January 19, 2021

Rejoicing in the Lord is your strength

The Wedding Dance, Pieter Bruegel the Elder

The Wedding Dance, Pieter Bruegel the Elder

The other day, as I was working on one of my books, a book for caregivers, I decided to do a chapter on how maintaining a spirit of joy can strengthen us in the midst of difficult circumstances. My text, of course, was Nehemiah 8:10, which ends with the familiar biblical meme, “The joy of the Lord is your strength.”

I actually like the way the New American Bible puts it: “Rejoicing in the Lord is your strength!” but more on that in a moment.

What struck me as I reviewed Nehemiah 8 and the setting of the familiar quote was that I had missed some important instructions in the context. These instructions make the concept of “joy” concrete.

“The joy of the Lord” is often invoked as one of those vague, “spiritual” ideas that religious people love to talk about. But in all my years of being a Christian and a minister, I doubt if I’ve ever really had a handle on what it actually is, what to think about it, and what to say to others to encourage them to have the kind of joy that will strengthen them in their lives and in their faith.

However, the context of these familiar words makes it clear.

Remember the situation. A group of exiles had returned to the land from Babylon and were intent on rebuilding the city of Jerusalem. By the time Nehemiah 8 comes around, the wall around the city had been completed and many had been resettled in their own towns and villages. A convocation was called. The exiles were to gather together in Jerusalem, hear Ezra the priest read the Torah, and celebrate the Feast of Booths.

The first part of Nehemiah 8 describes this Law-reading/teaching session, emphasizing Ezra’s role along with other leaders, and describing how the people began to lament and weep when they heard the Torah’s teaching.

At this point, Ezra, Nehemiah and the other leaders gave instructions to their distraught fellow citizens:

Then Nehemiah, that is, the governor, and Ezra the priest-scribe, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to all the people: “Today is holy to the Lord your God. Do not lament, do not weep!”—for all the people were weeping as they heard the words of the law. He continued: “Go, eat rich foods and drink sweet drinks, and allot portions to those who had nothing prepared; for today is holy to our Lord. Do not be saddened this day, for rejoicing in the Lord is your strength!” And the Levites quieted all the people, saying, “Silence! Today is holy, do not be saddened.” Then all the people began to eat and drink, to distribute portions, and to celebrate with great joy, for they understood the words that had been explained to them. (Neh. 8:9-12, NABRE) [emphasis mine]

Note: the leaders did not instruct the people to find something “spiritual” within themselves called, “the joy of the Lord.”

Instead, they gave them specific instructions about actions they should take to “rejoice” in the Lord.

They told the weeping exiles to “eat rich food.” They told them to “drink sweet drinks.” They told them to take extra food to their neighbors who might not be able to participate so that they could also share in the feast.

In the midst of their sadness and regret, they instructed them to have a feast!

The exiles were encouraged to have a party in the midst of their problems!

The remedy for their sadness was a celebration!

I often pray for people who are struggling to carry heavy burdens, that God will give them joy, for “the joy of the Lord is our strength.” I still think that is a legitimate prayer, but now that I know what’s involved, I’m going to try and remember to always augment my prayers with encouragement to find a way to do something enjoyable and refreshing. I will try to help them find a way to laugh, to take up something that will bring them enjoyment and gladness.

When life gets heavy, this text reminds us to balance the heaviness with some hilarity.

Apparently, joy along with the strength it brings grows in us when we allow ourselves, even in the midst of our struggles, to celebrate the good things of life.

Joy is not some “spiritual” quality we have to work up in some “spiritual” way.

Joy is a good meal with friends, laughing together, doing something you really enjoy, forgetting about your troubles for awhile, taking a break and indulging a little bit, participating in some pleasurable activity, making merry, blowing off some steam.

We’re human beings, for heaven’s sake.

Let’s lighten up a little, okay?

That’s where joy and strength may be found.


  1. Burro [Mule] says

    The parish priest of the Greek parish I attended told me that one of the reasons for the fasting seasons in the Orthodox Church are so that when they are over, at the major feast periods, the body and the soul can rejoice together.

  2. I have been reading this blog for the last several years and have found it to be a great place to explore things I might have not thought about. But the last several months the comments have given into name calling, jumping on people, thinking that certain individuals know everything. The only thing tolerance has come to mean is that if you agree with me I am tolerant and if not the usual list of adjectives follows. Saturday’s ramblings was the last straw for me. It used to be funny to look at the pictures and have a good chuckle. Now even that’s gone. The only reason I say this is because this post reminds me to seek joy in the Lord. To the great delight of many I am leaving this blog and going in search of the joy of the Lord.

    • David, sorry to hear this. God speed, and you are always welcome.

    • I also have been surprised at how thoughtful contributors on overtly spiritual topics run off to the wilds on political issues. My solution has been to stop reading comments immediately when that happens.

    • David, I don’t delight in your leaving. I too have wished for a greater variety of opinions and voices, with less immediate judgment. Sometimes the comment threads have been just like face-to-face conversations that I would simply walk away from, because there seems to be no room for me or my thoughts.

    • Burro [Mule] says

      I’m probably the one most to blame for this. I don’t mind being called names, because most of them are true, but I think I can learn to express my ideas without being insulting.

      Sorry to see you go.

    • That’s a shame to hear, David…I’ll miss having you comment and seeking joy in the Lord with us. Thanks for your time here, and blessings with you.

    • I don’t follow the Ramblings as closely anymore, but this made me want to go back and read the comments…..


    • Clay Crouch says

      Vaya con dios.

  3. Please explain the difference, if any, between joy and fun, and between joy and happiness. I remember hearing a preacher say once that happiness depends on happenings, while joy can bubble up from deep within regardless of circumstances. Also, an evangelical saying I’ve heard is that joy results from getting our priorities in the right order — Jesus, Others, and You. Or are these just platitudes? I’m asking because I don’t really want to think that joy comes from eating and drinking.

    • I may answer later, but you’ve raised a good question and I’d like to hear others respond first.

    • flatrocker says

      From Elizabeth Scalia (mostly)…

      To be joyful – not just to be happy – but to be filled with joy. A joy which has its secret within itself, serene and secure. A joy completely detached of all the chances and changes of life. To know that we are connected to someone beautiful and to something that allows us to raise our faces and smile. But not just a surface smile. This is a smile born from “knowing” what we possess deep in our being, so deep that it becomes our very nature. And it fills us with joy. Joy embraces hope, joy feels the grace that surrounds us and joy calls us to holiness. Joy reminds us that love is ever near. And it flows to those around us.

      And we take the fullness of our joy and unify in our love for God, unified with each other and our universal church. Together, we embrace life in all its glory, challenges, beauty and woes – holding closely the sanctity of which we are privileged to experience. We carry on the process of the Incarnation of our Lord – meeting each other where we are at, calling each other by name, learning each other’s stories. Talking, eating, laughing, praying and mourning as one. We cry tears of joy at births and we weep tears of sorrow when we bury. Our community of believers is foremost about love and service for one another. We are forever bound to Jesus and this binds us together.

    • I feel as if there is no major difference; it is only a matter of nuance. Any of these are good things, but cease to be profitable when they become distractions–when the pursuit of happiness for ourselves causes us to ignore others who are not so fortunate. The prophet’s instructions in today’s text prevent this by mandating sharing with those who are in want.

      • Adam Tauno Williams says

        Agree. They are on the list of things one will never find by seeking them.

        Somehow they are related to Love and Beauty. When you are associating with those you love or things in which you find beauty then fun, happiness, and joy find you.

    • Adam Tauno Williams says

      Platitudes. The distinctions between these things pretty much always hinges on what the speaker wants to emphasize or prove.

      Happiness, joy, and fun may be distinct concepts – but also likely to be so entangled that the disentangling causes their meaning(s) to evaporate. Imagine being joyful while being unhappy? Imagine being happy but not having any fun?

      Sure, joy and happiness are related to priorities. But “getting right with Jesus” is demonstrably not one of those priorities. If it were Joy would be more evident in different places than it is; so the polemicist must redefine what it means in order to support their narrative.

      • None of those things are permanent. They are all temporary in nature, but the difference, as I see it, is that joy comes from a wellspring from within a person while all of the other things depend on external circumstances. What feeds the wellspring, where it originates, is what is important. If we lose sight of that source then we are nothing but animals that live only in the moment…

    • petrushka1611 says

      “Happiness” deriving from “happenings” sounds like one of those glib statements that popped into someone’s head once and sounded like a good idea. Blech.

      As for joy coming from eating and drinking, I can live with that any day over joy being tied to some vague, never explained “spiritual” idea that one person requires of everyone else. Since this was posted yesterday, I’ve been delightedly pondering the fact that God’s people fell into a serious slump because of God’s law, and his cure for that wasn’t an exhortation to keep it harder, but to eat and drink. Kind of like the disciples on the road to Emmaus (can’t remember how to spell that) – for all of Jesus’ explaining of the Bible, none of it clicked until they had a meal with him.

  4. The Cowboys lost to the Eagles last night which just about seals the deal on their season so I’m gonna need a minute on this one……..ok, I’m good. Yes. Our joy is not dependent upon circumstance which is temporal but upon knowing the spirit of Christ who is eternal.

    • But . . .

      Enjoying a sports match and cheering and being with friends and tailgating or having a gathering around the activity of the game can contribute to one’s joy.

      Even when our team loses.

      • But CM, surely you don’t think rejoicing in your favorite team winning a game and rejoicing in the Lord are the same thing? I mean, simple grammar tells us that the objects of the prepositions are entirely different — rejoice in the Cubs vs. rejoice in the Lord. You probably view this as rank heresy, but IMHO the Lord doesn’t care whether the Cubs win or lose. He wants you to rejoice in Him regardless of what the Cubs do.

        /pontificating off/

        • Bob, I tried to choose my words carefully. I said participating in sports enjoyment can contribute to our joy.

          The point of the post is that we are human, and human beings need “enjoyment” as an important ingredient in having joy. (Notice the word enjoyment — that which puts joy into us.)

          I have been so bad at this in my preaching and teaching and I think evangelicals in particular really miss the boat here. We try so hard to make everything “spiritual” that we miss the simple human aspects of loving God and following Christ.

          Of course, it’s more than just simply rejoicing in the game of baseball. But it’s not less than that and if we don’t include things like that I don’t think we are being true to the way God made us. See my post, “The Joy of Humans at Play.”

          • All true joy is a reflection of God’s character, be it joy in a football game or a baseball game. It is a gift from God and we praise Him by enjoying it. We can acknowledge the happiness we receive from these things as coming from God and that sanctifies it.

          • Well said, Chaplain Mike.

          • @robin: You’ve captured the fullness of my feeling on the matter better than I did in my own post.

    • You guys need Romo back. Desperately.

  5. I think the distinction you imply between joy and rejoicing is useful here. Joy is perhaps a feeling, perhaps a state of being; rejoicing is an activity. They’re related, but not exactly the same thing.

    • “…rejoicing is an activity.”

      Yes, that nuance seems true to me, and I think that’s the gist of what CM is saying in this article. Rejoicing, then, is much like exercise. It can be practiced so that we can improve our rejoicing in all things, even the bad.

  6. I remember looking at that Bruegel painting in the Detroit Art Museum as a kid old enough to understand what I was looking at and thinking, that’s weird. Today I think, that’s really weird. The most joyous public moment I can remember is VJ day, seventy years ago. That sure didn’t last long. The most joyous time I can remember in church is singing that Nehemiah line, the joy of the Lord is my strength, over and over and over, happily clapping hands, just like I have heard many people here speak of with scorn and castigation. I’m forcing myself thru the book of Numbers and understand fully why those Hebrews were crying when they heard it read. I look on Ezra and Nehemiah as the two biggest killjoys in the whole Bible, even taking into account today’s account.

    Those who pontificate on the intellectual or scriptural explanation of joy may not be at the top of my list of most irritating things to endure, but they’re in the running. Probably tops is someone pointing a camera at me and saying, let’s see a big smile now. You’ve got to be kidding. I would say that Yukon Jack qualifies as a sweet drink, and if you want to catch a snapshot of me smiling, ask me if I would like to sit down and sip one with you. But you better come thru.

    Most depressing thing I can think of to have to endure is a pep rally, and that’s what some folks seem to think “worship” is. Doesn’t mean a so called worship leader or the musicians can’t be legitimately joyful. I think in general that black folks are better at this. I somehow can’t picture Jesus whooping and hollering, maybe if he stopped to play with some kids or a young dog.

    I do think that the joy Jesus spoke of as having and passing on to us is the real deal in any discussion of joy. I don’t think it involved much jumping up and down, maybe if you just got healed from not being able to walk. I would say the closest I come to joy these days is in the passing of the peace at church and I think that the peace of Jesus may well be part and parcel of the joy of Jesus. Don’t know as happiness is necessary to the mix, but not excluded either.

    • Good stuff, Charles. “Most depressing thing I can think of to have to endure is a pep rally.” Oh, that’s so true!!! I couldn’t stand pep rallies in high school, and yes, some folks turn worship into pep rallies. Gag!!

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        I never could stand them, either.

        Always considered them a high school version of a Nuremberg Rally or Revival Meeting, but then I was The Weird Kid.

    • Today I think, that’s really weird.
      You made me go back to look… :astonished:

      My eyes, the goggles do nothing!

  7. I like the idea of “rejoicing in the Lord is your strength.” Thanks for that, CM.

    Some thoughts about joy and happiness. To me, happiness has more to do with circumstances (happenstance, if you will) and fluctuates according to how things are going. The Seahawks win? I’m happy. They lose? I’m sad.

    Joy seems to go deeper than that and points more toward a state of being. Regarding of circumstances and happenstance, joy can be had. That’s why James is able to tell readers to “consider it pure joy” when facing trials and tribulations. We may not like them, they make us sad, but apparently we can find joy in the midst of them.

    Joy’s opposite might be “despair,” and when I think of despair I think “no hope.” So to me, joy is directly related “hope”. It’s having hope despite what’s going on and despite my circumstances. I think as Christians, then, we must go to the source of all our hope – Jesus and his salvation – whenever we are in those trials and tribulations and find ourselves drifting from sadness to despair. Let’s face it, the source of ultimate despair is death. If we believe Jesus has conquered that for us, no matter what crud comes our way we can always have hope that the pain is temporary and that salvation will be permanent.

    • Typo. Should read: “REGARDLESS of circumstances and happenstance, joy can be had.”

    • You know, that all sounds good, Rick, but I’m starting to suspect we’re overthinking it.

      Think of a child giggling uncontrollably. Childlike joy. How is that disconnected from circumstances, from happiness, from fun, from pleasure, from enjoyment? How does it “go deeper”? It’s just plain uninhibited joy. Absolute delight in the moment. Complete release from cares.

      The way I read it, that’s what the leaders were urging upon the exiles in Neh. 8. No sadness today! Eat, drink, be merry! Enjoy God’s good gifts with abandon! Don’t give a single thought to what’s troubling you! Have a “Joy” day! A 100% Joy day! You’ll find strength in that.

      • I’m with ya, CM. I recently stumbled upon this chunk of scripture, and the emotion contained within it seems akin to what you’re saying.

        Psalm 126:4-6The Message (MSG)

        “And now, God, do it again—
        bring rains to our drought-stricken lives
        So those who planted their crops in despair
        will shout hurrahs at the harvest,
        So those who went off with heavy hearts
        will come home laughing, with armloads of blessing.”

  8. http://www.dailymotion.com/video/x16q6b9_george-harrison-billy-preston-that-s-the-way-god-planned-it-live-1971_music

    I’m writing something longer than a post on my blog. I hope to have it up today or tomorrow.

  9. An important element of the kind of joyful activities recommended to us in the post is getting so involved in them that we think and know only them while they last; and if we forget even God while we are rejoicing, I don’t think he is bothered by that in the least. Just the opposite: I imagine that he wants his children to play, and when children really play, they forget everything but the game. How could this not bring him a smile?

    • But I admit that I’ve never been any good at losing myself in play, or much good at rejoicing. Not even as a child. Nothing ever can push my worries from my thoughts, not completely. There is always some remnant of concern on the periphery of my mind, and it has the power to taint the enjoyment through and through, the way a small drop of black ink can discolor a whole glass of water. I’ve never been much good at play, or ecstasy.

  10. I love this post — and I really need to remember it! Thank you, Mike.

  11. Clay Crouch says

    i’ve never made much of a distinction between happiness and joy. I see them as synonyms and I’ll take either for as long or short as it lasts from wherever it comes.

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