Nehemiah: Joy and Strength

Sermon by on December 14, 2008

Nehemiah 8:8-12

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The Lord’s Day
December 14, 2008

Nehemiah 8:9-12
“Joy and Strength”

Dr. Derek W. H. Thomas

Now tonight we come to Nehemiah 8, and we’re going to read
together just four verses of text, verses 9-12. Before we do that, let’s look to
God once again in prayer. Let’s all pray.

Lord our God, we bow in Your presence,
acknowledging You to be the author and giver of Holy Scripture. All Scripture is
given by inspiration of God and is profitable for doctrine and reproof and
correction, and instruction in the way of righteousness, that the man of God
might be thoroughly furnished unto every good work. We thank You, O Lord, for
the gift of the Bible, the Law of God, the light to our path, the lamp unto our
way. And we pray tonight as we read it and as we study it together that You
would come by Your Spirit. We want once again to be affected by Your word
because we want to be men and women of the Book, of Holy Scripture. We want to
love this word more than any other word. We desire tonight to have dealings with
You. Come, Holy Spirit; move us, challenge us, empower us, invigorate us,
convict us. Grant that in this hour of worship we might once again know the joy,
the holy joy of being in the presence of God, of knowing that sweet assurance
that You are our covenant Lord and we are Your people, and thus it shall ever
be. Now grant Your blessing, we pray. We ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Now, this is God’s word, Nehemiah, chapter eight, and
verse nine:

“And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe,
and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, ‘This day is holy
to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.’ 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.’ So the Levites calmed all the people, saying, ‘Be quiet, for this day
is holy; do not be grieved.’ And all the people went their way to eat and drink
and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood
the words that were declared to them.”

Amen. May the Lord add His rich blessing to that reading of
His holy word.

The Westminster divines summed up religion — our
faith, Christianity, the gospel, what it means to be a Christian — this
way: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.”
For the Westminster divines (those dour Puritans!) joy was at the heart of what
it means to live the Christian life–joy in God, joy in knowing that we are the
Lord’s, joy in experiencing the gift of salvation, joy in knowing a sense of
wholeness and integration that we are now complete in Jesus Christ, as Paul
tells the Colossians.

It has been God’s plan from the very beginning, of
course. You see it in the Garden of Eden…that beautiful picture, Adam and Eve
and God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they’re together and
they’re in fellowship, and there is a sense of wholeness, and a sense of
integration and joy, and peace and fellowship. And then sin enters into the
world, and Adam and Eve are driven from the garden and angelic creatures with
flaming swords guard the entrance now to Eden’s perfection and bliss and glory.
The only way back is through the blood of Jesus…covered by the blood of Christ.

It’s fascinating. In the so-called high priestly
prayer of Jesus in John 17, on the eve of His betrayal, in an hour or so from
saying these words He would be betrayed. He would be handed over to Caiaphas,
and then to Pilate and then to be crucified. And do you remember what the last
burden on Jesus’ heart was — not for Himself, but for us, for His people, His
children? “That they might have My joy fulfilled in themselves.” That’s what He
prayed for: “That they might have My joy fulfilled in themselves.”

Jesus wants us to know that joy, the joy that the
Westminster divines speak about, that man’s chief end is to glorify God and to
enjoy Him forever.

It’s September, 444 B.C. Gathered at the Water
Gate — well, in the courtyard before the Water Gate — in Jerusalem, are perhaps
thousands of people.
Many of them are the men and women who had been engaged
in rebuilding this wall. They’ve been back in the city six months. The work is
done. They’d gone home for a few days, but Nehemiah had summoned them to come
back — bring their wives, bring their children, to assemble here in Jerusalem.
It was an extraordinary day.

I doubt that you or I have ever witnessed anything
quite like this. There are friends of mine who say they have experienced
something very similar to this. In parts of Scotland, I know, where God’s Holy
Spirit has come down in an extraordinary way, and hundreds (and perhaps even on
occasions thousands) of people have been influenced all at once.

On this day Ezra and thirteen of his helpers are on a
pulpit, a platform, a wooden structure, and they’ve read from the Law of Moses,
the first five books of the Old Testament. They have read it in Hebrew. It’s
hard to know how much of the Bible many of those who heard the Law being read
that day…it’s hard to know how much of the Bible they actually knew. One
imagines that some of them knew some of the Old Testament, for sure. Fathers
would teach their children. Priests and scribes even in Babylon would teach.
Probably that’s where the synagogue began, in Babylon.

But there was something extraordinary about this day.
They read from early morning until lunch time — five, perhaps even six hours. We
read in the text in the earlier part of Nehemiah 8, you remember, they stood for
the reading of Scripture. And the there seem to have been thirteen others who
moved among the people, and during perhaps intervals in the reading, or perhaps
even as the reading went on, they would translate from Hebrew to Aramaic, the
language which they now spoke, and perhaps even give an interpretation or two —
a little homily, a little sermonette or two — for five hours…six hours.

And then evidently there was weeping. I don’t know
whether you’ve been in a setting – I’m sure you have — you’ve certainly been at
funerals, for example, and you’ve detected among those all around you an
overwhelming sense of sorrow, grief. You can hear people begin to weep a little.
I was giving an exam this week and one of my teaching assistants tells me he
overheard one of my students begin to weep as I gave them the exam! I don’t mean
that kind of thing. [Laughter] I mean something much, much more profound
than that. This isn’t a piece of emotionalism. This is something extraordinary.
This is something of the Spirit, you understand.

They were hearing God’s word. They were conscious
that this was God’s word that they were hearing. I’m not always convinced that
we are conscious of that. We can be so dismissive of the reading of God’s word.
Our attention span is so mis-focused at times; our body language often conveys
our lack of interest.

But not this day. God came down this day. He moved
among them. He touched this one and that one, and then another. And as the Law
of Moses was read with all of its commandments and all of its explanations and
amplifications of God’s commandments, it touched them. It convicted them. It
spoke to their consciences. They were sinners. They’ve come back from Babylon,
but the whole reason for Babylon was their sin — their sin and the sins of their
fathers, and the sins of their grandfathers.

In 1917, in a revival that broke out in Korea, a very
famous revival that broke out in Korea, this is the account of one who witnessed

“As the prayer continued, a spirit of heaviness and sorrow for sin came down
upon the audience. Over on one side someone began to weep, and in a moment the
whole congregation was weeping. Man after man would rise, confess his sins,
break down and weep, and then throw himself on the floor and beat the floor with
his fists in an agony of conviction.”

You might dismiss that. You know Presbyterians don’t do
that sort of thing. Well, they did that on the Day of Pentecost, you remember,
when the Spirit came down and Peter began to preach. You remember how Luke
describes it in Acts 2? “They were cut to their hearts.” They were convicted.
God was in this place, and this was a holy place.

“My sins, my sins, my Savior,
They take such hold of me
I am not able to look up, Save only, Christ, to Thee.”

But into this weeping, this profound sense of conviction
that has overtaken the entire congregation as the Law of God is read, Nehemiah
steps in.

Now, before we examine what Nehemiah says here (and
it’s counterintuitive…it’s not what you think he’s going to say…unless, of
course, you know what he’s going to say!) But before we do that we need
to pause, I think, and just ask ourselves that question. Ligon asked it this
morning when he was dealing with Gabriel’s message to Zechariah and Elizabeth —
the sense of the awe, the sense of the holy. What is the response that we should
have if we really thought God was in this place? Friends, you believe that,
don’t you? That God is in this place?

You hold a copy of the Bible in your hands. It’s
God’s word, written by the finger of God. You’d be overwhelmed…you’d be coming
to me if you had a letter from the President written in his own hand. You’d come
and you’d show it to me. You’d have it wrapped up in cellophane perhaps, so no
grubby fingers would be all over it. You would guard it as the most precious
thing that you have! You have a copy of God’s word in your hand, written by the
finger of God, and it breaks us up. It shows us for what we are. It reads us
like an open book. It shows us warts and all that we are sinners, you and I. We
are transgressors of God’s Law. We have broken God’s Law. That’s what Isaiah
felt in the temple: “Woe is me, for I am undone! I am a man of unclean lips, and
I dwell amongst a people of unclean lips.” But when John, the Apostle John, was
in the presence of the holiness of Christ, he fell down on his face to the
ground as though he were dead.

Have you ever experienced that? You were asked that
question this morning. Let me ask it one more time. That’s not where this
passage is going, you understand, but I want you to ask that question to

All the more surprising what Nehemiah now does,
because he steps in, and Ezra steps in apparently, and the Levites also step in
and repeat it, and you heard it repeated several times: They were not to weep.
There is a time for weeping, and you’ll come to that in chapter 9. Get ready for
chapter 9 when they begin to confess their sins. But it’s not now. This was not
a day for mourning, this was a day of celebration.

It’s the seventh (you see it in the last verse of
chapter 7, right at the end of chapter 7)…it’s the seventh month, that is, the
first day of the month. The seventh month in Israel was festival time. Forget
about work projects demanding a great deal of your time — you would just never
get them done. There were festivals in the seventh month: the Feast of
Tabernacles, for one; the Feast of Trumpets for another; the Day of Atonement
for another. Now surprisingly, there’s no mention of the Day of Atonement here.
It is unthinkable that they did not celebrate the Day of Atonement, and we’ll
come to that in a minute. But it’s the Feast of Tabernacles just before them,
and the days following this day would be Tabernacles.

Now we’re going to look at Tabernacles the next time
we look at Nehemiah, but let me just give you a little taster. Tabernacles was
family time. Tabernacles was the festival that all the children looked forward
to. Who doesn’t like camping on the roof of your house for a week in makeshift
tents? There were special foods that you ate during Tabernacles, just like
Thanksgiving and Christmas in our experience. We associate them with certain
foods. Somebody gave me a tin of some exquisite delicacies this morning. It was
a reminder of Christmas. They were for Rosemary, but she is far, far away, and
…they’re gone! [Laughter] Of all the celebrations in Israel, Tabernacles
was a time of celebration. It was a time of thanksgiving. It was a time to
remember the goodness of God during the wilderness wanderings, how God had not
forgotten them or left them.

So Nehemiah steps in, and Ezra steps in, and the
Levites step in. You notice in verse 11, they calmed the people. This almost
sense of spiritual hysteria had overtaken them, so they calmed the people.
Notice in verse 10 these extraordinary words: “…The joy of the Lord is your

You know, Adolph Hitler in the 1930’s took those very
words and made them the motto of the Hitler Youth Movement. Grotesque, of
course, but the psychology was sound enough. You want to be strong? You want to
be collectively strong? Then joy brings that, not sorrow. Sorrow brings
paralysis. You know it individually. When you grieve, when you’re sorrowful,
when you hurt, you cave in. You tend to become introspective. You become
lethargic. You lose physical energy, you don’t want to do anything. These are
all symptoms of grief and sorrow. Joy, on the other hand, brings energy and
vitality. Just watch a football crowd when their side is winning — there’s
vitality! There’s energy…there’s strength! There’s a collective sense of unity
and purpose for you.

This, then, is Nehemiah’s word to them for this day.
It’s a Sabbath day, it’s a day of rest. Leviticus 23, the first day of the
seventh month was a solemn day of rest in preparation for what’s about to come:
Tabernacles. On the fifteenth, the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. Sukkot is
before them. Yom Kippur is before them. Trumpets is before them. But this day is
a day of rest and a day of celebration and a day of eating and feasting.

And everyone was to feast! Oh, do take note. It’s not
one point I wish to dwell on tonight, but do take note of the mercy ministry
involved in this text. No one was to go without. They were to make sure that
those who had nothing ready…they were to give to the poor. There was a
diaconal concern among the people of God for the poor amongst them.

But it’s this phrase I want us to think about
tonight: “The joy of the Lord is your strength.”
Where does this joy come
from? Let me suggest to you tonight it comes to you from four — at least four —
different sources.

I. We are loved by God.
It comes first of all from an assurance that we are loved…loved by
God…yes, loved by this holy, righteous God.
What do you think they were to
be thinking about as they gathered in that Water Gate square in Jerusalem? That
God loved them. God had punished them; God had chastised them; God had sent them
into captivity. God had driven them for seventy years into Babylon, but He had
brought them back. He had restored the temple. He had now rebuilt the walls of
Jerusalem. They were the people of God. They might be a small, insignificant
people of God, but they were the people of God. And all around them there were
the tokens of God’s love for them, His care for them in providing for them, in
promising to them, in giving to them His word. Strength comes…strength comes
from knowing that we are loved, loved by God. He hasn’t forsaken us. He hasn’t
abandoned His covenant. He hasn’t broken His promise despite all that they had
done…despite the wretchedness and faithlessness of their behavior.

I was teaching a Sunday School class this morning on
Jeremiah — Jeremiah speaking just before the Babylonian captivity. And in that
second chapter of Jeremiah, he likens Israel to a prostitute. The language is
coarse, way too course perhaps for this meeting tonight. And yet in that third
chapter His arms are open. ‘If you come back, I will receive you,’ He says. That
door will not be shut. He waits with open arms to receive those who repent and
believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, as the little children were hearing tonight.
That’s the kind of God we have. There’s joy for you. God loves us. He’s loved us
from before the foundation of the world.

That’s what Nehemiah and Ezra and the Levites are
conveying to these people. It’s a time to rejoice in God’s love for you. It
comes from having something that is supremely worthwhile. What did these
Israelites have? I mean, think about it. What did they have? Not much. Many of
them were living in fairly poor circumstances. Evidently there are poor among
them who had nothing at all. Their net worth was minimal. They weren’t seemingly
now living in fine palatial houses. In terms of the things and baubles of this
world, they may well have had nothing at all. But they had the assurance of
fellowship with God.

II. They had the assurance of a
relationship with God, and that was everything.

Do you know, my friends, when we have Christ, we have
everything. They may take away everything, but if we have Christ, we have joy.
If your joy is in material things, if your joy is in what’s in your bank
account, if your joy is in the luxury of your home, if your joy is in what kind
of car you drive, if your joy is in the job that you do…what if they’re taken
away from you? Moth and rust corrupt, and thieves break through and steal. Can
you say tonight with John Newton in that marvelous hymn of his,

“Glorious things of thee are
Zion, city of our God…
Fading is the worldling’s pleasure,
All his boasted pomp and show;
Solid joys and lasting treasure
None but Zion’s children know.”

Solid joys and lasting treasure…that’s what I think Ezra is
trying to tell these people — and Nehemiah and the Levites. You’ve got lasting
treasure. It’s not the treasure of material things. It’s not the pomp and show
of Babylon or Assyria, or Greece or Rome. They’re a tiny, insignificant little
band of people in a small little city in the Middle East, but they have God.
They have the Lord.

In a few days time they’re going to celebrate the Day
of Atonement. What a day that is! It would turn your stomach. Hundreds, perhaps
on some occasions thousands, of animals would be slaughtered ritually — their
throats cut, blood spilt. The high priest would sprinkle blood on the Most Holy
Place, representative of the very presence of God, to make atonement…to make
atonement for the sins of God’s people. It would speak of the possibility that
there is a way back to God from sin and despair through shed blood, through
atonement, through propitiation, through substitution and satisfaction. And they
would know what is the most exquisite thing imaginable to know: My sins are
forgiven. Though they be red like crimson, they are as white as snow. That is
something worth having. That’s joy for you. Whatever it is you’ve done, whatever
dark spots there may be in your life, in Jesus Christ we are as white as snow.
Joy comes from knowing that we have something that’s supremely worthwhile.

III. Joy comes from knowing
that our circumstances are ordered by God.
Don’t you think that as they stood there, as they listened to
the Law being read, as they looked around them at the familiar sights and scenes
of the city of Jerusalem and the temple before them, they knew they were God’s
covenant people; God had ordered their steps. God had marched before them. They
could say with the assurance that Paul could say in Romans 8, that all things
work together for the good of those that love Him. Do you think there were
widows there, engulfed by sorrow? Of course there were. Do you think there were
orphans there who had lost their parents? Probably so. Do you think there were
some there struggling with sin and disease? Of course. But they could stand
collectively as the people of God and know with absolute certainty that God was
ordering their lives; He was planning everything for them; there was a divine
purpose; that things weren’t happening haphazardly and chaotically. There was a
plan here. There was a purpose here. And on this day something of the mystery of
the unfolding purposes of God was clear to them, and they were to rejoice in it.
What a joy it is to know whatever is happening, however dark things might seem
to be on the surface, that God orders all things for His own purpose and for our

IV. And joy comes…joy comes
from an awareness that the best is yet to be.
You know, as they stood there that day, I sort of wonder…did
they begin to reflect on what the purpose of God might be? Not only that there
was a purpose, but what that purpose was? Some of them, I imagine, as they read
the Law, might have paused perhaps where the Law might have begun to be read. I
wonder did they begin in Genesis. Did they begin with Genesis 1, and 2, and 3?
Did they hear that ancient echo of a promise that God had made that a seed of
the woman would come who would crush the very head of Satan? That God had a plan
and a purpose to send a Messiah, a Savior, a Deliverer, a Redeemer? Perhaps they
began to reflect on the history of their people down through the exodus, down
through the ancient history of Israel and Judah, right down to this very moment.
Where is this promise? It is yet to be. Perhaps it began to dawn on them. I
imagine it did begin to dawn on some of them that God had brought them back to
Jerusalem and to this very location for this reason: that through them Jesus
would come. Messiah would come. That the announcement of Gabriel to Zechariah
and Elizabeth about the forerunner of Jesus, John the Baptist, that the
announcement of the angels to the shepherds in Bethlehem…yes, the Christmas
story…it’s the purpose of God. It’s the plan of God. It’s the story of God
running through the Old Testament. Joy comes in knowing that the best is yet to
be, because when Jesus comes we’ll sing joy to the world! The Lord has come! Let
earth receive her King. O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant!

V. Jesus is coming again.

But you know, that’s not the end of it, is it? Not
for us, that is. Because the joy for us is not just in looking back; the joy for
us is not remembering that Jesus came in Bethlehem; the joy is that He’s coming
He’s coming again! He’s coming in a Second Advent. He’s coming on the
clouds of heaven this time. He’s coming as the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.
He’s coming in splendor and glory. He’s coming to bring into fruition the new
heavens and the new earth.

I was reading this afternoon something by C.S.
Lewis, and there’s a little quotation that he made, a little remark that he made

“The human soul was made to enjoy some object that is never fully given, and in
some senses…” [Lewis says] “…can never be fully realized here and now in this
spatial, temporal context in which we live. There’s something more.”

And there is. There’s heaven and glory, and a new heavens
and a new earth, and eye hath not seen nor ear heard, neither hath it entered
into the heart of man what God hath prepared for those that love Him.

Joy comes from the assurance that we are loved.
Joy comes from having something that is supremely worthwhile. Joy comes from
knowing that our circumstances are ordered by God, and joy comes by knowing that
the best is yet to be.

You know, when you have that assurance, it’s
powerful. That gives you strength, come what may — come wind, come weather. Come
disease, come death, come bereavement, come loss, come pain–whatever it is, we
are the Lord’s
. We’re on the Lord’s side, and nothing and no one can
separate me from the love of God which is in Jesus Christ our Lord.
The joy of the Lord is your strength, my friend. Be
strong in the Lord.

Let’s pray together.

Father, we are amazed by the monumental way in
which You have dealt with us. You have not dealt with us according as we have
deserved, but You have bought us with the blood of Christ and washed us and
cleansed us and brought us into union and communion with Christ. And here we are
tonight, anticipating what shall be. Fill us with holy joy, the joy that
anticipates what is to come: that to be absent from the body is to be present
with the Lord. Make us then a people strong in the Lord. We ask it for Jesus’
sake. Amen.

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