Don’t you sometimes just not feel like coming to church or rejoicing in the Lord? In this passage, God’s people didn’t either, but they were still called to, and given good reasons to. This shows us that rebuilding requires rejoicing.

Citylight Center City | February 21, 2021 from Citylight Church on Vimeo.


Nehemiah 8:9-12

The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah (The New International Commentary on the Old Testament), Charles Fensham

Ezra and Nehemiah (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries), Derek Kidner

Sermon Transcript

Today our service began as it usually does, with a passage of Scripture calling us to worship. Typically these passages tell us to worship, and tell us various things about who God is or what God has done that make Him a fit object of our worship. Have you noticed one thing they never do? They never add a qualifier like, “Sing to the LORD, sing His praises…unless you just really aren’t feeling it today.” Have you ever wondered about that? Don’t you sometimes just not feel like coming to church, singing songs of rejoicing, or giving thanks to God? We’re looking at a passage in Nehemiah 8 today where the people in it also didn’t feel like rejoicing. They were in a church gathering where they had heard God’s law read aloud, and verse 9 tells us it left them weeping. Nonetheless, we’re going to see Nehemiah and their other leaders call them to rejoice. We saw last week that rebuilding requires regathering. This passage shows us that rebuilding requires rejoicing, and it gives us three reasons to rejoice even when we don’t feel like it: God commands it, His joy is our strength, and we can understand His Words.


God commands it


Our passage begins in verse 9 with the instruction of Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest, and the Levites, together saying to the people, “This day is holy to the LORD your God; do not mourn or weep.” Nehemiah doesn’t explain here why the day is holy, but in Leviticus 23:23-25, the LORD set apart the first day of the seventh month, the day on which this gathering took place, as a day of solemn rest, where the people would assemble at the sound of a trumpet and offer food offerings to the LORD. While we don’t get the same details of this gathering, it seems they gathered on this day because they still observed the day as a day where they rest from their work to rejoice in the LORD. Though all of life was meant to be worship, including their work, there were days set by God where He commanded His people to stop working, assemble, hear God’s Word, and worship. Beyond the weekly Sabbath, days like this one, the first day of the seventh month, were such days. Thus the day is holy to the LORD, as Nehemiah says here.


And his conclusion from that is “Do not mourn or weep.” He had to say this because, remember, verse 9 tells us the people wept as they heard the law read aloud. This response probably seems extraordinary to us, but it is a natural response if we are really listening attentively to God’s law. The law tells us what God requires of us, and then it promises the blessing of life for those who obey, and the curse of death for those who disobey. And if you really listen attentively to it, every human being has to realize it doesn’t just condemn the people you don’t like: It condemns you. It convicts us all as wrongdoers, and the promise it makes to wrongdoers is the judgment of death. To weep in response to such a verdict is totally natural. To deal honestly with the real God is not a game. He won’t let you cherry pick the parts of His Word that affirm you. If you’ve never at least felt like weeping at the reading of God’s law, could it be that you aren’t listening attentively to it?


Nonetheless, weeping is not God’s ultimate goal for His people, and it was especially inappropriate on this day. Looking at the weeping people, after telling them that the day is holy to the LORD, Nehemiah and the others say, “Do not mourn or weep,” even though it’s what the people of Israel were feeling at that time. The day was not set apart for them to express their feelings; it was set apart for them to rejoice in God. Perhaps they even felt unworthy, given their sin, to rejoice in God’s presence, but their worthiness isn’t ultimate; God’s is. He is still eternal, infinite, and unchangeable in His power and perfection, goodness and glory, wisdom, justice, and truth, and therefore He is still worthy of our rejoicing. God didn’t say in Leviticus 23, when the first day of the seventh month comes, as long as you feel really joyful, set apart a day for joyful worship. He said set apart the day, regardless of how you feel.


How’s that hit you? It’s certainly counter cultural. Our culture’s assertion, and it is ultimately nothing more than an assertion, is that what you feel is the truest thing about you. It’s the real you, and therefore your actions should be determined by it. To act in any other way would not be true to yourself. Of course, our culture lives with all kinds of happy inconsistencies on this point: If you said your deepest feelings were feelings of hatred toward another race, they’d tell you not to act on that. Nonetheless, the message comes through. The Bible’s approach to feelings is different. It doesn’t dismiss them; read a book like the Psalms or Lamentations for ample expressions of genuine human emotion, even sadness, in the presence of God. The Bible doesn’t dismiss feelings, but it does relativize them. They matter, but they aren’t the truest thing about you, or the final determination of how you ought to act. They aren’t god; God is God, and He commands worship, even when you feel miserable, even when your misery is for good reasons, as it seems was the case here.


Now there is debate among genuine Christians as to whether since the coming of Christ there are still specific days set aside for the activity of worship. Everyone agrees that days like the first day of the seventh month are no longer binding, and pretty much everyone realizes days like Christmas and Easter are days we invented; God didn’t set them apart as holy to Him. There is debate over whether the phrase “The Lord’s Day” in Revelation 1:10 means that Sundays, the day of our Lord’s resurrection, are set apart for the activity of worship. I won’t enter into that now, but we can at least say that our gathering on the Lord’s Day is set apart for the activity of worship. So you should come, even when you don’t feel like it. And you should sing songs of rejoicing, even when you don’t feel like it. Your feelings matter; they really do. But God commands us to worship something bigger than our feelings. And, actually, though it may be hard in the short-term, it will be good for your feelings in the long run to worship something bigger than your feelings, because the joy of the LORD is your strength.


His joy is your strength


The next thing Nehemiah says to them after telling them not to mourn or weep is in verse 10: “Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength.” He dismisses them from the gathering not to weep, but to celebrate with a great feast. He ensures that they think also of the poor among them and tells them to provide for them, so they too can join in the feast. He gives the same reason again, that the day is holy to the LORD. But then when he tells them not to grieve again, he adds another reason: For the joy of the LORD is your strength. Weeping is natural in response to God’s law, but it doesn’t ultimately give us strength. Weeping is appropriate at times, but you can’t stay there forever. It’s not your strength; the joy of the LORD is.


If you were to think of the attributes of God, perhaps you’d think of omnipresence, omnipotence, omniscience, eternity, wisdom, justice, love, but do you think of joy, or what theologians call the Blessedness of God? It means God doesn’t have changing emotions like we do, but He is eternally happy, in a way unique to God but analogous to our happiness. Think about this: In order for anyone to be happy, there has to be something that brings happiness, the person has to then get that thing, and the person has to know they have it. Let’s say for example a great painting can bring happiness: That painting would have to exist, you would have to obtain it, and you would have to have knowledge of its beauty. But God is the ultimate good, the one by whom all objects of happiness were created, and God exists within Himself, with perfect knowledge of Himself. God, then, is, knows, and has Himself as the ultimate object of happiness, and therefore He is infinitely happy. The joy of the LORD, then, is when God, out of His infinite joy, causes that joy to arise in us. And that joy is our strength.


Can you imagine if God were not happy in Himself? John Piper describes how we’d have to respond to such a God in these terms: “We would all relate to God like little children have to to a gloomy, dismal, discontented, frustrated father. They can’t enjoy him. They can only try to avoid him and maybe try to work for him to make him feel better.” What good news that the LORD your God is not like that! Even when you are weeping over your sins because you have listened attentively to God’s law, God is not weeping! I was talking with Pastor Andy from Delco about this passage last week and he talked about how when he was a kid, if he disobeyed his dad, he’d often wait to go talk to his dad until his dad was in a better mood. Well guess what? The LORD your God is always in a good mood! There’s never a bad time to draw near to Him. He has such a full supply of joy that He can give it to you, even when you have none.


How do you get it from Him? At the appropriate time, you stop weeping, and you start feasting. This is where our cultural approach to feelings is so backwards. Since our world tells us our feelings are the truest things about us, the implication is you can’t change those. So instead, you should change your actions and even your identity to match your feelings, then demand the world around you affirm that. But do you see the naiveté? There are some things that don’t change, but if there is one thing that can change, it’s our feelings! Our feelings change all the time! If you spend an hour focusing on the saddest things in our world, guess how you’ll probably feel at the end of the hour? Sad. If you spend an hour focusing on all the ways God is good and all that He’s done for you, guess how you’ll probably feel at the end of the hour? Happy-er at least. And so also, if you keep weeping, you’ll stay sad, but if you start feasting in the presence of the LORD, there is joy from the LORD available to strengthen you. I’m not saying it’s as simple as, “If you’re depressed, get over it,” but our feelings don’t just happen to us. We cultivate them. So cultivate them toward the joy of the LORD.


How do you do that? We’ve already mentioned one way: Come to church when you don’t feel like it. Sing songs of praise when you don’t feel like it. Here though they are actually dismissed from church to go and feast together in celebration to the LORD. In the ancient Christian church, it was common practice on Sunday to gather for worship, dismiss, and then the members of the church would gather for a feast later in the day. They called it the agape feast, from a Greek word meaning love. It’s possible they even took the Lord’s Supper as part of that meal by setting aside bread and wine at a particular time within it. In any case, early in the history of the church that was brought into the worship gathering, and we still practice it that way today. So taking the Lord’s Supper together is another way to cultivate greater joy in the LORD. But this also seems to suggest we can cultivate joy in the LORD when we spend time together around the dinner table speaking of who God is and what He has done with one another. We have Citygroups to help you with that, but ultimately you will have to choose to feast with others and give thanks for what God has done. Right now COVID complicates that, but let’s do what we can now and be ready to dive back into it when we can eat together again while still submitting to our governing authorities.


If you make such practices staples of your life even when you don’t feel like doing them, and you depend on the LORD through prayer, in His timing, He will give you joy, and it will strengthen you. It will strengthen you for further worship; you’ll find Sundays when you’re dying to go to church and sing with God’s people, you’ll find days you can’t wait to have people over for a meal to speak of God’s works with one another. It will strengthen you to change, so that obeying God’s law actually becomes desirable to you. As the commentator Matthew Henry put it, “Holy joy will be oil to the wheels of our obedience.” And it will strengthen you against temptation. You’ll be so full of joy in God that when sin offers you its crappy meal, you’ll be able to say, “No thanks; I’m full.” And the third reason we can rejoice is because we can understand God’s Words.


We can understand His Words


After giving this charge to the people and the Levites reinforcing it in verse 11, verse 12 tells us the people did go their way to eat and drink and to send portions to the poor and to make great rejoicing, and it gives us now a third reason: They had understood the words that were declared to them. On the one hand, it seems like this is what made them weep in the first place. If you look up the page at verse 8, we read that after reading the Law, the Levites gave the sense, so that people understood the reading, and then in verse 9 they started weeping. But there was more to the sense than what they understood at first. We could say they understood the interpretation of the words, but not the application. In verses 9-11, Nehemiah, Ezra, and the Levites give the application, and now, having fully understood the words, the people go away rejoicing.


At Citylight, you’ve hopefully noticed we try to do this in our preaching. We give the sense so that you all understand the words of Scripture; we talked about that last week. Today I explained what the joy of the LORD was, even got somewhat technical for a bit, so that you’d understand the words of verse 10. But then there’s a move to application: Come to church, sing songs of praise, take the Lord’s Supper, even when you don’t feel like it. Get together with one another, enjoy a good meal, and talk about what God’s done, even when you don’t feel like it. So if you want more of the joy of the LORD, this is showing you another way to cultivate it, and there’s a bit of irony to it, an irony that’s really there in the whole passage: If you want real joy, don’t simply seek it. Seek the LORD, and because He is joy, in Him you will find it. Rejoice when you don’t feel like it, and over time, you’ll begin to feel like it. Come to church and listen to the sermon, and don’t look for it to make you happy. Look for it to help you understand the interpretation and the application of the words of Scripture. What we see here is that it’s as you understand the words of this book that joy will come.


Why? Because there is something in these words, that if you really understand them, will not only bring weeping, but joy. If you really listen attentively and understand the words of God’s Law, it won’t take long for you to realize that means God’s curse is upon you for your sin, hence the weeping. But that’s not the final word. There’s another word that if you really understand it, will bring joy inexpressible into your life. That Word is the Word that became flesh and dwelt among us. Jesus Christ took upon Himself all that God’s law required. He obeyed all that it commanded, but how do we find Him described? A man of sorrows. One who wept. Why? He was weeping not for His sins, but for ours. And on the cross the curse of the law fell on Him, so that we might receive the blessing for His obedience. Then His weeping turned to rejoicing when He rose from the dead and returned to the everlasting joy of the LORD. He now offers that joy to whoever believes in Him.


The proper response to these words, then, is to repent, believe, and rejoice in Jesus Christ. Weep for your sin in the mirror of God’s law, but don’t stay there. Lift your eyes and see Jesus. Speak to your soul the way Wesley does in his great hymn: “Arise, my soul, arise, shake off thy guilty fears, the bleeding sacrifice, in my behalf appears.” However guilty or ashamed you are or feel, God commands you to come to Him today through Jesus Christ. It’s not about how worthy you are; it’s about how worthy He is! Your sin has already opposed His glory; don’t oppose it further by refusing to rejoice in His forgiveness of your sins. You aren’t bringing Him any more glory by staying miserable. He knows you’re guilty, He knows you’ve got problems, but He is so dang happy that He actually still wants you to be happy! He goes so far as to command it! Don’t withhold the rejoicing He commands. You are weak, weaker than you know, but the joy of the LORD is your strength. And it will be your strength until the day He comes again to wipe away every tear from your eyes, and to say to you, “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master” (Matt 25:21).