(This is taken from ‘The Crucible of Leadership’ – a book project I am working on, based around the story of Moses.)
Another of my favourite leadership stories in Scripture (besides Moses) is the story of Nehemiah. At one point, in the second part of the book, what might be best thought of as a spiritual revival, fuelled by a reading of the Law, takes place among the Jerusalem community. One of the things I find interesting is the emphasis on both mind and emotions in the narrative. Great pains were taken to ensure that everyone understood what was being read to them. Levites busied themselves in instructing the people and making sure that the meaning of the Law was set out clearly. However intellectual understanding led to a profound emotional reaction, first weeping, doubtless at the realisation of how far they had fallen, but then rejoicing, secure in the knowledge that ‘the joy of the Lord’ would be their strength.
That oft-quoted expression is commonly understood to refer to people locating their joy in the Lord. Your mind might go to Paul and Silas who, far from feeling sorry for themselves as they nursed the wounds that had been inflicted on them by means of a severe flogging, and as they languished in their Philippian prison, spent the night singing hymns to God. The joy of the Lord was their strength. The implication is that a joyful Christian is a strong Christian, so we need to work at cultivating this joy in the Lord.
And that may very well be Nehemiah’s point here; indeed he would later write that ‘God had given them great joy.’ Raymond Brown comments that,
The people’s joy in life was not to be found in ideal circumstances, material prosperity, or social popularity, but in the Lord. Their joy is derived from the knowledge of who he is, what he does, what he says and what he gives.
However some years ago an article in the journal Vetus Testamentum suggested an alternative view which I must admit carries a certain appeal. What if ‘the joy of the Lord’ refers less to the joy that someone finds in God and more to the joy that God himself experiences? And what if the Hebrew word translated ‘strength’ were translated ‘stronghold’, or ‘refuge’, which is often its meaning? Nehemiah’s encouragement would then be that the people could rejoice and celebrate because God’s joy (over them) was their refuge, a guarantee of their protection.
Such an idea would sit well with Zephaniah’s beautiful picture of God rejoicing over his people with singing (Zephaniah 3:17), or might even evoke the prodigal father of Luke 15 whose joy over his son ensured that the boy’s shame was covered and his status was restored. Wouldn’t you love to have seen that joyful father running along a dusty road to reach his bedraggled and disgraced son as quickly as he possibly could, to throw his arms around him and embrace him with kisses of compassion and acceptance?!
Some of us, who doubt the depth of God’s affection for us, might need to adjust our functional theology to accommodate a picture of a God like that!