Some weeks are better than others. I suppose that’s true for everyone. This was a challenging week for me early on. I had a heavier workload than usual, and although things were completed well my heart was just a bit “off.” Part of it may have to do with all the intensely negative news swirling around the 2020 election.
My role as a Global Security Advisor necessitates my having to keep up with international news. This includes security incidents, politics, events, conflicts, attacks, etc. Since the vast majority of those I advise are located overseas, national news is not a huge focus for me. It’s difficult, however, when one cares so much for his or her homeland to not pay attention to what’s happening at home. Unfortunately, much of it is less than uplifting. It seems that the headlines quickly shift from one outrageous thing to the next.
During one of my early morning prayer and reflection times this week, I sensed the Lord bring a verse to mind. It helped me to keep my focus on the Lord no matter what outrageous claims were being made by the media pundits.
Earlier today I took some time to listen to the entire book in which the verse is found. I often follow along in the written text, yet sometimes I simply close my eyes and take in the words. This helps me comprehend the overall context of the verse, and to better understand how the Lord would have me apply it to my life.
The verse the Lord brought to my mind earlier this week was Nehemiah 8:10. In the ESV, the second part of the verse says:
Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.
These twelve words brought me great comfort. They did so because I had focused on them years ago when I was facing a significant trial and the Lord used this verse to teach me an important principle. When the Lord brought it to my mind this week, what I’d learned before came flooding back, and it really encouraged me.
The context of this verse begins when Nehemiah learned of how bad things had become in Jerusalem. By the time Nehemiah lived in about 450 BC, the Jewish people had been in exile for generations. Nehemiah lived in Persia. He was a trusted servant of King Artaxerxes. After learning that Jerusalem was in ruins, Nehemiah wept and prayed for his homeland. By God’s grace, the King noticed how troubled Nehemiah had become, and sent him with letters of permission, a military guard, and with resources to rebuild Jerusalem.
On his arrival, Nehemiah inspected the walls and gates of the city. He found them in ruins. Much of the book in the Old Testament that bears Nehemiah’s name records his leadership in rebuilding the city and its defenses. This was undertaken in the face of great opposition from surrounding leaders. So great was the threat that several verses note how as people worked with one hand, they kept their weapons in the other. For example, Nehemiah 4:15-18a (NIV) notes:
When our enemies heard that we were aware of their plot and that God had frustrated it, we all returned to the wall, each to our own work. From that day on, half of my men did the work, while the other half were equipped with spears, shields, bows and armor. The officers posted themselves behind all the people of Judah who were building the wall. Those who carried materials did their work with one hand and held a weapon in the other, and each of the builders wore his sword at his side as he worked.
By chapter eight, the work on the walls had been completed. At that time all the people were called together to hear the word of the Lord read from morning until midday. When the people heard the words of the law and understood them, they wept. It’s likely that they did so because they realized that what their ancestors had endured in exile was the result of their sin against God.
As Nehemiah saw the people weeping and grieving, he shared those powerful words with them: “Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” What did this mean to them, and what might this mean to us now?
As is often the case, Bible verses mean different things to different people a different times. In fact, the same verse can have nuanced meanings to the same person over time. We can understand why as we read Hebrews 4:12 (NIV). It says:
The word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.
Recall for a moment the context of Nehemiah 8:10. For years before the exile, the Jewish nation was disobedient to God and his word. In essence, they were rebellious against God in their hearts. This brought about judgement from God, the exile, and the ruin of Jerusalem. During the generations that followed it seems that few, if any, sought to please God by leading the people back into a right relationship with him. We know that God can be grieved (Ephesians 4:30), and I suspect that his people’s rebellion resulted in the Lord grieving, and his people’s misery.
When in about 450 BC, Nehemiah led the people to rebuild the walls and gates of Jerusalem, and to then hear and understand the word of God, this represented God’s people coming back into right relationship with him. I suspect that few things cause more joy to the Lord than when his children, then or now, seek to draw near to him in obedience and truth.
With this in mind, Nehemiah’s words in 8:10 can be taken in two ways. The verse may mean that we are strengthened when we experience the joy of drawing near to the Lord. It may also mean that the Lord experiences joy when those he loves draw near to him, and sensing this in our spirit we are strengthened.
I suspect that both meanings are at work when we seek to live according to God’s word, to trust in him for the results, and draw near to him in prayer. When the Lord brought the words of Nehemiah 8:10 to my mind this week, they meant the same thing to me as they did years ago during a time of significant trials. I simply sensed in my heart that no matter how hard things get, trusting in God and living according to his word brings him joy.
Nothing delights me more than pleasing God, and so I find great strength and encouragement when I sense that this is the case. There are times in our lives, sometimes moments and sometimes seasons, when distraction, temptation, or hardship seek to draw us away from trusting in God and to usher us into dark places. And yet, to draw near to God when it’s most difficult to do so, when everything around you screams that you should give up, to stand firm, to persevere, and to trust in God at those times seems to bring greater strength and joy than almost anything else.
It’s wonderful to know that even when we do give in at times, the grace of God is there for us. He longs for us to get up, seek forgiveness, and to draw near again. And yet there is something mysterious and almost magical when by his grace and strength we are able to fight off the enemies of our soul and to stand firm. Nehemiah and those with him all those years ago knew that joy deep in their souls, and by God’s grace we can know the same joy and strength today as we draw near, walk by his word, and trust in him.