The book of Nehemiah is a unique chapter in Israel’s history. Through these pages, we see the remnant of exiles from the once-great kingdom returning to the holy city of Jerusalem and rebuilding the walls surrounding the city, setting up a new temple for worship, and rededicating themselves to following the law of God.
Nehemiah says to the people in Nehemiah 8:10…
“Then he said unto them, Go your way, eat the fat, and drink the sweet, and send portions unto them for whom nothing is prepared: for this day is holy unto our LORD: neither be ye sorry; for the joy of the LORD is your strength.”
But why were they sorry, and why were they reminded that their strength should be found in the joy of the Lord?
Why Did the Israelites Have Cause for Joy?
In Deuteronomy 28, Moses outlines the final terms of the covenant between God and His people. He first describes the blessings if they keep the covenant (Deuteronomy 28:1-14), and then the curses from God if they fell away from Him (Deuteronomy 28:15-68).
Throughout Israel’s history, they turned away from God time and time again. Despite repeated instances of deliverance and provision, the people still proved faithless, so God fulfilled His promises to scatter them among the nations surrounding them – first the northern tribes (2 Kings 17:6-23), then the tribe of Judah (2 Chronicles 36:17-21). Jerusalem’s walls were torn down, and the Temple of God was burned.
However, God also promised to bring a remnant back to Jerusalem (Isaiah 10-11, Jeremiah 31) to restore the kingdom to His people. In the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, we see the Israelites returning to Jerusalem to rebuild the Temple and the city, sponsored by the rulers of Persia (Ezra 1:1-4, Ezra 6:1-12).
The prophecies of God had finally been fulfilled: a portion of the kingdom of Jerusalem was restored to Israel.
Why Were the People Commanded to Rejoice?
Nehemiah 8 describes the ceremony dedicating the new Temple in Jerusalem. Ezra, the scribe who maintained the official copies of God’s law, gathered an assembly of all the people and read the entire law aloud. The other priests were teaching the people and explaining the meaning of the text as they went so that everyone could understand (Nehemiah 8:1-8).
Nehemiah was the appointed governor of the region of Judea at the time, which was then under the rule of the Persian Empire. Nehemiah was zealous in rebuilding the Temple and struggled against fierce opposition from other provinces and governors to finish his work, but he did not waver, instead relying on God’s provision.
Now that the work had been completed, he knew that the people should rejoice and thank God for his mighty protection and provision. But instead, the people were mourning and weeping because they realized they had lived without the Law for so long while they were in exile (Nehemiah 8:9).
Nehemiah encouraged them that such sadness of heart was not necessary. Instead, he said, “Go your way, eat the fat, and drink the sweet, and send portions unto them for whom nothing is prepared.” (Nehemiah 8:10)
He knew that the people were now protected from invaders and that they were actively recommitting themselves to following the ways of God. That in itself is cause for rejoicing; and not only that, but recognizing that the strength of God was sufficient to protect them from the threat of military conquest and political opposition.
The past was the past, and the Israelites were commanded to celebrate God and their devotion to Him rather than wallow in their guilt. So the people did so, engaging in ritual feasts and celebrations, as well as sharing with the poor (Nehemiah 8:12).
How Can We Rejoice in God’s Strength?
So how can we find strength and joy in the Lord? The answers can be found throughout Nehemiah.
First, we can rejoice that God provides for us. He divinely directed the leaders of other empires to provide safe passage and resources for the Israelites to return to their homeland and rebuild the Temple. God will provide you with everything you need if you will trust in Him and believe that He will do it.
Next, we can trust that God’s strength is sufficient in everything. When the people began to fear what was happening around them, Nehemiah encouraged them to remember the power of God as greater than those that threatened them (Nehemiah 4:14). The apostle Paul recognizes that God is greater than what we can offer in 2 Corinthians 12:9, when God “said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness.” Trust that God’s power is stronger than what can come against you (Romans 8:31).
The people also kept themselves dedicated to remaining in God’s Word (Nehemiah 8:1). They sought wise counsel, the leaders ensured that everyone understood the Law, and they devoted a significant portion of their time to corporate worship, study, and fellowship. We should stay steeped in our study and meditation on the Bible, and share our encouragement and godly fellowship with others who are also devoted to God. This is how we can grow together and build up the body of Christ.
Finally, Nehemiah encouraged the people to celebrate! God had delivered them out of exile, and had given them the strength to rebuild their home – that is certainly cause for celebration and generosity (Nehemiah 8:10). When we recognize that God is with us, we can find perfect joy in Him, and we will be quick to share that joy with others by telling them about what God has done for us.
Rejoicing in God can give us the strength to face all of life’s challenges. We can better focus on God instead of our fears, and we can help others learn about the joy we have. Be thankful to God for what He has done, ask Him to remain at the center of your life, and you can be sure that His peace will follow (Philippians 4:6-7).
Expert Overview of Ezra-Nehemiah
Natalie Regoli is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. She has a Master's Degree in Law from The University of Texas. Natalie has been published in several national journals and has been practicing law for 18 years.