By Doug Redford
If one were to ask people what they associate with Old Testament religion, the following suggestions might be offered: blood, ritual, feasts, sacrifice, or altar. We often tend to view the religion of the Old Testament in terms of certain practices and observances (Passover, for example). We study closely those practices and what they were meant to teach the Israelite people or perhaps how they were similar to or different from those of the peoples around them. We examine how these practices foreshadowed the new covenant established by Jesus.
Such studies are very helpful in gaining a better understanding of Old Testament worship. But they can run the risk of presenting an image of that worship as predictable and monotonous, devoid of any emotion on the part of the worshipper. To do so is to miss an important part of what God intended for his covenant people Israel to experience: joy.
God, the Source of Joy
Anyone familiar with the book of Psalms knows that joy is a prominent feature of its contents. And whoever the author of the psalm is (David, in most cases), he is not one to hoard his joy; he invites others to share in it (Psalm 5:11; 100:1, 2; 118:24). This is one of the characteristics of real joy; it can never be kept to oneself!
In some cases the specific reason for the psalmist’s joy is given. In Psalm 35 David anticipates the joy of seeing the Lord vindicate him before his enemies (vv. 1-9). Psalm 51 records David’s prayer of repentance following his devastating sin with Bathsheba. Part of that prayer is for the joy that sin had extinguished to be restored (vv. 8, 12). God’s Word produces a sense of joy, “like one who finds great spoil” (Psalm 119:162; note also verses 14 and 111). Even nature is pictured as expressing its joy (Psalm 65:13).
One reason the command to rejoice is so appropriate is that it reflects the very nature of God himself. God (despite the caricatures and “bad press” he has received over the years) is a joyful God. He rejoices over his people, his bride (Isaiah 62:5). The psalmist desires that the Lord rejoice in his created works (Psalm 104:31). The Lord’s rejoicing over his people even includes singing (Zephaniah 3:17).
Joy in the Old Testament is not limited to the songs and hymns of the Psalms. It may be rather surprising (even a bit shocking) to some to consider the extent to which joy was to characterize the sacred gatherings of God’s people. Deuteronomy 12 says that whenever the people come to the place chosen by God as the place to “put his Name there for his dwelling” (v. 5), they should not only prepare their offerings and sacrifices but they should also come prepared to rejoice (vv. 7, 12, 18).
More specific examples may be seen in the festivals that the Israelites were to observe. Deuteronomy 16 records the Lord’s instructions through Moses for the three main festivals: Passover, the Festival of Weeks (which became known as Pentecost), and Tabernacles. Two of these (the Festival of Weeks and Tabernacles) were harvest celebrations. The Festival of Weeks was so named because it was observed seven weeks after Passover. God’s people were commanded to bring “a freewill offering in proportion to the blessings the Lord your God has given you” (Deuteronomy 16:10). And then they were commanded to “rejoice before the Lord your God at the place he will choose as a dwelling for his Name” (v. 11). This rejoicing was to know no limitations; everyone in the land (native Israelites, servants, foreigners, orphans, and widows) took part.
The same was true with the Festival of Tabernacles, observed later in the fall of the year. “Be joyful at your festival,” is once more commanded of all groups within Israelite society (v. 14). Elsewhere we read of how the Israelites were to build “temporary shelters” and live in them for seven days during this festival to commemorate how the Israelites lived during their departure from Egypt at the time of the exodus (Leviticus 23:42, 43). The directions in Leviticus include the command to “rejoice before the Lord your God for seven days” (v. 40). (Who would have thought that a book like Leviticus would mention the word joy?) Deuteronomy 16:15 encourages the recognition of God’s abundant provisions for his people for the duration of this feast and concludes with the words: “and your joy will be complete.”
Abundant joy also accompanied the recognition of God’s favor upon his people when important spiritual landmarks were reached. The preparation for building Solomon’s temple (1 Chronicles 29:1-9, 17), the dedication of that temple (2 Chronicles 7:10), the completion of the second temple (Ezra 6:16), and the rebuilding of the wall of Jerusalem (Nehemiah 12:27, 43) were all celebrated with joy by the people who acknowledged at these gatherings the goodness of God toward them.
Some may wonder whether a quality such as joy can be commanded. Can a person be commanded to be joyful? Yes, in the same way that the Bible commands us to love. Neither love nor joy is considered primarily a demonstration of emotion in the Bible. Joy (from an Old Testament standpoint) is a genuine sense of delight and fulfillment that is rooted in the Israelites’ identity as the covenant people of the sovereign God. This gracious God has given his people a history and a heritage unlike any of the peoples and nations around them.
Joy in a Hard World
As mentioned earlier, the typical lens through which worship in the Old Testament is usually viewed very seldom includes an acknowledgement of the place of joy. Part of this is probably due to how most of Old Testament history reads. Joy hardly comes to mind when considering the Israelites’ frequent descent into sinful behavior and their eventual judgment by God. But the Lord’s clear intent for his covenant nation was that they be characterized as a people of joy.
The presence of joy within the Old Testament provides a stark contrast with how religion in the Old Testament world was usually viewed by its adherents. If one wants to study a religion lacking in any joy, the typical Mesopotamian belief structure of Old Testament times provides a prime example. This was well stated by A. Leo Oppenheim: “The influence of religion on the individual, as well as on the community as a whole, was unimportant in Mesopotamia. [The worshipper’s] body, his time, and his valuables were in no serious way affected by religious demands. . . . He was simply an onlooker in certain public ceremonies of rejoicing or communal mourning.” Oppenheim’s assessment is especially informative when one reads the aforementioned texts from Deuteronomy and sees how joy was to be such an instrumental part of everyone’s worship in Israel. No one was assigned the role of onlooker!
At the same time one must not minimize the unpleasant side of life in the Old Testament. The world of the Old Testament was characterized by frequent bloodshed. The Israelites were often engaged in conflict with neighboring peoples and sometimes (sadly) among themselves. In many of the psalms, the same David who so boldly spoke of his joy in the Lord also wrote of the cruelty of his enemies and of how intently they sought his demise (Psalm 59, 64, 69). But joy always seemed to gain the upper hand for David. Whatever anger or frustration he felt toward his foes, his joy in the Lord remained intact. Joy even in the Old Testament era was meant to rise above one’s circumstances rather than be influenced by them. This is the faith so beautifully expressed by the prophet Habakkuk: though the most disheartening tragedies of his world might occur, he was determined that his joy would remain unfazed (Habakkuk 3:17-19).
The Old Testament can still serve as a journal of joy for Christians today. True joy will never be prompted or propped up by the external stimulants of a broken world. It is a response to what God has done, is doing in our lives each day, and will do for us in the future. If the people of God who lived BC could be marked by their joy, what about us who live in the aftershocks of the earthshaking cross and empty tomb of Jesus?
Doug Redford serves as minister with Highview Christian Church in Cincinnati, Ohio.