‘They kept the feast … seven days with joy; for the Lord had made them joyful.’— EZRA vi. 22 .
Twenty years of hard work and many disappointments and dangers had at last, for the Israelites returning from the captivity, been crowned by the completion of the Temple. It was a poor affair as compared with the magnificent house that had stood upon Zion; and so some of them ‘despised the day of small things.’ They were ringed about by enemies; they were feeble in themselves; there was a great deal to darken their prospects and to sadden their hearts; and yet, when memories of the ancient days came back, and once more they saw the sacrificial smoke rising from the long cold and ruined altar, they rejoiced in God, and they kept the Passover amid the ruins, as my text tells us, for the ‘seven days’ of the statutory period ‘with joy,’ because, in spite of all, ‘the Lord had made them joyful.’
I think if we take this simple saying we get two or three thoughts about the true and the counterfeit gladnesses possible to us all.
I. Look at that great and wonderful thought—God the joy-maker.
We do not often realise how glad God is when we are glad. The object of much that He does is simply the prosperity and the blessedness of human hearts. The poorest creature has a right to ask from God the satisfaction of its instincts, and every man has a claim on God—because he is God’s creature—to make him glad. God honours all cheques legitimately drawn on Him, and answers all claims, and regards Himself as occupied in a manner entirely congruous with His magnificence and His infinitude, when He stoops to put vibrating gladness into the wings of a gnat that dances for an hour in the sunshine, and into the heart of a man that lives his time a little longer.
God is the Joy-maker. This thought should silence our grumblings and our distrust, that the gladness of His children is an end contemplated by Him in all that He does. God’s intention is that all mankind should rejoice in Himself. What a marvellous revelation to break out of the very heart of ancient Judaism. ‘The Lord hath made them joyful.’ Ezra 6:22.
Let me remind you of the great outlines of the divine provision for gladdening men’s hearts. I was going to say that God had only one way of making us glad; and perhaps that is in the deepest sense true. That way is by putting Himself into us. He gives us Himself to make us glad; for nothing else will do it—or, at least, though there may be many subordinate sources of joy, if there be in the innermost shrine of our spirits an empty place, where the Shekinah ought to shine, no other joys will suffice to settle and to rejoice the soul. The secret of all true human well-being is close communion with God; and when He looks at the poorest of us, desiring to make us blessed, He can but say, ‘I will give Myself to that poor man; to that ignorant creature; to that wayward and prodigal child; to that harlot in her corruption; to that worldling in his narrow godlessness; I will give Myself, if they will have Me.’ And thus, and only thus, does He make us truly, perfectly, and for ever glad.
Besides that, there come such other God-given blessings as these to which my text refers. What were the outward reasons for the restored exiles’ gladness? ‘The Lord had made them joyful, and turned the heart of the king … unto them to strengthen their hands in the work of the house of God, the God of Israel.’
So, then, He pours into men’s lives by His providences the secondary and lower gifts which men, according to changing circumstances, need; and He also satisfies the permanent physical necessities of all orders of beings to whom He has given life. He gives Himself for the spirit; He gives whatever is contributory to any kind of gladness; and if we are wise we shall trace all to Him. He is the Joy-giver; and that man has not yet understood either the sanctity of life or the full sweetness of its sweetest things unless he sees, written over every one of them, the name of God, their Giver. Your common mercies are His love tokens, and they all come to us, just as the gifts of parents to their children do, with this on the fly-leaf, ‘With a father’s love.’ Whatever comes to God’s child with that inscription, surely it ought to kindle a thrill of gladness. That ‘the king of Assyria’s heart is turned’; shall we thank the king of Assyria? Yes and No! For it was God who ‘turned’ it. Oh! to carry the quiet confidence of that thought into all our daily life, and see His name written upon everything that contributes to make us blessed. God is the true Source and Maker of every joy.
And by the side of that we must put this other thought—there are sources of joy with which He has nothing to do. There are people who are joyful—and there are some of them listening now—not because God made them joyful, but because ‘the world, the devil, and the flesh’ have given them ghastly caricatures of the true gladness. Men call them pleasures; over all of them is the broad word ‘entertainment’. These rival sources of pleasure or happiness are the enemies of all that is good and noble in us and are corruptions of true joy. God made these men joyful, and so their gladness was wholesome.