnant "came together as one in the square before the Water Gate" (Nehemiah 8:1 NIV). From daybreak until noon, these people had an epic church service. It included worship, prayer, and the reading of the Book of the Law.
The peoples' response to the reading of the Book of the Law was – wait for it – remorse!
Wait, really? I know; it seems odd to me too. They should be happy, right? They got to go back to their homeland after being in captivity; the temple was rebuilt, the walls were rebuilt, and they were restored to right relationship with God! What are we mourning about, guys?
I'm speculating here, but I think the reading of the Book of the Law was like reading all the ways they and their ancestors had failed. In hearing about their faithful God, they saw clearly their own unfaithfulness. This caused them to weep and mourn. This was godly sorrow. (Can anyone relate? I'm raising my hand here).
Enter Nehemiah with these words of encouragement: "'Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.' The Levites calmed all the people, saying, 'Be still, for this is a holy day. Do not grieve.' Then all the people went away to eat and drink, to send portions of food and to celebrate with great joy, because they now understood the words that had been made known to them…From the days of Joshua son of Nun until that day, the Israelites had not celebrated it like this. And their joy was very great" (Nehemiah 8:10-12,17b NIV, emphasis added).
"The joy of the Lord is my strength" just seems different after reading that story. It was said by a beloved leader to a collection of very broken people, who were likely ashamed of their families' history of generational sin. The strength they needed was not physical strength. They needed strength to rise up against the accusing conscience, the part of their hearts that whispered, You're not good enough to have this relationship with God or this dwelling place in the holy city. It was a strength to stand on the grace of God rather than feeble human attempts at holiness. Once they heard those words, joy came through like a rushing river.
Which comes first, the awareness of weakness, the joy, or the strength? I think they come simultaneously. And I've been praying that this phrase will come to mind when I'm faced with my own sin. When the accuser would have me doubt my right standing with God, when I'm feeling "weak, let me remember these words, "The joy of the Lord is my strength."