Laughter in the Bible? Surely some mistake - is not our image of fun in religion that of the Rev I. M Jolly, and more of a caricature at that?
Prepare to be surprised! However, before going down that road completely, we must acknowledge that laughter is not always the relaxed result of our enjoyment of a humorous situation. It can also be the involuntary and unwanted evidence of our discomfort at, or disbelief in, a revelation or development with which we are uncomfortable:
Even in laughter the heart may sorrow, and then end of mirth may be grief. (Prov 14:13)
Perhaps the most well-known examples of laughter, caused by a reaction to a situation, are the responses of the aged Abraham and Sarah to the divine revelation that they are to have a child together:
Then Abraham fell upon his face, and laughed, and said in his heart, Shall a child be born unto him that is an hundred years old? and shall Sarah, that is ninety years old, bear? (Genesis 17:17)
This is followed later by Sarah's response:
And the LORD said unto Abraham, Wherefore did Sarah laugh, saying, Shall I of a surety bear a child, which am old? Is any thing too hard for the LORD? At the time appointed I will return unto thee, according to the time of life, and Sarah shall have a son. Then Sarah denied, saying, I laughed not; for she was afraid. And he said, Nay; but thou didst laugh. (Genesis 18:13-15)
This is not the end of the matter though, as Sarah laughs again when the promise comes to fruition:
And Sarah said, God hath made me to laugh, so that all that hear will laugh with me. (Genesis 21:6)
Joy is undoubtably the most attractive reason for laughter, but it is not the only cause of laughter in the Bible. Many Scriptural passages use laughter to symbolise God's power to overcome the activities of mankind pitted against His will and purpose.
The books of Psalms, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, which go a long way in echoing the difficulties, emotions and lessons which we find in our modern lives, contain the majority of related references. The most well known of these is probably Ecclesiastes 3, from which we have:
A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; (Ecclesiastes 3:4)
Psalm 2, which looks forward to the time when Jesus returns to reign upon the earth - an event which in itself will bring fearful emotions to those not looking for it - expresses, in verses used by Handel in his oratorio "Messiah", the way in which God reacts to the scheming which is resorted to by temporal, earthly powers:
Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD, and against his anointed, saying, Let us break their bands asunder, and cast away their cords from us. He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh: the LORD shall have them in derision. (Psalm 2:1-4)
We look in Psalm 22 to a time when the Psalmist David, a man after God's own heart, was assailed by difficulties brought on him by temporal forces, but the Psalm is recognised as foreseeing the betrayal and suffering of Christ:
All they that see me laugh me to scorn: they shoot out the lip, they shake the head... (Psalm 22:7)
But even as Jesus in turn knew that he would suffer this scorn, so he knew that his heavenly Father would overturn the mocking rule of man. He is recorded in Luke 6 speaking to the material haves and have nots, who may be compared with the spiritually poor and rich:
Woe unto you that are full! for ye shall hunger. Woe unto you that laugh now! for ye shall mourn and weep. (Luke 6:25)
On the other hand we have:
Blessed are ye that hunger now: for ye shall be filled. Blessed are ye that weep now: for ye shall laugh. (Luke 6:21)
So it is that in God's good time all things that He has purposed will come about, and the penny will drop for those who have not known God, while the patience of faithful believers will be rewarded. We finish with verses celebrating the return of the exiled Jews from Babylonian captivity to Jersualem, which are also relevant to those who today await the return of Jesus the Messiah to rule upon the earth with power:
When the LORD turned again the captivity of Zion, we were like them that dream. Then was our mouth filled with laughter, and our tongue with singing: then said they among the heathen, The LORD hath done great things for them. The LORD hath done great things for us; whereof we are glad. (Psalm 126:1-3)
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