Chances are you’ve read that verse or heard it somewhere, at some time, in your life. It’s a key lyric in one of the most popular praise choruses of recent years:
I’m trading my sorrows,
I’m trading my shame.
I’m laying them down,
For the joy of the Lord.
Written by Darrell Evans
©1998 Integrity’s Hosanna! Music
What exactly is the joy of the Lord? The first interpretation that goes through my mind is, “I’m going to ignore all my problems and put a smile on my face.” Have you ever tried to do that? Then you put on one of those fake smiles and walk around telling yourself, “I’m happy! I’m happy!” How does that work out for you?
Now, there is scientific evidence that smiling releases a chemical in your brain that makes you feel good. But that’s not what the joy of the Lord is about. It is not a chemical reaction. The joy of the Lord is a spiritual reaction. Which one do you think is more powerful?
At this passage in the book of Nehemiah where we find the statement, “the joy of the Lord is your strength,” here’s what’s going on: the people of Israel have just been read the word of God (the word of God was the Law, at that time, going back to when God himself gave the Law to Moses), and when the people heard, they wept. Why would they weep? Because in the word of God we are reminded how we fall short of God’s glory.
Weeping was a good response, to the extent that it showed the people’s hearts were tender. But God’s desire is not to leave His children weeping. Like a loving Father, He shows us what a mess we’ve gotten ourselves into so we can turn to Him and rest in His arms as He restores us and brings us into the full glory He created us for.
That’s why when the people wept, the governor said: “Go and enjoy good food and sweet drinks. Send some to people who have none, because today is a holy day to the Lord. Don’t be sad, because the joy of the LORD will make you strong.” (Nehemiah 8:10 – The New Century Version) That is how God responds to our weeping, as if to compassionately say, “No, no, no, this is what I have for you!” Then in verse 12, we see that the people got the message:
Then all the people went away to eat and drink, to send some of their food to others, and to celebrate with great joy. They finally understood what they had been taught. (Nehemiah 8:12 – The New Century Version)
Is the joy of the Lord starting to make more sense now? (Or maybe it has always made sense to you and this lesson is only for me… I can be a bit slow sometimes!) The joy of the Lord comes when we understand the awesome love and favor of God, as the people of Israel experienced. And once we find this joy, it can never be taken from us. That is why the joy of the Lord is so much more than just putting a smile on our face in the midst of adversity. You see, God is not a superficial God, and His word would never advise us to rest on something so temporal, so fragile, as a smile. But the joy of the Lord will be your strength!
And by the way, I only just recently considered the significance of the “will be your strength” part of the verse. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like I’ve heard about “the joy of the Lord” more than I’ve heard about “will be your strength.” But that phrase is what really injects the power. What is strength? Here are some definitions I found in the dictionary:
1. The state, property, or quality of being strong.
2. The power to resist attack; impregnability.
3. The power to resist strain or stress; durability.
4. The ability to maintain a moral or intellectual position firmly.
5. Capacity or potential for effective action
So how can we be strong? The joy of the Lord. How can we resist attack? The joy of the Lord. How can we resist stress and remain durable? The joy of the Lord. You get the idea.
The joy of the Lord is not an emotion. Being happy is an emotion. The joy of the Lord is meant to be our “lifeforce.”
Something else about strength: you can have more or less of it. Ask any athlete and they’ll tell you that you have to keep working out to maintain your strength, let alone gain any strength. If you remain sedentary, your strength will gradually fade. Certainly you can still measure that you have a degree of strength at any point, but it may not be a sustaining strength.
On that subject, I’ll close with a lesson from respected 18th century Bible commentator, Matthew Henry, learned from the people of Israel that we found in this passage of Nehemiah:
The better we understand the word of God, the more comfort we shall find in it; for the darkness of trouble arises from the darkness of ignorance and mistake. When the words were first declared to them they wept; but, when they understood them, they rejoiced, finding at length, precious promises made to those who repented and reformed, and that therefore there was hope in Israel.
May the joy of the Lord be your strength this day and every other. When you need more, you will always find it in the word of God (the Bible). God bless you.