The Old Testament account of the Babylonian exile and the later Persian era when the Jews who had been taken away from their home and from Jerusalem, their holy city, is a sad saga in their long history. This captivity was occasioned by the repeated unfaithfulness of the people to their God. Time and again they forsook him for the worship of the idols of the pagan nations around them. God compared them at times to an unfaithful wife who, violating her sacred covenant, repeatedly committed adultery against her husband (Jer. 3:20).
In the days when these events occurred, a conquering nation would take from the conquered land the best, most talented, most capable people to their homeland to make them servants, sometimes to serve in positions of great responsibility. It is impossible for us in this 21st century AD to grasp what this would have meant. Not only were these people not free to return to their homes and their families who were left behind, they were not free to do what they pleased in the land of their captivity. Their lives were controlled, sometimes even to what they were permitted to eat as in the case of Daniel and his companions. (Daniel 1:8-16).
There is a poignant statement of the mood of the people who were far from their beloved homeland in Psalm 137:1-4 …
By the waters of Babylon,
there we sat down and wept,
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our lyres.
For there our captors
required of us songs,
and our tormentors, mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How shall we sing the Lord‘s song
in a foreign land?
When the time set by God for the return of these captives to rebuild the city of Jerusalem and its temple had come he provided leaders for the people like Ezra and Nehemiah to head up the effort and see it through to its completion. No great undertaking such as the project before these people is ever without its problems, but after much testing and trial the work was done and the people were called in convocation where Ezra read from the book of the law of God before the people. Others among them explained the meaning of the reading. In Neh. 8:8 it is said that … “They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.
Probably as a result of realizing how far away they were from what God expected of them, the people began to mourn and weep. In their captivity they had learned that God really meant it when he said he wanted their whole heart, soul and strength (Deuteronomy 6:5). But the learning of the law and commandments of God is not a reason for weeping and mourning. It is, in fact, reason for rejoicing. This is what Nehemiah, Ezra and the Levites told the people on that day.
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. 10 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.” (Neh 8:9-10).
When one who has been away from God at last learns what God’s will is for his life it should be a time for rejoicing. When one turns from doing wrong to doing what is right it is a time of celebration. These people were told that now that they knew what God’s will for their lives was it was a time for a festival – a time to celebrate – “for the joy of the Lord is your strength!”
What a difference today when the word of God is read among many of God’s people who are still held captive in the exile of sectarianism and partisan parties! The word of God which is intended to produce the joy of freedom is often so twisted by the readers and “explainers” that it appears not to be a source of joyful freedom but of continuing captivity. When those who are made to weep because of their sins are not comforted at their repentance, but continually reminded of what bad people they are because they once had fallen victim to sin, there is something wrong with the reading of the word.
Even worse is when people who are made free men and women in Christ at the time of their salvation are herded into sectarian corrals and made to bear the yoke of legalistic demands merely to satisfy the unholy drive of people who make themselves to be lords over God’s people. This kind of thing went on in New Testament days and it is still going on today. Jesus said that the scribes and Pharisees did this kind of recruitment of people to their cause.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel land and sea to win one proselyte, and when he is won, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves.” (Matt. 23:15 NKJV).
Paul speaks of the Judiazers this way:
Such partisan religion brings no joy to those who espouse it – only fear, dread and dreary conformity! There is no assurance of God’s acceptance but only a fearful uncertainty that one has done enough to placate a demanding God. This attitude weakens and discourages rather than strengthening one in the assurance and joy of a loving relationship with God who delights in the loving obedience of his children.
There are times when the hearing of the word of God should bring sorrow. When one is in sin and that sin is pointed out by the word of God, it is a good thing to be made sad – to sorrow and mourn. But that should never be the end of the matter. The same word that convicts us of sin brings a message of comfort when we receive the correction it brings us. Knowing that God accepts us as a loving father accepts a wayward child when he returns home assures us of our own acceptance as the prodigal son was welcomed home by his father (Luke 15:11ff). Such acceptance not only brings comfort and joy to the one so received, but is occasion for others rejoicing and celebrating (Luke 15:24). This cements the bonds of love, strengthening the family unit, making it a place where people can grow and thrive.
But looking at the other son in this parable – the elder son who resented the return of his wayward brother and his father’s loving embrace of this prodigal – we see no sense of joy that strengthened the family but resentment and bitterness instead. The unavoidable result of this attitude that could not accept and rejoice was another rent in the fabric of the family. This family, which could have been a source of strength had rejoicing been the uniform attitude, was weakened by the negative, resentful attitude of the elder brother.
The power of rejoicing to heal and mend broken relationships is illustrated by Paul’s instruction following his reference to two feuding females in Philippians 4:2, 3. He appeals first to one whom he identifies as his “true companion” to help these women who had some sort of problem between themselves. Then in verse 4 he exhorts that Christians “Rejoice in the Lord always” and then doubles the exhortation by repeating it; “again I will say, rejoice.”
The people of the Lord should rejoice in the Lord and in their shared relationship with him. Every person whom the Lord accepts is my brother or my sister and I rejoice in their faith held in common with my own. It is only through our joyful acceptance of each other that the bonds of love can exist and be strengthened. As long as our attitude is one of stand-offish suspicion and petty partisanship there can be no common bonds of love in which to live together in peaceful, productive harmony.
It is interesting that in Nehemiah’s account of the rediscovery of the law by the people they learn that it was the time of the year for the observance of the “feast of booths” which took place variously from late September to late October. This was “Israel’s Thanksgiving feast in which they acknowledge the Fall harvest and God’s provision for them” (Bible Truth website http://bible-truth.org/Feasts-Tabernacles.html). For this feast they went out into the countryside, cut branches from trees and made temporary shelters, living in them for seven days – camping out, sometimes on the roof of their house! This was a time of great rejoicing when people were drawn closer to one another. There was no pride or pretense in their celebration. Everyone was equal in their leafy tents. It must have been a time of great fun for all the people as well as being drawn closer to one another and to the Lord. Verse 17 of this text says, “And there was very great rejoicing!”
Truly, “the joy of the Lord is your strength!” Do we believe it? Are we practicing it?