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In my early Christian years, a song was popular among those with whom I fellowshipped: The Joy of the Lord is my Strength. It was a simple chorus and easy to remember. The other day when I happened to see the verse from Scripture on which the song was based, my mind immediately flew to the words. In those early, simple days, I had never bothered to think deeply about their meaning or read them in context. However, times have changed, as have I. So, I quickly asked myself, “What does it mean that the joy of the Lord is my strength?”

I didn’t have a ready answer.

So, I went to the passage in Nehemiah to find understanding. First, let’s look at the context. The walls of Jerusalem had been built. God’s people were returning to the land of promise. They gathered together, and Nehemiah, Ezra, and others read the Law to them and helped them understand it. Then, “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” (Nehemiah 8:9).1

It seems clear to me that the Holy Spirit was at work here, making the truths of God’s law real to the hearts of God’s people. They were realizing how utterly far they had fallen and disobeyed the Lord’s commands. Godly grief is good. It produces repentance. It is satisfying and glorious while at the same time bringing shame. That’s an odd mix, but it is true. Following close after shame is the realization of grace-filled forgiveness, mercy, and love from God Himself, truths which surely evoke the most wonderful emotional experiences imaginable.

When we read further in Nehemiah, we will find that their repentance was not completed then. However, on this marvelous day when the Holy Spirit was strongly making the beauty of God’s Law real, there was to be joy. Nehemiah said, “‘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.’ So the Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved’” (Nehemiah 8:10–11).

So, why was the joy of the Lord their strength?

The word for strength here is מָעוֹז, or maoz. Its galaxy of meanings include mountain, stronghold, a place of refuge, a fortress, a means of safety, and protection.

The joy of Yahweh Himself was their place of refuge. They were joyful because they were safe in Him, protected from His wrath, which they knew they deserved—they had heard and been convicted by His Law. To their relief, His righteous judgment was not going to come upon them. Think of it. Not one blemish. Spotless. Clean. Washed. “Clean before the Lord I stand, and in me, not one blemish does He see,” the artist Honeytree sang many years ago. That brings joy. And since joy is a fruit of His Spirit, the Lord God Almighty is present wherever His joy is and wherever He is, there is strength. The Lord brought them His joy, imparted by the Holy Spirit, and they were now strong, forgiven; able to move forward in their lives with Him, free from guilt and shame. They could stop grieving over their terrible sinfulness. They could take that truth which had been made real to them that day and move on in the joyous truth that they were immaculately clean.

If you have sinned, you can repent. Forgiveness, mercy, and great love will overflow your soul. Your guilt and shame are taken away, regardless of how heinous your sin. You are clean. The joy of the Lord, after that flooding deluge, will be your strength.

“Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen” (Jude 24–25).

1All Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

Gif courtesy Bing images.

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