Is the joy of the Lord your strength?
This question can be difficult to answer — all of the words are so simple and familiar to Christians, yet the statement can get lost in a fog of ambiguity. When life is simple and sweet, we are quick to affirm without understanding, because surely “yes” must be the right answer.
But what about when spiritual complacency sticks to every inch of you, like Mississippi humidity? Or when you’ve allowed sin to overtake you for weeks, months — even years? When the word strength mocks you? When the joy of the Lord feels impossible, evidence against you at trial?
Failure or lack of faith can be the very thing that forces us to squarely confront this question. In that confrontation, where can we turn for help? Like new treasure hiding in an old package, the answer hides in plain sight in Nehemiah 8, waiting to be unwrapped.
Marriage in Crisis
To understand Nehemiah, we must start before the story begins. God chose a man named Abraham to be the father of a family who would possess a special land and have a special relationship with God. When his descendants became slaves in Egypt, God rescued them and promised to make good on his covenant with his people — he the husband, his people the bride.
Heartwarming, right? Except his people had a problem — a rejecting-the-good-husband-for-worthless-lovers problem. And after centuries of mercy, patience, warning, and pleading, God sent his bride away. Their exile was severe, both in its brutality and how it burned into the minds and identity of the people. Who were they without the land, without the temple? How do they relate to God now? Was their special relationship also lost, the greatest marriage felled by common, sin-sick adultery?
The questions still haunted them when God brought them back to the land. At a key point in rebuilding Jerusalem — the sacred city, which had been utterly lain to waste — Ezra the scribe gathered all the people. He read to them from God’s book and had skilled ministers explain the words and their meaning to the people. Nehemiah 8:8 says, “They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.”
And once the people understood — really understood — they wept.
Renewing Vows in the Wreckage
Now, it can be easy for Christians to read God’s law like it’s the Apple “Terms of Service.” We scroll and click “yes” so that we can move on to something else — agreement without emotion. But what if God’s law is less like terms of service and more like wedding vows?
God’s relationship with his people is much like a marriage, which makes the covenant document between him and them much like vows. Sacred promises, made in love. Deep commitments. We speak them on our wedding day with hope and promise. And a little naïveté.
Married couples occasionally hold a vow-renewal ceremony. Why do couples do this? As the popular wedding website The Knot puts it, “Perhaps you’ve made it to 2, 5, 10, 25, or 50 years together and you want the world to know you’d do it all over again in a heartbeat. Maybe you want to reaffirm your commitment to each other after a rough period in your relationship.”
A rough period is a mild way to describe what had happened between God and his people. But there the people were, at a vow renewal with their God. Gathered to hear again all the promises made centuries before. Gathered to hear the commitments that constituted their identity as a people, their relationship to their God. And the words are read out clearly, to be understood.
The people of God hear, and what is before their eyes is the destruction they caused — a city still barely rebuilt. And what is before their minds’ eyes are all the ways they and their ancestors had broken — sometimes with glee — every last one of those vows. They had been wretchedly unfaithful. There they are, standing in a beautiful dress as it were, and they feel crushed under the weight of their infidelity. How could they not weep?
How Joy Strengthens Us
Nehemiah, a leader of the people, steps in to comfort and command them, “Do not be grieved,” — why? — “for the joy of the Lord is your strength” (Nehemiah 8:10).
Imagine again the scene of the vow-renewal. The bride is grief-stricken and ashamed. But there stands the husband. He is immaculately dressed, just as he was on their wedding day. His face is fixed on his wife, his eyes shining. His cheeks ache from smiling. He holds out his hands expectantly, full of delight. The warmth of love he feels when he looks at his bride radiates joy. He hears the vows and he thinks, “Yes, I’m still committed. Yes, these are the promises I will always keep to her, because I love her. I can’t wait to declare them again.”
On that day, this was God’s posture toward his people. Nehemiah twice tells them not to weep for “this day is holy to the Lord” (Nehemiah 8:9–10). The Levites — the tribe especially assigned to the things of God — calm them a third time with that same phrase, “this day is holy” (Nehemiah 8:11). It’s not “the day of the Lord,” that future time of final judgment. Perhaps that would have felt more realistic to the crowd experiencing the depth of their failure.
No, it’s not that day — it is this day in their history. The day the exiles gathered as a returned people, the fullness of the bride. The day God reaffirmed to them that they were still his chosen people, and he was still their God.
That is a joy that could impart strength. God declared through his law and his leaders that he loved and delighted in his people. He was fully aware of what had transpired, but his commitment was even more steadfast. There was no shaming, no “I told you so,” no clenched jaw hoping for a better turn this time. Only joy and love.
I had read Nehemiah 8 expecting to come away with a tidy lesson about the importance of the public reading of Scripture. Instead, I was overwhelmed by who God is — a wildly passionate husband whose love looks almost reckless, brimming with joy over his bride.
For the Joy Set Before Him
The Israelites’ initial unraveling mirrors how we feel when we’ve failed Christ again, and again, and again. Our shame echoes in our hearts when we realize we’ve been too tired or too busy for God to get our true attention in a good long while, like he’s some vacation scrapbook we keep half complete in the basement. We may not be Israelites, but we know how heavy our faces can be to lift toward the eyes of another — even toward loving eyes.
My own record of wretchedness is endless. But we have something more secure than the law. Moses’s received commands were certainly like vows, but a few centuries after Ezra’s reading to the people, the husband himself visited that same city. He longed to gather his bride in his arms, but she turned away. For her sake, and for the sake of all who would trust him, he instead allowed his arms to be violently spread in death. No one forced him — he did it all for love, paying the debt for his runaway bride. When he looks at us now, washed by his work, he declares, “Beloved.”
We have been secured forever because Jesus perfectly kept our end of the vows. And that love transforms us into vow-keepers (albeit imperfectly for now). Your string of failures can be obliterated by confession. Your days of apathy can drop off your record through affectionate forgiveness. I breathe that in, and I feel strength rise — the strength of not merely being known, but being treasured by the Lord.
The joy of the Lord is our strength.