Summary: I am indebted to Scott Coltrain and John Dobbs ("The Joy of the Lord is Our Strength", Scott Coltrain, SermonCentral.com, Nov. 2002, and, "The Joy of the Lord", John Dobbs, SermonCentral.com, Dec. 2000) for a number of ideas utilized in this sermon.
In the year 587 BC, Jerusalem was sacked and totally destroyed by the Babylonian Empire. The elite of Judean society were carried off into exile. In 538 BC, Cyrus, the King of the Persian Empire, who had recently conquered the Babylonians, issued a decree allowing the Jews held in captivity to return to their homeland. Cyrus favored granting his subjects cultural autonomy, including the freedom to have their own religion. He issued a decree allowing the Jews held in captivity to return to their homeland, and supported efforts to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem.
The return to Jerusalem did not occur all at once; instead, groups of Jews continued to drift back to Palestine over a span of nearly a century in successive waves of dedicated rebuilders, their efforts supported financially by those who remained in the region of Babylon and Nippur (see Ezra 1:4). The early arrivals met with bitter disappointment. The early years were fraught with hardship and frustration. They were greatly hampered by the Samaritans.
Key leaders during the third and final wave of migration back to Jerusalem were Ezra, a zealous reform-minded Jewish priest, and, Nehemiah, the trusted “cup-bearer” of the Persian king. Nehemiah was dispatched in 444 BC by Artaxerxes, King of the Persian Empire, to serve as governor of the province. This appointment had come about because of Nehemiah’s desire to rebuild the defensive wall around Jerusalem (see Nehemiah 2:1-5). Both Ezra and Nehemiah were devoted to the task of restoring the Jewish religion among the people of Jerusalem, and both the goal of restoration of the defensive wall and the restoration of the Jewish religion enjoyed the strong support of Artaxerxes (see Ezra 7:12-26, and Nehemiah 2:6-9).
According to some estimates, there were only about 50,000 people in Judah when Nehemiah arrived. In addition to building the defensive wall, Nehemiah instituted a number of administrative reforms that ended usury and assisted the poor who had been dispossessed of their vineyards, olive groves and houses by land-grabbers (see Nehemiah, Chapter 5).
Nehemiah governed for twelve years. He then visited Babylon and the Persian court. When he returned to Jerusalem he found things had degenerated. Intermarriage, Sabbath-breaking, and all-round religious laxity were the order of the day. It was probably at about this time that Ezra arrived and raised concern about the state of spiritual affairs in Judah, though some scholars conclude that Ezra had arrived earlier. Through Ezra’s efforts and Nehemiah’s cooperation (see Nehemiah, Chapter 13 and Chapter 8), a great spiritual revival began in the land.
We also read in the book of Ezra of this spiritual revival: “While Ezra was praying and confessing, weeping and throwing himself down before the house of God, a large crowd of Israelites, men, women and children, gathered around him. They too wept bitterly. Then Shecaniah son of Jehiel, one of the descendants of Elam, said to Ezra, ‘We have been unfaithful to our God by marrying foreign women from the peoples around us. But in spite of this, there is still hope for Israel. Now let us make a covenant before our God to send away all these women and their children, in accordance with the counsel of my lord and of those who fear the commands of God. Let it be done according to the Law. Rise up; this matter is in your hands. We will support you, so take courage and do it.’” (Ezra 10:1-4 NIV) And with this began the spiritual revival that would reshape Judaism from that time forward.
And in Nehemiah, Chapter 8, we read of how Nehemiah assembled the people and caused the Law of Moses to be read and interpreted by Ezra with the Levites also explaining the meaning of what was being read. “So on the first day of the seventh month Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, which was made up of men and women and all who were able to understand. He read it aloud from daybreak till noon…. And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law. Ezra the scribe stood on a high wooden platform built for the occasion” (Nehemiah 8:1-4a). “Then Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who were instructing the people said to them…’Do not mourn or weep’ for all the people had been weeping as they listened to the words of the Law. Nehemiah said… ‘Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.’” (Nehemiah 8:9-10a).
This may well have been the first time that many of the people had heard the Law of Moses and had it explained to them. Upon hearing God’s Word and the history of their people, they were filled with remorse on account of now knowing and being convinced of their own sin and the sin of their ancestors. When they became convinced of their sin, they grieved. The more they heard the more they realized just how far their ancestors had strayed from God’s covenant, and how little they themselves had known about the Law of Moses and their God. Their failure became evident to them. Their guilt was obvious, and they felt it deeply. They wept in sorrow and repented of their sins.