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Joy: A Walk Through the Word Itself

Whether in times of victory or defeat, joy and happiness are expressed in both the LORD's assistance in the immediate victory and confidence in his abiding presence. 
By PETER HEMINGRAY
Read Time: 8 minutes

As I always do when studying a Biblical word, I turned to my trusty Young’s Concordance, which showed that the English word joy translates from many different Hebrew words in the KJV, but primarily only one Greek word in the New Testament.

And you can see that, depending on the translation, there are about 160 uses of the English “joy,” with 60 or so of those in the New Testament. So then I looked up Strong’s to see how the most common Hebrew word, simchah (H8057), is translated in the KJV. I found about 90 uses, with 42 translated “joy.”

I realized “Joy” is a noun with cognate-related verbs, as joy and rejoice are nouns and verbs in English. The same is true of both Hebrew and Greek. So, if we add “rejoice,” samach, H8055 in the OT, we get another 180 uses. In the case of Hebrew, for simchah and samach, we see such words as gladness, joyfulness, pleasure, mirth, glad, as well as joy and rejoice used to translate both the Hebrew noun and verb to add a little variety. 

In the Old Testament, it is somewhat challenging to distinguish between the several other Hebrew words used for joy. There are nine instances of joy directly, per the KJV, and fifteen if we include Hebrew words translated into words like joyful. Other derivatives of the same root seem largely to be synonyms, and all these very similar Hebrew words have similar meanings and represent the vast majority of the English terms for joy in the Old Testament. 

We do not have to concern ourselves with roots in the New Testament. By far, the most common word in Greek is chara (noun) or chairo (verb); together, they represent most of the occurrences of joy and rejoicing. The exception is the rare verb sugchairo which emphasizes the shared nature of joy: “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.” (1 Corinthians 12:26).1 See also Philippians 2:17-18 and Luke 15:6, 9.

I am not a scholar of either Hebrew or Greek and when I looked at the Theological Dictionaries of both languages, I found the entries for each Hebrew and Greek word consisted of major essays in their own right. As they covered the use of the original language term in the multiple ways it is translated in the various versions. I decided to ignore their articles. So what you have here is mainly an attempt to summarize what the Bible in English has to say on the subject of “joy” or “rejoice,” and not what the Hebrew and Greek behind its use might have to say.2

And because each term appears hundreds of times, we cannot include all occurrences. We can only hope to roughly categorize the chief uses of the term in the Bible. The context of many verses deserves an article on its own, some of which will probably appear elsewhere in this issue.

The overarching impression of the use of joy is gladness or rejoicing. Whether in times of victory or defeat, joy and happiness are expressed in both the LORD’s assistance in the immediate victory and confidence in his abiding presence. 

Old Testament

The Old Testament (OT) uses the term in various ways, from the secular to the hope in the future, to joys at the Feasts and joy at the LORD’s help in battle, but the essential use is one of gladness. The message implicit in joy in the OT is to feel more than an inward sensation: it reveals itself in actions like singing, shouting, dancing, and leaping for joy to celebrate the happy occasions in the lives of the people, whether secular or religious, whether military, at the feasts of the LORD, or a marriage.

  • Feasts. For example, in the OT, rejoicing is frequently expressed in connection with the feasts; in fact, they are called “times of rejoicing.” (Numbers 10:10 NIV). Recalling God’s marvelous act of delivering Israel from bondage, the Feasts of Passover and Unleavened Bread were occasions of great joy (2 Chronicles 30:21-27; Ezra 6:22). Communal exultation also characterized the Feasts of Pentecost and Tabernacles (Deuteronomy 16:11, 14-15; Leviticus 23:40) at which times the people of Israel were enjoined to remember they were once slaves in Egypt (Deuteronomy 16:12). Similarly, the Feast of Purim was celebrated with joy and gladness to celebrate divine deliverance from potential annihilation under Persian rule (Esther 8:17). And although the Sabbath was the day of “solemn rest,” the feasts were times of great joy. 
  • Battle. The LORD’s effective help in battle gave occasion for expressing joy (2 Chronicles 20:27), as often illustrated in the Psalms (Psalms 9:2; 13:4-6; 21:1; 109:28). 
  • Protection in Distress. The knowledge of the nearness and protection of God in times of need and distress brought joy (Psalm 16:8-9). David looked for forgiveness over his sin with Bathsheba (Psalms 51:12). He could find joy in sensing God’s presence at any time, as in Psalm 16:11. 
  • Hope for the future. The prophets point to the joy yet to be experienced. This future joy can be seen especially in Isaiah 40-66, with numerous references to joy and rejoicing. This celebration is connected not only with the salvation of Israel (Isaiah 44:23; 65:14-19; cf. also Zephaniah 3:14-17; Zechariah 2:10). But with the gift of salvation God is preparing for all humankind (Isaiah 56:7). The righteous will ultimately experience everlasting joy (Isaiah 51:11). 
  • Musical Celebration. Israel’s collective joy was commonly expressed in great celebration. Musical instruments often accompanied singing and dancing (1 Samuel 18:6). David appointed the Levites “to raise sounds of joy” to the accompaniment of musical instruments such as lyres, harps, and cymbals (1 Chronicles 15:16). An example is the anointing of Solomon as King of Israel (1 Kings 1:39-40). The book of Psalms gives numerous examples of the joyous songs of praise, or victory, sung by the people of God (e.g., Psalms 33 and 95). 
  • The Rejoicing of God. God himself is represented as rejoicing “in his works” (Psalm 104:31) and in his people (Deuteronomy 30:9; Psalms 147:11; 149:4; Zephaniah 3:17). 
  • Secular Joy. Joy does not always have religious connotations. Good wine can bring joy (Psalms 104:15; Judges 9:13), and so also can a birthday (Job 3:7) and the years of one’s youth or old age (Ecclesiastes 11:8-9).

New Testament

The New Testament opens with the celebration of Christ’s birth in Luke: “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” (Luke 2:10). His presence underlies the vast majority of its uses. Again, we can briefly categorize some of its uses.3

  • Joy in one who was lost and then found. Among the first three gospels, Luke focuses on the joy of redemption. The parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the prodigal son reveal the joyous response of the father (and the angels) when one sinner repents and is saved (Luke 15, esp. 5-7, 9-10, 32). Conversely, there is joy for the one who receives salvation (Luke 19:5-6; cf. Matthew 13:44). 
  • Salvation for the Gentiles. This time becomes a significant occasion of joy in Acts (Acts 11:20-23; 13:48; 15:3). The Gentiles who are saved are filled with joy: “So there was much joy in that city.” (Acts 8:5-8, 39).
  • Union with Christ. Abiding in Christ ensures “that your joy may be full,” according to John (John 15:11). Paul likewise finds the ultimate source of the believer’s joy stemming from being “in the Lord.” (Philippians 3:1, 4:4). Paul encourages his followers to let joyfulness be a continuing characteristic of their daily lives (cf. also 1 Thessalonians 5:16). Paul also sees the experience of joy as a result of the indwelling of the Spirit (1 Thessalonians 1:6; Romans 14:17; cf. also Acts 8:39). He describes joy as part of the fruit of the Spirit’s presence (Galatians 5:22: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness.”).
  • Discipleship. Joy comes not only from growing in the faith (e.g. Philippians 1:25) but also from helping others grow in the faith. Paul rejoiced when he saw the successful spread of the gospel (Philippians 1:18), and also on those occasions when he saw spiritual growth among the members of the churches: “For I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother.” (Philemon 7); (Also 1 Thessalonians 3:9: Romans 16:19; Colossians 2:5). When Paul discerned a positive response on the part of the Corinthians to his tearful visit and sorrowful letter, he told them of his great joy (2 Corinthians 7:4, 7, 9, 13, 16). John likewise rejoiced in the obedience of his community (2 John 4; 3 John 3, 4).
  • Expressions of Joy. Joy involves happiness, and we read of Paul singing hymns despite having been beaten and imprisoned (Acts 16:25). Hymns were part of the early Church’s worship (Colossians 3:16) and would no doubt be full of the words of joy as expressed in many of the OT psalms. The NT stresses that joy should be shared (Romans 12:15; 2 Corinthians 7:13), as seen in the introduction. 
  • Joy in Suffering. The message of the NT is that Joy can even be experienced in suffering. This concept was the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:11-12) and the experience of the early Church (Acts 5:41; cf. 1 Thessalonians 1:6). Paul experienced this possibility of joy in suffering in his own life (2 Corinthians 7:4; Colossians 1:24) and encouraged his churches to follow suit (Philippians 2:17-18). Suffering is prominent in the background to the statements concerning joy in 1 Peter and Hebrews. In Hebrews, it is clear that the hope of a future reward enables the joyful acceptance of deprivation “You joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.” (Hebrews 10:34). Peter also warned his readers of persecution, but to rejoice “when his glory is revealed.” (1 Peter 4:13). James says, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds.” (James 1:2).
  • Joy at the Return of Christ. The early Church looked forward to the second advent of Christ as a time of joy (Matthew 25:21, 23; 1 Peter 4:13). The ultimate triumph of God and “the marriage of the Lamb” will consummate the joy of God and all his people (19:7) and result in cries of “Halleluiah!” (Revelation 19:1, 3, 4, 6).

Conclusion

“Joy” in the English versions of the Bible is subject to the translators’ opinions. Discussing the various original words is a task beyond an easy compass. It is experienced in pleasant times (marriage, victory in war, feasts) as well as persecution, sorrow, and distress—but then it is accompanied by the present protection of the LORD and the hope of the future Kingdom. And it is always in happiness, mirth, and song.

It might be a personal experience, but it is never solemn. Our hymns are replete with the words, and we hope we always sing with gladness of heart and a smile on our lips. Whether or not we can discern traces of the hymns the early Church sang (apart from the Psalms) is unclear, but many indeed praise God and look forward to our salvation, as undoubtedly, they did 2,000 years ago—with joy in their hearts. 

Peter Hemingray,
Pittsburgh Ecclesia, PA
 

  1. All Scriptural citations are taken from the English Standard Version, unless specifically noted.
  2. Mostly translated rejoice.
  3. Many of these categories in both the OT and NT are from the entry on “Joy” in the Anchor Bible Dictionary.
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