(44) The joy of the Lord is your strength – Nehemiah 8:10

Nehemiah did not go to Jerusalem just to rebuild the walls. King Artaxerxes appointed him as governor of the land of Judah and Nehemiah took a keen interest in the overall welfare of the land and its people.

During the time the wall was being rebuilt, it came to Nehemiah’s attention that many of the people were in poverty because some of the better off Jews were lending to them with interest. A time of famine had led to some mortgaging their fields to get food and the interest being charged had caused debts to multiply until people had to sell their sons and daughters into slavery to pay them off.

Nehemiah is angry about this. The people have returned from slavery in exile only to find themselves in slavery to one another. He challenges the nobles to stop the charging of interest and they commit to returning those sold into slavery and the interest on debts.

After the wall is complete the people held a national assembly and Ezra read to them from the Law of Moses. In a time when few people had copies of the law this may have been the first opportunity many had to hear it and they were eager to hear it. “He read it aloud from day-break until noon as he faced the square before the Water Gate in the presence of the men, women and others who could understand. And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law” (Nehemiah 8:3). Ezra was supported by a group of priests who helped the people understand the reading.

The people’s response to hearing God’s word was to weep and mourn for their sin as they realised that they had fallen far short of God’s requirement for them. Nehemiah tells them that this is not a time for mourning and they are not to grieve, “for the joy of the Lord is your strength” (Nehemiah 8:10). It is a good thing to recognise our failings before God, but this can lead to a sense of unworthiness which stops us moving forward. It is as we appreciate God’s forgiveness – that he has made it possible for us to stand right before him – that we can stand tall, not in our own strength but in the joy of knowing him and what he has done for us.

The people renew their commitment to follow God’s law, both in terms of not doing the things it prohibits as well as positive things such as giving to support the work of the priests in the temple.

This gathering is one of the high points of the Old Testament: God’s people collectively committing themselves to obeying God’s law in his city. If they could do this then surely the people of Israel could live in peace and harmony enjoying the blessings that follow obedience to God’s commands. But the end of the Old Testament gives us a very different picture.

After a period back at the court of Artaxerxes in Babylon, Nehemiah returns to Jerusalem and discovers that one of the rooms in the temple which had been designed to hold provisions for the priests is now occupied by a man called Tobiah who had consistently sought to undermine God’s people. As a result the priests were not being given their allowance, which stopped them being able to devote themselves to worship. Also, the Sabbath – the Jewish day of rest – was being ignored by traders and, once again, the people were intermarrying with the surrounding nations. All of these things took people away from the true worship of God and were leading the nation back to the ways that caused the exile in the first place.

Nehemiah takes action to address the issues but it demonstrates that without strong leadership the people are not able to follow God’s ways. They may say the right things on certain occasions, but their ability to follow through and live as God intended under the old covenant is limited.

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