For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
A common phrase in Christian communities is “The joy of the Lord is my strength”. While a popular Christian chorus, it is found in the Bible in Nehemiah 8:10, where Nehemiah uses it as encouragement for the people who were humbled and broken over their sin and ignorance of the law. Rather than wallow in their contrition, he encourages them to find joy.
I had this phrase stuck in my mind one day and as I turned it over and over, I wondered, “what is this ‘joy of the Lord’ and how can it be my strength?”
Without any allusions to any past presidential statements, it seems to me that the crux of understanding “the joy of the Lord” is in the meaning of the word “of”. Is this a joy that belongs to the Lord, or a joy that derives or proceeds from the Lord?
Through the miracle of the internet, I do a pretty good impersonation of a biblical scholar, but www.blueletterbible.org let me down, as I could not find “of” in the Hebrew interlinear tool. So I turned to an actual scholar friend who told me:
The normal grammar of a genitival relationship between two nouns binds the first (the construct) to the second and the sense is “belonging to”. There is no definite article in Hebrew but because LORD is a proper name, this construction is “the joy of the LORD” not “a joy of the LORD” which perhaps further strengthens “belonging to” rather “deriving from.”
If this joy belongs to the Lord, I have to wonder, what gives God joy? The Hebrew word translated “joy” in Nehemiah is חֶדְוָה (chedvâh). Although there are other words translated “joy” in the Old Testament, this word appears only one other place, in 1 Chronicles 16:27, a song David wrote for continual praise before the presence of God. That particular verse is part of a stanza describing the nature of God; he concludes that “joy [is] in his dwelling place”.
Knowing that joy is in the presence of God brings me no closer to knowing what it is that brings joy to God. Looking to the New Testament, Hebrews 12:2 appears to be the clearest clue to the mystery.
“For the joy set before him [Jesus] endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” Having just left Easter week, the passion (suffering) that Jesus endured should be fresh in our minds. It is clear that he considered the shame to be nothing in comparison to the coming joy. The author of Hebrews makes it clear, in the logical case building to this point, that “sitting down” is an indication of a completed work, a resting from labor. So what followed the cross, and was utterly completed?
You! God’s purpose in all of creation, his willingness to humble himself, taking on human form, enduring the cross, was to provide the way of salvation. God’s great joy is to provide for a sinful and rebellious creation the means of being reconciled to him, and restored to the relationship he intended in the first place.
Now, I will be the first to admit that I don’t get it. I don’t know how or why that brings God joy. But it very much should bring us joy! And if it doesn’t, then consider afresh this verse from the Horatio Spafford hymn, “It is Well With My Soul”:
My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!
Having a somewhat better handle on what “the joy of the Lord” is, how can it be my strength? How can the fact that God delights in saving sinners make me stronger?
Again, impersonating a Bible scholar, in Nehemiah the Hebrew word for “strength” is מָעוֹז (mâʻôwz). It has more of a sense of “stronghold” or “fortress” as opposed to personal power or might.
A fortress is a place of refuge; a place to hide from enemies that might attack. The security of the fortress is that it can withstand whatever the enemy might throw at it; as long as you are inside, you are safe.
Now, at last, it all comes together! Knowing that God delights in providing salvation is something that I can run to when I’m feeling assaulted. When I stumble and fall, when the enemy whispers in my ears that God can’t possibly forgive me this time, when all the voices around me scream my worthlessness, I have a fortress that can withstand the onslaught. Knowing that Jesus was so excited to make the way of salvation for me, that he scorned the pain and shame of the cross gives me security. The lies of the enemy cannot overcome the joy of the Lord. My salvation is secure because it does not depend upon me. Jesus sat down because the payment was made in full … including whatever it is that I have just done (and no matter how many times I do it).