God’s people had been living in a foreign land for 70 years, and now 50,000 of them were returning to Jerusalem, but they didn’t know the first thing about the Word of God.  So, God put it on Ezra’s heart to do something about it.

Great expectations

“Ezra opened the book… and all the people stood up.  Ezra praised the LORD, the great God; and all the people lifted their hands and responded, “Amen! Amen!” Then they bowed down and worshiped the LORD with their faces to the ground.”  Nehemiah 8:5

These people are expecting something to happen!  When the book is opened, they’re expecting an encounter with God.  What do you expect to happen when the Bible is preached?  It was 1,000 years since God had spoken these words to Moses, but when the book was opened and explained, these people clearly believed God was speaking to them.

When they heard this book read and explained, they recognized they were not listening to the words of a man, they were hearing the Word of God.  They gave it their full attention, “He read it aloud from daybreak till noon… and all the people listened attentively” (8:3).

Conscience renewed

“The people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the law.” Nehemiah 8:9

It seems pretty clear that the reason they cried was that they realized how far short their lives came when they were measured against the law of God.  Do you think that should happen to us today?  Absolutely!  One of the first effects of receiving the Word of God is that it humbles us.  You start to see things in your life that you didn’t see before.  You become sensitive to attitudes and actions that grieve the heart of God. 

The Word of God is sharper than a two-edged sword.  It pierces, cuts and wounds!  But that’s never the final purpose of God’s Word.  You may have experienced preaching that made you feel small, but that was all it did.  You came out saying, “What a miserable person I am, I must do better,” but eventually you lost the strength to keep trying.

Ezra explained the law of God, and many were reduced to tears, but the ministry does not end there.  Conviction of sin is never an end in itself.  It is always a means to an end, and the end is that we come to a deeper appreciation of Christ…

The joy of the LORD

“Nehemiah said, ‘Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared.  This day is sacred to our Lord.  Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.’” Nehemiah 8:10

Ezra is not saying, “Dry your eyes.  Cheer up and be happy!”  Your joy is not your strength, the joy of the Lord is your strength.  I cannot read this verse without thinking of Jesus’ words about the joy in heaven over “one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:7). 

When there are tears on earth there is joy in heaven.  When you feel your weakness and you say, “Oh no,” it is as if God says, “Yes!”  When you feel that hunger for a more godly life, it brings joy to the heart of God, and that is your strength.

When you look up into the face of God you will find that He is gracious.  His hand is extended out to you in Christ.  His joy will be your strength.  This is what Paul means when he says, “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31).  The whole world may be banging on my door, but if God smiles upon me, then all is well.  

How do you know God is smiling on you?  God gave His own Son for us.  How will He not, along with Him, graciously give us all things? (Romans 8:32).  If the Christian life was simply your attempt to fulfill God’s law, then your strength would eventually be exhausted.  But the message of the Bible is that in God’s mercy, you will find strength.

The Gospel does not leave you preoccupied with yourself and your failures, it gives you a fresh glimpse of the grace and mercy of God, bringing you new hope, new joy and new strength to face the challenge of another week!

This week's Scripture:  All the people assembled as one man in the square before the Watergate.  They told Ezra the scribe to bring out the book of the law of Moses.  Nehemiah 8:1

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 This LifeKey is based on the message “Joy,” by Pastor Colin S. Smith, delivered on August 13, 2000, from the series “Unlocking the Bible.” Colin currently serves as Senior Pastor of the The Orchard Evangelical Free Church in Arlington Heights, Illinois. He is committed to preaching the Bible in a way that nourishes the soul by directing attention to Jesus Christ.