Tuesday, 14 April 2009

"The joy of the LORD is your strength": reflections from Nehemiah 8

I'm working on a message for later in the term on Nehemiah 8, which is when the Law is read by Ezra to the exiles, who have just finished rebuilding Jerusalem.

Famously, the people are reduced to tears as the Law is read, presumably as they realise that individually and corporately they are rightly under God's curse as lawbreakers.But Nehemiah says that this reaction to what the people have just said is inappropriate, as seen here in verses 9-11:

9 Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and teacher of the Law, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them all, “This day is holy to the LORD your God. Do not mourn or weep.” For all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law.

10 Nehemiah said, “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.”

11 The Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be still, for this is a holy day. Do not grieve.”
Verse 10 is especially famous, especially the phrase 'the joy of the LORD is your strength'. But why should the people stop mourning and crying? After all, elsewhere in Scripture (in both Old and New Testaments), mourning over sin is presented as a right response to its ugliness and offence to God.

The key is something that it would appear many preachers miss. Nehemiah twice says that crying is inappropriate because ‘this day is holy to our Lord’, and the Levites agree. According to Nehemiah, weeping on that particular day was wrong.

What was the day? Nehemiah 8:2 explains that it is the first day of the seventh month, which Numbers 29:1 explains is to be a festival called the Feast of Trumpets. Numbers 29 also demonstrates that the seventh month was a kind of 'festival month' - jam-packed with rituals and celebrations that together reminded Israel of God's past redemption and forgiveness (and the hope of future redemption and forgiveness). All of this is tied up with the concept of sacrifice - indeed, the high point of the festivals of the seventh month was the Day of Atonement, where a burnt offering and a scapegoat visually demonstrated God's provision for a sinful people.

And so when Nehemiah says that in the light of the people’s conviction of sin that they should rejoice and not grieve, he’s not saying that the people’s sin doesn’t matter. Nor is he saying that times of grief and mourning about sin are wrong. Rather, what Nehemiah is saying is that to see sin against God as the end of the story to have a wrong view of the big picture. And it’s of that big picture that the seventh month spoke to the people.

And so Nehemiah is saying to the assembled throng: ‘Folks – it’s the Feast of Trumpets. It’s the celebration of the beginning of the seventh month – the month which speaks of how sin isn’t the last word. So stop grieving and start celebrating!’ It would be a bit like meeting someone on Easter Sunday that is gloomy and miserable. You ask them why, and they say, “Because of my sin, Jesus ended up on the cross.” And whilst that’s right and true, you’d want to say, “But it’s Easter Sunday! Today we’re remembering our wonderful Saviour and Redeemer who took our judgement and beat death. Mourning sin isn’t appropriate today. Think about the big picture to which today points.”

Nehemiah 8 is not teaching that grieving sin is wrong. Rather, Nehemiah 8 teaches that if grieving sin never leads a person to Jesus (and to experience the joy of forgiven sin that Jesus offers), we have got our understanding of God's big picture very wrong.

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