“The joy of the Lord is your strength” (Nehemiah 8:10). At the time these words were proclaimed, the Israelites had just returned from captivity in Babylon. Under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah, the people had rebuilt Jerusalem’s ruined walls. And now they set their sights on reestablishing the Temple and restoring the nation.
Nehemiah had called a special meeting at the city’s water gate, within Jerusalem’s rebuilt walls. “And all the people gathered themselves together as one man into the street that was before the water gate” (Nehemiah 8:1). Some 42,360 Israelite men were on hand for this meeting. Standing alongside them were 7,300 servants, including 245 singers. Altogether, about 50,000 people were gathered.
First came the preaching of God’s Word. Scripture says the people were hungry to hear it: “They spake unto Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the law of Moses. . . . And Ezra the priest brought the law before the congregation both of men and women, and all that could hear with understanding” (8:1-2).
These people didn’t need to have God’s Word pushed on them. A consensus of hunger had developed among them and they were fully prepared to submit to the authority of His Word. They wanted to be governed by it, to make their lives conform to its truth.
Amazingly, Ezra preached to this crowd for five or six hours—“from the morning until midday” (8:3). Yet no one even noticed the time. “The ears of all the people were attentive unto the book of the law” (8:3). These people were totally captivated by God’s Word.
What an incredible scene! You simply would not see such an occurrence in any American church today. Yet, I tell you, true revival can never take place without this kind of all-consuming hunger for God’s Word. Indeed, when God’s people grow weary of hearing His Word preached, a spiritual death begins—and the joy of the Lord departs.
Scripture tells us that at the wedding in Cana there were “six stone water jars there for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons” (John 2:6, ESV). Obeying Jesus, the servants filled up the large pots with water, which miraculously turned into a rich, tasty red wine.
That wine represents Christ’s redeeming blood. In the Old Testament, God used Moses to turn a river of water into blood as a sign of His judgment. Now, in contrast, Jesus turned water into wine to introduce God’s New Covenant. Through this miraculous act He was signaling, “Your purifying rituals will only cleanse your outer self, not the deepest core of your heart. My cleansing blood is needed to accomplish that in you.”
In short, the old way was passing into history as Jesus ushered in the new. The host at the wedding literally tasted the new wine wrought by Jesus’ miracle. He marveled, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and when people have drunk freely, then the poor wine. But you have kept the good wine until now” (2:10).
Yet it wasn’t just the host who was blessed. Everyone present benefited from this amazing work, including the disciples who accompanied Jesus: “This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory. And his disciples believed in him” (2:11). If Jesus’ disciples needed final proof that He was the Messiah, this miraculous act provided it. It persuaded them to follow Him with their all.
What a beautiful picture of our service to the world in Christ’s name. The world is desperately in need of His redeeming blood, poured out for us and flowing freely in our lives through His sacrifice. And the gift is meant to be poured out to others in turn, blessing the world as we have been blessed.
Many Christians today are content only to receive God’s blessings, limiting their devotion to Sunday services. Others are so eager to experience His blessings that they travel from one revival to another, crying, “Pour it out on me, Lord!” All their energy, focus and resources are spent on receiving God’s blessings, not pouring them out to others. That isn’t the point of the blessings. Don’t misunderstand—it’s right and good to be continually filled with the Holy Spirit. But as Christ’s living Body, we are called to do more than taste; we are commanded to serve His rich blessing to others.
Unfortunately, seeking the Lord wholeheartedly does not exempt us from outside attack. After ten years of peace, Asa’s corner of the world was suddenly invaded by a huge Cushite army for no apparent reason. Asa was Solomon’s great-grandson but his godliness did not guarantee a smooth road for the rest of his life.
In such a moment, seekers after God have built up a reservoir of ready faith to meet new problems. They know exactly what to do:
“Asa called to the Lord his God and said, ‘Lord, there is no one like you to help the powerless against the mighty. Help us, O Lord our God, for we rely on you, and in your name we have come against this vast army. O Lord, you are our God; do not let man prevail against you’” (2 Chronicles 14:11).
Asa’s faith was not some kind of instant cake mix stirred from a box. He and the people had already been calling out to God for a decade. Hence, there was no panic. They cried for the Lord to arise—and He did. The Cushites (Ethiopians) were decisively wiped out, despite their overwhelming numbers, “for the terror of the Lord had fallen upon them” (verse 14).
This is a classic example of a principle of God’s dealing with humanity. Hebrews 11:6 expresses it best: “Anyone who comes to [God] must believe that He exists and that He rewards those who earnestly seek Him.” I cannot say it strongly enough: When we seek God, He will bless us. But when we stop seeking Him . . . all bets are off, no matter who we are. It doesn’t matter how much talent we have, how many diplomas hang on our walls, what word of prophecy was proclaimed over us, or anything else.
On Asa’s way home from the battle, a prophet stopped him and his army along the road to reinforce what had just happened: “Listen to me. . . . The Lord is with you when you are with Him. If you seek Him, He will be found by you, but if you forsake Him, He will forsake you” (2 Chronicles 15:2).
Jim Cymbala began Brooklyn Tabernacle with less than twenty members in a small, rundown building in a difficult part of the city. A native of Brooklyn and longtime friend of both David and Gary Wilkerson, Cymbala is a frequent speaker at the Expect Church Leadership Conferences sponsored by World Challenge throughout the world.
When we set our hearts to obey God’s Word—allowing His Spirit to expose and mortify all sin in our lives—the Lord Himself causes us to rejoice. “God had made them rejoice with great joy” (Nehemiah 12:43). I believe this poured-out blessing includes abundant joy, even in the midst of our trials. The Lord opens heaven and baptizes us with “Jesus joy”—with shouting, rejoicing and singing—no matter what our circumstances.
Nehemiah reminded a rejoicing Israel of how God had provided for their forefathers in the wilderness. The Lord had poured out manifold mercies on them. He had taught them by His Spirit and led them by the cloud and the pillar of fire. He had supernaturally provided them with manna and water. And, miraculously, He didn’t allow their clothes or shoes ever to wear out (see Nehemiah 9:19-21).
How do these kinds of blessings sound to you? Manifold mercies, clear direction, God’s Spirit teaching you, all your physical and material needs supplied. That all sounds wonderful to me! And, indeed, all these blessings hold true for us today. The Lord, in His great mercy, has promised to provide them all for His people.
Yet, we can still choose to live in a wilderness, as Israel did. Nehemiah pointed out that their forefathers had rebelled against the Lord, ignoring His law: “Nevertheless they were disobedient, and rebelled against thee, and cast thy law behind their backs. . . . Yet many years didst thou forbear them . . . yet would they not give ear” (Nehemiah 9:26, 30).
Can you imagine the awful spiritual death these people brought upon themselves? Forty years of Sabbaths without any joy or mirth. Forty years of funerals, without ever entering the Promised Land. These Israelites were rich with blessings, increased with goods, needing nothing—but they were lukewarm in spirit.
This is a picture of Jehovah Jireh—the God who faithfully provides for His people even when they become hardened to His Word. The Israelites had become bored with the things of God and were just going through the motions. In His mercy, the Lord continued to direct their daily affairs and provide for them. But these people would never enter into His fullness. Is it any wonder their clothes and shoes never wore out? They simply weren't going anywhere.
Where God's Word is revered, the inevitable result is an outpouring of genuine “Jesus joy.”
Nehemiah and Ezra told those who had returned to Jerusalem, “You’ve been excited about God’s Word—hungering for it, loving it, allowing it to work in your heart. You’ve repented, wept and mourned and God is pleased with you. But now it’s time to rejoice. Take out your handkerchiefs and wipe away your tears. This is a time for great joy and mirth” (see Nehemiah 8:9-10).
The glory of the Lord fell on Israel, and the people spent the next seven days rejoicing: “All the people went their way to eat, and to drink . . . and to make great mirth, because they had understood the words that were declared unto them” (Nehemiah 8:12).
The Hebrew word for mirth here means “glee, merriment, gladness, happiness.” This kind of mirth isn’t merely a good feeling, it’s an inner joy, a deep exuberance. Its expression may look different in each of us, because such joy takes place deep inside. But it is clear to everyone around us that our wellspring of joy comes from heaven.
Whenever Israel turned to sin and idolatry, the Lord removed their mirth: “I will also cause all her mirth to cease” (Hosea 2:11). “I will take from them the voice of mirth, and the voice of gladness . . . and this whole land shall be . . . an astonishment” (Jeremiah 25:10-11).
At times, Israel put on a false joy to try to cover the sins of the people. We see this happening in many churches today, as well. We may witness singing, dancing, manifestations, loud praising—but those who love God’s Word can discern whether it is true or false joy.
You may recall Israel’s shouts as they danced around the golden calf. When Joshua heard the people, he said, “There is a noise of war in the camp” (Exodus 32:17). But Moses replied, “It is not the voice of them that shout for mastery” (32:18). Moses was saying, “That’s the shout of a people still in bondage. They haven’t mastered their sin.” Gold had become Israel’s god, and it brought a shout to the lips of the people. Yet it was a shout of false joy—a noise that signaled God’s impending judgment.