A TIME TO LAUGH
There are some who, if they do not look upon laughter as being actually sinful, certainly regard it as most unbecoming in a child of God. Personally, we do not agree with such a concept, though we are far from being advocates of frivolity and lightness in a saint. It is said, on good authority, that there are more than one hundred muscles in the face which are never exercised except by a hearty laugh. If, then, it be wrong to do so, why did the Creator place those muscles there? But we are not left to form our own opinion or indulge in speculation on the subject, for God’s Word plainly avers1 there is “a time to laugh” (Ecc 3:4), which shows that on certain occasions it is both right and proper to do so.
Yet since those words are preceded by “a time to weep,” we learn there is a balance to be preserved there too. No doubt a person’s temperament has not a little to do with it, for some are more emotional and demonstrative than others. So, too, have our circumstances and experiences: “A merry heart maketh a cheerful countenance” (Pro 15:13). How close is the sympathy between the soul and the body, though composed of such different elements!
A man’s countenance is normally the index of his spirit. If the spirit be oppressed, sadness will be reflected in the face; but if the heart be joyful, our features will reveal it. “Then Abraham fell upon his face, and laughed” (Gen 17:17). The occasion was a noteworthy one. More than twenty years had passed since the Lord said unto the patriarch “unto thy seed will I give this land,” and the only child he had was Ishmael by Hagar. He was then almost a hundred years old, and his wife not much younger. But now God appeared unto him again and declared, “I will bless her, and give thee a son also of her.” Blessed is it to behold his reactions to that startling announcement, and to note the double response which he made thereto. First, Abraham “fell on his face”: he prostrated himself before the Lord in reverential worship, which teaches us that the higher the favour which God bestows upon us, the lower is the place we should take before Him. Second, “he laughed” or gave vent to his joyful gratitude.
In the light of Romans 4:19-22, it is clear that his was the laughter of faith. Refusing to consider the formidable obstacles which to sight and reason stood in the way of the fulfillment of the divine promise, he counted upon God’s sufficiency, and gave Him glory. His laughter was that of delight and hope, or confident expectation, for it was not the joy of fruition, but of expectation. Nor was it merely the joy of having a son, but because therein he would receive an earnest of Messiah’s advent, for it was then that by faith and hope, he saw Christ’s day “and was glad” (Joh 8:56). “Therefore Sarah laughed within herself ” (Gen 18:12) when she heard the angels renewing God’s promise unto her husband.
This points a marked contrast with what we have just looked at, and shows how one believer differs from another, even when the bond of union between them is a most intimate one. Instead of believing God and relying upon His omnipotence, she was occupied with the apparent impossibility of the thing promised, dwelling upon the fact that she was now many years past the age of child bearing. She deemed it something incredible, as being contrary to nature, and therefore unbelief rather than faith was exercised by her. Thus hers was the laughter of doubting and distrust. Well did Martin Luther (1483-1546) point out, “If you would believe, you must crucify the question ‘how?’ ” Because her laughter was from weakness and not from scorn, the Lord smote her not, as He did Zacharias (Luk 1:20).
But even though God did not quench the smoking flax, He rebuked her, asking, “Is anything too hard for the LORD?” Yet instead of acknowledging her fault, she denied it—so reluctant is the believer to confess his sins. But later, as it is blessed to learn, her confidence in God was renewed, for we are told, “Through faith also Sarah herself received strength to conceive seed, and was delivered of a child when she was past age, because she judged him faithful who had promised” (Heb 11:11). Thus, though faith ultimately triumphed over unbelief, yet in her case it did not act so promptly as Abraham’s.
“Woe unto you that laugh now! for ye shall mourn and weep” (Luk 6:25). The laughter which Christ here denounced was no mere facial one, but a state of heart which lived only for the present, and had no serious concern for the future. It was His censure of those who go giddily and gaily along the broad road that leads to destruction (Mat 7:13). In the light of the immediate context, the reference is to those who rejoiced in the abundance of their worldly possessions, and found their delight in making gods of their bellies. But the words will warrant-ably admit of a wider application, taking in all those who make a trade of any form of self-gratification and self-jollification.
This then is the laughter of insecurity, for the pleasures of sin are but “for a season,” and a very brief one at that. This is but a sensual laughter or joy, which issues in endless grief, unless they heed that injunction, “let your laughter be turned into mourning, and your joy to heaviness” (Jam 4:9). If your joy gives place to godly sorrow, it will result in that which no earthly possessions or outward comforts can supply; namely, serenity of mind and contentment of heart. “The end of that mirth is heaviness” (Pro 14:13), the outcome of this sorrow is “salvation not to be repented of” (2Co 7:10).
There is a natural laughter, which is innocent and harmless; a carnal laughter, which is sinful and injurious; a spiritual laughter, which is God-pleasing and beneficial. There is also a divine laughter, which is terrible and disastrous. To such David referred: “He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh” (Psa 2:4), which is the laughter of derision against those who think to defy Him with impunity. And again God says, “I also will laugh at your calamity; I will mock when your fear cometh” (Pro 1:26), which is the laughter of divine retribution. He has “called”—by His Word, His providences, His ministers, and their own consciences— but they “refused” to heed Him. They were neither melted by the abundance of His mercies nor awed by the terribleness of His threats. They respected not His Law, and had no heart for His Gospel.
But though He bears with much long-suffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction, He has appointed a day when they shall be made to reap as they have sown. As they scorned His messengers when they warned of the wrath to come, so shall He turn a deaf ear then to their cries for mercy, and righteously laugh at their calamity. Oh, that none our readers may ever be the objects of it.
“I said of laughter, It is mad: and of mirth, What doeth it?” (Ecc 2:2). Those were the words of one who was granted the opportunity and afforded the means, of gratifying every carnal desire and of obtaining every object which the natural heart and eye can covet—only to prove from experience that all were but “vanity and vexation of spirit.” There is no real or lasting happiness in anything which money can purchase. The void within the human heart cannot be filled by the objects of time and sense. For one to pursue the shadows and miss the substance; to devote himself to the things which perish with the using, yet be indifferent to those which are eternal; to seek his delight in gratifying the lusts of the flesh and neglect the welfare of his soul, is naught but a species of insanity. “For as the crackling of thorns under a pot [noisy, but of brief duration], so is the laughter of the fool” (Ecc 7:6).
“All they that see me laugh me to scorn” (Psa 22:7). This is one of many instances where the word “all” in Scripture cannot be taken absolutely, for certainly Christ’s mother, the women who accompanied her to the cross, and the beloved John who beheld Him there, are to be excluded. Rather does it signify “all” classes: not only the Roman soldiers who jeered at the Saviour, but the Jews as well; and not merely the common rabble, but the chief priests and scribes, elders, and rulers—they now rejoiced in their success and were loudest in reviling Him.
The blasphemous ridicule of our blessed Lord was general: all kinds of men were unanimous in their wicked laughter, and vied with each other in insulting Him. So far were they from pitying Him, they added to His afflictions with their ribaldry, making jest of His very sufferings. Horrid humanity! Fearful impiety! None should ever doubt the total depravity of man, as they see here to what unspeakable depths of iniquity he sinks when the restraining hand of God is removed from him. The spectator of the dying Redeemer’s agonies exerted the utmost of the venom of their hearts upon Him. Diabolical laughter was this.
“When the LORD turned again the captivity of Zion, we were like them that dream. Then was our mouth filled with laughter” (Psa 126:1-2). The return of the Jews to Jerusalem was the fulfillment of God’s promises through the prophets and the answer to the prayer of Psalm 106:47. It had been effected in such an extraordinary manner and so suddenly (Ezr 1:1-6) that it seemed more like a pleasant dream than a reality. They were overwhelmed with gladness, theirs being the laughter of joy. As good old Matthew Henry (1662-1714) says, “Providence piped to them, and they danced.” In its spiritual application, this finds its fulfillment in the hour of conversion, when the heart is made to rejoice “with joy unspeakable.”
Likewise when a believer is recovered from a season of backsliding, and the spirit of heaviness is displaced by the garment of praise. Corporately, when the churches are granted a time of reviving after a season of deadness, such as obtained in the days of Whitefield (1714-1770) and may yet in ours.