A lesson from antiquity

When I ask people what is their favorite portion of scripture, I usually get an answer that has to do with individual salvation, such as John 3:16 or some other verse that reassures us of God's love for us.

When I am asked for my favorite, I have a hard time choosing. I love the interaction between God and Moses at the burning bush in Exodus, and I think the accounts of the conversations between Moses and God on Sinai are fascinating, sometimes very funny. Hard to pick just one.

But certainly near the top of my list would be Nehemiah 8. Don't know what's there, do you? Don't feel badly, because most other folks don't either. In fact, not many Christians have ever read Nehemiah. But it's a great book, and - with Ezra, the other half of the set - is well worth reading.

I recently finished reading the books yet again, and as I read chapter 8, I thought of the many studies in past decades that have uniformly concluded that most American Christians are biblically illiterate. They don't read or know the Bible, because they don't see it as (a) interesting, (2) credible, or (3) relevant.

These things are profoundly sad, and at the same time, they make me angry. But Nehemiah tells us something about this situation.

Here's the scene in a nutshell: Ezra, a priest and scholar, came back to Jerusalem from Babylon and oversaw the rebuilding of the temple. Some time later, Nehemiah came back and oversaw rebuilding the wall, and did it in record time. (Of course, since it was the first time anyone rebuilt the wall, any time was a record, right?)

So now to chapter 8. The temple is long completed, and the wall is completed, as well. Nehemiah is now the Governor of the region. The people have come together in an open area in Jerusalem, and as Ezra reads the Law to them - probably Deuteronomy - and others translate and explain, the people begin to weep and mourn as they understood that they had lost.

Nehemiah and Ezra stop the proceedings and tell the people not to weep, because the day is holy to the LORD, and is a time of rejoicing. They are sent home with instructions to make a feast and celebrate, for "The joy of the LORD is your strength."

Here's the pertinent portion:

They read from the book, from the law of God, translating to give the sense so that they understood the reading. 9 Then 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 were weeping when they heard the words of the law. 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." 11 So the Levites calmed all the people, saying, "Be still, for the day is holy; do not be grieved." (Nehemiah 8:8-11)

A couple things strike me. First, the impact on the people of having the Word of God read and explained to them. It was deeply moving. Then, I find Nehemiah's comment fascinating: "The joy of the LORD is your strength."

As I put this scene together with the biblical illiteracy of the church, I think there is something urgently important to learn here. Christians don't know or care about the Bible because their leaders have not taught the Bible. We have been more interested in a hedonistic "gospel" - what God can do for me - and a focus on how God is the Great Therapist in the Sky, not on how we know and worship the one true and living God who is the creator and sustainer of all.

When Israel heard God's word and understood it, it mattered deeply to them. The first step in addressing the apathy and ignorance in the church today is the same: Proclaim and explain God's word, and let it work on the hearts of people.

Then, though less important, this matter of the "joy of the LORD" has long puzzled me. I have often sung a chorus about it, and perhaps you have, as well. But it didn't make sense.

Recently, I was listening to some teaching by one of the pastors of our church here, and he mentioned this passage. His comment turned a light on for me: The "joy of the LORD" is the joy that God takes in his people. It's not the joy that God gives to his people. That's too shaky a platform for me to be comfortable. But God's joy over us, the followers of Jesus called to bear his name, that joy is unending, and can be a great source of strength to us.

What a wonderful thought. Hallelujah!

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