This takes place after Ezra's reading of the Law to those rebuilding Jerusalem after exile. It's demoralizing work, spending day after day in the ruins of your homeland (something perhaps only those engaged in rebuilding efforts like New Orleans or the Indian Ocean tsunami can even begin to grasp), working hard and, all the while, guarding against those who have threatened from the outside. There are, no doubt, sweet victories and signs of progress, yet few would argue that it doesn't take a cumulative toll.
Add to that the nature of what they've heard: a Law they and their ancestors have repeatedly violated, a reminder that everything is indeed broken and that they are suffering the consequences daily. And not just a broken world, but deeper still, a broken relationship between God and His people.
So why not mourn and weep? These are things that are worthy of mourning and weeping—so many of our cramped personal dramas pale in comparison.
I'm no fan of denial (or as I like to call it, bullshit—feel free to interchange the terms for whichever you find most palatable). Anything that fails to honestly grapple with the brokenness of our world makes my skin crawl with its apparent inauthenticity. Mindless happy-clappy-ness drives me up a wall. So how do I deal with this call to joy in circumstances far more grave and grieving than most I've faced?
It's because God said so.
I don't see this as a dodge of necessary, proper grief. Quite the opposite—I'm not sure this call can be rightly heeded without first facing what would otherwise break us, what should ruin us utterly if God's promise is untrue. This joy is after that, not in denial of it.
And yet, we apparently need to be called to it, reminded to enter a larger reality than our experience. The latter is usually inhabited by a smaller god than God, if it has one at all. Honestly, sometimes that god is me: I think my perspective, my wounds and my desires, determine reality. And sometimes that god is just too limited: it has less goodness, less faithfulness, less power, less authority, less wildness than He. But God declared that day holy—set apart for Himself. And that changes everything, by power and by right.
We often want more than words from God, and I think there's something good in that—we need Him to show up. But a Word from the Sovereign of the universe is enough. It is sufficient to create that universe and hold it together. It is sufficient to become flesh, dwell among us, suffer and die for the sake of justice, mercy and love, and rise again to reign. It is enough, and sometimes He loves us best by calling us to trust that without giving us a shred more evidence.
Grief is not inherently disobedient. Perish the thought! So many just deny it because it's unpleasant or suppress it because it's impolite. That's denial/bullshit (and sadly, Christians can be particularly guilty of this). But once we've experienced legitimate grief, in time God may call us out when we'd otherwise just sit in it. That's our tendency. But there's a reality beyond grief that He's given to us in His promise. He's calling us to come warm ourselves by the hearth of His home—His and ours—instead of staying out in the (very real) rain. It's not an end to suffering, but it is the promise of an end, an end that is more just and merciful and good than anything we can conceive.
Ezra says, "And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” I think our tendency is to wait for joy and/or strength before we step out from our grief, but if that always came first, Ezra wouldn't need to say this. In our grief we may lament and wonder where our joy and strength have gone. Ezra's statement suggests that they're right there waiting, but it will take a risk on God in faith to get to them. They may continue to be elusive if we only want to sit in our grief.
Trusting that promise isn't natural. We do have to be called to it, and heeding that call means trusting in God's promised healing and leaving behind the notion that our ideas of justice, mercy, and good are the compass points of reality. Believing His promise means placing my experience of now (and then) in the context of the Sovereign Lord of All. It means hoping in something, Someone bigger than myself. It means going all in on a redemption of which we've only seen the firstfruits in Christ. It means being ruined if He doesn't come through. It's dangerous.