How to Strengthen a Guilty Soul

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10:

All the people of Israel gathered together into the square before the Water Gate. They told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the Lord had given to Israel. Accordingly, the priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding. This was on the first day of the seventh month. He read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law. And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. Then Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. Then they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground. So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.

And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

Why did they cry? There could be several reasons. There may have been some people old enough to remember hearing the Law in their childhood, and it may have gone to their hearts to hear it again. They were undoubtedly overflowing with joy and relief to be back in their own city again, even though only the wall was built so far, and the people were few, without many houses (Neh. 8).

But it seems that mostly, they cried for guilt. For more than three generations, (counting a generation as 20 years) they had lived in Babylon, probably doing little or nothing to keep the ordained Feasts, sinning constantly (as humans do) without recourse to their sacrificial system, which kept God’s grace and forgiveness before their minds.

Now, here it was, a Feast day, and they weren’t ready!

Did Nehemiah and Ezra scold? They were certainly capable of it, as other stories show. Did they rant or bewail the Israelites who, as a people, had brought down the curse of captivity on their own heads?

No. They comforted. They said, “Don’t cry, it’s okay, we’ll keep the Feast now! Joy,” they said—God’s joy, specifically, “is your strength.”

It just makes me wonder…what if we said to the guilty soul (another’s or our own), “Don’t cry. Eat, drink, celebrate, and be sure to share, too. It’s okay. God still loves you. In joy is your strength.”

What if we did? I wonder how it would affect our lives and the lives of our churches and communities.

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