The Biblical Illustrator
And all the people gathered themselves together as one man into the street.
The instructor in the law
God has evermore blessed His own Word as the chosen instrument of all revival and progress in His Church. It was in this faith of the power of Bible truth in the hand of the Holy Spirit that Nehemiah here sought to instruct the remnant of Judah in the Divine law. His past labours for the good of Jerusalem had chiefly tended to inspire his brethren with patriotic love, and to surround the holy city with a material defence. But his affection for Zion had, from the beginning, higher aims than these; and henceforth his endeavours move in a loftier sphere. He rises now above the work of setting dead stones into a strong wail around the city of God, and labours to place holy affections in the hearts of its people, that they may be adorned with the beauties of the Lord’s own Israel. To secure these great ends, the first and highest means he employs is the diffusion of the knowledge of the Holy Scriptures. He perceived, no doubt, that many of the children of Judah needed much this instruction in the law of the Lord. They had been long scattered abroad in strange lands, far away from temple privileges, and were on this account sadly defective in their knowledge of the Divine Word.
I. The assembly of Israel convened. The persons who presided in this assembly deserve our notice. When God raises up a great man to perform an important work He usually associates another with him of a kindred spirit, who, though endowed with different gifts, is a helper in the good cause. The defects of the one are thus counterbalanced by the graces of the other, and religion is promoted by their mutual co-operation. In the redemption of Israel from the house of bondage Moses and Aaron were united in the common enterprise. And so, in this revival of Judah, Nehemiah and Ezra are joined together; and, through means of the energy of the man of action, coupled with the influence of the man of sacred study, God blesses Zion with His quickening and restoring grace. It is an honour to the youthful Nehemiah that, though invested with ruling power in the holy city, he gives place to the ministers of the sanctuary in their proper work of teaching. These two servants of God, presiding in this great congregation of Israel, differed much from each other in age, in office, in rank, in character; but they were one in heart, and they join here in complete harmony of action for the revival of their beloved Zion. God in nature makes full provision for diversity of elements and forces co-operating together for a common result. And God in the Church also provides for different men looking on revealed truth with free thought and honest heart, where the shades of belief may vary like the colours of the rainbow, but all blend under the power of love, into a pure white ray as from the parent orb. The time at which this assembly was held also merits our consideration. “They gathered themselves together on the first day of the seventh month” (verses 1, 2). This was emphatically the sacred month of the Jewish year, during which the most touching and impressive ceremonies of their law were observed.
1. It was a full assembly. “All the people gathered themselves together as one man.” They were all there, and they were there all of one heart. In times of spiritual indifference and decay the ways of Zion mourn because few come to her solemn feasts. The Great Physician is present to heal them, but they, the dying patients, are not there to be made whole.
2. It was an earnest assembly. “They spake unto Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded to Israel.”
3. It was an attentive assembly. “Ezra the priest brought the law before the congregation, and read therein from the morning until mid-day, before the men and the women; and the ears of all the people were attentive unto the book of the law.” This deep attention to His truth is demanded as an act of reverence to God who speaks it. It is reckoned an affront for any one to turn his back on an earthly sovereign or converse with others while the king is addressing words of importance to all in his presence. Besides, men require to give earnest heed to the Word of life in order to derive saving benefit from it! Alas! many give attendance on the Word who do not give attention to it. Gospel truth is a means of persuasion to repentance, but if attention to the Word of conviction is suffered to waver the blessing will in all likelihood be lost. It is difficult with an arrow, however well aimed, to strike a bird on the wing that rapidly changes its flight in the air; and so it is not easy to fix the arrow of conviction in the heart that flits meanwhile from thought to thought, inattentive to the Word.
4. It was a devout assembly. “Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God. And all the people answered, Amen, Amen, with lifting up their hands; and they bowed their heads, and worshipped the Lord with their faces to the ground.” This devout frame of mind is essential to full spiritual profit in Divine worship for hearing the truth.
II. The divine knowledge conveyed. Ezra was chief among the teachers of Israel in this great assembly, and his eminent gifts fitted him for this position. He is elsewhere distinguished as “a ready scribe in the law of Moses”; he possessed a true love for it, an intimate acquaintance with it, and a profound knowledge of it. “For Ezra had prepared his heart to seek the law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach in Israel statutes and judgments.”
1. The instruction here embraced an exposition of the law. “So they read in the book of the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading.”
2. The instruction comprised exhortation to present duty. “By the law is the knowledge of sin.” “For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law.” These, with them, were tears both of alarm and compunction--of apprehension for the consequences of their sin and godly sorrow on account of it. It was an expression of deep anxiety, in view of their spiritual danger, as revealed in God’s Word. Some men insinuate that all such agitation about the state of the soul is questionable, and not consistent with rational piety. Shall it be deemed reasonable that tears may freely flow on account of temporal bereavements and losses and no sorrow be expressed in fear of everlasting ruin? Observe, then, how nobly Nehemiah here appears to give direction and counsel to his people, mourning all of them for their iniquity: “This day is holy unto the Lord your God; mourn not, nor weep.” It is not implied that their sorrow was altogether wrong or without foundation, but it was out of time end defective in its views of the Divine mercy. It might not take too lowly a view of their own sinfulness, but it was wanting in a believing apprehension of the loving-kindness of the Lord, their covenant God. This is needful caution for awakened ones, to make sure that they exercise the full look of faith upward to grace as well as downward to guilt. This counsel to Judah not to weep prepares the way, and then follows this threefold call for relieving their sorrows: “Go your way, cat the fat and drink the sweet, and send portions unto them for whom nothing is prepared; for this day is holy unto our Lord; neither be ye sorry: for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” This is first a call to assuage their griefs in social enjoyment of the gifts of Providence. It is not best always to seek to cure sorrow by reasoning against it; it is often more effectual to meet it with a counteracting joy; and this is the course here followed by this “son of consolation.” This is a call, moreover, to relieve sorrow by the exercise of benevolence to poor brethren. “Send portions unto them for whom nothing is prepared.” To inherit the full blessing of life it is not enough to partake of the comforts of Providence; there requires to be joined with this a compassionate charity to the needy and the destitute. This compassion of the needy sanctifies all the enjoyments of life. It possesses a wonderful power of removing the load of sorrow from the giver’s heart and of chasing the cloud of sadness from his brow. (W. Ritchie.)
The open-air meeting
We see here--
I. That the word of God is the great means for the instruction of his people.
II. That the word of God is not only to be read, but understood.
III. That it must be read with prayer.
IV. That this worn will often rebuke us and lead us to mourn after a godly sort.
V. That it will also encourage us, and in the end bring us much joy and great gladness.
VI. That the source of joy and the secret of strength is divine. (W. P. Lockhart.)
And Ezra the priest brought the law before the congregation.
Hearty appreciation of God’s Word
1. The people of Jerusalem, like the disciples at Pentecost, were of one accord, in one place. Their hearts were inclined to God’s testimonies.
2. The standing position is one of respect. Men stand before their superiors. Moses before Pharaoh, Daniel before Nebuchadnezzar.
3. The messages of a king are entitled to respect. I once witnessed the reception of a royal message by the Parliament of Prussia. As the messenger entered the hall and the royal seal was broken “all the people stood up.” Officers, members, and visitors by one impulse rose to hear the writing of their king. A like impulse moved the people before whom Ezra brought the law.
4. A proper appreciation of God’s Word is necessary to spiritual success.
5. Respect for God’s Word involves respect for His day. It is interesting, in this age of Sabbath desecration, to notice that in the revival of Jewish institutions the observance of the fourth commandment was enforced both among Jews and unbelievers.
6. Respect for God’s Word also involves respect for His worship (verses 14-16). Worship will be a delight.
7. Religion is not only joyous, but unselfish.
8. Respect for God’s Word involves respect for all His commandments.
9. A proper appreciation of the Bible is possible only as its Divine authorship and object are recognised.
10. The object of the Bible is to reveal God and the duty He requires of men.
11. How are we to show our appreciation of the Bible? Our duty is to receive and use it. The whole mind suet soul must lay hold of and appropriate its truths. It must be esteemed above all books, and its decisions recognised as final, a wealthy gentleman, having built him a library, placed in it, on a pedestal high above all the shelves, a copy of the Bible. We should do for the sacred volume what he signified by this act. We should give it also a place in our affections--such a place as it had in the heart of the Scotch girl, who, when driven from her burning home, cared first for her copy of the Scriptures.
12. We do appreciate the Bible. We read it at family prayers, and in our closets, and learn verses, and hear it on Sabbath from the pulpit. I have heard that when, in a long war, the city of Haarlem had been desolated by fire and sword, the news of peace was a long letter, which a feeble old man read from a window. His voice could scarcely be heard, yet the people gave profound attention. When the Bible is read men should listen as those burghers listened.
13. The best acceptance of such news is an acceptance of the relief it brings. So the best appreciation of the Bible is an acceptance of its salvation in Christ.
14. Respect for God’s Word places it above all creeds and criticism.
15. Respect for God’s Word also demands that it be handled reverently. This condemns all trifling with God’s truth. All puns, parodies, and riddles based upon misquotation of the Scriptures are hereby condemned. (F. C. Monfort, D. D.)
Reading the law
I. A neglected Divine ordinance may be restored as a channel of Divine grace. Is there not a suggestion in this incident of how we may often return to methods of service, to means of grace that have been passed by, as useful for the present time? Certain truths have been allowed to remain in the background for a time which may be wisely pressed at another. Currents never carry all that floats on their surface to the sea. Much is left on the banks of the channel. So currents of thought in any age or time do not carry forward all that is valuable. There are cargoes of flotsam and jetsam that will reward the wreckers along the shore.
II. Religious quickening may result from moral reforms and wise measures of civic rulers.
III. All Divine ordinances, as well as providential experiences, are channels for the joy of the Lord. (Monday Club Sermons.)
Reading the law
Concerning “the book, in the law of God,” and the giving of the sense to the people, we remark in explanation--
I. The actual speech in which the gospel was first uttered by Jesus and proclaimed by the apostles among the Israelites is here, probably for the first time, publicly put to sacred use. The old Hebrew language in which the law was written had become, when the exile was over, the tongue of the learned. It was unknown to the common people, as that of Spencer and Chaucer is unknown to us. Interpreters were necessary. Ezra knew the need, and provided for it. The Levites gave the sense and caused the people to understand the reading.
II. In this event we behold the rise of the synagogue and of systematic bible study. From the time of Ezra the temple gradually retired into the background, and the synagogue came into prominence. The pulpit and sermons were institutions. The soul was nurtured by Bible study. Less and less did the priests wield power in the regions beyond Jerusalem, and more and more did the congregations or synagogues become like our best modern prayer-meetings, where speech and devotional service are free. When Christianity spread over the world the synagogue was its cradle. Everywhere the apostles found first welcome here and the place and privilege of preaching Christ. In the substitution of prayer for sacrifice, in the triumph of moral over mechanical functions of worship, we see a tremendous advance, and read for our times an inspiring lesson. (W. Elliot Griffis.)
The reading of the law
In this scene are suggested--
I. Some sources of power in preaching.
1. The simple proclamation of the law of God.
2. The statement of God’s work in human history.
3. The earnest utterance of intelligent faith.
II. The conditions for profitably hearing the word of God.
1. An aroused interest.
2. A prayerful spirit.
3. Listening with the resolve to obey.
III. Practical lessons.
1. Love for the law makes noble men.
2. Honouring the law insures the prosperity of the Church. (Monday Club Sermons.)
Ezra expounding the law
I. A large gathering. There are two important advantages connected with a numerous congregation over one that is thinly attended.
1. It gives an opportunity for more extensive usefulness. We grant that there is not a little to encourage even those whose hearers are few, “For where two or three are gathered together in My name, there am I in the midst of them.” “A sportsman,” says Jay, “has fired into a flight of birds and not killed one, and he has killed one when he had only one to aim at.” That maybe true; but on the other hand, if two anglers went forth with rod and line to spend a day in fishing, it would be naturally expected that the largest number would be caught by him who had secured a pond where fish were abundant, rather than by the other, who had toiled from morning till night in a place where they were scarce.
2. Large congregations possess a peculiar power of stimulating those who have to address them. Probably the man has never yet lived who could long be an orator before a small assembly. Even Cicero could not deliver his famous oration in behalf of the poet Archias, though addressed to a single man, without having all that was learned and great in Rome to listen to him. Those who love the means of grace should do all they can to induce their friends and neighbours to attend.
II. An open-air gathering.
III. A protracted gathering.
IV. An attentive gathering.
V. A devout, earnest, and reverential, gathering. To stand in awe of God’s holy Word, whenever it is read and expounded in our hearing, indicates a right state of mind; and those who are thus influenced are regarded by God with approval and delight (Isaiah 66:2).
VI. An intelligent and well-instructed gathering. (Expository Outlines.)
The Scriptures related to revivals of religion
Every great revival of religion has had its beginning in this hunger for the Word, and has been permanent and widespread exactly in proportion as it has been rooted in the Scriptures. There is Wickliffe, frightened like the rest of the nation by the plague that had swept from Asia to Europe, and now had burst upon England, sounding in the ears of men like the trump of the judgment day. Lying in his cell poring over the pages of an old Latin Bible, he finds the truth that fills his soul with the sweetness of God’s peace and the music of heaven. At once he began to translate passages of the blessed book into English, and sent them forth by his “poor priests,” as they were called, to be read as best they might amongst the peasants of England; and so came the dawning of the day of God upon our land. Thus, too, was it that the later reformation had its birth. Erasmus had sent to Cambridge his new translation of the Greek Testament; and a copy of it comes into the hands of “Little Bilney,” who tells us how that on the first reading of it he chanced on these words, “It is a faithful saying, and worthy of all men to be embraced, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.” “These words,” says he, “by God’s inward working did so lift up my poor bruised spirit, that the very bones within me leapt for joy and gladness.” Then forthwith, he, unable to keep the sweet secret to himself, goes to confess his soul to Father Latimer, and pours out the story of his great discovery, how that being justified by faith he has peace with God through the Lord Jesus Christ; and thus Latimer was led into the light, and became the great preacher of the English Reformation. And Luther, more slowly, but no less surely, is led by the study of the Word of God to the great truth which comes back again to him, as from the lips of God, whilst crawling up the steps of the sacred stairs in Rome, “The just shall live by faith.” It was two hundred years later that a little meeting was being held in Aldersgate Street, London, where one was reading Luther’s Preface to the Romans; and amongst the company was one who, as he listens, tells us that he felt his heart strangely warned: “I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation,” says he, “and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine.” So was it that John Wesley went forth to claim the whole world for his parish(and uplift the nation by the Word of truth, the gospel of our salvation. (Sunday School.)
Improper hearing of the Scriptures
Suppose a company of people coming, not to an elbow, but to a working goldsmith’s shop; one buys a chain, another a diamond ring; this buys a jewel, that a rich piece of plate; and that there should be one amongst them so self-conceited, should take up a coal from off the floor, and handle it so long, till he had all besmeared his fingers, refusing what the shop afforded, so as he might but have that coal along with him. Were not this great absurdity? Yet such and more is the condition of those captious hearers of God’s Word, that while others carry away good and wholesome doctrine, precious promises, such as is food for their souls, they come only to carp and catch at their minister, that so they may more easily traduce him, and brand him with the black coal of infamy and disgrace. (J. Spencer.)
All the Bible wanted
A little blind girl in Cairo, who had read a copy of the Psalms in Arabic, by the aid of Dr. Moon’s “Alphabet for the Blind,” sent a message by a gentleman who was coming to England, “Please tell Dr. Moon, when you see him, I am so hungry, I want all the Bible.” (Great Thoughts.)
Familiarity with the Bible; its danger
There were no listless or indifferent ones among them. They had been so long without the Word of God that their appetites were whetted. We are so familiar with it that possibly we are not as sensitive to its Divineness as we should be. Our familiarity induces a measure of indifference. The settlers of Arizona walled over their fields for years without knowing that untold treasures of precious ore lay just below the surface. Thus we treat our Bibles as we treat other books; but other books are mere pasture-land, while this is a goldfield. (D. J. Burrell, D. D.)
And the ears of all the people were attentive unto the book of the law.--
One of Mr. Browning’s particular pleasures was to lie beside a hedge, or deep in meadow grasses, or under a tree, and there to give himself up so absolutely to the life of the moment that even the shy birds would alight close by, and sometimes venturesomely poise themselves upon his body. I have heard him say that his faculty of observation would not have appeared despicable to an Iroquois Indian. He saw everything--the bird on the wing, the snail dragging its shell up the wood, bine, the bee adding to his golden treasure, the green fly darting hither and thither like an animated seedling, the spider weaving her gossamer from twig to twig, the woodpecker scrutinising the lichen on the gnarled oak, the passage o! the wind across the grass, the motions and shadows of the clouds. And his own words are “Keep but ever looking, whether with the body’s eye or the mind’s, and you will soon find something to look on!” (William Sharp.)
Attention and retention of Divine truth
It is related that Gotthold had for some purpose taken from a cupboard a phial of rose-water, and, after using it, inconsiderately left it unstopped. Observing it some time after, he found that all the strength and sweetness of the perfume had evaporated. Here, thought he, is a striking emblem of a heart fond of the world and open to the impression of outward objects. What good does it do to take such a heart to the house of God, and there fill it with the precious essence of the roses of paradise, which are the truths of Scripture? What good to kindle in a glow of devotion, if we afterward neglect to close the outlet--that is, keeping the Word in an honest and good heart? (Luke 8:15). How vain to hear much, but to retain little, and practise less! How vain to experience within us sacred and holy emotions, unless we are afterward careful to close the heart by careful and diligent reflection and prayer, and so keep it unspotted from the world[ Neglect this duty, and the whole strength and spirit of devotion evaporates and leaves only a lifeless froth behind. (Christian Age.)
And Ezra the scribe stood upon a pulpit of wood.--
The oldest pulpit
We offer three remarks upon this old pulpit.
I. It was occupied by duly qualified men. Ezra the priest and scribe, with thirteen other Levites, occupied this pulpit. They were the recognised teachers of Israel. Who is the duly qualified preacher of the truth? The man who is superior to the people in mental capability, spiritual intelligence, and practical godliness, having the power to convey his thoughts acceptably, and with propriety and force.
II. This old pulpit was attended by an exemplary congregation.
1. It Was a congregation disposed to hear.
2. It was a congregation competent to understand.
3. It was a congregation deeply interested in the discourse.
4. It was a congregation inspired with religious reverence.
III. This old pulpit accomplished the grand end of preaching.
1. It imparted spiritual instruction.
2. It made a deep religious impression.
3. It stimulated a practical godliness. (Homilist.)
And all the people answered, Amen, Amen.
“Amen” in public worship
The subject is: That it is a lawful and laudable practice for people, in the conclusion of public prayer or praising God, to pronounce an amen.
I. I will explain what is meant by “amen.”
1. There is an amen substantive. And that is God Himself (Revelation 3:14).
2. There is an amen affirmative--a phrase used in the beginning of any momentous truth, as an asseveration (Matthew 16:28; Luke 9:27).
3. There is an optative amen--“Let it be so” (Jeremiah 28:6; 1 Kings 1:36; Numbers 5:22; Deuteronomy 27:15-26).
II. Show what warrant there is for the practice.
1. Assent to repetitions is essential unto prayer, and it is not signified publicly but by our amen.
2. We have the practice of the Old and New Testament believers for our example. Moses in Numbers and Deuteronomy; David (Psalms 51:18; Psalms 106:48); Jeremiah (Jeremiah 11:5); Paul (1 Corinthians 14:16; Ephesians 3:21); Christ Himself (Matthew 6:9-18; Revelation 5:14; Revelation 7:11-12; Revelation 19:1-6; Revelation 22:20).
3. Amen after prayer and praise is the man’s consent, judgment, and approbation of what is offered unto God.
4. This vocal amen is, as it were, the epitome and sum of all our petitions and praises to God. It is the centre which all those lines are drawn towards. It is all the duty virtually reduced to one word and point. It is the repeating and echoing, or redoubling of all over again. As the mercury behind the glass, it reverberates the lively image of all preceding devotion, it is the drawing the arrow to the pile by a strong ejaculation in Bellarmine’s phrase, “Whereby the whole heart is darted up to God.” It is a “stirring up of ourselves to take hold of God” (Isaiah 64:7). It is taking aim, and “directing our prayer to Him and looking up” (Psalms 5:3), as if they would hand up God’s praises to Him, and stand ready to receive His mercies with open hands and mouths. It winds up all together in one bundle.
5. Amen, rightly pronounced, is an intensive act of faith, or it involves a strong faith.
6. The unanimous pronunciation of amen is an assurance that God will accept our praises and answer our prayers (Matthew 18:19; Mark 11:23).
7. This unanimous amen of faith strikes terror in the enemies of the Church, whether devils or men. When the Romans had conquered Philip and the Grecians, and Flaminius caused peace to be proclaimed to the Grecians, “there was such a shout,” says Plutarch, “that the very crows and other birds fell down to the ground.” Our amens must not drop like a cold bullet of lead out of the mouth of a musket, bowing to the ground; but they must be fired by preparations of the heart and warm affections, they must be discharged and shot off with the utmost vehemency of the soul and fervency of the spirit. When God’s people can unite in one voice, God gives His voice with them and for them. (Thomas Woodcock A. M.)
St. Jerome tells us it was the custom in his days to close up every prayer with such a unanimous consent that their amen rang and echoed in the church, and sounded like the fall of waters or the noise of thunder. The Chinese have no word which will compare with our English word amen. They say instead: “Sin yenen ching sing”--“The heart wishes exactly so.”
So they read in the book in the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense.
The Bible ought to be intelligently understood
It is to be feared that nowadays there are some Christians who, although they almost worship the Bible, care little for an intelligent understanding of its contents. The sacred Scriptures are useful to us in proportion as they help us to worship God more reverently, intelligently, and spiritually; and therefore we truly honour them by diligently seeking to understand their real sense, and to profit by their meaning. (T. Campbell Finlayson.)
The mission of the pulpit
The pulpit of Ezra was the place for the unfolding of the law of God. It was the place of a new religious departure. Formerly the temple had filled the whole religious horizon of the Jew. It was the Alpha and Omega of his faith. The temple was a place for sacrifice, not instruction. It was the home and sphere not of the scribe or prophet, but of the priest. Its chief object was not a pulpit or a desk, but an altar. In it the law was not unfolded, but the victim slain. But before us we have the introduction of a new element into the religious realm. The altar falls into the background, the pulpit comes to the front. The priest is shadowed by the scribe. It is the beginning of an order of things which has quietly gone forward ever since. The modern pulpit is connected by subtle, mental, and spiritual associations with that of Ezra. Our worship of instruction is the gradual outgrowth of that begun by this scribe of old. This desk is consecrated to a like purpose. It is the place where the law of God may be read and expounded; not of course within the narrow limits imposed upon Ezra. Before him lay only the scroll of the law. It was but the beginning of the sacred oracles. The hazy lamp of the olden time which Ezra held has grown clear and clearer until its light is as the sun in the perfect day. But it is still a law, not in the sense that it is one long list of commandments, but in the far higher sense--that it is the unfolding of the eternal mind to men. God’s thoughts ought to be man’s law. There is a law higher than that of commandment. Commandment can only work in the lowest realm. I can bid my child to do or leave undone certain things, but higher than these are my thoughts of what he might be and my longings for what he should be. I can’t put these into commandments, or into law. They are too high for that. And yet they ought to be my child’s highest law, moving him far more strongly than my mere commands. Here we have “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus.” The very centre of God’s purpose for us--His highest commandment. Such is our law. How has it to be treated?
1. It is the duty of the pulpit to give the sense of Scripture. It is no part of that duty to make nonsense of it, to wrest it, to handle it deceitfully. This has too often been done. Even by learned men--e.g., Augustine insisted that the Psalms ascribed in their titles to Korah are descriptions of the Passion, and that the sons of Korah are Christians because Korah in Hebrew and Calvary in Latin may be translated “baldhead,” and because Elisha was derided under that name. Gregory the Great saw the twelve apostles, and therefore the clergy in the seven sons of Job, and the lay worshippers of the Trinity in his three daughters. Scripture is not to be played with in that style. “We must give the sense.”
2. Not only was the sense given, but it was given in the language of the people, their common, every-day speech. It is our duty to set forth God’s law in language that will be intelligible to the people. It is possible to put it into English and yet be unintelligible. If the law be made known in the technical language of theology, or even of literature, it may utterly fail of its purpose. The law of God may be spoken in speech understood of the people, and yet not adapted to their needs. It must be spoken not only in the language of our time, but suited to its present wants. In his Aids to Reflection, S. T. Coleridge says “that there is one sure way of giving freshness and importance to the most commonplace maxims, that of reflecting on them in direct reference to our own state and conduct, to our own past and future being.” When you think of those whose high functions are discharged in the pulpit there is no prayer more necessary to be offered than this, that they may be” men having understanding of the times to know what Israel ought to do.”
3. It may be still further worthy of remark that Ezra and his disciples spoke to the people the law of God. Printed will never take the place of spoken words. Christ said to the disciples, “Go and preach the gospel to every creature.” The word “preach” means to make known as a herald. The herald’s voice is more powerful than a printed proclamation. The voice carries feeling better than the printed page. Life expresses itself more fully through the voice than by paper or book. The world has caught its highest inspiration through spoken words. Great changes, political, social, moral, religious, have been brought about by the speech of mighty men. The Corn Laws would never have been repealed by books on the subject. Slavery would never have been abolished by anti-slavery literature. (W. Garrett Horder.)
This day is holy unto the Lord your God; mourn not, nor weep.
True penitence and spasmodic emotion
Observe the profound wisdom of Nehemiah’s injunction. The distress of the people was not unnatural; neither was it excessive. It might, however, through indulgence of it, have become excessive and unreal. The surest test by which to distinguish between true penitence and spasmodic emotion is to set a man about the common duties of life. If, amid the distractions of these things, he loses his contrition, it is evident that he never was earnestly contrite; that his was mere excited sensibility and not inward feeling. And even a true emotion requires to be directed into wholesome channels. There was hard work for these Jews to do; the whole task of religious reformation lay before them. Their penitence needed to be husbanded for future motive, not wasted in floods of tears and the ecstasy of a common weeping. It may seem strange to us that a cold external commandment should have been the consideration by which they were bidden to self-restraint. But when people have lost their self-control it is only by an external influence that they can be recovered. If you have to do with hysterical persons, it is not along the line of their feeling you restore them, but by definitely settling yourself against it; not by sympathising with their emotion and words of tenderness, but by the quick, sharp rebuke, “Enough of this; you must not give way.” You recover the widowed mother to Composure by bidding her, not indeed forget her dead husband, but remember her living children. We always draw back stricken mourners to hope and usefulness by reminding them of imperative and healing duty. (A. Mackennal.)
Go your way, eat the fat . . . send portions . . . for whom nothing is prepared.--
I. The characters specified in the text. They are said to be those “for whom nothing is prepared.” The Scriptures, when speaking of man’s condition by nature and practice, in the sight of God, very pointedly state the matter. The language of the text speaks of our poverty, destitution, starvation, and ruin.
II. The “portions”--these blessings. Behold the grace and mercy of God! If God meted out to us mere justice, where should we be? and if God left us in our condemnation and ruin, where should we go? If God neglected us, in what condition should we be? Was God under any obligation to us? And yet we are in mercy spared, and instead of vengeance, behold our text speaks of “blessings.” And these are not only worthy of God to give, but blessings suitable to us.
III. The command; “Send.” (H. Allen, M. A.)
For the Joy of the Lord is your strength.
The joy of a Christian
Let us bear in mind three things--
I. A bright and happy walk is one of the greatest ornaments of our Christian profession.
II. Indulgence of sin, carelessness of walk, inconsistency of conversation, will surely bring a cloud over the Christian’s joy.
III. In Christ alone must we place all our hope and confidence. (J. M. Randall.)
Pure joy an inspiration
It refreshes and exhilarates the whole nature. It helps to fortify the soul against the assaults of the devil. See how the joy of a human affection will often lift a young man right out of the range of low, sensual temptations, and fire his soul with noble and worthy ambitions. Can we wonder then, that it should be true of the joy which springs from the revelation of God’s protection and favour? (T. Campbell Finlayson.)
I. Believers in the Lord Jesus Christ are called upon to rejoice. Would that this were more remembered by us, and experienced by us, and gloried in!
1. None but the believer ought to rejoice. I do not deny that there is such a thing as natural joy in natural objects. There is such a thing as natural joy oftentimes stirred up on spiritual subjects. It is like the arrow that passes through the air; it is like the early frost--the sun arises and it is gone. Oh! no one can rejoice but the believer in the Lord Jesus Christ; the worldly man does not know what true joy is. You cannot explain it to him; he cannot receive it; he calls it enthusiasm, fancy, and imagination. A Christless man, a graceless man, a prayerless man, a thoughtless man, a godless man, a hopeless man, how can I expect him to rejoice. In this one thing thou canst rejoice: thou canst rejoice that the door of mercy is not closed. For their own sakes, the Lord will have His people to rejoice. He loves them; and therefore He commands them to be happy. For the sake of others, He would have them to rejoice. He would have them bring the grapes, to show the fruit of the land. And not only so, but for His own great name’s sake, for His glory’s sake, He would have His people rejoice. As He is Himself infinitely happy in Himself, He would have His people reflect Himself.
II. As this joy is not a natural joy in natural objects, so it is not a natural joy in spiritual objects, but it is “the joy of the Lord.”
1. It is pre-eminently and peculiarly the joy of which the Holy Ghost is the author. Nature gives it not; nature maintains it not. It is the fruit of the Holy Ghost: “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace.”
2. But observe, it is not only the joy of the Lord, but it is joy in the Lord. That which made the eunuch’s heart rejoice was Jesus. And if you and I see Him with the eye of faith at this moment, we shall rejoice and be glad too. Oh! there is everything in Jesus to make the soul to rejoice. What is there not in His work, to make the soul to rejoice? The completeness of His atonement. Is there not enough cause in the matchless, majestic, glorious righteousness to make the soul rejoice?
III. That this “joy of the Lord” is not for our own enjoyment merely, nor for our self-gratification, but to strengthen us. There are two passages of Scripture, to which I would direct your attention here. In the first place, remark in the first of the Epistle to the Philippians, the twenty-fifth verse--“And having this confidence, I know that I shall abide and continue with you all for your furtherance and joy of faith.” See how “furtherance” stands connected with “joy of faith”; icy springing from faith, and that joy furthering, advancing, leading onwards and forwards, in the Divine life. Observe too in the third of the Epistle to the Hebrews, the sixth verse, there is that same rejoicing, “the rejoicing of hope,” and see how it stands Connected with the confidence of hope: “if we hold fast the confidence and the rejoicing of the hope firm unto the end.” We have some precious instances in the Word of God, to show the strengthening power of joy. Observe one in the thirtieth of the first of Samuel. David was, as you and I often are, “greatly distressed,” “for the people spake of stoning him, because the soul of all the people was grieved, every man for his sons, and for his daughters; but”--ah! that “but,” it is a volume, it is a folio--“but David encouraged himself in the Lord his God.” Observe how that strengthened him. Do you ask, What is that which strengthens for service? It is “the joy of the Lord.” Take the instance of the prophet Isaiah. Now observe--“Also I heard the voice of the Lord saying, Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? Then said I, Here am I send me.” “Then” said
I. “The joy of the Lord was his strength”: “whithersoever Thou wouldst send me I go.” And now there are some few remarks I would make by way of conclusion.
1. In the first place, I would say, that the believer is placed by his covenant God and Father in that position that he requires day by day fresh accession of strength.
2. Then the question now arises, How comes it to pass that there is so much feebleness amongst many of the real children of God if the “joy of the Lord” is our strength? May we not at once answer, Because they do so little enjoy “the joy of the Lord”?
3. Remember that this is a joy which the Holy Ghost alone can give; ask it, then, of Him; wait on Him for it; use every means for it. (J. H. Evans.)
Joy of the Lord
There is a joy that enervates one’s powers. The joy of the miser, the joy of the worldling, the joy of all carnal gratification. The strength of a good man is “the joy of the Lord.” Observe--
I. The nature of religious joy.
1. It is pure.
2. It is elevating.
3. It is solid.
4. It is durable.
5. It is heavenly.
6. It is Divine.
II. The conditions of religious joy. (Homiletic Review.)
I. The joy here spoken of is said to be “of the Lord,” and it is so in a twofold sense.
1. God imparts it--it is one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22; Romans 14:17).
2. God Himself shares in it (Isaiah 65:19; Jeremiah 13:11; Jeremiah 33:9; Zephaniah 3:17).
II. The joy of the Lord is to be a strength; and it is so.
1. Because it is of God.
2. Because, as such, it enables us to bear up against the ills and disappointments of life (Psalms 4:7). Witness what it did for David, Daniel, Paul, and Silas.
3. Because, when earthly joys fail, the “joy of the Lord” remains (“your joy no man taketh from you”); and on the very ruins of the former the latter ofttimes finds the soil most fitted to its growth.
III. To whom the “joy of the Lord” is given. It is imparted to those only--
1. Who are in union and communion with Jesus Christ; this is its true source.
2. Who ask for it by earnest prayer. “Ask, and ye shall receive, that your joy may be full” (John 16:24).
3. Who love God, and keep His commandments (Psalms 19:8).
IV. For what purpose it is given. It is imparted--
1. To be as “oil to the wheels of our devotion.” Joys are our wings, sorrows are our spurs.
2. To be an inward testimony to ourselves that we have the smile of God’s approval coming down upon our efforts to do what is “pleasing and acceptable in His sight”; and--
3. To be an outward testimony that our religion is not the “joyless “ service that the world judges it to be; but that all its crosses and calls for penitence and self-denial lead, even in this life, to an inward joy which is unspeakable and full of glory. (C. G. E. Appleyard, B. A.)
Joy our strength
The joy of the Lord is that sensation of gladness and happiness which the Holy Spirit conveys to the soul, and maintains in the soul, through the knowledge of God in His true character towards us.
1. It has nothing to do with worldly joy. It is substantial, eternal, shines brighter and brighter unto the perfect day of its consummation in the saints around God’s heavenly throne (Galatians 3:22; Romans 14:17).
2. It belongs to the people of God to rejoice in a sense of their reconciliation; to know their salvation is sure through Christ’s life; to rejoice in the glorious Creator Himself (Romans 5:11).
II. Many a time have these short words delighted the believer’s ear, and cheered his heart.
1. Mark their excellency. Sound like a sentence uttered in the full knowledge of the gospel rather than under the law. Weak and helpless in yourselves, the Spirit can strengthen you, and supply you with new motives and ability to please the Lord. God has given His only Son to be our joy and our strength. We have a strong city (Isaiah 26:1; Hebrews 6:18; Ephesians 6:10).
2. But how does joy act in rendering us strong--strong to deny ourselves, to suffer, to labour in the cause of Christ? We know our privileges in Christ. This makes us joyful and happy.
3. The Christian rejoices in the past work of Christ, who died; in the present work, intercession; in the future work, returning again in majesty, to endow His servants with eternal bliss (Romans 8:32).
4. Again, joy in the Lord will enable the Christian to accomplish works for the glory of God and the good of others. We know that “heart” or “spirit” will enable the competitor for a prize to go through extraordinary exertion. It is the same with the soldier, the labourer, all who have to exert themselves with their bodies or minds. So with the Christian. (F. Trench.)
That few men are profoundly happy is but too true. Nor is it difficult to account for the universal failure on man’s part to compass the desires of his soul.
1. The sources on which he draws may be drained dry.
2. The satisfaction which these resources yield is a measurable quantity.
3. Men are not happy, because they seek happiness as an end, and not as a means. Now, if Christianity be Divine, it will accomplish for me what I cannot do for myself. It claims to give men true lasting happiness, because it opens a perennial fountain. In other words, the source of Christian joy is God. This joy is the secret of Christian strength.
I. The source of Christian joy is God. Not without significance that one of Divine attributes is “blessedness.” God is absolutely happy in Himself, and happy in relation to His creatures.
1. We can tell something of a man’s character and disposition by his works. Now God’s works are full of gladness. There is joy in the streams, the woods, the meadows, the cornfields.
2. As in nature, so in grace. The Bible, from cover to cover, warrants the conclusion. The Old Dispensation a much brighter and more beautiful scheme than many superficial students will allow. Law, Prophets, Psalms are full of declarations that God’s people are a happy people. Moses: “Happy art thou, O Israel, O people saved of the Lord!” David: “Blessed are the people that Know the joyful sound!” Isaiah: “With joy shall ye draw water from the wells of salvation.” And when we turn to the New Testament the wittness becomes over whelming. The, Man of Sorrows” went to the house of feasting to hallow it with the sunshine of His presence, and to the house of mourning to make it radiant with His everlasting joy. One of His last bequests was this: “These things have I spoken unto you, that My joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be full.”
II. The joy of God is strength.
1. The joy of the Lord is our strength for service. No man can work well unless his heart is in it. The three essential elements of successful service are fitness, enjoyment, enthusiasm. God has a work for all that is in harmony with the best powers of each.
2. The joy of the Lord is our strength against temptation. We are tempted to doubt, but the joy of the Lord will afford a sufficient answer to all anxious questions. We are tempted to fear, but fear is the child of doubt or suspicion. We are tempted by the pleasures of sin, but God’s ways are the ways of pleasantness.
3. The joy of the Lord is our strength for endurance. Christ: “In the world ye shall have tribulation, but be of good cheer,” etc. (John 16:33). Paul: “I am filled with comfort,” etc. (2 Corinthians 7:4).
III. The joy of the Lord, therefore, becomes a Christian law of life. Ingratitude not to accept rich provision God has made for profoundest needs of human spirit. And, further, this provision stands in relation to our duty as means to an end. To neglect our joys is to leave our work undone. But it maybe said that our emotions are the creatures of circumstances. But then we are not the creatures of circumstances. The man who turns his thoughts in upon himself creates for himself an atmosphere in which there can be no joy. Look away from self to God. “Walk in the light, as He is in the light.” Or if you must look at sell, let it be as “accepted in the Beloved”; if at the past, as forgiven; if at the present, as full of Divine favour; if at the future, as bright with all the promises of God. (J. W. Burn.)
Strength and joy
The physical strength of a man as a labourer is not unfrequently regarded as the measure of his worth; but mental strength is as much superior to the physical as the soul is to the body. Physical weakness often co-exists with mental might; but both bodily and mental strength may be found in combination with the utterest spiritual weakness.
I. Human joy is identical with Divine joy.
1. The joy of atonement with God. God and man atoned by Christ’s death, de facto as well as de jure, produces joy in God and man. “We joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom also we have received the atonement.”
2. The joy of reciprocated love. Antecedent to reconciliation with God, His love to us is love of pity and compassion; but atoned in Christ, God’s love to us is that of moral esteem, and our love to Him is the re-percussion of His love to us. “We love Him because He first loved us.” “If any man love Me,” etc. (John 14:23).
3. Joy of assimilated character. As an element of the kingdom of God joy is a Divine attribute, inherited by those who are “one with Christ.” “That they might have My joy fulfilled” (John 17:13). “That they all may be one,” etc. (John 17:21). Divine strength and joy are our everlasting inheritance.
II. Human strength is generated by Divine joy.
1. As experienced in freedom from man-fear. “Only fear the Lord” is one of the first lessons of Christian manliness. God-fear annihilates man-fear, which ever “bringeth a snare.”
2. As experienced in freedom from death-fear. Really in birth we take up death; but in Christian decease death dies. “That through death He might destroy, etc. (Hebrews 2:14-15.)
3. As developed in all holy action and endurance. The strength of health must be operative. To use is to gain strength. “They go from strength to strength” (Psalms 84:7). (Homilist.)
Strengthening influence of Christian joy
A morose man is generally morally weak. “A merry heart doeth good like a medicine,” and medicates itself. Men weary with sombre thoughts, and are disposed to get rid of them; hence the danger of lapsing from harsh theology into infidelity Christ came with “glad tidings.” Strengthening influence of Christian joy shown in the elements of it.
1. The joy of faith is strengthening. Faith is enlargement of mind, seeing man in relation to the Creator, a system of providence, redemptive love, immortality, etc. It is intellectual patience--the “truss-beam” of the soul.
2. The joy of a free conscience is strengthening. No man has courage for high duty who does not know of a forgiven past. The Cross has done more for building up character than did the law.
3. The joy of Divine companionship and help is strengthening. Dependence upon God does not destroy the courage of self-reliance; just the reverse. Bismarck said that without his faith in God’s purpose with him, he would not have courage to keep the German portfolio a single day. Read Froude’s “Calvinism” for the influence of Divine faith upon the enterprise of nations. Gibbon explains the fulfilment of prophecies by assuming that the belief in God’s presence and plan for them gave men the ability to accomplish the predictions.
4. The joy of love to Christ is strengthening. We always serve willingly, patiently, unswervingly, according as we put our hearts into the duty. (Homiletic Review.)
The duty and utility of Christian joy
In all human systems of theology the terrible has preponderated over the lovable, the severe over the kind, in the conceptions of the Divine nature. The outlines of the Eternal face, as imaged by the creature, have been stern; as disclosed by the Creator, they are unspeakably gracious. Hence in the Bible descriptions of heaven, the increase of happiness and of nearness to the Almighty go hand in hand. Hence again, joy, not grief, is the frame of mind in which we are encouraged to come before the Lord. The connection between gladness and God is strikingly brought out by Nehemiah. A reunion with God must not be sullied with weeping, for God is a God of gladness; and the gathering in His presence on earth is to be a forepart of the heavenly meeting. Therefore does he, who in Babylon at the king’s table could not repress his own tears--what a strange shadow of a great truth was that heathen tradition that no sign of grief must be shown in a monarch’s presence-chamber?--therefore does he allow no wailing in Jerusalem.
I. The joy of the Lord--what is it?
II. How does it constitute the moral strength of a man? It has been well remarked that even cheerfulness of animal spirits is of great aid to virtuousness. There are certain temptations to which a joyous temperament is at once a bar. For example, hardness in judging others, malice, pride, can scarcely coexist with brightness and cheerfulness of heart. Many temptations at once flee away when cheerfulness is enjoyed within. The power of exertion revives after sorrow from the habit of looking at the brighter side. There is one special way in which gladness in God is essentially strength. What, it may be asked, is to be the uneducated man’s guard against unbelief? What shall garrison his soul against the infidel tract? I reply, the “joy of the Lord,” that secret complacency which he consciously gathers from the practice of the commandments of Christianity, and from the resting in the doctrines of Christianity. Teach a man to find a happiness in his Sundays, a gladness in the going up to the house of God, knitting the pleasures of hie life with the mysteries of his faith, and the wave of unbelief will only break itself upon him. It is when you separate pleasure and duty; giving to the things of time all the bright colours, and to the things of eternity all the dark; calling men away from what they like, to pay the debt of a dull, forced uninteresting homage to God, instead of making the rendering such homage in itself a delight--it is then that you create a temptation to withhold the homage, and a temptation to the unbelief which comes in secondly to justify such withholding. When the lamp is gone out in the temple of the Lord, what marvel if the world stands aloof? (Bp. Woodford.)
Sources of happiness
Happiness in the highest sense of the word is not a quality brought into the soul from without, but music that flows from qualities already existing within the soul. Circumstances, environments, possessions, and pursuits may affect the harmony, but it is the attuning of the soul’s capacities to the key-note of the music of heaven that is the secret source of happiness. There can be no happiness without religion. The most truly religious man ought to be the happiest man. The object of the religion of Christ is sanctified service; the end of that religion is nobility of character, honesty of conduct, purity of heart, veracity, self-sacrifice, high aims, Godlike pursuits. All the happiness of a Christian man will come from the exercise of his faculties, in the attuning of all his capacities and energies to me Divine will and to the eternal laws of truth, rectitude, justice, and righteousness. Thus the music of life is evolved by our own fingers from capacities that we ourselves possess. To ensure the highest happiness--
I. Have high aims and pursue them with avidity. Our faculties are only productive of happiness when they are in motion, just as the string of the harp only makes music when it vibrates. Many lives, therefore, are wretched because they are passed in indolence; many more are tuneless and musicless Because they are frittered away in unworthy pursuits.
II. Cherish the spirit of contentment.
III. Always maintain an abiding faith in God and in the providence which governs the world. (W. J. Hocking.)
The goodness of God in His providential dealings with us, and in the general economy of the world, is shown not so much by the supply of what is necessary as by the provision of what is in excess of the bare necessaries of life. To call creatures into existence, and then to make no sort of provision for their existence, would argue not so much want of benevolence as despotic inconsistency and capricious ineptitude. In our Zoological Gardens, with their regulation allowances to the animals, there is just enough to meet the claims of necessity; but God makes that wonderful environment in which, when left to themselves, these animals find not only a bare sufficiency that makes life possible, but a profusion of favourable conditions and features that makes life worth living. The lark soaring heavenward; the herd of hippopotami disporting themselves in an African river; the school of whales shooting up their foam-fountains, or placidly basking on the sun-warmed surface of the bay--these and a thousand other objects all seem to bear the same witness that God has made provision, not only for the maintenance, but for the enjoyment, of His creatures. If He shows His goodness towards the lower animals by surrounding them with all that seems necessary for their enjoyment of life, it is only reasonable to suppose that He will make a similar provision for man. Such provision is made in the gospel revelation. Man asks for happiness, and God proposes to give him joy; he asks for security, and God proposes to give him peace; he asks for permanence, and God proposes to give him eternal life; he asks for satisfaction, and God offers him nothing less than Himself. If men could be persuaded that there is more real happiness to be found in serving God than in serving self, in doing right than in doing wrong, Satan would be robbed of his favourite weapon, and we should soon see the whole world transformed. But how is this to be brought about? Happy lives that are happy because they are holy are more likely to speak forcibly to the hearts of the children of this world than any amount of theological theorising. This was one of the mightiest arguments employed by primitive Christianity. Real joy in religion--a joy that followed men into their daily life, and lit up all their experiences; a joy that was unspeakable and full of glory--all this was entirely new in the history of the world, and it must have seemed just what the world wanted. What a weary world wants as much as anything to-day is the testimony of bright faces and bounding hearts as well aa joyful tongues, to the fact that the kingdom of God is not only righteousness, but peace and joy in the Holy Ghost. The Church of Christ is weak to-day because there is so little joy in it. Joy, then, is designed to play an important part in Christian experience. We shall do well to consider--
I. The source from which it proceeds.
1. Joy is mentioned next to love amongst the fruits of the Spirit, and this order is usually illustrated in spiritual experience. Joy is one of the earliest signs of the new life; if there is joy in heaven over the sinner saved, no wonder that there is joy on earth in the sinner’s consciousness of salvation.
2. It is also the product of the new and wondrous influence which stirs the soul to its depth when we are restored to our proper relations to the Divine, the mighty impulse of renewed vitality. There is always something essentially joyous in the bursting forth of new life. As in nature, so it is in grace. The new life that is born is indeed an Isaac--a child of laughter. When the Divine Spirit enters and takes possession of our quickened nature He necessarily brings His own joy along with Him.
II. The characteristics that belong to it.
1. As joy flows from a renewal of our proper relations with God, so it is dependent upon the maintenance of those relations. St. Peter tells us that it is in Him “whom having not seen we love “that we “rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory,” and Paul, “Rejoice in the Lord.” Twice he speaks of joy in the Holy Ghost.
2. There is always something in God that we may rejoice in (Habakkuk 3:17-18). It is this characteristic of true spiritual joy that raises those that possess it superior to the circumstances with which they may be surrounded, and which makes it possible for them to realise in their experience what may seem a paradox--“sorrowful, yet always rejoicing.”
3. This joy is enhanced by all that is in accordance with the mind and will of God. What causes joy to Him, causes joy naturally enough to those whose joy is in Him. Thus we have--
4. The intensity of this joy will be in proportion to its purity. Conclusion: It may be asked, How are we to get this joy?
1. Cease to seek joy for its own sake. Self-abnegation is the condition of the higher joy, and when we are pursuing joy for its own sake, we are not complying with this condition.
2. Remember that joy is a fruit of the Spirit, and you can’t make fruit grow. It is the life that produces the fruit; but you must see to it that the life has fair play. Beware of loss of communion. Guard against disobedience. Exercise yourself in contemplation, in praise, and in adoring worship. The tree needs to be bathed in sunshine if its fruit is to be ripe and perfect; and nothing must some between us and the light of His face if our joy is to be perfected. In heaven it will be all joy, because in that fair land God has His way. (W. H. M. H. Aitken, M. A. )
On religious joy, as giving strength and support to virtue
I. That in the practice of religious duties there is found an inward joy, here styled “the joy of the Lord.”
1. Joy is a word of various signification. By men of the world it is often used to express those flashes of mirth which arise from irregular indulgences of social pleasure. It will be easily understood that the joy here mentioned partakes of nothing akin to this; but signifies a tranquil and placid joy, an inward complacency and satisfaction, accompanying the practice of virtue, and the discharge of every part of our duty.
2. In order to ascertain this, let us consider the disposition of a good man with respect to God. When we consider in what manner religion requires that a good man should stand affected towards God, it will presently appear that rational enlightened piety opens such views of Him as must communicate joy. It presents Him, not as an awful unknown Sovereign, but as the Father of the Universe, the lover and protector of righteousness, under whose government all the interests of the virtuous are safe. With delight the good man traces the Creator throughout all His works, and beholds them everywhere reflecting some image of His supreme perfection. Amidst that Divine presence he dwells with reverence, but without terror. Conscious of the uprightness of his own intentions, and of the fidelity of his heart to God, he considers himself, by night and by day, as under the protection of an invisible guardian. He listens to the gracious promises of His Word. With comfort he receives the declarations of His mercy to mankind, through a great Redeemer. All the various devotional exercises of faith and trust in God, all the cordial effusions of love and gratitude to this Supreme Benefactor in the acts of prayer and praise, afford scope to those emotions of the heart which are of the most pleasing kind. But it may here be objected, Are there no mortifications and griefs that particularly belong to piety? What shall we say to the tear of repentance, and to that humiliation of confession and remorse which may, at times, be incumbent on the most pious, in this state of human infirmity? To this I reply, first, that although there may be seasons of grief and dejection in s course of piety, yet this is not inconsistent with the joy of the Lord being, on the whole, the predominant character of a good man’s state; as it is impossible that, during this life, perpetual brightness can remain in any quarter, without some dark cloud. But I must observe, next, that even the penitential sorrows and relentings of a pious heart are not without their own satisfactions. A certain degree of pleasure is mingled with the tears which the returning offender sheds.
3. When we consider, next, the disposition of s good man towards his fellow-creatures, we find here the joy of the Lord exerting its influence fully. That mild and benevolent temper to which he is formed by virtue and piety; s temper that is free from envious and malignant passions, and that can look with the eye of candour and humanity on surrounding characters, is a constant spring of cheerfulness and serenity. With respect to that part of religion which consists in the government of a man’s own mind, of his passions and desires, it may be thought that much joy is not to be expected, for there religion appears to lay on a severe and restraining hand. Yet here also it will be found that the joy of the Lord takes place, To a person just reclaimed from the excesses of sensual indulgence, the restraints imposed by virtue will, at first, appear uncouth and mortifying. But let him begin to be accustomed to a regular life, and his taste will soon be rectified, end his feelings will change. In purity, temperance, and self-government there is found a satisfaction in the mind similar to what results from the enjoyment of perfect health in the body. A man is then conscious that all is sound within. There is nothing that gnaws his spirit; that makes him ashamed of himself, or discomposes his calm and orderly enjoyment of life. His conscience testifies that he is acting honourably. He enjoys the satisfaction of being master of himself. He feels that no man can accuse him of degrading his character. From this slight sketch it plainly appears that there is an inward satisfaction, justly termed “the joy of the Lord,” which runs through all the parts of religion. His is a very different view of religion from what is entertained by those who consider it as a state of perpetual penance. But what it concerns us at present to remark is, that some experience of this joy of the Lord which I have described enters as an essential part into the character of every good man. In proportion to the degree of his goodness, to his improvement and progress in virtue, will be the degree of his participation in the pleasure and joy of religion.
II. To show in what respects the joy of the Lord is justly said to be the strength of the righteous.
1. In the first place, it is the animating principle of virtue; it supports its influence, and assists it in becoming both persevering and progressive. Experience may teach us that few undertakings are lasting or successful which are accompanied with no pleasure. H a man’s religion be considered merely as a task prescribed to him, which he feels burdensome, it is not likely that he will long constrain himself to act against the bent of inclination. It is not until he feels somewhat within him which attracts him to his duty that he can be expected to be constant and zealous in the performance of it. Was it ever found that a person advanced far in any art or study, whether of the liberal or mechanical kind, in which he had no pleasure? A sense of duty may sometimes exercise its authority, though there be no sensations of pleasure to assist it. Belief of those religious principles in which we were educated, and dread of future punishment, will, in cases where no strong temptation assails us, restrain from the commission of atrocious crimes, and produce some decent regularity of external conduct. But on occasions when inclination or interest prompt to some transgression of virtue, which safety or secrecy encourages, and which the example of the world seems to countenance, is it to be thought that conscience will then stand its ground with one who never was attached to virtue on its own account, and never experienced any joy in following its dictates? But these are the occasions when the joy of the Lord proves the strength of the righteous man. Accustomed to take pleasure in doing his duty; accustomed to look up to God with delight and complacency, and to feel himself happy in all the offices of kindness and humanity to men around him; accustomed to rejoice in a clear conscience, in a pure heart, and the hope of heavenly bliss, he cannot think of parting with such satisfactions for the sake of any worldly bribe. There is something within his heart that pleads for religion and virtue.
2. In the next place, the joy of the Lord is the strength of the righteous, as it is their great support under the discouragements and trials of life. From the view which we have now taken of the subject, it must clearly appear, that to every one who wishes to possess the spirit, and to support the character of genuine goodness and virtue, it is an object most desirable and important, to acquire a prevailing relish for the pleasures of religion. To attain this spirit, of considering the discharge of our duty as our pleasure and happiness, is certainly not incompatible with our present state of infirmity. It is no more than what good men have often attained, and have testified to it, that their delight was in the law of God; that His statutes were sweet to their taste; that they had taken them as an heritage for ever, for they were the rejoicing of their heart: “I delight to do Thy will, O my God; Thy law is within my heart.” It is therefore of high importance, that all proper means be employed to form our internal taste to a proper relish for this joy of the Lord. (H. Blair, D. D.)
The gospel of joy
The first work of the Holy Spirit is to convince of sin, but that is by no means His only work. It is only in preparation for another and more blessed work.
I. What is meant by the joy of the Lord.
1. Much is said of the joy of the Lord in sacred Scriptures; sometimes the Lord Himself is said to rejoice over His people; of Christ it is said, “For the joy that was set before Him,” so also in prospect of His death, He rejoiceth over the truly repentant sinner. When the Lord assures His people of their salvation from every danger and every enemy, He says,” The Lord thy God in the midst of thee is mighty, He will save, He will rejoice over thee with joy.” In like manner they also are exhorted to joy in Him: “Let the children of Zion be joyful in their King.” Indeed, the gospel itself is a gospel of joy. As such it was announced by the angel to the shepherds: “Behold I bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.” And we find that the preaching of that gospel was a matter of joy to the poor sinners to whom it was sent. Philip, we are told in the Acts, “went down to the city of Samaria, and preached Christ unto them,” and the consequence was that there was great joy in that city. Now we shall find that their joy arose from a threefold source--
1. What the Lord had done for them. The Lord had brought them back from a miserable and degrading captivity. He had brought them from under the yoke of Babylon; they had been protected and delivered in a more marvellous manner; they were restored to Zion, the city of their solemnities; the king’s heart had been softened towards them, and under his authority and protection they were obtaining a secure settlement in their own land. Surely this was a cause for joy. When they looked at the difficulties that stood in their way, and the steps by which the Lord had led them, they could not but rejoice.
2. What the Lord would do for them. Why, even before they took possession of the land of Canaan, while they were under the guidance of Moses, and under the Lord’s special care in the wilderness, in the foresight of their future dangers and sins, the Lord had declared, even in their greatest straits and most pressing difficulties, though those very straits and difficulties were occasioned by their sins, that He would never forget His covenant, and would still receive them with mercy (Leviticus 26:40-45).
3. That the people understood all this. When Ezra read in the book of the law of God, he did it “distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading” (verse 8).
II. Its happy effects. When Nehemiah called upon the people thus to joy in the Lord, he told them at the same time what effect it would produce in them. It would be their strength.
1. It will support the Christian under all difficulties. This world is not one of ease and prosperity to the children of God.
2. It will sustain him in all his temptations.
3. Encourage him for the performance of all duties. It will make duties which without it would be burdensome and irksome, pleasant.
4. It will encourage him in prayer. He who has the joy of the Lord for his strength, does not live upon his joy, nor upon his strength. His life is in the Lord, and in proportion as he lives upon Him, he has joy and strength both in and from the Lord.
5. Incite him to hold on to the end. He who has the joy of the Lord for his strength will not rest in present attainments. The joys that are in store for the people of God are far greater than those already tasted.
The joy of the Lord is your strength
I. Our joy in the Lord is the effect of His joy in us. As, for example, the brightness of the stars of night is derived from the unseen sun, so the light of our joy beams from the face of the Sun of Righteousness, which is the God-Man, Christ. Now, God’s joy in His people is most wonderful, as we find in the hundred and forty-seventh Psalm, the eleventh verse. In the moral world all happiness and joy are but reflections of heaven’s light. Peace and order are but the echoes of His Holy Spirit, amidst the tumultuous tossings and confusions of this world. Again: other and unfallen worlds might cause joy to God; for remember, God must rejoice in His own image, which is reflected more perfectly in unfallen creation; for example, angels are a perfect mirror, in which His image is reflected. They have larger capacities for comprehending God’s perfections. But mark the littleness of man’s mind. If we compare our own modes of feeling towards one another, we shall find that the philosopher delights not in the company of the unlearned, but rather despises it, and seeks the companionship of those who move in a more congenial element. Hence it is wonderful that God should delight in us, fallen sinful creatures. But the measure of God’s joy in us is the more wonderful when we come to consider the language of David in the hundred and thirty-fifth Psalm and the fourth verse, wherein it is written of His rebellious children, “For the Lord hath chosen Jacob unto Himself, and Israel for His peculiar treasure.” God’s people are also called His portion, as we read in Deuteronomy, the thirty-second chapter and ninth verse--“For the Lord’s portion is His people. God’s joy in His people, as we read in Ephesians, the first chapter and the tenth and eleventh verses, is the cause of the rich inheritance which He has provided for them--“that in the dispensation of the fulness of times, He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth, even in Him: in whom also we have obtained an inheritance, being predestinated according to the purpose of Him who worketh all things after the counsel of His own will.” But we must remember also the other and numberless sources of glory to God, namely, the glory of the kingdom of nature stretching along infinity which is only filled with the beauty and majesty of the Deity itself. But it is not wonderful that God should joy in us, when we reflect upon it, for He is more glorified in us than in any other portion of His creation, considering that the work of redemption stamps a value upon us; for human nature, and none other, was taken up into the Godhead, so that our fallen condition opened up a way for glorifying God. Whether we consider His mercy or His justice, His long suffering or His love, all of which were exercised and glorified by the redemption scheme, God rejoices over the theatre where His own glory is exhibited amongst His redeemed children rather than over angels, just as a parent rejoices more over the sick child restored to health than he does over the naturally robust and strong one. God blesses other worlds through the medium of ours.
II. Let us now consider our joy in the Lord. We have greater cause to rejoice in the Lord than the Jews, for our deliverance is from s worse captivity, namely, from the bondage of sin. Nehemiah could not set before his people anything but a distant hope of things to come. For how indistinct must have been their views of the promised Saviour compared with ours!
III. The joy of the Lord is our strength. A broken spirit disqualifies us for action. “A merry heart doeth good like a medicine; but a broken spirit drieth up the bones”; while, on the contrary, a joyous spirit disposes man for action, as may be seen in Psalm fifty-one, and the twelfth and thirteenth verses--“Restore unto me the joy of Thy salvation, and uphold me with Thy free Spirit: then will I teach transgressors Thy ways, and sinners shall be converted unto Thee.” The condition of the animal spirits is admitted to have a powerful influence upon all our faculties. Sorrow and dejection unnerve the body as well as the mind, and take away the power of exertion. The discharge of our several duties depends upon the spirit in which they are conducted; for an earthly servant, brooding over his misfortunes, would be unfit for his position in life. The soldier entering the battlefield must have a spirit and courage to encounter the enemy. So likewise must a Christian feel competent for the encounter with his spiritual duties and enemies. No man can diligently and cheerfully apply himself to any duty unless he has the hope of success in the performance of it. In conclusion, let us consider, how this strength is to be attained. It is not to be procured by any intellectual process of reasoning, nor is it the creature of imagination. We must move into an atmosphere of holiness in order to secure it; for the Christian’s joy is the fruit of another clime. We must embark for a foreign land. It is the fruit of the tree of life, and must be plucked by the hand of faith. We must yield ourselves up to the guidance of the Holy Ghost; our souls must be tuned and re-tuned to heaven’s harmonies by Him. Joy is the voice of order, and peace, in the soul; and God the Holy Spirit, who moved over creation’s dark waters, must breathe over the angry passions of our fallen nature to produce this result. (G. F. Galaher, M. A.)
God’s joy our strength
The truth to which I would call your attention is this: that notwithstanding the misery, the shame, the conflict of human life--a misery and shame and conflict which are keenly felt by Him whose nature is sympathy, and whose name is Father--there is in God a deep, abiding, essential joyousness; and that this joyousness is the strength of His people.
I. The essential joyousness of god. This is seen-1. In nature. All simple things in nature are joyous--flowers and fruits, woods and streams, the meadows and the breezes, the song of birds, the movements of animals, the irrepressible mirth of children. All the strong things of nature are magnificently joyous. The sun, the sea, the tempest, etc. What are we to think of Him, what must He be like, who has so constituted man that the very aspect of the world in which he lives furnishes him with quenchless impulses of gladness. The maker is known by his work; his thoughts will be in it; as he is so it will be.
2. In the Christian revelation. The Jewish system enters into the history of the Christian revelation. This system was in the main a festal, joyous service. Its restrictions were for the well-being of the people, and added comfort to their life; its festivals were more numerous than its fasts. If anywhere we should find an incident typical of Jewish history, we should find it in our tart, where we see a grave preacher calling on remorseful and broken-hearted penitents to be more glad for God’s sake than they were mournful for their own, because the Lord was still joyous, and the joy of the Lord was their strength. Christ is the Christian revelation; the Son and manifestation of God. Although we call Christ a “man of sorrows” yet it should be impossible to speak of Him as an unhappy, a wretched, a miserable man. “He bore our griefs and carried our sorrows”; but He was not daunted by them, not worn down by them. Sadness oppressed Him, but never gloom; care, but not despondency. He was a welcome guest at feasts. Mothers brought their children to Him; little ones sang around Him, and He was glad to hear their singing. There broke from Him signs of a quenchless joy: “At that hour Jesus rejoiced in spirit.” He has no better thing to leave His disciples than His own joy. He was sustained under the tribulation of His mission by the deeper joy of His achievement. The deep, unquenchable joy of Christ is itself a revelation of the essential joyousness of God.
3. In the spiritual life. Speaking doctrinally, joy is the “fruit of the Spirit,” and a direct result of the gospel: “Behold I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.” God intended to give to the penitent the joy of pardon; to the defiled the icy of holiness; to the feeble the joy of strength. God intended by His promises to lift our hearts to exultation; and therefore He sent His Son for our acceptance. Christian history and experience confirm the testimony. Witness the writings of Paul to the buoyancy of his spirit. Strong Christians are always gladsome men; they find inspiration in their mission, bliss in their work. “The voice of rejoicing and thanksgiving” is in their “tabernacles”; they “rejoice in the Lord alway”; they “rejoice with them that do rejoice,” and thus give full play and scope to the spirit of their Father who dwelleth in them. The inspirations of the indwelling Spirit declare the essential joyousness of God.
II. The blessedness of apprehending the essential joyousness of God. It is too much forgotten that joy equally with sorrow enters into a true human development. “Tis held that sorrow makes us wise”; but it needs a strong soul to endure the discipline. “A merry heart doeth good like a medicine.” Joy is the tonic of the mind. There are some households into which it does us good to enter; the inmates are so happy, so frank, so loving, that only to be with them refreshes the weary spirit. We thus see how the joy of others may be our strength. It is a refuge for the distressed, a hiding-place from the storm, as “ the shadow of a great rock in a weary land.” And “the name of the Lord” is above all others the “strong tower” into which “the righteous runneth and is safe.” To turn from the contemplation of a smiling world, and smiling men and women, to the thought of a joyous God: what inspiration is bevel (A. Mackennal.)
On religious joy
A few years ago a fierce and violent dispute was carried on between the chief physicians of Europe concerning antimony. And while some maintained that this mineral was a most valuable medicine, and extolled it to the skies, others asserted that it was injurious, and ought to be classed among the deadly poisons. The debate at length subsided; and it is now admitted that the article in question may be useful when administered with sound judgment. The opinions of men have always been greatly divided on the subject of religious joy--some extol it in the highest strains; others reprobate and condemn and labour to extinguish it.
I. The nature and source of religious joy. An able writer on the passions says, “Joy is the vivid pleasure inspired on our receiving something peculiarly grateful; something evidently productive of advantage, or something which promises to contribute to Our present or future happiness.” The worldly man exults in the acquisition of wealth, power, titles, and honours. When religion enters the mind it both informs the understanding and moves the passions. Among the passions joy holds a conspicuous rank.
1. Religious or holy Icy arises from a sense of the free favour of a merciful, covenant God.
2. Religious joy arises from a sense of the special presence of a merciful, covenant God.
II. Holy joy tends to invigorate and sustain those who are the partakers of it. There are certain states of mind which we are accustomed to express in figurative terms and in the form of maxims. Thus we say knowledge is power, and ignorance is imbecility; hope braces, and fear relaxes the soul. If there be any aptness in such contrasts, we may assert, that as melancholy is weakness, joy is strength. Joy has a manifest tendency to invigorate and sustain--
1. The Christian’s resolutions, in prosecuting all the arduous labours of virtue and piety.
2. The Christian’s faith under the afflictions and trials he is called to endure (Habakkuk 3:17-18).
Conclusion: We have an express warrant to rejoice: “Rejoice in the Lord alway.”
1. Our personal interest is wrapt up in this duty.
2. The welfare of our brethren is in a certain degree involved in this duty.
3. The honour of our Master is implicated in the right discharge of this duty. (Congregational Remembrancer.)
The strength of Divine joy
Christianity asserts with great emphasis and illustrates with all its light the old doctrine of Nehemiah and the priests, that Divine gladness is power.
I. Its nature. There is a broad distinction between mere gladness and spiritual joy. Spiritual joy rises from within the soul, and does not depend on the outward circumstances of its life. It wells like a fountain from the inner soul it is con fined to no place. It is bounded by no time. It may grow where earthly gladness would perish. It is a joy springing from the inner communion of the spirit with its God.
1. It is the joy of self-surrender to God. True joy can only begin when the self-life has been surrendered. Until this surrender has been made the consciousness of a guilty past hangs like a burden on the heart. Men know that their gleams of joy are only like flowers growing on the edge of a dark volcano, which when they are alone and outward excitements have passed away will waken in lurid glare and thunder, and distract their repose. They want a joy that shall pierce deeply into the region of self and rise from the consciousness of self-surrender and forgiveness. At the Cross of Christ the burden of the past falls, for at the Cross he yields himself.
2. The joy of fellowship with the Father. All profound gladness springs from sympathy with a spirit or a truth higher than ourselves. Why do our hearts bound on spring mornings with the joy of nature? Why does the beauty of a summer evening calm us? Why do we feel a “glory and a joy” as we tread the mountain sides? Why do we feel a deepening peace as we walk amid the splendours of the golden autumn? Is it not because we realise the presence of s spirit of beauty surrounding us, and inspiring us with an emotion which no words can describe? Or why is it when a truth breaks in upon us through clouds of doubt, and a clear vision of its beauty is gained after long and fruitless searching, that we feel a thrill of joy deep and unspeakable? Have we not after communion with some greater soul felt our own darkness dissipated and our own isolation broken down? In that hour has not the touch of a greater Spirit made us feel nobler, stronger, wiser? And if this be true of earthly communion, must it not be supremely so when we realise the fellowship of God as our Father? It is this which makes “our joy full.”
II. The power of this joy of the Lord. We may trace it in three ways.
1. It is power to resist temptation. It forms in itself the fulness of emotion, and surrounds us with a heavenly atmosphere in which the assaults of evil fall powerless away.
2. It is strength for Christian action.
3. It is strength for patient endurance. We are too weak to endure the discipline of life unless we have joy--the present earnest of the future reward. (E. L. Hull, B. A.)
The joy of the Lord
George Whitfield, it is said, once addressed a great gathering of colliers. As he discoursed to the rude, rough men who stood there in their working garb, and with unwashed faces, the Spirit of God touched their hearts. Tears filled their eyes and ran down their faces, making channels for themselves through the coal-dust there. And so here. As the priest made plain the Word of God, the people wept and could not help it. As Nehemiah saw them weep, he exclaimed, “Weep not,” etc. “The joy of the Lord is your strength.”
I. There is joy and happiness in living with and for God. I can well remember the first time I saw an engraving of the picture, “The Pursuit of Pleasure.” In the picture was the beautiful figure of a woman, with butterfly wings gliding through space. Following hard after her were all ranks and conditions of men, so arranged by the artist as to suggest many forms of enjoyment and excitement, but all eager to get the goddess. In the haste and whirl, and rush, some had fallen and were trampled, but all who could were pressing on, eagerly on, to the abyss. Men pursue that goddess still, forgetting that peace, joy, real happiness, must arise from within, from the state of the mind and heart, from union with God and all that is purest and best men rush blindly off into a thousand outward diversions, all which fail to give rest to the troubled conscience, ease to the sore heart, or anything of the nature of permanent joy and happiness. This is only realised by those who will live with and for God.
II. There is joy in working for God.
1. All work for the good of man is work for God.
2. Those have greatest joy who work in a godly spirit, and put heart into their work.
3. God has a work for us all, and can give us joy in it. I know what it is to have the good word of one’s fellow-men, to have the confidence of one’s companions and helpers in toil, to have some of the honours which men have to bestow, to enjoy the comforts of home and to share the advantages and blessings of travel, but not all these equal the blessing which God gives me when I am used as the instrument to make one sad heart happy.
III. The joy of the Lord is your strength.
1. In temptation.
2. In suffering and loss.
3. In all your life. (Charles Leach, D. D.)
The joy of the Lord
All deep religion ought to be joyful, and all strong religion assuredly will be.
I. Joy in the Lord is the natural result of Christian faith.
1. Because of what it gives us.
2. Because of what it takes away from us.
It also produces sorrow--solemn, manly, noble, and strong. This is not contradictory. All great thoughts have a solemn quiet in them, which not unfrequently merges, into a still sorrow: “As sorrowing, yet always rejoicing.” These two states of mind, both of them the natural operation of any deep faith, may co-exist and blend into one another, so as that the gladness is sobered, and chastened, and made manly and noble; and that the sorrow is like some thunder-cloud, all streaked with bars of sunshine, that go into its deepest depths. The joy lives in the midst of the sorrow; the sorrow springs from the same root as the gladness. They blend into one another; just as, in the Arctic regions, deep down beneath the cold snow, you shall find the budding of the early spring flowers and the fresh green grass; just as some kinds of fire burn below the water; just as in the midst of the undrinkable sea there may be welling up some little fountain of fresh water that comes from a deeper depth than the great ocean around it. The Christian life is all like one of those spring showers in early April, when the rain-drops weave for us a mist that hides the sunshine, and yet the hidden sun is in every sparkling drop, and they are all saturated and steeped in its light. The joy of the Lord is the natural result of Christian faith.
II. Joy is a Christian duty. It is a commandment here and also in the New Testament. It follows from this that the degree to which a Christian life shall be a cheerful life is dependent in a large measure upon our own volitions. By the selection or the rejection of the appropriate subjects which shall make the main portion of our religious contemplations we can determine the complexion of our religious life. Just as you inject colouring matter into the fibres of some anatomical preparation, so a Christian may, as it were, inject into all the veins of his religious character and life, either the bright tints of gladness, or the dark ones of Self-despondency. If your thoughts are chiefly occupied with God, and what He has done and is for you, then you will have peaceful joy. If, on the other hand, they are bent ever on yourself and your own unbelief, then you will always be sad. It is only where there is much faith and consequent love that there is much joy. If there is but little heat around the bulb of the thermometer, no wonder that the mercury marks a low degree. If there is but small faith there will not be much gladness.
III. Rejoicing in the Lord is a source of strength. All gladness has something to do with our efficiency; for it is the prerogative of man that his force comes from his mind, and not from his body. If we have hearts full of light and souls at rest in Christ, work will be easy, endurance will be easy, sorrows will be bearable, trials will not be so very hard; and above all temptations we shall be lifted and set upon a rock. If the soul is full, and full of joy, what side will be exposed to any temptation? If it appeal to fear, the gladness that is there is the answer. If it appeal to passion, desire, wish for pleasure of any sort, there is no need for any more -the heart is full Christian gladness, like the magic shield of the old legends, invisible in its crystalline purity, will repel all the “fiery darts of the wicked.” (A. Maclaren, D. D.)
The joy of God the strength of men
I. Ezra felt the unique power of the nation’s literature. For him it contained all that is best for men to do, and happiest to desire. Therefore, he and his fellow-reformers were “the men of the book” of the law of the Lord, using it as “the man of their counsel” a fount of refreshing, a goad to penitence, and a stimulus to faith, generosity, and joy.
II. God is infinite, and no man, nay, not all men, can express him; but every true soul may say something about him, and every nature He trains by His spirit may either add something of freshness of setting and force of applicability to an old truth, or open for some soul new glimpses of His wondrous fulness. High thoughts do not disdain lowly minds. The ascent to the loftiest ranges of light and power is given, not to a prophet like the seraphic Isaiah, nor to a singing poet like David, nor to a great leader like Moses, but to Nehemiah, a courtier and a statesman, a politician and a reformer. Nehemiah is for the moment lifted to the highest grade of teachers, and placed by the side of Christ when He says, “These words have I spoken to you that My joy may remain in you, and that your joy may be full.” He has fellowship with Paul, when he rejoices that he is counted worthy to preach “the glorious gospel of the happy God.” He anticipates Christianity in its most vital and essential element; links together in natural sequence the two economies; shows that God is a Being hot coldly impressive, stolidly majestic, without sympathy, but tender-hearted, forgiving, delighting in mercy, and plenteous in redemption; a God whose joy is strength for troubled men.
III. To me it appears like a stroke of true genius as men call it--a breath of inspiration from God, as I would name it--that Nehemiah delivers this higher and richer message concerning God at the moment when the people are profoundly stirred by the recently rediscovered message of the ancient law, and overwhelmed with dejection and sorrow for their newly-revealed sins. The law is not a goal, but a light and a goad; a light on the way to God, and a goad to petition for His pardon. This disclosure of sin and penalty is intended, like the flames out of the mountain, to hurry the approach of the pilgrim to the wicket-gate of repentance.
IV. “God’s joy a stronghold” (marginal rendering). Who can tell the immense strength infused into a soul to whom God is an ever-present, ever-bright consciousness of infinite joy? Such a consciousness of the presence of the joyful God flings around us an all-protecting shield from the shafts of doubt and care; builds about us a defensive tower from obtrusive fears; delivers us from the world, with its ceaseless din, low ideals, etc.; from the flesh, with its blinding passion, base motive, and thwarting caprice; and from the devil, with his insinuations of the necessity of evil, the selfishness of the good, and the folly of righteousness.
1. This consciousness of God’s presence makes to us this world of nature a new creation, instinct with a new significance, and potent with an evangelical energy. We know we are under law. We accept the teachings of science as the teachings of our Father God, and rejoice in its demonstrations of the Abiding Order and Fixed Law of this world because we know the Lawgiver Himself is not a stern Draco, imaged only in the desolating earthquake, fire-belching volcano, and fierce tornado; but a Father, yea, our Father and Redeemer, and that we belong to Him and not to the house in which He has put us.
2. This consciousness makes us feel that the bitter and painful experiences of life are part of the Divine order and plan of a loving and rejoicing Father. A poor fellow said to me after thrusts and stabs of bewildering pain that almost made him reel, “Still, we know it’s all right, don’t we? We know whom we have believed, and are persuaded we are not going to lose anything we have given over to Him.” Such testimonies show how the consciousness of God changes the very face of sorrow; that grief is a joy misunderstood; that the burdens of life are its benedictions; that the old gospel is still new, and that though in the world men may have tribulation, in Christ they have peace. Such testimonies interpret to me the rapturous experiences of persecuted and afflicted men that in my earlier years I was tempted to think over-weighted and unreal: Samuel Rutherford, Payson, Doddridge, Erskine, Robertson, F. R. Havergal, Mrs. Prentiss, and many others.
3. This pervading consciousness of the happiness of God invests death itself with a new mission, forces it to take its place amongst the servants of the Father and the friends of His children. “Absent from the body, we are at home with the Lord.”
V. The joy of God is the source of our active, self-forgetting generosity. “Go your way, eat the fat, and drink the sweet, and send portions for whom nothing is prepared.” Whatever God is, He is for us. Whatever God is for us and to us, it is that we may be the same for and to others. Joy in the Lord is strength, positive actual power for ministry. It creates around us the most favourable atmosphere for evoking our resources; raises our entire nature to the highest pitch of energy, and gives unwonted elasticity and capacity of tension to all our faculties. As bodies expand under heat, so the soul enlarges under the genial influence of joy. Indeed, men never reach their best before they have mastered the whole gamut of joy, from the lowest note of cheerfulness to the highest of rapture. As some men do business without obtaining s fiftieth part of the profit gained by others, so some Christians never “nett” the “great gains” that flow from a cheerful piety. Vast is the difference between working for God from a sense of responsibility and from a delight which springs out of fellowship with Christ. Responsibility is a goad. Joy is a magnet. One pricks and urges forward by a sense of painfulness that reduces all work to the severe limits of obedience to imperative and resistless orders. The other is life; and such is its magic it converts even hard toil into play, and makes it as welcome as song to the merry birds, or sport to romping children. The joy of God is strength for the suppression of all life’s evils, the solace of all sad hearts, and the service of all for whom nothing is prepared. Conclusion:
1. The God of the Hebrews is no mere object of worship seated coldly apart and awaiting the homage of men; He is a radiant presence, inspiring the mandate, “Rejoice in the Lord, O ye righteous.”
2. Remember, too, that the joy of our friends is our strength. The bare sight of some men is an instant dismissal of despair. The arrival of another is as the report of a disaster. A light heart dissipates gloom as the sun lifts fog. The joy of friends is a flowing fountain of perennial strength.
3. What an exhaustless fund of gladness is a free, healthy, simple, and natural child; how unspeakably indebted many of us are to the irrepressible joy and strange, heaven-sent wisdom of children for the loss of our moroseness, acerbity, and misery. The joy of children is our strength.
4. It is a common experience, this contagion of joy--this conversion of joy into power. Rejoice, then, in the God of joy, and minister to those for whom nothing is prepared. Pour out your gladness for other hearts. Restrain it, and you destroy it. Cage your lark, and it will not sing. Open the door, give it access to the wide heavens, and away it goes merrily chanting its music up to heaven’s gate. (J. Clifford, D. D.)
The joy of the Lord the strength of His people
The,, people here bidden to rejoice” “ were even then melted with penitential grief, for all the people wept when they heard the words of the law.” As certain fabrics need to be damped before they will take the glowing colours with which they are to be adorned, so our spirits need the bedewing of repentance before they can receive the radiant colouring of delight. The glad news of the gospel can only be printed on wet paper.
I. There is a joy of Divine origin.
1. It springs from God and has God for its object.
2. It springs from a deep sense of reconciliation to God, of acceptance with God, and yet beyond that, o! adoption and close relationship to God.
3. It springs from an assurance that all the future, whatever it may be, is guaranteed by Divine goodness.
4. There is an abyss of delight for every Christian when he comes into actual fellowship with God.
5. Another form of “the joy of the Lord” is the honour of being allowed to serve Him.
II. This joy is a source of great strength.
1. It is so because it arises from considerations which always strengthen the soul. Very much of the depth of our piety will depend upon our thoughtfulness. He is the joyful Christian who uses the doctrines of the gospel for spiritual meat, as they were meant to be used.
2. “The joy of the Lord” within us is always the sign and symbol of strong spiritual life. The warmth of the South of France does not spring from soft, balmy winds, but from the sun; at sunset the temperature falls. A man who walks in the sunlight of God’s countenance for that very reason is warm and strong.
3. It fortifies him against temptation.
4. It makes him strong for service.
5. A joyous man such as I have in my mind’s eye is to all intents and purposes a strong man. He is strong in a calm, restful manner. Whatever happens he is not ruffled or disturbed.
III. This strength leads to practical results.
1. Great praise.
2. Great sacrifice.
3. Other expressions of joy. When a man has the oil of joy, then in his business and in his family the wheels of his nature glide along sweetly and harmoniously.
4. Family happiness. “The wives also and the children rejoiced.” I dislike much that Christianity which makes a man feel, “If I go to heaven it is all I care for.” Why, you are like a German stove which I found in the room of an hotel--a kind of stove which required all the wood they could bring up merely to warm itself, and then all the heat went up the chimney.
IV. This joy, this strength, are both within our reach. (C. H. Spurgeon.)
Joy in the Lord a source of strength
There is strength in joy, and a sense of adequate security is an element of joy. If man deem himself certain of triumph at last, he will be joyful, whether that triumph be achieved by himself or another. The joyful man is a strong man because he is a confident man, and the dejected man is a weak man because he distrusts his cause, himself, or some one else upon whom he depends. Two armies, with numbers equal, are mustering for battle. They are well matched in war materials, both brave, both earnest, eager for battle. But one side are exhilarated by repeated successes; they have won a terrible name; the general who leads never knew defeat. On the other side is the humiliation of repeated failures; again and again with lowered standards they have retreated. They have lost all confidence in themselves and their commanders. Now, who deems the conflict doubtful? Triumph is written in the joyful confidence of one, and defeat in the deep dejection of the other. The assurance of the army expectant of success is worth ten regiments and a hundred guns; and it may be truly said of them, “In the joy of victory is their strength.” Let us--
I. Ascertain what is the joy of the lord. The joy of the Lord is that sweet and holy gladness which springs from and originates in a calm, humble faith that we are the recipients of the Divine favour, under the Divine protection. In the followers of the Lord it is holy cheerfulness founded on the belief that they are the children of God by Jesus Christ. That their Substitute has paid the debt and accomplished the work of redemption; that they are saved now. Just in proportion as you make salvation a contingency you undermine the basis of Christian joy. Dr. Doddridge once succeeded in procuring the pardon for one condemned to die. As the cell-door was thrown open the poor man cast himself down, and clasping the feet of his deliverer, exclaimed, “Every drop of my blood thanks you, for you have saved them all.” This was the joy of salvation realised as a fact.
II. Let us see how this joy of the lord is our strength.
1. It strengthens us negatively in the removal of anxieties.
2. It imparts assurance of final victory.
3. It permits a concentration of the whole life force upon a single point. The Christian who believes himself saved trains all his guns in one direction, the end of which is his Master’s glory.
4. It reinforces all other motives by the power of gratitude, and puts us under the sweetest and holiest of obligations. (W. T. Sabine.)
Joy in Christ Jesus our Lord
I. The nature of joy in Christ.
1. It is the joy which springs from the knowledge of the reconciliation of God to His sinful creatures; by which our lives are saved from destruction, and we are brought into a condition to enjoy His presence and favour.
2. It is such a joy as arises from the possession of a perfect revelation of the character and will of the Most High, and consequently of our interest, duty, and destination. Before the coming of Christ idolatry reigned, and with it necessarily prevailed a general depravation of morals, and a total want of those spiritual excellences and comforts which exalt and bless the human character. Some few sages, indeed, shed by their researches a dubious light on the path of life. But they were like the scattered and glimmering stars of a cloudy midnight. They could neither impart the warmth nor give the light which the wretched traveller needed. Their occasional twinklings only rendered the darkness more apparent and oppressive. This darkness was dispersed by the rising of the Sun of Righteousness. The gospel makes us acquainted with all that it is necessary for us to know of God and with all that He requires of us.
3. It is the joy which springs from the well-grounded hope of inheriting heaven and immortality.
4. It is the joy which arises from our knowledge of the exalted character of our Redeemer, which furnishes a peaceful assurance of the sufficiency of the atonement and of the greatness of the Almighty’s love.
II. This joy is our strength.
1. It is the foundation of our encouragement in approaching our Maker.
2. This joy which we have in the character, instructions, and achievements of Christ animates us in the performing of the duties of life.
3. It is our strength in bearing up under life’s troubles and adversities.
4. It gives us comfort in the approach and will give us victory in the conflict with death.
5. It is the principal source of composure and hope when we contemplate the final judgment. (Bp. Dehon.)
The nature and effects of a true believer’s joy
I. The nature of a true believer’s joy. It is “the joy of the Lord.” Why?
1. Because God is its author. This joy is no mere animal sensation. It is not the same thing as what we call “good spirits.” It is not that flow of lively feelings and sensations which spring up themselves in a man’s heart when things are grateful and agreeable. Such feelings are of nature only, and never hold. Religion has no root in them (Matthew 13:20-21). The joy of true believers is a spiritual gift (Galatians 5:22).
2. Because God is its subject. True believers “joy in the God of their salvation.”
3. They joy in God as the Giver of their present privileges and the Preparer of their future glories (2 Corinthians 5:21; 2 Corinthians 12:9-10; Isaiah 61:10; Romans 5:5; Philippians 4:7; Proverbs 3:17; James 1:2.)
II. The effect of this joy upon the believer’s heart and life.
1. It strengthens him for duty. How beautifully is this exemplified in the case of the Churches of Macedonia (2 Corinthians 8:2-5). What made them so warm, so zealous in their duties? “The abundance of their joy.” The joy of the Lord was their strength.
2. It strengthens him for suffering. See this exemplified: David (1 Samuel 30:6); the apostles when they were beaten before the Jewish council (Acts 5:41); Paul when he calls his heavy trials “light afflictions” (2 Corinthians 4:17); Paul and Silas in the prison at Philippi (Acts 16:25); the victories in the dying hours of true believers (Psalms 149:5-6; 2 Corinthians 4:16). (A. Roberts, M. A.)
God’s tonic of gladness
The man I am thinking of had been born in a Christian home, but had gone away and tramped the world. The story of the prodigal or some other lyric of salvation is read. And, as the old forgotten sanctities sweep over his memory and are sung into his neglected heart, the crust of careless habit is broken, the founts long closed are reopened, and he is bent and swayed with surging recollections of the good and beautiful in the Christian life which has passed out of his existence. Such emotions sweep over the hearts of the Jews as they hear the long-neglected Law while Ezra reads it from his extemporised pulpit of wood. They had returned from the captivity of Babylon. Now is the opportunity for Ezra to introduce the neglected Law. The Levites go about among little groups answering questions and expounding what is read. The effect is that the multitude are swept, as only an Oriental people can be swept, with a wave of feeling and lamentation. Why these outbursts of distress? Because the ancient covenant of God with their race had almost dropped out of memory. When they hear again what God did for their fathers--the story of Egypt and Sinai, of the tabernacle, the temple, the shechinah and the pledges of sheltering mercy--it comes upon them as the revelation of a new discovery. The sins and faithlessness of the past bow them low. “Grieve no longer,” cry Nehemiah and Ezra to the distraught people; “do not waste your hearts with sorrow.” Put away tears of distressful memory, “for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
1. Listen to God’s comfortable words of reassurance to hearts filled with shame and sorrow. “Grieve not, grieve not”; and it is said over and over again. Such comfortable words can only be spoken to men and women already softened. To most people the trumpet call is rather, “Grieve and lament for your sins; abase yourselves for your follies and self-willed lives.” But here the people’s hearts have been made soft. Encrusting callousness has been broken through; a wave of tender feeling is passing over them. And God is quick to speak peace to them and offer them “the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness.” When men’s hearts are moved and softened, when at last they let all the barricades of feeling give way and the long pent-up sin and the hunger for good and love Divine pour out in the hidden chambers of the soul, then God hastens to them with His generous assurances. “Do not lay waste your hearts with grief. Take comfort to yourselves. Rejoice that now at last the (lead and careless years are gone, and that the words of life and love ring in your ears once more.” In every company of people there are some whose shame and grief over past folly and misbehaviour is a sore that runs perpetually, they cannot get over it nor escape its anguish, the dark burden on memory paralyses them. Yet, if only they could get the records on the table of the heart wiped clean they would be strong men of God. Let me echo the generous comforts of Divine compassion. Oh, let the Divine heart bear away these curses that lie heavy on you. Yield to the goodness that has come into your life. Let sheer goodness and love swamp all self-accusations. Then will you enjoy the sacrament of forgiving grace. Your life will be given back to you as a new and clean thing. Many, I feel sure, are going cold and comfortless, wearing out their spirit in secret regrets that are never salved and soothed away with love. The one thing they need most is a bit of gladness in their life, sun’s warmth in enveloping love.
2. The proper Christian note is gladness of heart. What a piece of irony is the laughter and merry-making of the careless, unforgiven maul Underneath the mirth and free play, what a region of unpurged evil deep down within them in their tastes, memories, and habits! How dare men sing and take the delight of life while they are moribund with sin’s leprosy and going forward to face the last reckoning unprepared? But Christians--they have the heritage of Christ, the peace that makes the singing heart. True, you cannot ignore the inevitable hardships and pains of living, which are no respecters of persons; and the Christian is as open as any one to the cut of unkindness, the depression of dark times, and the heartache over others’ wrongdoing. Yet so far as the inevitable will allow, you are entitled and required to accept the good and joy of your days, to delight in all beauty, all the cheer of human love, all stimulating influences and glad hopes. The common delights of human life are all the more yours because you have the diviner reasons for happiness. I am certain that numbers of Christians have never accepted the full gladness of their high calling in Christ. What is the reason? Is it that they think it unbecoming to let their hearts swell with natural joy? Has religious seriousness overpowered their natural good spirits, a tradition of sombre piety suppressing their buoyancy? It is a false conception of the Christian mind. Take joy in, and let radiance suffuse your life. Yes, I know there is a heartless element in the unmitigated delight of some people. There is a heartless mirth which is careless of mankind. And it is possible for us to take the pleasure of our days without regard to the sore problems of the world and the sins of men. Christian music must have its minor as well as its major notes. Yet we are not meant to surrender our hearts much or long to the oppressing burden of human sin and distress. We are to feel it so far that we shall “send portions to them for whom nothing is prepared,” to better the hard lot of such as we can reach and assist Christ to gladden the whole race. That is an essential condition of a joy that is Christian. But, having done this, we are to take the sun. If we took all the world’s misery into our hearts it would crush us, spoiling our personal influence, without doing any good. We must leave the most of it to Almighty God to bear, who alone has the almighty heart. The sun of righteousness is not sinking in the sky, but ascending over the world. In spite of evil we rejoice by faith, by anticipation of what God in Christ is in process of achieving, because of the entrance of Divine power into the world in Christ. Even our sins which sadden us will be overcome if we remain faithful.
3. There is God’s tonic for our hearts in this devout gladness. Happiness is a bracing tonic in its own time and place. I do not forget--it is often enough said--that suffering and sorrow are bracing forces, and they, too, are required to make men sterling and strong in virtue and godliness. Shadow and discipline have their indispensable work to do in forging Christian character. The paler hues of character, the sombre greys of meekness and gentleness, are not the sole Christian colours. Those who suffer prolonged discipline are apt to lose the warmer tints which brighten the Christian faith, and to miss the elasticity of spirit which helps us to rise from our errors and press toward the mark. If we could get some rays of luminous sunshine transmitted into our hearts we should take a new lease of life; new springs would be opened in us for the refreshment of others. (R. E. Welsh, M. A.)
The joy of the Lord the Christian’s strength
Here observe that the parties to whom these words were originally addressed were in the act of expressing deep sorrow for sin. Nehemiah had no intention to make light of sorrow for sin, nor to represent it as aught else than a necessary ingredient in the composition of genuine repentance. The sin that is not lamented will hardly be forsaken; and though there may be grief which does not issue in amendment, we may doubt whether you will find the amendment which has not been preceded by grief. There is a point beyond which sorrow being carried, will neither constitute nor prove repentance. The grief cannot be such as God demands which hides from man the attributes of God and the arrangements Divinely made for the pardon of sin. A man who sorrows for a sin with a sorrow that seems to say that sin is unpardonable draws for himself and presents to others a picture of God which is altogether unscriptural In the light of the gospel there is a point at which sorrow for sin becomes itself sinful, and that is the point at which we sorrow “even as those who have no hope”; when we lament as if there were no remedy. Looking at the text with special reference to ourselves, we observe that “the joy of the Lord is our strength”--
I. In rendering effective our sorrow for sin. Sorrow alone and by itself can produce no genuine repentance; but “the joy of the Lord”--the assurance of a free and unqualified forgiveness--must be mixed with the sorrow to produce such a result. We understand by repentance, not only the lamenting sin, which is a part, but the forsaking sin, which is a greater part. It is the pleasure of God, the joy of God, that men should forsake their sins and receive salvation at His hands without money and without price. “Have I any pleasure at all that the wicked shall die, saith the Lord God, and not that he should return from his wicked way and live?” God joys in nothing so much as in welcoming transgressors who trust themselves to the suretyship of His Son. It is right to tremble at the wrath of God. It is right to mourn over your sins. But you must do more than tremble and mourn--you must” eat the fat and drink the sweet.” “The blood of Jesus Christ cleanseth from all sin “--here is the fat. “Come unto Me, all ye that are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest “--there is the sweet.
II. In encouraging us and helping us to wrestle with temptation. The assurance of Divine help is “the joy of the Lord,” and in this joy does the true Christian’s strength consist. The encouragements of the gospel are encouragements to strive, encouragements to labour--to resist evil, to mortify passions, and to cultivate holiness. They are encouragements to hold on through a course of temptation in the assurance that the Redeemer will furnish help proportionate to the attack. The slave may be kept in awe by the scourge, but the affectionate son is best ruled by a smile; and as soon as the believer has been admitted into the very family and, household of God, he will derive from “the joy of the Lord” his best strength for the mastery of evil. (H. Melvill, B. D.)
The Christian in his spiritual joys
Let us contemplate the Christian--
I. In the divinity of his joy.
II. In the utility of his joy.
1. In the profession of his religion. Joy is the very strength of this.
2. In his concern to recommend religion to others.
3. In the discharge of his duties.
4. In his perils.
5. In his sufferings.
6. In death. (W. Jay.)
Joy a strength
Go out of your cares, and your fevers and perils, by going nearer to your Saviour. Catch that glance of His gaze, the very rest of God. The sky is blue above the bleak and barren ground; the heavens smile above the storms. All things seem to die; but God is over all, blessed forever. His joy will comfort your sorrows. It will conquer your fears. It will neutralise your bereavements. It will negative your death. You are on a vessel, and it seems to you that the storm is awful; the waves run mountains high; the ship pitches, and shudders, and creaks. “Captain,” you say, with pale face and staring eyes, “this is a terrible peril We shall go down; she never will weather this gale!” “Gale!” says the captain, “I call this a good breeze. If we had a little more of it we should soon make land.” Then you turn and look with wonder in the captain’s eyes; they are full of smiling satisfaction, and his heroic face is mild and calm. The captain says, “All is well.” He is not disturbed. And the captain’s calm is your strength. He ought to know. So Jesus knows. (Hugh S. Carpenter, D. D.)
The joy of the Lord in the hour of death
When I was about fifteen years of age I sat up one night with one of my class-mates, an aged man, who had suffered from spasmodic asthma for a number of years with great resignation and patience; and about the noon of night he called me to his bedside, and with difficulty articulated a few words, which were these: “Now no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous: nevertheless afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby.” He then closed his eyes, gathered up his feet, and slept with his fathers. I have blessed God a hundred times, a thousand times, that when I was so young in the way I saw a Christian die. “In the joy of the Lord” was his “strength”--the strength of his heart, and his portion for ever. (J. Entwistle.)
Conspicuous Christian joy
Let your face shine with love to God and to men. The expression of one’s countenance speaks more eloquently sometimes than words. When Murray McCheyne died there was found on his desk an unopened letter, which proved to be from a man in Broughty Ferry, who wrote that he was converted, not by anything Mr. McCheyne had said, but “By your look, sir, as you entered the pulpit. Christ s joy should be m all who love and serve Him. “Let the children of Zion be joyful in their King.” “Rejoice in the Lord alway, and again I say, Rejoice” (Psalms 149:2; Philippians 4:4). (Dr. Fergus Ferguson.)
The joy of the Lord our strength
George Stephenson and a friend were once looking at a train which was rushing along. The trains in those days were not so common as they are now, and George asked his friend what he thought propelled the train along. His friend answered, “Probably the arm of some stalwart north country driver.” “No,” said George, “it is the heat and light of the sun which shone millions of years ago, which has been bottled up in the coal all this time, and is now driving that train.” In the same way the joy of the Lord, the sun of our spiritual lives, is the power that works in us and gives us our strength.
The joy of the Lord continues in sorrow
The joy the Holy Spirit gives lives on in the heart when all earthly sources of gladness have failed. It hides like s rainbow in the bosom of the darkest cloud, and shines out in the gloom. There is a legend of a wondrous golden organ that was in some ancient monastery, which once, when in danger of being stolen, was east by the monks into a deep river, to be hidden from the robbers; and, in the waters, buried out of sight in the floods, it still played on, pouring out its sweet music. This legend illustrates the heart which has in it the secret of Christian joy. Floods of sorrow may roll over it, but in the depths its song is not silenced. (J. R. Miller, D. D.)
Mr. Haslam told how “Happy Peter” was in the habit of saying he had been happy for thirty-seven years. One who visited him, and noticed the appearance of his sickly wife and humble home, said, “Have you no clouds?” “Yes,” replied Peter, “but if there were no clouds there would be no sweet rain.” Dwelling on common mistakes about the gloom of a religious life, Mr. Haslam added: “I have a friend in Norfolk who was converted seventeen years ago. He is a magistrate and chairman of the Local Board. People said when he was converted, ‘ It’s all over with him ‘; and a cousin of his said to me, about the same time, ‘ My cousin has become serious.’ ‘No,’ I said, ‘he hasn’t.’ ‘Well, well, he has become religions.’ ‘No, he hasn’t. A Hindoo, a Mohammedan, a Jew is religious, and your cousin might be that and be going to hell.’ ‘Then he must be going to die.’ ‘No, he isn’t, for I’ve got hold of the same thing, and am stronger far than I was thirty years ago.’ There are many people like that; and to one and all of them I give the same answer.”
The joy of religion
Christ never means us to stay in shadowland; He desires us to substitute His joy for the less permanent joys of earth; and it should be our wish to please Him by apprehending the deep and solemn joyousness which is the very soul of His religion. It is joy to know Christ, to love Him, to serve Him, to follow Him. It is joy to meditate on the Divine grace in redemption; it is joy to know that we are being sanctified; it is joy to share with others our spiritual heritage. It is joy to look forward to that fair season when conflict and struggle shall be over, and the best we have loved on earth will reunite with us in a joy that shall never be broken or shadowed any more. Compared with this vision, what has the world to offer? No kind of gratification that the world gives over lasts very long. There is a law of diminishing returns in our earthly joys. Our tastes alter, our wishes change, all pleasures and successes pall in time. There is, as Professor Romanes has said, only one joy which, instead of diminishing, continually increases in intensity and power while life remains: it is the joy of religion. A grand, exalted sentiment it is, but never an unreal or fictitious one. (R. J. Campbell.)
Christian joy an inspiration to others
There was a young lad who had a great ambition to learn to play on the bugle, and to that end he practised continually. As the practice went on night after night without intermission, his mother, after hearing it as long as she could, got thoroughly disgusted and finally suggested that he should get out of the house and practise in the open-air. The boy took his bugle and went to the top of a hill and there practised the one tune that he could play. When he had thoroughly mastered it, he went one evening to his favourite spot on the top of the hill and there started a grand solo convert. He could not see any one, but unobserved by him, down towards the valley, seated upon a dyke was an old man, with his face buried in his hands. He was very much downhearted; everything seemed to be going wrong with him. He had lost all his life’s savings; he had not heard for a long time from his only son; and his daughter had just gone and left him. Just when down in the deepest depths of despair the sound of the bugle caught his ear as it poured forth the strains of “The march of the Cameron men,” the one tune the boy could play. Somehow it seemed to put new life into the old man. His spirits rose, and rising from his seat he started homewards with new vigour. Everything seemed to be brighter. Oh! we should be cheerful Christians. How much good Christian happiness does not only to ourselves, but to others! How it cheers them on in life’s dark and steep places! (J. Robertson.)
I remember, when an undergraduate at Oxford, being invited to breakfast by one of the city clergy. The good man showed us three photographs of himself, taken at different times, remarking, “Don’t I look happier as I grow older?” It shall be even so with every one who drinks at the fountain of all joy, and thirsts no more. (F. Harper, M. A.)
Joy in Jewish worship
It is remarkable how largely feelings of joy characterised Jewish worship. The abjectness and terror that were often such marked features of idolatrous worship were altogether absent. Heathen worship was never joyous except when it took the form of a licentious orgie. It is true the Jewish festival was also a sacrificial feast, but the feast was only a form of public entertainment for a multitude who had been brought from their homes and needed some kind of hospitality. These feasts were not occasions for riotous excess. The sternest of the prophets utter no reproach of this kind. Even the social character of the festivals scarcely more than indicated in the psalms that were composed for them. They are gladsome very, but with a religious joy, a joy of faith.
So the people went forth, and brought them, and made themselves booths
The celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles
We are reminded here that there is such a thing as buried truth. True reformations and revivals of religion have always consisted in people’s minds being directed to some portion of truth which, though contained in the Word of God, has for a time been lost sight of.
II. We observe that in this instance the Jews dared to follow God, apart prom and in spite of the traditions of a thousand years. It is not a valid argument against a view of truth that it has found no acceptance for long, or even that the testimony of successive generations is against it.
III. Weak and despised instrumentality is often used of God to recover lost truth. “It was reserved for the feeble remnant that returned from the Babylonish captivity to do what had not been done even in the bright days of Solomon.” The Waldenses bearing dogged testimony against Rome for centuries. The Gospellers of Wycliffe’s and other days in our own land. George Fox and his noble band of “Friends.”
IV. It was after bitter chastisement of captivity that the nation was thus made “willing and obedient.” (W. P. Lockhart.)
Religion in booths
It is a grand festival. It is the Feast of Tabernacles. The people celebrate the deliverance of their fathers from desert travel, where they lived in tents. And it is also typical of our march to heaven--pilgrims in a temporary booth on the way to Canaan. So that I say to you in a figurative sense what was said to the Jews in a literal sense, “Go forth into the mount, and fetch olive branches, and pine branches, and myrtle branches, and palm branches, and branches of thick trees, to make booths.”
I. The “olive” branch is always used as a sign of peace. The olive-tree grows in warm climates to the height of about twenty-five feet, has an upright stem, and many out-shooting branches which can easily be stripped off. If a twig of this tree, in time of war, is handed from one general to another, it means the unsaddling of cavalry horses and the hanging up of the war knapsacks. After hostilities have ceased, these branches are placed over doorways, and they are built into triumphal arches, and they are waved in processions. They spell out in verdurous letters that heaven-born word of “Peace!” Now in this gospel arbour which God sends us to build we must have two of these olive branches.
1. Peace with God.
2. Peace with each other.
II. My text, in the next place, suggests that in this arbour for our soul, on the way toward glory, we ought to have a good many “pine branches.” Now, pine is healthful, aromatic, and an evergreen. It has often been the case that invalids have been sent into the regions where the pine grows, and they have come back thoroughly well. It is a frequent prescription, on the part of physicians, to say, “Go for a few weeks amid the pines, and you will be better.” Now we want in this gospel arbour pine branches. We want something that means health, aroma, and evergreen. This is a very healthy religion. I have known an old Christian, with no capital of physical health, and carrying about him all the respectable diseases that one can carry, and yet kept alive by nothing at all but his religion. But this gospel is evergreen. What does the pine forest care for the snow on its brow? It merely considers it a crown of glory. You cannot freeze out the pine forest, and this grace of God is just as good in the winter of trouble as it is in the summer of prosperity. It is the religion you want--not dependent upon weather or upon change.
III. My text suggests still further that this arbour of Christian grace ought to have in it a good many “palm branches.” You know that it is a favourite tree at the East. The ancients used to make it into three hundred and sixty uses. The fruit is conserved. The sap becomes a beverage. The stones are ground up as food for camels. The base of the leaves is twisted into rope. Baskets and mats are made out of it, and from the root to the tip-top of the palm it is all usefulness. It grows eighty-five feet in height, is columnar, its fringed leaves sometimes four or five yards long, and the ancients used to carry it in processions as a symbol of victory. Oh, for more palm branches in our gospel arbour! Usefulness and victory! Head, heart, tongue, pen, money, social position--all employed for God. Counsel is often given on worldly matters--about investments--that you must not put all the eggs in one basket; but in this matter of religion I wish that we might give all to God, and get in ourselves. “Oh,” says some man, “my business is to sell silks and calicoes.” Then sell silks and calicoes for the glory of God. Says another man, “My business is to edit a newspaper.” Then edit a newspaper for the glory of God. Anything that a man cannot do for the glory of God he has no right to do. The vast majority of professed Christians in this day do not amount to anything. You have to shovel them off the track before the chariot of God’s grace can advance. What we want in the Church now is not weeping willows, sighing and weeping by the Water-courses, admiring their long fringes in the glass of the stream; not hickories full of knots; not wild cherry, dropping bitter fruits; but palm-trees, adapted to three hundred and sixty purposes--root, trunk, branch, leaf, producing something for God and man and angels.
IV. My text demands that in the making of this gospel arbour we shall get “branches of thick trees.” You know that a booth or arbour is of little worth unless there be stout poles at the corners, or the wind will upset the booth; and you will be worse off than without shelter unless you have strong branches of thick trees. A gospel that is all mellowness and sweetness will have no strength to withstand the blast of temptation and trial and trouble. We want a brawny Christianity. We want a gospel with warnings as well as with invitations. While olive branches are good in their places, and the palm branches, and the myrtle branches, we want the stout branches of thick trees. The tempest of temptation will come down after a while; the hurricane of death will blow; and alas! for that man who has not his soul sheltered under the stout branches of the thick trees. (T. De Witt Talmage.)
Also day by day . . . he read in the book of the law of God.
1. Because of its infinite preciousness and value.
2. Because of its tendency to build up the inner and spiritual life.
3. Because all great revivals of the power of religion have been associated with high reverence for the written Word.
4. Because by this Word you must be judged.
1. With reverence.
2. With special affection and prayerfulness.
3. Take time.
4. Keep the end in view. (S. Thodey.)
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "Nehemiah 8". The Biblical Illustrator. https://beta.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 20 / Ordinary 25