Last time I began an examination of the biblical teaching that Jehovah laughs. I took note of the outstanding passages in Scripture where this is taught. I explained as well that Jehovah’s laughter is directed against the ungodly, reprobate opponents of himself, his Christ, and his kingdom. That Jehovah laughs is beyond dispute. That he laughs at the wicked is clear. That is laughter is not the kind of laughter by many who join in with the world is clear. In his laughter he is angry and vexes them in his sore displeasure. What is the meaning of this laughter?
The laughter of Jehovah at the ungodly reprobate is a vivid anthropomorphism describing the relationship between the holy God and the enemies of himself, Christ, and his people.
First, Jehovah’s laughter expresses his absolute sovereignty over the wickedness and opposition of the ungodly. In connection with Psalm 59:8, Calvin speaks of laughter as “well fitted to enhance the power of God.” Calvin makes plain that by “power” he means sovereignty (2.59:8). That power is sovereignty is also clear from Psalm 2, where the reference to God’s laughter is prefaced by the revelation of Jehovah as “he that sitteth in the heavens.” He rules over all things, including the actions of wicked men and devils even in their persecution and opposition to the church. His sovereignty includes that he decreed their wickedness, though as something that he hates, and for which he willed a good end. He is neither the author of their sin, nor can he be charged with their wickedness.
When Scripture puts Jehovah’s laughter in the future—he will laugh—it gives indication of some temporary, outward success in the efforts of the wicked. In his laughter God gives them enough success in their efforts to cast his bands away to harden them in their violent opposition to him. Cain killed Abel. Egypt enslaved Israel. Babylon took Judah captive. Pontius Pilate crucified Jesus Christ. In his commentary on Psalm 2, Calvin refers to the “time of his laughter,” as being when Jehovah “permits the reign of his Son to be troubled” not because God is for any reason either unwilling or unable to avenge, “but he purposely delays the inflictions of his wrath to the proper time, namely, until he has exposed their infatuated fury to general derision” (1.2:4). Included in this figure, then, is God’s purpose with the apparent success of the wicked with regard to the wicked themselves. He exposes their fury. He exposes it as foolish. In their opposition they fill their own cup of iniquity and render themselves guilty for failing to “kiss the Son,” that is, turning to the Son in faith and repentance. He also exposes them. They reveal clearly the depth of their hatred of God.
Although Calvin’s term “permits” is fine, if we understand by this simply that God is not the author of their sin and wickedness, we can say more, and Calvin thinks so too. He writes in his commentary on Psalm 37 that God teaches us by his laughter that he is not “resigning to chance the government of the world, but purposely delays and keeps silence.” By this Calvin indicates that he sees the “government” of God as extending to evil events, especially the persecution and distressing situations of the church (2.37:12). God withholds his final judgment of the wicked until they have done what he wills to be done by them. Nothing they do is outside his sovereign control, and he willed it for a good end.
Second, God’s laughter reveals the ease with which Jehovah accomplishes his will through the wicked, and when they have done his will, the ease with which he takes vengeance against them. Calvin says, “David ascribes laughter to God…to teach us that he does not stand in need of great armies to repress the rebellion of wicked men, as if this were an arduous and difficult matter, but on the contrary, could do this as often as he pleases with the most perfect ease” (1.2:4). Calvin also explains that the figure teaches that “when the wicked have perfected their schemes to the uttermost, God can, without any effort, and, as it were in sport, dissipate them all” (2.59:8). He is as little concerned that they will actually succeed in casting God’s bands and cords from themselves, and so certain that he will do in every detail his will that he laughs at their efforts.
God’s laughter teaches that the wicked will not only fail in their purpose to cast away God’s bands, but also in all their opposition they will be doing his purpose. There is an exquisite turn of events that we see in the light of Jehovah’s counsel. For all their attempts to destroy his kingdom, God uses them to accomplish the establishment of his kingdom and the salvation of his church.
This was made known at the cross as nowhere else. The church confesses that the cross was the fulfillment of Psalm 2 of the people’s raging. The church also confesses that in the raging and gathering together of Herod, Pontius Pilate, the Gentiles, and the people of Israel against the Lord and his Christ, whereby they shamefully treated, condemned, and crucified him, they did whatsoever God’s hand and counsel determined before to be done. All of their hatred and opposition to Christ was not outside of God’s counsel, but carried out his counsel. God was there directing, so that the church speaks of his “hand.” Those who opposed Christ did not succeed in thwarting one jot or tittle of God’s counsel. Rather, through it all God redeemed his church and set his king, Jesus Christ, upon God’s holy hill.
What is true of the cross is true of the history-long opposition to God, his Christ, and his church by the ungodly. Jehovah has them in derision. He laughs at their foolish rebellion and vain attempts to break his bands and cast his cords away. In all their opposition they will not succeed in overthrowing God’s rule, but will in fact be doing his will, at the heart of which stands the exaltation of Jesus Christ as God’s king upon his holy hill and the salvation of his elect church.
Third, Jehovah’s laughter reveals God’s contempt for the opposition of the wicked and for his wicked enemies themselves. His laughter at them is a manifestation of his hatred for them. In the language of Calvin: “He would confront their insolence with quiet contempt” (1.2:4). Again, Calvin says that this teaches us that God “despises their vanity and folly” (2.37:12). In their opposition to him the wicked appear often to succeed. God holds them in contempt. This is also clear from the parallel term “derision” that is used with laughter in Psalm 2. The poetry of the Hebrew psalms uses a device known as parallelism, in which two similar phrases describe the same thing. The worth of this device is that the two parallel expressions explain one another. In order to understand God’s laughter, we can use the parallel line in Psalm 2:4. He laughs at the wicked, and this means that he also has them in derision. “Derision” means “mockery” and is one word that Scripture uses to describe the vile sin of blasphemy. Blasphemy is to hold God in contempt. The wicked blaspheme his name and in their contempt attack his name, especially as it is revealed in Christ and in his church. Likewise, when God has them in derision he holds them in contempt in accordance with his eternal despising of them, because of which he appointed them to destruction.
Fourth, Jehovah’s laughter refers to the superbly poetic justice in God’s judgment against the reprobate ungodly for their wicked opposition to him. Jehovah’s laughter speaks to the certainty of divine retribution. In Psalm 37 this is given as the reason God laughs: “for he [God] seeth that his day is coming.” Speaking to the salutary effect of God’s laughing upon the righteous, Calvin says, “He who sees the executioner standing behind the aggressor with drawn sword no longer desires revenge, but rather exults in the prospect of speedy retribution. David, therefore, teaches us that it is not meet that God, who sees the destruction of the wicked to be at hand, should rage and fret after the manner of men” (2.37:12). God sees their day coming like a man sees the executioner behind the aggressor with sword drawn. Seeing their day coming, Jehovah laughs.
In the knowledge of the certainty of their judgment, Jehovah’s laughter is his delight in the fitting character of his just judgment on the ungodly. Like a capable poet delights in some poetic turn of phrase, so God delights in the justice of his judgments. Immediately after teaching of God’s laughter and the certainty of judgment, Psalm 37 says, “The wicked have drawn out the sword, and have bent their bow, to cast down the poor and needy, and to slay such as be of upright conversation. Their sword shall enter into their own heart, and their bows shall be broken” (vv. 14–15). There is a pleasurable fittingness in the justice and judgments of God in which he delights in his justice, as he delights in seeing the accomplishment of all his counsel.
The truth of Jehovah’s laughter and the destruction of the ungodly, the work of his laughter typified in Psalm 52 by the destruction of Doeg the Edomite, bears spiritual fruit in the righteous: “The righteous also shall see, and fear, and shall laugh at him: Lo, this is the man that made not God his strength; but trusted in the abundance of his riches, and strengthened himself in his wickedness” (vv. 6–7). The righteous see God’s judgment, they fear God, and they laugh at the wicked too. The fear of the righteous is not their trembling at God’s judgments, but their reverence at seeing his just dealings with the wicked, if not in actual fact in this world, then by faith in the next. They also laugh. Calvin calls the laughter of believers because of the judgments on the ungodly, “joy.” He goes on to explain: “They would laugh at their destruction, yet not in the way of insulting over them, but rejoicing more and more in the confidence of the help of God, and denying themselves more cheerfully to the vain pleasures of this world.” The knowledge of God’s laughter and its teaching of certain judgment, in the language of Calvin, “would promote religion in the hearts of the Lord’s people, and afford them a refreshing display of the Divine justice” (2.37:12).
What are some of the benefits of the teaching of God’s laughter?
In light of Scripture’s teaching about God’s laughter, we cannot believe a theology that teaches a love of God for all men. This would include the doctrine of the well-meant gospel offer, which is the false doctrine that teaches that God expresses his love for all who hear the preaching of the gospel, and that in the preaching he expresses his desire to save all who hear that preaching. If God will laugh at the wicked and does laugh at them, he cannot at the same time express his will that they be saved. This would also include a theology that teaches the logical implication of the well-meant gospel offer that the love of God for all men means that there is no hell or eternal punishment. It is no wonder that the old preacher mentioned in my second story denied Psalm 2. The laughter of God cannot be harmonized with a doctrine of God’s universal love. If one holds to God’s universal love, he has to deny God’s laughter. In the knowledge of God’s laughter in the judgment upon the wicked, even in this life, we cannot ascribe to a theology that speaks of God’s weeping at the plight of the ungodly.
Likewise, we take to heart the practical, spiritual purpose of the teaching that God laughs.
We may and do laugh at evildoers. Calvin explains that we pray that God “would enlighten us by his light, for by this means alone will we, by beholding with the eye of faith his laughter, become partakers thereof, even in the midst of sorrow” (2.52:7).
With such laughter we will certainly not laugh and entertain ourselves with the wickedness of the wicked, with their dancing and merry-making or their unfruitful works of darkness.
Furthermore, there are other spiritual benefits to the knowledge of Jehovah’s laughter. In verses 12 and 13 of Psalm 37, we read that God laughs. In verse 1 we are commanded: “Fret not thyself because of evildoers.” Literally, do not be “kindled” because of the wicked. The idea is that we need not fear them or be worried about them. The idea is also that we are not moved to impatience and murmuring at God’s delay and seek to avenge ourselves on the wicked, especially when we are the objects of their opposition. Vengeance is God’s; he will repay. It is certain. Further, the idea is that we will not be moved to copy their evil because we see their success in it.
Psalm 37 also warns us not to be envious of evildoers. We see the success of the ungodly. We see that they prosper in the world. We see that in their prospering wickedness the world is full of levity, as though they have not a care in the world. We might be tempted to envy the ungodly, envying them to emulate them, and emulating them to make ourselves guilty of their wickedness.
Do not be envious of evildoers and their laughter. Do not envy the workers of iniquity. Do not emulate them or laugh their laughter.
The wicked have nothing to laugh about. Scripture exposes the laughter of the ungodly as wickedness, because “knowing the judgment of God, that they which commit such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but have pleasure in them that do them” (Rom. 1:32). Scripture exposes their hilarity as an expression of their hopelessness as they eat and drink and make merry as in the days of Noah.
Theirs is a dreadful lot. Jehovah is laughing at them. The Lord will have them in derision. Whatever outward success they have in this life is no success at all, but is treasuring up wrath against the day of wrath. Laughing, God is speaking to them in his wrath, and that word of God to them is a word of curse working their eternal destruction. There is no blessing in that life, but only a word of wrath from God, who laughs and has them in derision and is joined by Wisdom and his church.
 Quotations from John Calvin are from his Commentary on the Book of Psalms, vol. 1 and 2, trans. Henry Beveridge (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999). In the article the place where the quotation is found will be marked by the volume number of Calvin’s commentary followed by the psalm number and verse that Calvin is commenting on, e.g. (1.2:4).