Nehemiah and the people of Judah had just completed rebuilding the wall. Ezra and the Levites then began to read the Book of the Law. However, they didn’t just read it. They instructed the people and “clearly explained the meaning of what was being read, helping the people understand each passage” (Nehemiah 8:8, NLT).

There is a great deal to be said about not simply reading the Bible but actually understanding it. Mere words can elicit some level of response, but a clear understanding of God’s Word can deeply impact one’s life. It has the power to bring about radical change. This is what we witness here in regard to the people of Judah. While Ezra and the Levites explained the Book of the Law, the people were weeping.

Nehemiah, Ezra, and the Levites, however, instructed the people not to weep as the day was considered sacred (Nehemiah 8:9). This day was special; it was a day of revival of sorts. Therefore, it should be a day of celebration. The question that we must consider, however, is, “How can one celebrate when sad?” The leaders were not simply attempting to console the people. They were instructing their listeners to celebrate—to find strength in God’s joy. But, what does this mean exactly?

Let’s first examine the words “dejected or sad” (NLT) or “grieved” (ESV). The original Hebrew loses a bit of meaning in the translation. The original meaning describes a rebuking, one being worried or they being hurt by another. The passage implies that the Jews felt more of a reprimand for their actions than a regret or sorriness for them. Being instructed in the Book of the Law brought their sins to the forefront and it produced a holy fear. When it is embraced and studied rightly, God’s Word calls our hearts to account and challenges our being. Merely reading God’s Word creates educated believers; being properly instructed in God’s Word produces transformed disciples.

Merely reading God's Word creates educated believers; being properly instructed in God's Word produces transformed disciples.

Transitioning to the word “strength,” its Hebrew word means “mountain stronghold, place of refuge, or fortress.” The leaders of Judah were not instructing their hearers to assume or take on God’s joy for themselves. They weren’t simply saying, “Be happy because God is happy.” After all, that wouldn’t make sense in this context. It would be like saying, “You’ve sinned and are worried, but don’t worry. God is happy, so you, too, should be happy.” Instead, they encouraged the people to rest and find refuge in God’s joy over them. In other words, God’s joy was a place of protection; it was a place where one could let go of anxiety, fear, sadness, and depression. God’s joy wasn’t necessarily changing the situation in this case, but rather the people’s perspective.

Is it possible to have two sets of emotions co-exist? Absolutely. On the one hand, the people of Judah were distraught because of their sin, and rightfully so. They realized their position before God. However, on the other hand, they found comfort in knowing God’s delight in their repentance and pursuit of him. The people, amid their depravity, found grace, and in God’s grace, they found refuge.

The wrong and dangerous progression, which is often taught in many circles today, is that God is joyful, and his joy should simply be our joy. However, we miss the point entirely to the world’s great detriment. The right progression is that our repentance produces God’s joy over us, which provides safety for us, resulting in joy in us (see 2 Corinthians 7:10).

Without refuge—without peace—one cannot find authentic joy, and one cannot find peace without repentance. Only when one turns to God can they rest in God and find safety from God. And this is why the Jews could celebrate.

Only when one turns to God can they rest in God and find safety from God.