Great Texts of the Bible
The Strength of Joy
The joy of the Lord is your strength.—Nehemiah 8:10.
In reading the Holy Scriptures, or hearing them read in the services of the Church, we fail to notice one outstanding feature common both to the Old Testament and to the New, and that is the extraordinary frequency with which we meet with short sentences which arrest our attention, and challenge our admiration alike by the simplicity of the words employed, and by the profundity of the thought expressed. Of no other literature of any age or of any country can this be said in equal degree, and even our oft-quoted poets, with Shakespeare immeasurably the foremost of them all, pale into insignificance before the Bible as the greatest mine that the world has ever known of priceless gems of pregnant and beautiful thought. Such a sentence is the text. It stands out as one of perhaps the first five or six most striking sentences in the whole Bible. Had Nehemiah left us no other message than just this one utterance, his name would still stand high among the great names of the human race, who through the wizardry of felicitous phrase have enriched all succeeding ages by the power of an inspiring thought.
1. Some forty thousand of the Jews had returned from the Babylonian captivity. They had built their little temple amid the ruins of Jerusalem, and resumed the worship of the Lord’s house. But they were few, oppressed, and in great misery. They groaned under the tyranny of the Persian satraps. The neighbouring Samaritans plundered their barns and fields. Their city was as yet undefended by fortified gates, and fell an easy prey to the troops of banditti who scoured the desolate country. “The city was large and great: but the people were few therein, and the houses were not builded.” They complained in their prayer that they were slaves in the land given to their fathers. They said, “It yieldeth much increase unto the kings whom thou hast set over us because of our sins; also they have dominion over our bodies, and over our cattle, at their pleasure, and we are in great distress.” In their distress they turned to Jehovah. They hungered to hear the Divine Law, which many of them had never heard, copies being so scarce with them and life so hard. They met in the street before the Water-Gate; and Ezra, the scribe, brought out the Law and read it to them, and gave them the sense, and caused them to understand the meaning. As they listened, they wept. The contrast between what they had been, and what they were, was too much for them. Once a great nation prospering under the Divine care, they were now a few poor slaves dwelling in a desolate undefended city, tilling a few ravaged fields, withering away, as it seemed; under the Divine curse. They fairly broke down. There was a rain of tears. Their very hearts melted within them.
2. Nehemiah, the brave governor, saw that this was no fit mood for men who had so much to do and to bear. Grief would only unman them. And so he bade the scribe shut his book, and said to the people, “Go your way, eat the fat, and drink the sweet, and send portions unto him for whom nothing is prepared: for this day is holy unto our Lord: neither be ye grieved; for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” What he meant was that, if man was against them, God was with them and for them; and that if they were glad and rejoiced in His presence and grace, that would be a much better preparation for the hard work they had to do than vainly regretting a past that could not be recalled.
3. It was well that the Jews should look into the awful teachings of the past, and under the clear, stern condemnation of the eternal words give way to the rush of sorrow. But it was not well that they should sorrow long. They had work to do, demanding the strength of joy. The scattered tribes were to be gathered into a nation—the ancient order was to be restored. They were not to mourn over the “irrevocable past,” but, learning its lessons, to begin a nobler national life as the people of God. And therefore Nehemiah and the Levites turned the people’s thoughts from the saddening years that were gone, to the heavenly mercy that was shining in the present. “Go your way, … this day is holy unto our Lord … neither be ye grieved … for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
The good counsel of Nehemiah was reinforced by a song from one of their poets or psalmists. It is the brightest and merriest in the Psalter, a true Christian psalm.
O be joyful in Jehovah, all ye lands
Serve the Lord with gladness,
And come before His presence with a song!
Be ye sure that Jehovah He is God;
It is He that made us, and not we ourselves;
We are His people and the sheep of His pasture.
O go your way into His gates with thanksgiving,
And into His courts with praise
Be ye thankful unto Him and speak good of His name;
For the Lord is gracious; His mercy is everlasting,
And His truth endureth from generation to generation.
God’s Joy in Us
1. Is it fanciful to see in the text first of all a challenge to human love and loyalty—a trumpet-call to live a strong, bright, conquering life because of what that life may mean to God? May we read into the words not only a revelation of the secret of human strength, but also of the source of Divine gladness? In the work of God the Almighty Creator, we hear those words, dear to us from our childhood, which tell us how at the close of the six great æons which formed the successive stages in the stately evolution of the world as a fit habitation for man, “God saw everything that he had made, and, behold, it was very good.” Again, we listen to that wonderful creation poem in the Book of Job, which tells us how at the first beginning of all things, “the morning stars sang out together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy.” Surely with such words before us we can realize in some small degree what the “joy of the Lord”—the gladness of the Almighty—must have been when He contemplated the beauty of His perfect handiwork.
Just as a clever craftsman knows the subtle joy of facing and conquering a difficult task, and rejoices over the finished work that owes its being to the cunning of his brain and of his hands—so may we not think of God the Creator as feeling joy over the perfection of His handiwork? And where can that be more fully revealed than in the strength of a strong man or woman, strong in physical energy and endurance, strong in mental equipment, strong in will-power and moral force, inspired by lofty ideals of brotherhood and social service, strong above all in spiritual vision of the unseen but tremendous reality of the higher life of the human soul? “An honest man,” we are told, “is the noblest work of God,” and when He sees men and women steadfast and immovable—strong and true in their life of self-conquest and self-sacrifice—“standing four-square to every wind that blows”—then I am sure that He rejoices, and that the knowledge brings Him happiness.1 [Note: Canon Willink.]
2. We are not to suppose for one moment that the infinite wonders of the eternal Godhead raise Him above the sense of joy. We know that there are times of special joy in heaven, and we have no reason to believe that special joy is not shared by God Himself. On the contrary, we know that our Saviour Himself rejoiced when the Seventy returned, and brought Him the glad tidings of their successful ministry; so we are taught of God Himself that the time is coming when He will rejoice over Jerusalem as a bridegroom rejoiceth over a bride (Isaiah 62:5).
3. Christ is the Christian revelation; the Son and manifestation of God; “the brightness of the Father’s glory and the express image of his person”; and in Christ we see emphatically that notwithstanding all the misery and shame and conflict of this life—a misery and shame and conflict felt keenly by Him whose very nature is sympathy and whose name is Father—there is in God a deep, abiding, essential joyousness.
4. There cannot be a doubt, therefore, that even in the mind of God there are seasons of peculiar joy; and so, when we are rejoicing in that which rejoices Him, we may be truly said to share the joy of the Lord. When the seducer rejoices in the success of his temptation, his joy is the joy of the devil. When the believer rejoices in the salvation of souls, and the ingathering of God’s elect, his joy is the joy of the Lord Jesus. When a soul is saved, there is a great harmony of joy. Men, angels, and God Himself rejoice together, so that the joy of the Church and the joy of angels may be justly termed the joy of the Lord. On the other hand, when there is no deep interest in the conversion of souls, when men do not care whether souls are brought to Christ or not, when missionary intelligence gives them no pleasure, and the work of conversion at home excites no thanksgiving, they may have much to make them happy, but their joy cannot be said to be the joy of the Lord.
Our blessedness to see
Is even to the Deity
A Beatific Vision! He attains
His Ends while we enjoy. In us He reigns.1 [Note: Thomas Traherne.]
Our Joy in God
The main revelation of the text however is this: It is the will of God that we should be happy and strong, inasmuch as it is the joy of the Lord which is our strength.
Let us see (i.) what joy is; (ii.) how we are to gain it; and (iii.) where we are to find occasions for it.
i. What is this joy?
1. 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 life. Men forget this, and fancy that spiritual life is pre-eminently sorrowful, and that joy enervates man. We hear of the cross and the conflict, we are awe-stricken at the sublime demand for the sacrifice of all things, and the noble yet apparently stern picture of the ceaseless struggle of the Christian life. That picture is true, all aspirations begin in sadness, all spiritual aspirations are cradled in tears, all true life is a battle, and the battle of the spiritual man ceases only in heaven. But because this joy springs from the soul and not from circumstances, there is a kind of joy that may deepen into blessedness by the bearing of the cross and the endurance of the conflicts of life. From forgetfulness of this truth, there arises the idea that gladness is opposed to the attainment of spiritual power. We see that when God would make a human soul a harp for Divine song, He often baptizes it, as He did David and Isaiah, with difficulties, and smites it with afflictions. We know that when God would make a strong man, He frequently sends him disappointments, imprisonments, desolate days of loneliness, grim battle with slander and care, until the soul grows mighty with the shock, and is clothed with celestial armour by the struggle, and stands up in its strength to fling temptation aside. Hence men conclude that great or lasting joy does not bring out the strength of the soul. It is true that mere gladness—the gladness produced by success and friendship—the buoyant bounding of the heart in life’s sunshine—is by no means necessarily strength-giving. It is a blessed and merciful thing. The man into whose life it never comes, and who cannot sometimes give way to its exultation, is to be pitied. Yet if it is perpetual, this does weaken the soul, hides from it the invisible, and withers high purpose in life. But if spiritual joy springs from within the soul, then, so far from loosening the power of the spirit, it girds it for endurance, and it is the joy in difficulty and struggle that makes men strong.
Nehemiah qualifies the statement. He does not say that every joy will make a man strong; his words are, “The joy of the Lord is your strength.” And he is quite right in this limitation. The joy which strengthens must be unselfish joy. I do not think that joy about personal good fortune is a whit more invigorating to the body than grief for personal loss. They are both weakening. Pope Clement the Seventh died of sorrow for a defeat; but his successor, Leo the Tenth, died of exultation for a victory. Personal excitement, whether through laughter or through tears, paralyses the work of the hour. If in the midst of writing an article you heard that you had come into a great fortune, I do not think you would write a line more that day. But if you heard the same news of one whom you loved, and whose poverty had given you pain, you would be fanned by an inspiration which would make the pen fly. What marks the difference? It is this—the one is the joy of the flesh; the other is the joy of the Lord.1 [Note: G. Matheson.]
2. This spiritual joy is twofold in its nature.
(1) It is the joy of self-surrender to God.—Until a man has surrendered himself joy is impossible. There may be gleams of happiness, or wild outbursts of pleasure, but true joy can begin only when the self-life has been surrendered. For men know that to live only in themselves is misery, and yet they cannot escape from themselves, because the consciousness of a guilty past hangs like a burden on the heart.
Look through life, and do you not find that the great aim of men is to forget and go out of themselves? What means the longing to be a child again? What means the gloom only deepened by the flash of pleasure? Whence so often springs the desire
To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to?
What means the temptation to suicide? Do not men feel in their inmost hearts that to live in themselves and for themselves—to be bound by the self-life—is misery? For they cannot escape from the guilty self of past years, and dare not face it when it rises from its tomb. Now, emancipation from the tyranny of self, freedom from the memories of the past, is reached by the spiritual man. At the cross of Christ the burden of the past falls, for at the cross he yields himself. There the love of the crucified Lord subdues his nature, and the new Divine life enters, purifying the past, and filling the soul with heavenly energies.
The fact of self-surrender may give rise to a joy that can deepen even in the midst of sorrow, for its secret consists in calm contentedness to be what God wills. Is it not a joy deep and unspeakable to feel we are the willing instruments of the Eternal will; that the Eternal purpose is being wrought out through us? Has not this conviction irradiated the darkness of dungeons, and filled with unspeakable peace the hearts of persecuted and suffering men in all ages? Has it not nerved the martyrs for their last agonies, and strengthened them while the fire of the scaffold did its work? And was it not from this consciousness of fulfilling the will of God that the Great Sufferer gathered strength for His own unspeakable woe, as in the midst of His agony He cried, “Not my will, but thine, be done?”1 [Note: E. L. Hull.]
He touched her hands and the fever left her;
Oh! we need His touch on our fevered hands;
The cool, still touch of the Man of Sorrows,
Who knows us and loves us, and understands.
It may be the fever of pain and anger,
When the wounded spirit is hard to bear,
And only the Lord can draw forth the arrows
Left carelessly, cruelly, rankling there.
Whatever the fever, His touch can heal it,
Whatever the tempest, His voice can still;
There is only joy as we seek His pleasure,
There is only rest as we chose His will.
(2) It is 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 the 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 realize the presence of a spirit of beauty surrounding us, and inspiring us with an emotion which no words can describe? Or why is it that 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, 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 is true of earthly communion, must it not be supremely true when we realize the fellowship of God as our Father?
“In all the great sea of ocean,” said Serapion, when he had told the story of their wandering, “no such Earthly Paradise have we seen as this dear Abbey of our own!”
“Dear brethren,” said the Abbot, “the seven years of your seeking have not been wasted if you have truly learned so much. Far from home I have never gone, but many things have come to me. To be ever, and to be tranquilly, and to be joyously, and to be strenuously, and to be thankfully and humbly at one with the blessed will of God—that is the Heavenly Paradise; and each of us, by God’s grace, may have that within him. And whoso hath within him the Heavenly Paradise hath here and now, and at all times and in every place, the true Earthly Paradise round about him.1 [Note: William Canton.]
ii. How do we obtain this Joy?
1. The joy of the Lord is the personal gift of God the Holy Ghost dwelling within the soul. We cannot force ourselves into joy by the power of the most earnest resolution; nor can we argue ourselves or others into joy by the logical application of sound and Scriptural principles. We may have a perfectly correct system of truth, but along with it a joyless heart. It is not a thing which follows necessarily or mechanically from certain principles or certain acts; it is a Divine gift, like life itself, and is the result of the personal work of the Holy Ghost. It is His office “to speak peace unto his people,” and to “fill you with all joy and peace in believing.” So when David had lost his joy, and was pleading with God for its recovery, he prayed, “Make me to hear joy and gladness; that the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice,” and, “Restore unto me the joy of thy salvation: and uphold me with a free spirit.”
It is clear from Scripture that a person may lose his joy, though he is not permitted to lose his life. David and Peter both did so; and what was the reason? Was it not that they both grieved the Spirit? They drove the Holy Dove from His resting-place in their hearts; and the true believer may do the same. He may grieve the Spirit by his temper, his evil-speaking, or his want of tenderness; and he may lose all his joy, though God may save him by His marvellous grace.
A little while ago I saw a very sad and sickly-looking plant. It might have been employed as the symbol of melancholy and distress. It was limp and drooping, and had nothing about it suggestive of brightness, buoyancy, and health. I spoke to the gardener about it, and this was the gardener’s reply: “That plant, sir, needs three things. It wants better soil, cleaner air, and more light.” I was impressed with the comprehensiveness of the counsel. I think the gardener was demanding even more than he himself conceived. For what did he ask? He asked that I should give my plant better soil; that is to say, it wanted a new earth. He asked that I should give it more light; that is to say, it wanted a new heaven. He asked that I should give it cleaner air; that is to say, it needed a new climate. If my plant were to be brought out of melancholy disease into bright and vigorous health these three conditions would have to be supplied. I should have to take it away from its poor, lean, scanty rootage; I should have to remove it from the polluting gases and vapours by which it was choked; and I should have to release it from the artificial light, or at the best the natural twilight, by which it was imprisoned. A day or two ago I saw another plant, away up on the Warton Hill. This plant enjoyed all the three conditions prescribed by my gardener. It was rooted in luxurious soil, it was steeped and baptized in the uninterrupted light, and it was swept and washed by the unpolluted air. And the plant was the very symbol of joy and strength and health. Its leaves were bright and radiant, and it erected itself as though in conscious triumph. All of which I say is a parable. There are multitudes of souls which are sick and drooping and sad. They are limp and melancholy. There is nothing about them suggestive of radiant joy and victory. How can they be transformed? By the establishment of new conditions. They require a new soil, more light and pure air; that is to say, they need a new earth, a new heaven, and a new climate. And surely it is the “new” things that, above all else, are promised to us in Jesus Christ our Lord. In Jesus Christ we are heirs to the new things; the “new earth” and the “new heaven” are ours in Him.1 [Note: J. H. Jowett.]
2. But while the joy of the Lord is ours by the gift of the Holy Ghost, there are means used for conveying and for deepening it. God makes use of public worship as a means by which He imparts His joy. How many have come to church burdened and careworn, and gone home from the sanctuary of God refreshed and strengthened. That is what happened to the Psalmist (Psalm 73:17); and this is exactly what God promised when He said (Isaiah 56:7), “I will make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices shall be accepted upon mine altar; for mine house shall be called the house of prayer for all people.”
3. God makes use of Holy Scripture as a means of imparting joy. There can be no real joy that is not founded on Scripture; no other teaching can be the means of imparting abiding peace. Other things may produce excitement, and very lively emotions for a time; but it is the Word of God alone that can be the basis of solid joy. This appears very plainly in the words of our Lord Himself and His beloved Apostle. In John 15:11, He said, “These things have I spoken unto you, that my joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be full”; and in 1 John 1:4, St. John appears to echo the words of his Master, and says, “These things write we unto you, that your joy may be full.”
4. Finally, if we are to be joyful before the Lord and to serve Him with a pure and constant gladness, we must add to our worship trust. The Psalmist warns us that we can be thankful to God and speak good of His Name only as we are sure that He is a gracious God, whose mercy and truth are everlasting, and that we are His people and the sheep of His pasture. It is our distrust of Him and of our security in Him that so often gives us mourning for joy, and heaviness of spirit for the garment of praise.
There must be trust before there is joy. This seems so obvious that at first sight we should scarcely consider it worthy of notice; but yet in practical life it requires to be most carefully observed. I have myself met with numbers of persons who have told me that they cannot trust the Lord Jesus Christ because they have no joy in their hearts. This is utterly opposed to Holy Scripture, and indeed to the reason of things. If I may not trust till I have joy, where is the joy to come from? How can any man be rejoicing in safety before he is safe, and before he has learned to trust the Lord Jesus for his safety? How can there be joy in the heart that is doubting Christ? If, therefore, we are to be joyous believers, we must learn to trust when we have no joy at all.1 [Note: E. Hoare.]
Are you glad, my big brother, my deep-hearted oak?
Are you glad in each open-palm leaf?
Do you joy to be God’s? Does it thrill you with living delight?
Are your sturdy in stalwart belief?
As you stand day and night,
As you stand through the nights and the days,
Do you praise?
O strenuous vine, do you run,
As a man runs a race to a goal,
Your end that God’s will may be done,
Like a strong-sinewed soul?
Are you glad? Do you praise?
Do you run?
And shall I be afraid,
Like a spirit undone;
Like a sprout in deep shade;
Like an infant of days:
When I hear, when I see and interpret aright
The winds in their jubilant flight;
The manifest peace of the sky and the rapture of light;
The pæan of waves as they flow;
The stars that reveal
The deep bliss of the night;
The unspeakable joy of the air;
And feel as I feel,
And know as I know
God is there?
For I hear him—
Enshrined in the heart of the wood:
’Tis the priestly and reverent thrush,
Anointed to sing to our God:
And he hymns it full well,
All I stammer to tell,
All I yearn to impart.
Shall sink into the heart,
And soften and swell
Till its meaning is plain,
And love in its manifold harmonies, that shall remain,
Shall remain.1 [Note: Danske Carolina Dandridge.]
iii. What are the occasions for it?
1. Is there not an occasion for joy in the mere fact of living in a world so wonderful as this of ours, where, as the Psalmist expresses it, everything in His temple cries aloud, “Glory to God!” The study of the open Book of Nature is full of a subtle joy, and no one who reads its pages aright, and understands the joy of bird and beast, and grasps the perfect beauty of every living thing upon the earth, can for one moment doubt that God’s intention is surely that gladness and happiness should be the rule of life, and that sorrow and sadness are contrary to His will.
Let thy day be to thy night
A letter of good tidings. Let thy praise
Go up as birds go up, that when they wake
Shake off the dew and soar. So take Joy home,
And make a place in thy great heart for her,
And give her time to grow and cherish her,
Then will she come and oft will sing to thee
When thou art working in the furrows, ay,
Or weeding in the sacred hour of dawn.
It is a comely fashion to be glad,—
Joy is the grace we say to God.1 [Note: Jean Ingelow, Dominion.]
All the simple things of 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 goeth forth “as a bridegroom coming out of his chamber, and rejoiceth as a strong man to run a race.” The sea with its mighty rush and roll, the tempest in its resistless sweep, have the major tone of rejoicing in their roar. The jubilance and triumph of nature are seen in her complex operations. We rejoice in the thunderstorm when we have learnt by how sweet an air, how clear a sky, it will be followed; we rejoice in snow and hail when we know how benignant a mission they fulfil. Pain and death are recorded in the rocks; the soil is eloquent of decay. But in the past ages, when the forgotten creatures lived, there was more pleasure than pain in their living; and their death was as a sacrifice out of which the fuller life of the present has emerged. Decay itself in nature is but the messenger of a nobler vitality; the herald of renewed rejoicing.
2. Think, again, of the deep joy of human comradeship and family affection, and of the countless blessings of our wonderful civilization, which pours out at our very feet the treasures of the whole world. And yet again: did not God intend that the joy of the human intellect—that “kingly mind” of man of which the Greek philosopher tells us—should be a very real one? The joys of literature, of science, of art, and, perhaps beyond all others, the joy of music—are not these most clearly among the plainest evidences of the joy of the Lord?
I saw him across the dingy street,
A little old cobbler, lame, with a hump,
Yet his whistle came to me clear and sweet
As he stitched away at a dancing-pump.
Well, some of us limp while others dance;
There’s none of life’s pleasures without alloy.
Let us thank Heaven, then, for the chance
To whistle, while mending the shoes of joy.
3. We thank God not only for the joy of our creation and preservation, and of all the blessings of this life, but “above all for His inestimable love in the redemption of the world through our Lord Jesus Christ, for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory.” Here in the opening of the Kingdom of heaven to all believers; here in the magnificent certainty of our soul’s salvation; here in the blessed fact of Christ’s sympathy and companionship; in the joy of worship; in the rapture of prayer and of the Holy Communion; here in the anticipation of the unrevealed glory of heaven and of the final victory of light over darkness, of good over evil—here we have the highest proof of all that it is indeed God’s will that we should be happy, and as we learn to grasp and realize this great truth, and to build all our hopes for time and for eternity upon His love and faithfulness, we learn, too, to say from the depths of our full hearts, “The joy of the Lord is our strength.”
The Jewish system enters into the history of the Christian revelation; a system which was abolished, not because it came not at all from God, or was unworthy of Him, but because in the Gospel its truths have been perfectly revealed, its motives purified and exalted, and its imperfections corrected and supplied. One thing that strikes a careful reader of the Bible is that, in itself and in its application to the men who received it, the Jewish system was in the main a festal, joyous service. We, with our Christian sympathies and fuller spiritual sensitiveness, read into the Jewish law—as we read into nature—a gloom and heaviness of which its own subjects were scarcely, if at all, conscious. Its restrictions were for the welfare of the people and added comfort to their life; its festivals were more numerous than its fasts; the greater part of its sacrifices were not destroyed as forbidden things, but eaten gratefully and gladly by the worshippers.1 [Note: A. Mackennal.]
Hark! Hark! the joyous lark
Greets the dewy dawn of May;
Hardly has he time to mark
The quivering eyelid of the day,
Ere he springs, with fluttering wings,
In the rapture of the sight;
Ever soaring as he sings,
Till he lose himself in light.
Heart, heart, how slow thou art
With thy morning hymn of praise!
Ah! can love no joy impart,
Though it compass all thy ways?
Why sad amid the glad
Sunshine which is God’s and thine?
O the bliss that may be had,
Lost in thoughts of love divine!
Why, why sit and sigh,
Moping o’er thy former sin,
With the gates of glory nigh
Free for thee to enter in?
O rejoice with heart and voice,
Like the bird upon the wing;
They who in the Lord rejoice
Songs of Heaven to earth shall bring.2 [Note: Walter C. Smith, Thoughts and Fancies for Sunday Evenings, 14.]
4. And then, last of all, we find occasions for joy in the spiritual life. Speaking doctrinally, joy is a “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 joy of holiness; to the feeble the joy of strength. God intended by His promises to lift up our hearts in exultation; and therefore He sent His Son for our acceptance. And Christian history and experience confirm the testimony. It is impossible for any one to study the writings of the Apostle Paul, and not see how buoyant was his spirit. His soul was set in harmony by his faith in Christ, and the joyous impulse fills him. It breaks out in thankful remembrance of his salvation; plays in many a stroke of humour when he makes merry with his infirmities or banters those whom he would wean from follies and prejudices; it lends a glow to his affections, and broadens his heart in world-wide love. And it is ever thus. In proportion as a man has the spirit of Christ’s sacrifice, he will anticipate Christ’s triumph, and be filled with Christ’s joy. 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 in this they are but manifesting the will of God; giving full play and scope to the spirit of their Father who dwelleth in them.
(1) Joy in the Lord is to be Christlike.—And if the joy is Christlike it will move about two things—sublimities and simplicities. Our Lord’s joy was found among the sublimities; in communion with the Highest. Those withdrawals from the crowd, those quiet seasons spent upon the mountain-side, those retirements into lonely places were seasons of joyful intercourse with the Father. To have His joy is to share the ecstasy of this communion. But the joy is not only among the sublimities, it is also among the simplicities. What joy the Master found amid lowly things—in home-life, amid congenial friends; in nature-life, amid flowers and birds and streams; in service-life, ministering to the poor and needy. If our joy is to be as the Master’s joy, it, too, will shine and flame in spheres of common life.
I met an old man a day or two ago who had spent half a century in the secret place with God. And at the end of fourscore years his joy is as ripe as autumn fruit. “Why, you are quite a marvel,” said one of his friends. “No, no; it is my Lord who is the marvel,” replied the saint, who has dwelt so long in the holy place.1 [Note: J. H. Jowett.]
(2) Joy in the Lord is progressive.—“Your joy shall be fulfilled.” Spiritual life is not complete and perfected in a day; it grows from glory unto glory. And joy itself is one of the things which are being ever more richly matured. Each day will fulfil more of its promise and elicit more of its wealth. It is the subject of a ripening ministry which will never be finished.
The law of the universe is Perfectionation—that is to say, progression from bad to good, from good to better, and from better to best. And this progression is effected by activity. We make the Sabbath the first day of the week—very foolish! It is and was the last day of the week, and is a symbol of enjoyment in work done during the six days that precede, work being the very perfect business and definition of life.1 [Note: John Stuart Blackie, i. 194.]
(3) Joy in the Lord is invulnerable.—“Your joy no man taketh from you.” And this for the simple reason that no man can get at it! It is beyond the reach of human treachery, and is indeed independent of all external circumstances.
I went a little while ago to the old ruined castle at Middleham. I noticed the massive outer walls of extraordinary thickness. I measured the inner walls, which constitute the keep, and in the middle of the keep there was the well. The water supply was quite independent of the invading forces by which the castle in olden days was beset and besieged. The water supply could never be touched. “The water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up unto everlasting life.” Our joy is a well which is in the “keep.” “The Lord is thy keeper.”2 [Note: J. H. Jowett.]
We know by practical experience that joy is a strength. We know that, while sorrow depresses and unnerves us, joy gives us new heart and vigour. In a cheerful, confident mood we can do that which is quite impossible to us when our strength is wasted in doubt and vain regrets. If we go to any task in a gay, hopeful spirit, we are likely to do it well; while a dejected and fearful heart is only too likely to ensure the failure it anticipates and dreads. But if all joy is strengthening, how much more the joy of the Lord! For the joy of the Lord is that serene cheerfulness which springs from an unwavering trust in Him, and which is therefore independent of the changes and losses and griefs of time. If God is our chief good, our supreme joy, as He does not change, our joy cannot change. Settled in a perfect trust in Him, we abide in a settled gladness and peace. All tasks are easier to us because we are sure of Him; all losses are endurable because we cannot lose Him; all sorrows may be borne because we are joyful in Him. It is only because God’s presence and help, His friendliness and love, His perfect care of us and His joy in our joy, are not real and supreme facts to us, because they are hidden from us by our sins and fears, that we are so often weak and miserable and perturbed.
1. The joy of the Lord is our strength in the face of temptation.—If we look back at the past, do we not find that those periods in which we have given way to doubt and distrust were times in which all spiritual energy was paralysed, times in which we longed for some emotion that would raise us above ourselves—longed for “more life and fuller”? Then, in the cold dreary midnight which has seemed to be settling over us, has not the voice whispered, “It is better to go madly wrong than to be passionless and cold”? Then it was that the sleeping evil in the heart started into life, and low impulses and base temptations rose up in power. Now the “joy of the Lord” disarms 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. It is the vacant heart that is powerless. It must be filled. It is vain to say to a man, “Love not the world,” unless you give him something else to love. Thus He who is filled with that calm joy which springs from the surrender of the heart to God, and fellowship with His love, is strong with an irresistible strength.
He swung along the road, happy in heart, singing softly to himself, and thinking about the Saviour. All at once he could feel the fumes coming out of a saloon ahead. He could not see the place yet, but his keen, trained nose felt it. The odours came out strong and gripped him. He said he was frightened, and wondered how he would get by. He had never gone by before, he said, always gone in; but he couldn’t go in now. But what to do, that was the rub. Then he smiled and said, “I remembered, and I said, ‘Jesus you’ll have to come along and help me get by, I never can by myself.’ ” And then in his simple, illiterate way he said, “and He came—and we went by, and we’ve been going by ever since.”1 [Note: S. D. Gordon, Quiet Talks on Service, 81.]
2. The joy of the Lord is our strength for service.—No man can do his work well unless his heart is in it; and for a man to put heart into it he must enjoy it; and to enjoy it he must feel that it is congenial—that is to say, the three essential elements of successful service are fitness, enjoyment, enthusiasm. Now, God has a work for all that is in harmony with the best powers of each; a work about which we can say, “I delight to do thy will, O my God”; and a work, therefore, which we can do “with all our might.” That work is God’s work, the service which engages the energies of the blessed God, which angels rejoice over, and for the joy of completing which the Redeemer endured the cross and despised the shame—the work of rescuing men from sin and making them happy in God’s love.
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 in 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 we have to do with hysterical persons, it is not along the line of their feeling that we restore them, but by definitely setting ourselves against it; not by sympathizing with their emotion and by words of tenderness, but by the quick sharp rebuke, “Enough of this; you must not give way.” We recover the widowed mother to composure by bidding her, not indeed forget her dead husband, but remember her living children. We bring back stricken mourners to hope and usefulness by reminding them of imperative and healing duty.1 [Note: A. Mackennal.]
There is, no doubt, an element of truth in George Eliot’s words, “Many a good piece of work is done with a sad heart,” and the lines of Matthew Arnold embody a similar lesson:—
Tasks in hours of insight willed
May be in hours of gloom fulfilled.
Still, as a general rule, it will be found that there is nothing more unfavourable to efficient or successful work than despondency or sadness. A joyless workman is seldom a good workman; he does not work vigorously, he has no pleasure in his work, and consequently he is very likely to tire of it. Joy is the source of strength. Gladness is the secret of efficiency. Light-heartedness makes work easy. If our spirits begin to flag, we shall not conquer difficulties. If we lose heart, we shall win no victories. “If the arm is to smite with vigour,” says Dr. Maclaren, “it must smite at the bidding of a calm and light heart.”
Now with no care or fear,
Because I feel Thee near,
Because my hands were not reached out in vain,
I may from out my calm
Reach humbly out some balm,
Some peace, some light to others in their pain.
3. The joy of the Lord is our strength for endurance.—We are too weak to endure the discipline of life unless we have the present earnest of the future reward. Sorrows make us strong by breaking us away from the enervating influences of the world’s life; but stronger for endurance is this joy which springs out of sorrow. It was this joy that shone out in the martyr ages, and filled the martyrs’ souls with the peace of God, and it is the earnest and foretaste now of the blessedness of those who, being faithful to the end, shall fully “enter into the joy of their Lord.”
Learn to live with the contentment of those who have already found their portion, who see their way now through eternity. And at each step of your way, when things are very dark with you and the light has died off from all you took pleasure in, when men are wondering how they can speak a word of comfort to you, you can still say, “The lines are fallen unto me in pleasant places; yea, I have a goodly heritage!” You are determined to read all God’s dealings with you in the light of His prime gift; and you know well enough that the want of some things is a part of the “all things” that God bestows. You can, each one of you, go to God now and say with a confidence no creature can challenge, “Thou shalt guide me with thy counsel, and afterward receive me to glory.”1 [Note: Marcus Dods.]
Waiting on Him who knows us and our need,
Most need have we to dare not, nor desire,
But as He giveth, softly to suspire
Against His gift, with no inglorious greed,
For this is joy, tho’ still our joys recede;
And, as in octaves of a noble lyre,
To move our minds with His, and clearer, higher,
Sound forth our fate; for this is strength indeed.
Thanks to His love let earth and man dispense
In smoke of worship when the heart is stillest,
A praying more than prayer: “Great good have I,
Till it be greater good to lay it by;
Nor can I lose peace, power, permanence,
For these smile on me from the thing Thou willest!”2 [Note: Frank Dempster Sherman.]
Cox (S.), Biblical Expositions, 124.
Dewhurst (E. M.), The King and His Servants, 15.
Dods (M.), Footsteps in the Path of Life, 144.
Grubb (G. C.), Unsearchable Riches, 131.
Hamilton (J.), Faith in God, 303.
Hoare (E.), Great Principles of Divine Truth, 204.
Hull (E. L.), Sermons preached at King’s Lynn, ii. 109.
Kelman (J.), Ephemera Eternitatis, 113.
Kemble (C.), Memorials of a Closed Ministry, ii. 171.
Leach (C.), Old yet Ever New, 242.
Mackay (H. O.), Miniature Sermons, 9.
Mackennal (A.), The Life of Christian Consecration, 146.
Maclaren (A.), Creed and Conduct, 83.
Maclaren (A.), Expositions: 2 Kings, etc., 379.
Maclaren (A.), Sermons preached in Manchester, i. 136.
Matheson (G.), Rests by the River, 270.
Moody (D. L.), New Sermons, Addresses, and Prayers, 412.
Smellie (A.), In the Hour of Silence, 139.
Spurgeon (C. H.), Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, xvii. (1871), No. 1027.
Vaughan (J.), Sermons (Brighton Pulpit), xviii. No. 1142.
Wilson (S. L.), Helpful Words for Daily Life, 129.
Christian World Pulpit, iv. 248 (Woodford); viii. 314 (Mackennal); xxi. 122 (Burn); xxxix. 6 (Hocking).
Church Family Newspaper, Feb. 24, 1911, 148 (Willink).
Churchman’s Pulpit: Sixteenth Sunday after Trinity, xii. 181 (Burn), 185 (Hull).
Contemporary Pulpit, 1st Ser., iv. 163 (Burn).
Examiner, July 9, 1903, 36 (Jowett).