Updated: Dec 12, 2021
Biblical joy is more than a feeling. (Boston anyone?)
Joy seems something that most of us want. It's more than happiness or delight. Joy has a depth, a sound that rings through the atmosphere just as it tingles our toes. Joy is like a pot that runs over. It comes with the birth of a child, the return of an old friend, or reliving a moment you thought would never come again.
I believe what makes joy different than happiness is that joy rises from its opposite. Joy rises from suffering, struggle, despair, and emptiness. Joy is what the psalmist is describing when they write about turning "mourning into dancing." (Psalm 30:11)
Biblical joy is exactly that kind of joy.
At the heart of scripture is the broken relationship between God and humanity. It begins at creation. Later, the prophets speak to it. Jesus, the Son of Man, is born to heal it. This broken relationship between God and humanity is what Shalom and God's re-creation of a new heaven and new earth restores. Scripture centers on the struggle to heal that broken relationship. For most of the Hebrew Bible, the drama between God and humanity is depicted between God and Israel. The prophets, both major and minor prophets of the Bible, voice Israel's complex relationship with God. They speak in strong tones of warning and promise. The basis of God's relationship with Israel is a covenant, a mutual commitment, one that began with Abraham and deepens through Moses. We hear it in God's deal made through Moses as stated in Exodus 6:7, "I, [God,] will take you as my people, and I will be your God." God and Israel belong to one another.
Whatever the reasons, Israel's relationship with God gets strained. It goes south. A lot of theological ink has been spilt over this topic - what happened, why it happened, who did what, and what needs to be done about it. Much of this spilt ink is in the Bible, itself.
The heart of the matter, however, is that God and God's people turn their hearts from one another. Their hearts turn from God and Mosaic Law - which details what people's duties are to God and one another. To turn your heart from God and the Law is also to turn your heart from our neighbor. The prophets repeatedly complain about it.
Rich exploit the poor. Widows and orphans are without resources or protection. Strangers and foreigners are mistreated. On the other hand, sometimes Israel over-accommodates strangers and foreigners by seeking their favor and their gods. In other words, they treat outsiders better than they treat God, their fellow Israelites, and therefore break the covenant. God's covenant with Israel is a shared project. Love of God, love of neighbor, and love of covenant intersect each other. So, betrayal and promiscuous loyalties to other gods and kingdoms anger God all the same. Religious debates over Israel's sins miss the point. This rift between God and Israel isn't just a behavioral problem. Legalism over the Law won't fix it. It's ultimately about their relationship. At its heart, God and Israel have a "heart" problem. They've turned their heart from God and one another. It's pretty clear in the way prophets imagine the solution. Says the Lord...
“I will give them one heart, and put a new spirit within them. I will take the heart of stone...and give them a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 11:19)
“I will give them a heart to know Me, for I am the Lord; and they will be My people, and I will be their God, for they will return to Me with their whole heart.” (Jeremiah 24:7)
“This is the covenant I will make with the people...I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.” (Jeremiah 31:33)
Clearly, it's more than God's rules that have been broken. God's relationship with Israel is broken. And, hearts are broken. Perhaps, God's heart is broken.
What joy can come from this?! After being robbed of their land, exiled from their homes, and the Temple destroyed, Jerusalem lays desolate for about three generations. The strong, learned, and capable of Israel are scattered among their enemies. that's what captivity is all about. The poor, the lame, outcast, and diseased are left to survive among the ruins of Jerusalem.
Seemingly out of nowhere, the prophets' words of warning and destruction turn to words of promise. It's hard to know exactly what goes on, but something changes. Perhaps, God or Israel - or both - hit rock bottom. Perhaps, God's anger dissipates in the suffering of separation. Perhaps, Israel's injustice and disregard for one another hits a reckoning point. It's hard to know. Whatever the case, from rock bottom grace and hope and joy spring forth unexpectedly. It's clear that whatever's been broken, God wants to salvage and restore again.
Midst the wreckage of Jerusalem, the prophets imagine a "day of our Lord." It's a day when God's hope to be united again with God's people is realized. Mutual hope to heal their brokenness and their relationship is fulfilled. And, people's hearts are changed. Zephaniah, a minor prophet, imagines that day with such joy and festive imagery. Below is Zephaniah 3:14-20 paraphrased & selected.
Sing aloud! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more. On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: God will rejoice over you with gladness, God will renew you in love; God will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival! I will save the lame and gather the outcast, I will change your shame into praise I will bring you home, when I gather you,
I will restore your fortunes before your eyes....
What joy. After generations of feeling empty and God's wretched absence, God and God's people return home. The prophet doesn't depict the people rejoicing as much as God rejoices. God is filled with gladness. God exalts with singing. God restores the broken, lame, and gathers the outcast. In front of Israel's eyes, their homes and wellbeing are restored.
To imagine this joy, God and Israel first experience incredible brokenness. It leads to a national crisis and destruction. God and Israel experience profound separation, their hearts turned from one another. Injustice and oppression, desolation, and destruction ensue. But, joy has the last word. Only joy speaks to and from such depths. Only joy has such a memory. Biblical joy has a memory of suffering, despair, and emptiness. The hope in suffering that gives rise to joy is the wellspring of God's Spirit stirring within us or around us. It is the hope of God and our hope in God that anticipates such joy.