In Nehemiah 8, Nehemiah has successfully overseen the completion of the city wall’s reconstruction. Yet, that was not all that he needed to do in his return to Jerusalem. The spiritual decay of the people was evident, and reforms had to be instituted. All of the people were called together before the recently rebuilt temple, and Ezra read the Law, adding to it explanation that the people would gain understanding. That was a shocking experience. Apparently most had never heard the Law, because when they did, they were, as AC/DC would say, “Thunderstruck!” Immediately grieving set in because their sin was now exposed. The very same reasons that God years ago evicted their fathers could get them banished as well.
In vs.9 Nehemiah intervened. He writes,
“This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law. 10 Then he said to them, “Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” 11 So the Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved.” 12 And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them.”
A couple of things strike me in this. The reading of God’s Law is a game changer, or should be. When we understand what God requires of us, we can do nothing but fall down on our face and plead for mercy. Way back in Deuteronomy, when the people renewed their covenant to serve the LORD only, Moses told them that they would not be able to do it. That proved true back then and is proven out every day of our lives. Therefore, one of the chief works of the Law is to bring us into touch with a dual reality, the reality of who God is and the reality of who we are. Grieving over the gulf that divides us and over our failure is a natural and good thing.
Secondly, there is a connection Nehemiah makes that might seem different. He tells the people not to mourn because “this day is holy to the LORD.” Because of the holiness of the day, instead of mourning, they should have a great joyous party. We don’t often equate holiness with overflowing joy, but that is clearly the case here. This is even more astounding in the face of why they were grieving. The Law had done a good work in their hearts producing conviction of sin. Yet, instead of mourning over sin, they were being commanded to rejoice. That’s not the way we would typically go.
Holiness in this context means that this day was set apart by God and consecrated for a special purpose. That purpose was to celebrate the work God had done in the wall redo and in His great faithfulness to His covenant people. That day was a celebration of God’s gracious lovingkindness to a hard hearted people, people He never abandoned. Instead He constantly pursued them and blessed them. To celebrate this day, the people were commanded to break out the wine and steaks, and invite all the kinfolk to a grand bar-b-cue.
Is this what “holy” means? Too often we think of something set apart as holy as that which is pure, designated for a formal religious purpose. Holy things cannot be touched. They are not for common usage. We transfer this idea of holiness to our practice of Sabbath keeping. The Sabbath is a holy day, and generally not considered a day for fun. Yet, what God called for on this day was fun, nothing less than raucous enjoyment. Maybe the Sabbath was created for a purpose different from just prohibiting the good things so we can attend church services. Maybe worship is to be done in a way that we would want to do little else. Maybe the Sabbath is to be the party day of the week, the day we can celebrate all of the bounty that God is and does for us.
The command to rejoice is even more astounding if we look at the immediate context of Nehemiah. The people stood condemned by the Law, and yet God commanded them to rejoice. Were they to ignore what they heard? Maybe there was in the Law provision made for their sin. Maybe their rejoicing was to be in how the LORD could embrace them even as the sinners they were. Maybe this rejoicing was to be about the full extent of God’s faithfulness and how far He would go to bring them near.
This is critical for us. How can we face real, deep conviction without being devastated? It is because God has made provision. The price has been paid. We grieve, but we also more fully comprehend the depth of the mercy and grace of God, for it is His mercy and grace that has already made us to be holy. How glorious! How beautiful! How satisfying! Let the party begin!
Written by Ron Clegg