Psalm 59: God’s Laughter
Yet another lament. Enough already! Like Michigan winters, they just go on and on. I look for relief and see weeks of snow, freezing temperatures and freezing rain in the forecast. I look for words of quiet and repose, yet I get words of sorrow and anger with little end in sight, including this week’s psalm, Psalm 59.
Deitrich Bonhoeffer in his book on the Psalms, says, “It does not depend, therefore, on whether the Psalms express adequately that which we feel at a given moment in our heart. If we are to pray aright, perhaps it is quite necessary that we pray contrary to our own heart. Not what we want to pray is important, but what God wants us to pray . . . The richness of the Word of God ought to determine our prayer, not the poverty of our heart.” So, I am stuck with another lament as I continue my journey through the Psalms, reading and reflecting on one each week.
If it were about me I would skip over those psalms that don’t appeal to me or fit my current mood. I definitely wouldn’t spend so much time with laments, yet laments make up the largest portion of the Psalter. They can’t be avoided. So what is God trying to say?
As I read Psalm 59 neither the writer nor his enemies are sympathetic to me. His enemies are like dogs, “Each evening they come back, howling like dogs and prowling about the city. There they are bellowing with their mouths, and snarling with their lips.” (6-7a) It isn’t enough that God punish his enemies, the writer wants God to play with them for a while like a cat with a mouse, keeping them around so that others might witness. “Slay them not, lest my people forget; make them totter by your power, and bring them down.” (11)
Even God isn’t all that appealing as described by the author, “But you, O Lord, laugh at them; you hold all the nations in derision.” (8) God is shown laughing at the writer’s attackers. The psalmist is so pleased at this prospect that he breaks into praise, “O my Strength, I will sing praises to you; for you, O God are my fortress. My God in his steadfast love will meet me; my God will let me look in triumph on my enemies.” (9-10)
Part of verses 9-10 is repeated at the end of the psalm. Some exegetes claim the last line, “My God will let me look in triumph on my enemies,” (10b) was left off by mistake by some careless scribe as he copied the text. I like to think the line was left out in order to end on a more positive note rather than one of revenge, thereby redeeming this psalm. “O my Strength, I will sing praises to thee, for you, O God, are my fortress, the God who shows me steadfast love.” (17)
As I reflect on this psalm, I am intrigued by God’s laugh. It doesn’t appear to be the hearty laugh of one enjoying a good joke. Instead it comes across as a laugh of derision, unbecoming of God in my mind. God laughs three times in the Psalms, 2:4, 37:13 and Psalm 59. God also laughs in Wisdom 4:18, “They see, and hold him in contempt; but the Lord laughs them to scorn.”
Each time it is mocking. Further searching using a concordance shows the words laugh, laughed and laughter are used sparingly in Scripture, 38 times, and many of those are related to scorn. When Sara laughed at the news she would have a baby, her laugh was of this derisive nature, not joy, even though it is often interpreted otherwise.
The Early Hebrew Community
This leads me to wonder about the early Hebrew community. Was theirs a mirthless community that knew little of the joy of laughter? I find it hard to equate this with a people that wrote such amazing poetry set in nature, with trees clapping and mountains singing. Or a people that danced in praise and thanksgiving before their God. Yet here I am mired in laments with a derisive God. What is one to do with that? I wish I could skip to the last five psalms of the Psalter, all psalms of praise.
One commentator states, “It is interesting that man, called ‘the laughing animal,’ has so sparingly spoken of laughter as a divine quality. . . Laughter as the visible sign of the pleasure of God has, however, no reference in the Bible. . . Has man, creating God in his own likeness, preferred him dour and mirthless?” (Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 4) Jesus is never described as laughing yet his humor is evident in his stories, leading me to believe he had a sense of humor.
So what do I make of Psalm 59? People mired in hardship and suffering, find it hard to appreciate spontaneous, joy-filled laughter. It is just not part of their reality. Psalm 59 is written by a flawed human who sees God in his own flawed image, but that is not God.
The Power of God’s Laugh
I love the power in God’s laugh. Just as God’s word is powerful, never failing to do what it is sent to do, God only need laugh and things happen. God laughs and people stuck in suffering and depression turn to praise. I see God’s laughter as delightful, rolling across the mountain tops and into the valleys, inviting us to join in. God’s laughter turns laments into hymns of joy. It turns winter snow into summer sun.
What about you? How do you see God’s laughter? Are you ready to laugh with God?
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