In response to my June post on the Heart of Happiness, a thoughtful reader commented “I have frequently used joy instead of happy” and inquired whether or not I thought that substitution would “work.” I responded that I did not know, but I certainly would take a look at the Hebrew text and search out an answer.  Although I could easily recite from memory several verses in the psalms that speak of joy, I had never really spent much time contemplating the psalmist’s focus on joy or examining the nature of  joy in the psalms.

After a good bit of digging through the Hebrew text, I can only respond to my reader’s ostensibly simple question with what seems like a scholarly consistency. The Hebrew text, strictly read, does not seem to open the way for us to insert joy where happiness appears any more than it allowed us to substitute blessed for happy (see The Heart of Happiness post and my insistence there that word substitutions should be avoided). Joy and happiness are distinct words with particular meanings.  They are not synonyms and each is chosen carefully by the poet who employs them.

While a large number of Hebrew words are polyvalent — that is, they can be and are properly translated with several different terms in English (because ancient Hebrew had far fewer words than does English)– that is not the same as suggesting that the obverse is true and that such Hebrew words are synonyms.

If that last statement is confusing, let me offer this example to clarify what I mean. The Hebrew word saphah can be rightly translated in English as lip, shore, bank, brim or edge. Context drives the correct choice in every translation decision. The fact of Hebrew polyvalence does not mean, however, that the English words lip and bank are synonymous or always interchangeable. Clearly, they are not.

In the particular case of ashrei (happiness) and simchah (the Hebrew word for joy), neither the literal denotation presented in the dictionary nor the practical usage of the words illustrated in the psalms themselves supports the notion that the two were understood by the people for and by whom the psalms were originally composed to be identical states of mind/heart/soul.

As a refresher, in the last post we established that ashrei had very little to do with circumstance, situation, moment or station. Such does not seem to be the case with simchah, which appears 13 times in the psalms. To the contrary, a careful reading will show that the entrance of  joy in the psalms is frequently tied directly to a radical change in the speaker’s circumstance or situation. So therein lies the first evidence that we are better off not exchanging joy for happiness.

In many cases, this transformation is illustrated by means of contrasts. The following familiar passages from two psalms illustrate the point. In the often quoted Psalm 30 David writes:

For His anger is but for a moment,
and His favor is for a lifetime.
Weeping may tarry for the night,
but joy comes with the morning.
” (Psalm 30:5)

And in this Psalm of Ascent the unnamed author declares:

“Those who sow in tears
shall reap with shouts of joy!
He who goes out weeping,
bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
bringing his sheaves with him.” (Psalm 126:5)

In both of these passages we have excellent examples of the way in which the structure of Hebrew poetry supports its meaning. Parallelism and intensification are two of the principal linguistic techniques regularly employed in the psalms. Parallelism itself can take several forms. In both passages cited above, the poet employs antithetical parallelism, a literary device that presents opposite sentiments in nearly syntactically identical lines to drive the meaning of the verse. As the grammatical form of one line is echoed in the following line, the expression is intensified. Here, for example, the first statement “go out weeping” is general and vague. We do not know from where and to what destination one is “going” nor do we know if the “weeping” is a whimper or a wail. The second line — “coming home with shouts of joy”– is much more direct and emphatic. The one is going “home” to the place that is safe, familiar and comfortable, and is doing so with “shouts of joy,” expressions that are wholly gleeful and even rapturous.

Examining these passages out of their poetic context helps us understand the circumstantial nature of joy; but putting them squarely back into their context explains how and, more important, by whose agency the circumstances –and the individual who has experienced the shift in circumstances — have been changed.

How is it that weeping is turned to joy? It happens only and definitively by and through the Lord’s direct intervention and personal communion with His people. Here is David’s explanation of that interaction as he concludes Psalm 30:

“You have turned for me my mourning into dancing;
You have loosed my sackcloth
and clothed me with gladness,
that my glory may sing Your praise and not be silent.
O Lord my God, I will give thanks to You forever!” (Psalm 30:11-12)

Were you to grab your Bible and a concordance and examine the 13 instances of the use of joy in the psalms, as well as the 52 times the cognate verb rejoicesamach in Hebrew — appears there, you would see that this cause and effect are unerringly reliable. This absolute consistency is what one scholar has appropriately termed the “paschal character of joy,” naming it thus for the “passing over” from tears to laughter, suffering to deliverance, shame to exaltation, death to life that occurs when the I AM himself intervenes in the lives of His people, in our human affairs, to change not only our circumstances but also our very being. Such transformation nurtures in us the heart of joy.

Before I conclude I will take the liberty of embedding here a deeply personal footnote as an explanation, and a kind of evidence I suppose, of the surpassing nature of joy. Above I mention the paschal “passing over” from death to life. Just three weeks ago my only sibling, my younger brother, “departed this life in faith” as the Anglican Book of Common Prayer describes it. His “passing over” came at the end of a protracted and valiant struggle with lung cancer and brought to conclusion long days and nights of increasingly intense pain. Given the grief that I and those many family members and close friends who loved him are still experiencing, I questioned at first the appropriateness of writing about joy.

The fact is I am certain that my brother, who was ever reminding anyone who would listen, even to the end, to “be grateful” would want it this way. In fact, his face would probably light up with his distinct and contagious smile at the thought of his suffering and death being mentioned in connection with God’s gift of  joy to His people when nothing but Him and His intervention can deliver them from their pain and sorrow.

Make no mistake. Our personal sojourn in grief is doubtless far from over. But that emotion, and the panoply of others through which we who loved him will pass in the weeks, months and years ahead, can in no way diminish the joy that we can claim even now knowing that the Lord has intervened to lift one grateful man from the darkness and agony of pain and take him to behold face to face His countenance of light and to dwell forever with Him in peace and joy.

For us who still wait and weep I turn to the promise memorialized in the marvelous words of the Prophet-Poet Isaiah, that He will, even now,

“… grant to those who mourn in Zion—
    to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
    the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit;
that they may be called oaks of righteousness,
    the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified.” (Isaiah 61:3)

How grateful we are.