Let’s begin with some comments about the theme of this conference: “Serious Joy: Gladness and Gravity in a Groaning World.” This is a conference about joy — the kind of joy that can be experienced simultaneously with a weighty sense of reverence and respect, and simultaneously with a painful groaning under the sinfulness and futility of this world. We call it serious joy. In fact, we define what we do at Bethlehem College and Seminary as “an education in serious joy.”
We call it serious joy not only because it coexists in the same heart, at the same time, with the gravity of reverence and the groaning of sin, but also because it is not peripheral but central — serious in the sense of centrally important. It is not the negligible caboose at the end of the train, but belongs to the very fuel that runs the engine. And when I say centrally important, I mean central to God’s very being — central to God’s ultimate purpose in creating the world — and therefore also central to God-glorifying Christian living.
Central to God Himself
Serious joy is central to God’s very being. God has always existed. He never came into being. He is never becoming. He said, “I am who I am” (Exodus 3:14). He is absolute reality. All other reality comes from him, and its meaning is derived through him. His eternal, absolute existence has always has been Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. . . . And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father” (John 1:1, 14). So the Word is the Son. And therefore, the Son has always existed as God, coeternal with the Father, eternally begotten, not made.
And when the Son came into the world, the Father openly declared how he relates to the Son. The Father said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). The Father is very pleased with his Son. He takes pleasure in him. He delights in him. “Behold . . . my chosen, in whom my soul delights” (Isaiah 42:1).
“Joy is serious because it is central to the very being of God.”
This delight did not come into being at the incarnation. God’s joy in the Son did not originate — ever. It never had a beginning, as if there were a time when the Son of God was not his Father’s delight. Therefore, joy belongs to the being of God, eternally in the fellowship of the Trinity. I don’t have the philosophical horsepower to make fine distinctions between nature and essence and simple and complex in the divine being. All I mean is this: If God the Father has not always delighted in God the Son — if God has not always been a joyful God — then there is no Christian God. Joy in the fellowship of the Trinity is part of what it means to be God. Therefore, we say, joy is serious because it is central to the very being of God.
Central to God’s Purpose in Creation
Serious joy is central not only to the being of God, but also to the ultimate purpose of God in creating the world. Here is one of the many climactic glimpses of the final world where God is taking his church and his new creation,
And the ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away. (Isaiah 35:10)
. . . . For you shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall make a name for the Lord, an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off. (Isaiah 55:12–13)
This is where everything is heading. This is the ultimate purpose of God in creation — a Christ-ransomed people with everlasting joy on their heads, sorrow and sighing gone, all creation transformed and applauding the work of God. Joy is the ultimate goal of God in creation.
This is serious. So serious we need to be careful. That last verse (Isaiah 55:13) shows us the care that we need to take: “And it shall make a name for the Lord, an everlasting sign.” What does “it” refer to? “It shall make a name for the Lord.” “It shall be an everlasting sign.”
It refers to what went just before: everlasting joy will be on the heads of the ransomed, mountains singing, trees clapping their hands. This is the name of the Lord. This is the everlasting sign of his purpose and his nature. His name, his chosen reputation, his glory is, “I make my ransomed people glad forever in my grace. My glory is their great gladness in me.”
And from this derives the foundation stone of what we call Christian Hedonism — namely, God is most glorified in his Christ-ransomed people when his Christ-ransomed people are most satisfied in him. If you remove satisfaction in God from the hearts of God’s people, they cannot magnify his worth the way they ought to.
Essential to God’s name — essential to the final manifestation of God's glory — is the crown of everlasting joy resting on the heads of the redeemed, followed by the singing mountains and the clapping trees. If you remove the crown of joy from the heads of God’s people, God’s purpose to glorify himself in the new creation aborts. It will only shine the way it ought to shine — the way it is destined to shine — when its greatness and beauty and worth are reflected in the God-centered gladness of the redeemed.
Central to Christian Living
It follows, therefore, that the joy we are talking about is serious, not only because it is central to God’s very being, and not only because it is central to his ultimate purpose in creation, but also because it is central to God-glorifying Christian living now.
One of the most comprehensive descriptions of the Christian life is 1 Corinthians 10:31, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” If it is true, then, as we have seen, that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him, then eating and drinking and everything we do in the Christian life should flow from a heart that has found its ultimate satisfaction in God.
“Everything we do in the Christian life should flow from a heart that has found its ultimate satisfaction in God.”
This is why the commands and promises of Scripture concerning joy in God are so relentless: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice” (Philippians 4:4). “Delight yourself in the Lord” (Psalm 37:4). “Be glad in the Lord and rejoice” (Psalm 32:11). “Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love” (Psalm 90:14). “In your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11). “Whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst” (John 6:35).
A Christian is a person who, by the sovereign grace of God, has found this treasure hidden in the field, and with life-controlling joy has sold everything he has to buy that field (Matthew 13:44). Meaning, “Any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:33). “Whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (Matthew 10:37). Jesus has become the supreme treasure of our life. Our quest for the greatest and the longest satisfaction of our souls is over.
And this affects everything we do. It humbles us, breaks us, satisfies us, frees us, overflows from us. It is a restless joy that grows by including others in it. This expansive restlessness is called love. “In a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part” (2 Corinthians 8:2). Love is the restless overflow of joy in God that meets the needs of others.
This is what we mean by “serious joy” — central to God’s being, central to God’s purpose, and central to the God-glorifying Christian life of love.
What Is ‘Joy’?
Still one more clarification of our conference theme before we turn to Nehemiah. Namely, the biblical reality referred to with the word “joy.” Here’s my definition of what I mean by the word “joy” in this message and in this conference: Joy is a good feeling in the soul produced by the Holy Spirit as he makes us see and savor the glory of Christ in the word and the world.
It is rooted in Christ and all that God is for us in him. It is the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit. Its organ, so to speak, is the soul, not the body, not the reason, though the body and the reason are affected by it. And it is a feeling — a good feeling. I admit that trying to find adequate words for heart-realities is difficult. I invite your help. If you don’t like the word feeling for such a serious and central reality, you might try the word sense or emotion or affection or sentiment or taste or passion or liking or mood. And if you don’t think the word good (in “good feeling”) is adequate, then you might try pleasant or congenial or delightful or agreeable or comforting or satisfying or amiable or sweet or happy or likable or glad or positive.
All language is, in the end, inadequate to carry the fullness of experienced reality. That’s why poetry exists — music, hugs, kisses, tears, tones of voice, sacrifice. We long to receive from others and to communicate from ourselves what the soul feels. The way the Bible goes about communicating through the inadequacy of language is by piling up diverse expressions that refer to the same inner reality.
Listen to this array of feeling language for how Christians relate to God:
- Joy in the Lord (Isaiah 29:19).
- Delight in the fear of the Lord (Isaiah 11:3).
- Pleasures in the presence of the Lord. (Psalm 16:11).
- Gladness in the Lord (Psalm 32:11).
- Exultation in the Lord (Psalm 61:10).
- Desire for the Lord (Isaiah 26:8).
- Tasting the goodness of the Lord (1 Peter 2:3).
- Longing for the word of the Lord (Psalm 119:20).
- Happiness in keeping the instruction of the Lord (Proverbs 29:18)
- Contentment in the Lord (Philippians 4:11)
- Treasuring the words of the Lord (Job 23:12)
- Being satisfied in the love of the Lord (Psalm 90:14).
One article I consulted mentions 27 different Hebrew words for joy or joyful expression in worship. So, our focus is not mainly on a word. It’s on a reality — a central reality. And for now, “serious joy” is our best effort to point to that reality.
‘The Joy of the Lord’
As we turn to Nehemiah 8:10 the seriousness of joy is underlined in a way that I did not expect. Let’s get the context before us. The people of Israel have returned from captivity. Ezra the priest and Nehemiah the governor have seen the temple rebuilt and the walls repaired. As Nehemiah 8 begins, it is the first day of the seventh month (v. 2b), which according to Leviticus 23:24 is appointed for the feast of trumpets.
According to verse 1, the people ask Ezra the priest to read to them from the book of Moses. Nehemiah 8:3 says, “He read from [the book] facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday.” According to Nehemiah 8:6, the response was that “the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.” Nehemiah 8:8 says that the Levites joined Ezra, and “They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.” But perhaps not entirely, as we will see.
Now, as I read verses 9–12 watch for three things: the weeping of the people, the holiness of the day, and the joy of the Lord.
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 [stronghold]. 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. (Nehemiah 8:9–12)
Weeping — But Not Only Weeping
Three times Nehemiah and Ezra and the Levites said, “This day is holy to the Lord” (Nehemiah 8:9). Then, “This day is holy to our Lord” (Nehemiah 8:10). Again, “This day is holy” (Nehemiah 8:11). And each time they say that, they make it the reason why the people should stop weeping:
- Verse 9, This day is holy; “do not mourn or weep.”
- Verse 10, This day is holy; “do not be grieved.”
- Verse 11, “This day is holy; “do not be grieved.”
They had understood something correctly back in verse 8, but evidently not everything. They were weeping in response to this understanding. But in verse 12 they stopped weeping and rejoiced “because they understood what was declared to them.”
Notice that the kind of weeping they experienced is called “grieving” two times. This is not a weeping for joy. This is a weeping for failure. They were grieved over having disobeyed God for so long. That is a proper response to the holiness of God. But it is not, if the weeping lingers too long. A holy response to the holiness of the merciful God of Israel is not simply weeping. So, three times they tell the people, “Stop this!”
Moving to Joy in God
What do they propose as an alternative to this weeping and grieving? We read it three times, “Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready” (Nehemiah 8:10). Or again, in Nehemiah 8:12, “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.” Now their understanding is better, it seems.
The third way of describing the alternative to grieving is in Nehemiah 8:10, “Do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your stronghold.” So, I don’t think the joy of the Lord is the joy that the Lord had, but the joy that the Lord gives — the joy that he is for his people. Notice the three parallel thoughts:
- Don’t weep, go rejoice with feasting and with generosity for the poor (Nehemiah 8:9–10)
- Don’t be grieved, and they went and rejoiced with feasting and generosity for the poor (Nehemiah 8:11–12).
- Don’t be grieved; the joy of the Lord is your stronghold (Nehemiah 8:10).
The natural interpretation of “joy of the Lord” here is the rejoicing that replaces the grieving, just like the other two parallel statements.
I would love to preach a message on the Lord’s joy over his people! Oh, my goodness what glorious truth! Zephaniah 3:17, “The Lord will rejoice over you with gladness.” Isaiah 62:5, “As the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.” Jeremiah 32:41, “I will rejoice in doing them good . . . with all my heart and all my soul.” Deuteronomy 30:9, “The Lord will take delight in prospering you.” Psalm 147:11, “The Lord takes pleasure in those who fear him.”
That would be a great focus for a message on serious joy. But not from Nehemiah 8:10. Maybe next year. It’s not good to preach true sermons from wrong texts.
Strength or Stronghold?
That was no surprise. I always assumed that the “joy of the Lord” in Nehemiah 8:10 was probably our joy in God, not his joy in us. But what was a surprise was the word behind the translation “strength.” Virtually all modern English translations translate Nehemiah 8:10, “The joy of the Lord is your strength.” But virtually every commentary I consulted treats the word as “stronghold” or “fortress” or “refuge” or “protection” — not strength.
The Hebrew word is ma’ōz. It is used 37 times in the Hebrew Old Testament. It’s translated in the ESV 14 times as stronghold, 7 times as refuge, 7 times as fortress, 3 times as protection. And only one time is it translated “strength” — namely, here in Nehemiah 8:10. I am totally baffled as to why that is. (The LXX omits “joy of the Lord” and translates, “because he is your strength [ischus].”)
Does the context perhaps constrain that translation as strength? No. Just the opposite. The people are weeping with grief. Grief over what? It all comes out in Nehemiah 9. The long confession of generations’ unfaithfulness to Yahweh who is perfectly holy and righteous. Here’s Nehemiah 9:33, “Yet you [O Lord] have been righteous in all that has come upon us [in our captivity], for you have dealt faithfully and we have acted wickedly.”
This was their grief. Their guilt. Their fear. And the answer of Nehemiah 8:10 is this: There’s a refuge! There’s a stronghold. There’s a fortress. There’s a protection against what grieves you — your sin and God’s holy judgment. And what is that protection, that stronghold? It is your joy in the Lord. So, replace your grieving with that joy. Come into the refuge from sin and guilt and holy wrath. Leave your grieving and come into joy. Come into the stronghold, the refuge. “For the joy of the Lord is your stronghold.” Joy in God your Savior is your refuge.
This is what the people, at first (in Nehemiah 8:8), did not understand, and then, at least partially did understand. It says in Nehemiah 8:12, “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.” The light was dawning that you can’t honor Yahweh as holy if you only grieve in his presence. Grief is good. Fear is good. Penitence is good. Tears are good. But not if that’s all you feel. God’s holiness is the purity and perfection not only of his justice but also of his mercy and grace. And cowering people do not magnify the glory of grace.
“The fear of God, without joy in God, is no refuge from the wrath of God.”
The fear of God, without joy in God, is no refuge from the wrath of God. Nehemiah had made this plain in the first chapter of this book. He was praying about approaching the king. And as he prayed he said (in Nehemiah 1:11), “O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of your servant, and to the prayer of your servants who delight to fear your name, and grant him mercy in the sight of [the king].” In other words, the mercy of God is found in the stronghold of reverential delight. The joy of the Lord is your stronghold, your refuge.
Shepherd Your People into the Stronghold
Picture it this way, on this side of the cross of Christ. The righteous judgment of God looms over the world (John 3:36). We can picture a refuge from that judgment in two ways: objectively, what God has built, and subjectively, how we enjoy the safety of it. God has built a refuge, a stronghold of safety; namely, forgiveness, love, acceptance, personal friendship, and pleasures at his right hand forever. All of it purchased by Christ once-for-all. That’s the refuge prepared by God. He built it. Objective. Purchased. Secure. Complete. Everlasting.
That refuge is of infinite value. And God offers it freely, without payment. Not to joyless grieving. Not to joyless weeping. Not to joyless fearing. But to glad receiving. God gives his blood-bought refuge to those who see Christ as their treasure, and find him to be more precious than anything. In this way, the stronghold of mercy that God built becomes ours. Or as Nehemiah 8:10 says, “The joy of the Lord is your stronghold.” The stronghold built by God, and full of God, becomes our stronghold when we find him to be the treasure hidden in the field and take him as the treasure of our lives — when we are wakened to see and savor God as our joy. The joy of the Lord is your stronghold.
Pastors, we have a glorious calling. This is what we offer our people every week, and in every meeting. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 1:24, “We are workers with you for your joy.” Or as he says in Philippians 1:25, “I will remain with you for the joy of your faith.” This is a magnificent calling — to take the word of God, and preach and teach and lead and live by it, so that our people come to see all that God is for them in Christ as their greatest joy — a place of perfect refuge both in life and in death. Give yourself to this: the glory of God in the gladness of your people in God. This is their stronghold.