Then he said to them, “Go, eat of the fat, drink of the sweet, and send portions to him who has nothing prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord. Do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength. Nehemiah 8:10
Joy – The rare word hedvah is found in only two verses in the Scriptures, here and in 1 Chronicles 16:27. The usual word for “joy” is simhah, occurring dozens of times. In this verse, hedvah is directly connected to YHWH. It is not our joy that strengthens. It is His joy. The same connection occurs in the other use of hedvah (“strength and joy – gladness – are in His place”). While simhah is clearly associated with human emotions and actions, hedvah seems to be the exclusive possession of God Himself. This makes hedvah all the more important. If hedvat YHWH is our strength, then we better know what it means.
We have a pretty good idea what “rejoice” means, even if the experience often escapes us. The Hebrew word (simhah) is usually translated by Greek words that mean “to be cheerful, glad.” Often rejoicing is associated with God’s festivals, spiritual awakenings or physical circumstances. On reflection, we see that this kind of joy is connected to participation in community, especially in events that celebrate God’s involvement with His people. In other words, this rejoicing requires human participation. God expects His people to celebrate their association with Him joyfully. In the same way, when God delivers help or rescue, we participate in circumstances that call for rejoicing.
But what about “the joy of YHWH”? What can it mean to suggest that God Himself experiences joy – and that this is the basis of our strength? The text doesn’t offer much help since the word occurs only twice. We will have to look deeper. The pictograph provides a clue. Hedvah is a noun derived from the verb hadah. The consonants are chet-dalet-hey. The picture is “behold, a door in the fence.” Now we see. What is the joy of YHWH? It is the gladness of providing a door in the fence – a path for coming into His presence. What cheers our Lord? A way in. God rejoices that there is a door for us to come into fellowship with Him. We are not shut out for He has provided a way back. The joy of YHWH is that He can fellowship with us!
Did you notice that none of this joy requires our efforts? If we are going to rejoice in His festivals or in His deliverance from trials or in changes of circumstance, we have to do something. The Bible describes our movements as clapping, singing, shouting, dancing and all the other motions associated with celebration. But the hedvat YHWH exists because He made a way! “Enter into the joy of your Master” (Matthew 25:21) is connected to the joy of YHWH.
So now we know. Now we see that the deepest sense of joy is not about what we do. It is about the gift God gives – an open door. The privilege to enter in to harmony with God is our strength. No other creature in all creation has this privilege. There is no other door except the one He provides. This should make our hearts leap with gratitude and rejoicing. Our strength is His provision.
There are days when we just need to be reminded that the greatest joy in life doesn’t come with our effort. Too often our efforts fall short of joy. Too often we run aground on the sandbanks of life’s hidden obstacles. Far too often, self-determined joy simply eludes us. Shipwrecked on our own failures, we watch helplessly as the waves of consequence batter our protecting vessel. Yes, we are invited to dance, to clap hands, to sing and shout to the Lord. But there are days when even the invitation weighs like an anchor. Our unworthiness chains us to the depths and we cannot be released to sail. On those days, Nehemiah’s funny little word must become our only song. “Do not be grieved, for the joy of YHWH is your strength.”
I couldn’t free myself today. The anchor of my past, the chains of my failure – they kept me tied to the reef, left me beat up and broken. But YHWH rejoiced in the open door waiting for me to say, “I am weak and heavy-laden. You, My Lord, are my only strength. Let me enter into Your joy.”
Topical Index: joy, hedvah, hadah, simhah, rejoice, Nehemiah 8:10, 1 Chronicles 16:27