The book of Nehemiah is largely a first person memoir recounting the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s city walls during the 5th century BCE. After the wall is completed (Nehemiah 6:15) and guards are installed (Nehemiah 7:1-3), the people are assembled and Ezra reads “the book of the law of Moses” (Nehemiah 7:73-8:8).
Lester L. Grabbe (b. 1945) recaps:
The people, both men and women, are gathered on the 1st day of the 7th month (the Festival of Trumpets according to Leviticus 23:23-25) in the space before the Water Gate, which was probably the main open square of the city (Nehemiah 8:1-2). Ezra reads from early morning to midday, with various individuals standing on both sides of him (Ezra 8:3-4)...Ezra begins by pronouncing a blessing on Yhwh, to which the people respond (Nehemiah 8:5-6). Then various individuals (presumably priests) and Levites clarify the reading to the people (Nehemiah 8:7-8). (Grabbe, Ezra-Nehemiah, 51)The reading triggers an emotional roller coaster. Initially, the people weep (Nehemiah 8:9) before Nehemiah reorients them (Nehemiah 8:9-10).
Then he said to them, “Go, eat of the fat, drink of the sweet, and send portions to him who has nothing prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord. Do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” (Nehemiah 8:10 NASB)The priests affirm Nehemiah’s summons, dismissing the congregation with reassuring words (Nehemiah 8:11). The people then disburse to celebrate (Nehemiah 8:11-12).
J.I. Packer (b. 1926) assesses:
The course of action that the leaders pressed on them was better from every point of view. “The joy of the Lord is your strength,” said Nehemiah (one imagines him shouting it from the platform); so rejoice!—feast in joyful generosity, rather than fast in sad self-absorption! “Go and enjoy...Do not grieve.” Thus he brought the meeting to an end. (Packer, A Passion for Faithfulness: Wisdom from the Book of Nehemiah, 158)Penance will come soon, in fact in the next chapter (Nehemiah 9:1-37). Now, however, is the time to celebrate as God is renewing the covenant.
Mark A. Throntveit (b. 1949) understands:
This...scene, together with the next...functions as the first part of the covenant renewal that these chapters present: proclamation. The “joy of the LORD” (Nehemiah 8:10), freshly renewed through the teaching of Ezra and the Levites, will strengthen the people for the soul-searching that lies ahead in chapters 9 and 10. (Throntveit, Ezra–Nehemiah (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching & Preaching), 97)Stan Purdum (b. 1945) concurs:
Both Ezra and Nehemiah told them to rejoice...because “the joy from the LORD is your strength!” (Nehemiah 8:10). In other words, God was calling them to be the current community in covenant with him. God was giving them the teaching that make for a wholesome and holy life, which is a source of joy. (Purdum, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther (Immersion Bible Studies), 44)Nehemiah 8-10 is distinct from the rest of the book. Rather than being narrated by the titular character these chapters are composed in the third person. This portion is about Nehemiah not by him. Further, Nehemiah 8 focuses on the figure of Ezra (Nehemiah 8:1, 2, 4, 5, 6, 9, 13). This chapter represents one of the few instances that Ezra and Nehemiah appear together.
Lester L. Grabbe (b. 1945) critiques:
In this chapter the attention suddenly turns from Nehemiah to Ezra. In the combined writing Ezra-Nehemiah this would cause no problem for the reader since Ezra was already the subject of an extensive section of the book a few chapters earlier; nevertheless the appearance of Ezra without warning or separation, with the almost non-mention of Nehemiah, still looks rather abrupt. The subject of the chapter is the reading of the law. Again, the focus on this makes some sense in the context since the completion of the wall allows the people to gather together and the wall was finished on the 25th of Elul (Nehemiah 6:15), the 6th month while this chapter begins on the 1st day of the 7th month (Nehemiah 8:2). In the context, one might expect that the people would gather, the law be read, and then the wall be dedicated in a mainly religious celebration. This is not what happens, however, for the dedication does not come until much later (Nehemiah 12:27-43, though no date is given), after the question of mixed marriages is dealt with. This is difficult to explain from a purely literary analysis...as is the thirteen-year wait from the time of Ezra’s first coming during which time he supposedly did nothing about the law. (Grabbe, Ezra-Nehemiah, 50)Ezra’s having been in possession of the law without utilizing it has generated speculation (Ezra 7:10). Kyung-Jin Min asserts:
In the case of Nehemiah 8, few doubt that it originally belonged with Ezra 7-10. The dating system in Nehemiah 8 fits with Ezra 7-10, and Ezra is one of the central figures in Nehemiah 8 even though it is located in the middle of the Nehemiah narrative, whereas the single reference to Nehemiah (Nehemiah 8:9) is normally treated as a later insertion. (Min, The Levitical Authorship of Ezra-Nehemiah, 106)Joseph Blenkinsopp (b. 1927) construes:
As the singular verb in Nehemiah 8:9 and Nehemiah 8:10 suggests, the admonition was delivered by Ezra alone in the earlier form of the narrative. Nehemiah the governor and the Levites were added at a later stage. (Blenkinsopp, Ezra-Nehemiah: A Commentary (Old Testament Library), 288)It is Ezra who reads “the book of the law of Moses” (Nehemiah 8:1-5). The text does not record which passage is read but instead emphasizes the people’s response.
Gordon F. Davies (b. 1954) notes:
The important point here is not the stipulations of the Law as read: these details are omitted in this telling of the event. The first question is its reception—how the Law, designed as a constitution for a sovereign realm, can be observed afresh in a subject province of a pagan empire. How can it be proclaimed in a way that is current and engaging but at the same time free from the vicissitudes of Israel’s political fortune?...The people’s reception of the Law becomes the paradigm for Israel’s faith. Although not politically powerful, Israel can have an autonomous faith that is sincere about conversion and structured within tradition. (Davies, Ezra & Nehemiah (Berit Olam: Studies in Hebrew Narrative & Poetry), 112)The people instinctively weep upon hearing the law. Mark A. Throntveit (b. 1949) exclaims:
What a shock to the reader...when the people’s response to the law, reverently read, painstakingly interpreted, and worshipfully received, issues in weeping (Nehemiah 8:9)! Not that grief over their laxity with regard to the law was inappropriate. Under similar circumstances in Josiah’s time, their ancestors had also responded with mourning and weeping in repentance (II Kings 22:11; II Chronicles 34:19, 27). But this day, New Year’s Day (Leviticus 23:24), was “holy to the LORD” (Nehemiah 8:9, 10, 11), set aside for another purpose, namely rejoicing and the blowing of trumpets (Leviticus 23:24; Numbers 29:1). Lest the reader miss this emphasis, the final verses of the text employ a narrative “double strike” to drive the lesson home. In parallel proclamations both Ezra and the Levites prohibit grief and enjoin rejoicing. (Throntveit, Ezra–Nehemiah (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching & Preaching), 97)Presumably, the law serves it purpose by revealing transgression (Romans 7:1). Joseph Blenkinsopp (b. 1927) argues:
It is remarkable how often Ezra-Nehemiah, generally thought to be gloomy and jejune, reports demonstrations of anger, grief, and joy. The reason for the weeping and mourning in this instance is the sense of inadequacy and failure vis-à-vis the law and the threat posed by the curses appended to it. (Blenkinsopp, Ezra-Nehemiah: A Commentary (Old Testament Library), 288-89)Mark Roberts (b. 1957) discusses:
When the people heard and understood the Law, they began to weep (Nehemiah 8:9). We can only imagine why. Perhaps they were convicted of sin, or perhaps they realized that their suffering could have been prevented if only they and their ancestors had obeyed God precepts. Whatever their reason, although it seems an appropriate response to the Law, the leaders (including Nehemiah, Ezra, and the Levites) rebuked the people for their tears: This day is holy to the LORD your God; do not mourn nor weep” (Nehemiah 8:9)...Weeping in response to the Law will be encouraged later, in chapter 9, but rejoicing comes first. (Roberts, Ezra, Nehemiah, Ester (Mastering the Old Testament), 239)While it seems a shame to waste the rare occurrence of an uncontrived wellspring of contrition, here it is inappropriate. There is a time to mourn (Ecclesiastes 3:4) but this is not it. Forlorn tears during festival days are as inappropriate as laughing in the midst of tragedy. Nehemiah reminds the people not to rain on God’s parade: There’s no crying in holidays!
Lester L. Grabbe (b. 1945) apprises:
The day is made into a festival day for eating, drinking, and rejoicing (Nehemiah 8:9-12)...Although the people have been read the Torah, nothing is said about this day as the Day of Trumpets. It is said to be a holy day but not because of the instructions given to Moses; on the contrary, the day is apparently declared holy because ‘they made them understand all the words which they taught them’ (Nehemiah 8:12). (Grabbe, Ezra-Nehemiah, 52)
Leslie C. Allen (b. 1935) informs:
There is a triple refrain in Nehemiah 8:9-11 concerning the holiness of This day as a festival day and the obligation not to grieve. The monthly New Moon festival and the longer festivals were to be days of rejoicing, according to Numbers 10:10, while Deuteronomy stipulates that joyful celebration was to be a regular feature of the festivals (Deuteronomy 12:7, 12, 18, 14:26, 16:11, 14). The tension between the people’s weeping and the leaders’ exhortation to rejoice is reminiscent of Ezra 3:12-13, where official rejoicing mingled with lamenting dissatisfaction. Here, however, the grief was evidently due to the content of the reading, which prompted a healthy recognition of falling short of its standards...Yet the sacred duty of the day as devoted to the joyful worship of God made tears inappropriate. Rejoicing over the Lord is described as a source of protection, the people’s “strong-hold” (NJB). Such a positive attitude supplied a stimulus to comply with the moral will of God in the future, and so gave protection against the divine wrath for disobedience that had loomed in Ezra 9. The special, party-like fare that expressed their joy and generous sharing with those who had no food are both reminiscent of Deuteronomy 12:18-19 and Deuteronomy 14:26-27. The end of Nehemiah 8:12 resumes Nehemiah 8:8: it was not simply the holiday that sparked communal joy, but the appreciation of the reading and the exposition of the Torah. (Allen and Timothy S. Laniak [b. 1958], Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series))Johanna W. H. Van Wijk-Bos (b. 1940) accuses the Israelites of selective hearing:
The people have heard and understood, but even with understanding one may hear all too selectively. This is a time, so the leaders say, to rejoice, for the people’s strength is located in their joy rather than in their grief. Three times the motivation for abstaining from tears is provided with the statement that this is a holy day...To declare a day “holy to the Lord,” means for the community to set it aside, to dedicate it to God in joyful remembering of who they are and who God is. (Wijk-BosEzra, Nehemiah, and Esther (Westminster Bible Companion), 75-76)The people are assured that the joy of the Lord is their strength (Nehemiah 8:10). As is often the case, joy succeeds sorrow.
Edwin M. Yamauchi (b. 1937) analyzes:
“The joy” (hedwá) occurs only here and in I Chronicles 16:27 (cf. Aram in Ezra 6:16). Most commentators interpret this joy as having the Lord as its object. In other words, our joy in the Lord as we eat and labor before him will sustain us (Deuteronomy 12:7, 12, 18, 14:26, 17:11, 14). However, arguing from the fact that “strength” (mā‘ōz) means “stronghold, fortress” (cf. Psalm 27:1, 37:39; Jeremiah 16:19), Gordon C.I. Wong [b. 1961] has argued for “the joy of the LORD” as a subjective genitive, that is, the Lord’s joy in us, as that makes more sense. He suggests, “In other words, it is Yahweh’s joy over his people that is the basis for the hope that they will be saved or protected from his anger.” (John H. Walton [b. 1952], 1 & 2 Kings, 1 & 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary), 441)The joy of the Lord will be the people’s “strength” (ASV, ESV, KJV, MSG, NASB, NIV, NKJV, NLT, NRSV, RSV) or “stronghold” (HCSB). The mighty fortress that is the joy of the Lord will protect the people.
H.G.M. Williamson (b. 1947) comments:
In this context “protection” must be against the judgments of God, it follows that on occasions when God’s earlier acts of salvation were recalled it was appreciated that grace was an overriding characteristic of his nature. “The joy of the Lord” was the joy each Israelite felt at these festivals as he identified himself afresh with the community of God’s people and so appropriated in his own generation the salvation once bestowed upon his ancestors. In this act of identification—which took the form of joyful celebration and worship—lay his protection from the judgment that might otherwise fall on those outside of the covenant. Naturally, the sacred recital of the original event formed a vital part of this process. Ezra, therefore encouraged the people to regard his reading of Scripture in this light. Though it might challenge their consciences, it was to be regarded first and foremost as a declaration of God’s grace to his people. (Williamson, Ezra, Nehemiah (Word Biblical Commentary), 292)Instead of mourning the people are to do just the opposite; they are to party. Keith Schoville (b. 1928) details:
Rather than fasting and mourning, this was a day for joyous feasting. The people were encouraged to eat delicacies not a part of their normal diets. Special days call for special foods in all cultures. Choice food is literally “of the fat,” as in the KJV and RSV, that is, the choicest portions. Sweet drinks may have been sweet wine; the Vulgate indicates wine mixed with honey. The instruction to send some to those who have nothing prepared is taken by a Jewish commentator to refer to the poor. The day was holy to the Lord and all of the people should share in the joy of it. All are to receive renewed strength by rejoicing in the Lord. The Levites must have helped the people to understand the grace of God so that they could celebrate with great joy. H.G.M. Williamson [b. 1947] points to the importance of Ezra’s interpretation of the Torah to the people: “In this late period, when circumstances had changed so much from the time of the original law-giving, there had arisen the danger that the Law would slip into being a document of only antiquarian interest. It was Ezra’s hermeneutic that brought it to life again for the community. Although in theory the text of Scripture alone was normative, in practice it could only be that text as it came to be interpreted that would shape the future bold of Judaism.” Every generation needs to be confronted afresh with the meaning of God’s word and will for that generation. (Schoville, Ezra-Nehemiah (The College Press NIV Commentary), 217)Joseph Blenkinsopp (b. 1927) remarks:
The admonition is to put aside sadness and enjoy the good fare and fellowship associated with festal sacrifices (cf. Numbers 29:2-6). The theme of rejoicing, closely associated with worship in Deuteronomic-Chronistic preaching (e.g., Deuteronomy 12:12, 14:26; II Chronicles 29:36, 30:25), is rounded off with a psalmlike asseveration: joy in YHVH is your strength...The passage ends, therefore, on a note which calls into question the indictment—so often repeated in the modern period—of early Judaism as fearful and joyless. (Blenkinsopp, Ezra-Nehemiah: A Commentary (Old Testament Library), 289)Knute Larson (b. 1941) and Kathy Dahlen (b. 1952) reason:
Ezra concluded, Do not grieve, for the joy of the LORD is your strength. The emphasis was on God’s grace. Although they had sinned and had not fulfilled the law, God was celebrated as the gracious Sovereign who “does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him” (Psalm 103:10-11). Their protection came from God’s grace. (Larson and Dahlen, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther (Holman Old Testament Commentary), 219)The festivities should continue into the present day. Michael Frost (b. 1961) affirms:
I believe that celebration is a core practice of those who live in a world under God’s reign, but I’m not sure whether a rip-roaring “contemporary worship service” is going to quite to do it. I’d prefer a celebration similar to that which Nehemiah commends: “Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is sacred to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the LORD is your strength” (Nehemiah 8:10). Celebration, beauty, and generosity are a godly combination. (Hirsch, The Road to Missional: Journey to the Center of the Church, 144)Though Nehemiah’s command not to grieve could prove difficult for some, God’s grace always gives cause to celebrate and be thankful. Pleasing God produces joy and a heart infused with joy is strong. The joy of the Lord will sustain the Israelites just as the wall that is built will stabilize the city itself.
Does Nehemiah instruct the Israelites to compartmentalize their emotions? Why is it so important that the nation celebrate in this instance? When have you misheard the intent of a speaker? How is celebrating different when building as opposed to rebuilding? Which is more unifying, corporate celebration or mourning? Should tears ever be rebuked? When have you responded inappropriately at a public event? Have you ever attended a party where you did not feel like celebrating? What should you be celebrating today? Which Scripture do you think that Ezra read? What is typically your response to the reading of Scripture; have you ever wept? Should reading Scripture always produce joy? From what source(s) do you draw strength? Is the joy of the Lord your strength?
The joy of the Lord empowers believers. It strengthens us to endure hardship. John Piper (b. 1946) cites:
From the beginning of his Christian life in 1785 until he died in 1833, William Wilberforce [1759-1833] lived off the “great doctrines of the gospel,” especially the doctrine of justification by faith alone based on the blood and righteousness of Jesus Christ. This is where he fed his joy. Because of these truths, “when all around him is dark and stormy, he can lift up an eye of Heaven, radiant with hope and glistening with gratitude.” The joy of the Lord became his strength (Nehemiah 8:10). And in this strength he pressed on in the cause of abolishing the slave trade until he had the victory. (Piper, The Roots of Endurance: Invincible Perseverance in the Lives of John Newton [1725-1807], Charles Simeon [1759-1836], and William Wilberforce [1759-1833], 160)Andrew Murray (1828-1917) endorses:
There is no proof of the reality of God’s love and the blessing He bestows, which people so quickly feel the strength of, as when the joy of God overcomes all the trials of life. And for the Christian’s own welfare, joy is just as indispensable; the joy of the Lord is his strength (see Nehemiah 8:10), and confidence, courage, and patience find their inspiration in joy. With a heart full of joy no work can make us weary and no burden can depress us; God himself is our strength and song. (Murray, Abiding in Christ, 152)Joy is a cardinal Christian virtue. Leonard Sweet (b. 1947) distinguishes:
Nehemiah declared, “The joy of the LORD is your strength.” Followers remain mindful of their joy quotient while guarding against an addictive dependence on happiness. Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann [1921-1983] contends, “It is only as joy that the Church was victorious in the world, and it lost the world when it lost the joy, when it ceased to be the witness of it. Of all accusations against Christians, the most terrible was uttered by Friedrich Nietzsche [1844-1900] when he said that Christians had no joy...‘For behold I bring you good tidings of great joy [Luke 2:10]’—thus begins the Gospel, and its end is: ‘And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy [Luke 24:52].’” (Sweet, I Am a Follower: The Way, Truth, and Life of Following Jesus, 114)How does your enjoyment of God give you strength for living? How does this fortitude translate to your family and friends? How essential is being joyful to the Christian life? Is your church joyful? Are you?
“Joy as a moral quality is a Christian invention.” - Dean William Ralph Inge (1860-1954), “St. Paul,” Outspoken Essays, p. 226