In Nehemiah 8, we learn that the Israelites who had returned from exile in Babylon gathered in Jerusalem to hear the Word of God. There, in front of all the people, Ezra read from the Book of the Law and explained it so that the people could understand. And then a strange thing happened. Verse 9 describes the scene:
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.
The Israelites were moved and wept because they realized the depth of their sin as they listened to God’s holy Word. And even though it is appropriate to be sad about our sin, it is interesting to read in Nehemiah 8 that we should not focus on our sin and on grieving. Instead, Nehemiah says in verses 10, “And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” Then the Levites step in to encourage the people, saying, “Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved” (v. 11).
One of the strengths of Reformed theology is that it has a solid biblical understanding of total depravity. Only if we understand that, apart from Christ, we are completely dead in our sin will we truly understand and appreciate God’s amazing grace in Jesus Christ. So yes, we need to talk about our sin and we need to repent from sin and turn to Christ. But we must not focus only on our sin and our depravity; instead, we must focus on what Christ has done for us and what He is doing in us as we follow Him and serve Him. The message of the gospel of Jesus Christ is fundamentally a message of forgiveness, grace, love, and joy. There is no greater joy that we can find in this world than in a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and in His gospel message.
Nehemiah 8:10 is right when it says, “And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” No matter what our circumstances are, if we focus on Jesus Christ, then we can have supernatural joy and peace even in the midst of sometimes very difficult circumstances.
When I was a young pastor, a lady in our church who was in her late fifties suffered from pancreatic cancer. Many times, when a colleague of mine and I visited her at her home, I would wonder beforehand how I could comfort her and say something that would give her some hope. Even though her body wasted away very quickly, which was tragic to see, she was very joyful in her soul because she focused on the lover of her soul: the Lord Jesus Christ, and Him crucified and risen. Instead of my trying to comfort her, she was the one who comforted us by authentically showing us that the joy of the Lord is indeed our strength, even when we are dying.