Nehemiah chapter eight came up in my Bible study today. It describes a moment in the history of the Jewish people when they have returned to Jerusalem from Babylon where they were exiled after losing a war with the Babylonians. They had just finished reconstructing the walls around the city and had begun to resettle the land immediately around their Jerusalem.
The specifics of this moment which captured me are that their leaders have decided to gather in a celebration and reading of the law of Moses to the people. You can think of it as one of those corporate rallies where the desired outcome is alignment around a vision for the future. I this case based on Mosaic teachings that are 1000 years old. Ezra the priest climbs a platform designed for the occasion. He is flanked by the leaders of the people.
He begins to read the five books of Moses known today as the Torah. As he reads, he and others explain the meaning of the text. The message begins to sink in with the audience. The effect is unexpected. People begin to tear up as they consider how far they have strayed from God’s desires for them. The silent tears become a flood of corporate mourning.
As the last words are read, the people realize that all the trials of the last thousand years were predicted. They strayed from God and His protection. They could have chosen a different outcome as a nation. Their relatives and ancestors could have escaped the pain they had endured. They were overrun by their enemies, suffered pestilence, and plague. And this group had just returned from an exile that was entirely avoidable. The realization created so deep a heartache that it sank over the proceeding like a dark cloud.
This was not that plan for the day, so the leaders stepped into the crowd and attempted to rescue the day. They said, “Do not mourn or weep, because this day is Holy to the Lord. Instead, go and enjoy good food and sweet drinks. Give some of what you have to those who do not have anything prepared. They repeat, “This day is Holy to the Lord.” The emphasis is interesting to me. That being the day of the Lord it was inappropriate to weep and mourn for the unfaithfulness of their past. It would appear that God did not desire sorrow.
Could it be that he never intended for people to be sorrowful? Is it likely that sorrow is a construct of sin? Was God trying to teach this all along? All the major holidays of Israel are declared by God to be days of celebration. Families were to gather, religious rights were to be performed, often these were confessional but they always seem to end in a gathering for food and fellowship. Could it be that God sees these moments even the confessional ones differently? Perhaps God is wanting us to be glad that a way has been provided for humans to be lifted from the burden of guilt and sin.
Even with all the celebration most people still think of God as somber and hard-hearted.
Here on this day of corporate reconnection with the teachings of their faith, the contrast is particularly poignant. They all acknowledged that the nation had walked away from God’s protection. That they had taught that the idols of Canaan were the reasons for their blessings. The leaders had declared this day of remembrance to help prevent this from ever happening again. But they were not to mourn over that history.
“Do not grieve,” they say, “for the joy of the Lord is your strength!” “This is a holy day. Do not grieve.”
There is not a person alive that has a perfect record. We all have done things that we are sorry for. But the Bible demonstrates here and in many other places, that once repented of, it is gone. Forgiving you and me was a joy that allowed Jesus to endure the cross. It is the Joy of knowing we are loved that much that gives strength to face the next day. As the Leaders of Israel put it, “The joy of the Lord is your strength!”
Rejoice in the Lord Always,