At times laughter and laughing in the Bible speaks to the idea of mockery, scoffing, ridicule, or derision. On other occasions, laughter simply communicates joy and delight. Many of us have experienced laughter that is not far removed from these biblical categories: we have laughed or been laughed at to the point of tears or silent shame, and we have experienced moments of such joy and delight that laughter is the most natural response.
On other occasions, laughter in the Bible is associated with praise and shouts of joy. The God who delights in his people has created them to know and enjoy him, leading to laughter as people respond to God’s gift of grace.
Sarah, Abraham’s wife, described her experience of laughter as God-ordained: he caused her to laugh by giving her a child in her old age. When Sarah first heard God’s plans to give her a child after normal child-bearing age, she laughed in surprise and disbelief (Genesis 18:12). Now that the Lord had fulfilled his promise to Abraham and Sarah, the child born to the elderly couple resulted in laughter of delight in them and surprise in those who would hear the story.
Here in the book of Job, one of Job’s friends describes the good things that the Lord brings to those who are righteous. Although Job’s friend uses this saying as a way to justify his claim that Job is in fact not righteous—Job is, of course, experiencing suffering instead of joy and laughing—it nonetheless stands true that the Lord brings joy, delight, laughter, and the response of praise from within his people. Where Job’s friend was wrong is in his understanding that those who trust in God also experience grief, sorrow, and a downcast soul. Laughter is a wonderful gift from the Lord, one that he grants all of humanity through his common grace, but it is not the only gift from the Lord (Job 2:10).
The author of Proverbs, along with the author of Ecclesiastes, understands that laughter, as great a gift as it is from the Lord, is not the only thing people experience in life.
At times in the Bible, as in the book of James, there is a recognition that laughter and joy are the improper response to a given situation. What James is trying to draw out is the downcast spirit we experience because of sin that is lifted up by the Lord (James 4:8-10).
The Hebrew words used in the Bible that are translated as “laughing” in English can carry the idea of joy, but also disbelief or surprise (Genesis 17:17; 18:12), or, more prominently, mockery and contempt (Genesis 38:23; 39:17; Job 30:1; Psalm 80:6; 2 Chronicles 30:10), or even derision (Jeremiah 48:39). This idea of “laughing” being associated with mockery or derision or disbelief is easily understood in English: we have all laughed at the expense of others; we have laughed and scoffed when someone has said something so outlandish it is impossible to maintain the person’s credibility.
On the other hand, “laughter” in modern English translations usually carries with it a much more positive connotation. For the most part, laughter in the Bible is linked with joy.
Joyful expressions of laughter in the Bible give way to various other responses, including shouts of praise and crying out to the Lord. On a few occasions, the biblical authors speak of the transient nature of joy and laughter when considering human experience (Proverbs 14:13). The people of God are not expected to be immune to grief and sadness, always laughing and never taking in the realities of pain and sorrow that are true of all human experience.
Laughter and joy (or pleasure) are at times paired together in synonymous parallelism:
In the New Testament, James the brother of Jesus employs this same parallel structure to speak of laughter and joy. Like the authors of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, James is seeking to bring out the transient nature of laughter, that even joy at times is out of place:
Just as there is a time for laughter, joy, mirth, and delight in God and his goodness, so too is there a time to recognize the realities of living in a fallen world and be sorrowful over sin, even our own sin. Believers are those who can trust in the God who is there, in the midst of both joy and suffering, laughter and crying.
In some places in the Bible, laughter is presented not in parallel with another state of being or emotion, but with the action of shouting in joy:
The word translated “shouting” in Hebrew (tᵉruꜥāh) is used many times in the Old Testament to describe a war cry or signal, such as raising a shout to go to battle or sounding a trumpet as an alarm to declaration some kind. The word is used a few times in the Psalms to describe shouts of praise to the Lord. The idea that laughter would be compared to this kind of action gives a nuance to laughter that is perhaps less prevalent in some Christian circles: laughter as a form of delight in the Lord that is directed to God as praise of his glory and greatness.
Unlike the battle cry shout mentioned in Job 8:21, the author of Psalm 126 uses a different word in Hebrew (rinnāh) to speak of what may be described as a cry of praise.
From a literary perspective, the Bible contains numerous examples of irony, sarcasm, wordplay, onomatopoeia, hyperbole, and many other literary devices that are intended to create pleasure and, on some occasions, be received humorously (if not quite laugh-out-loud funny) by the audience or readers.
It is often noted by biblical scholars that many of Jesus’ comparisons, and at times his stories, contain an element of humor and would have been received as such.
After getting a small laugh from his audience, the hearers would not only remember his saying but would walk away with the truth of Jesus’ statement: it is more important to put sin to death than to experience eternal death apart from God.
Jesus’ teaching often stresses the absurdity of the situation, something his hearers would find amusing. Sometimes an element of humor and surprise is found in the extremes:
Other times, humor is found in overstatements and obvious impossibilities:
The presence of humor in the Bible does not detract at all from the truth of the teaching but rather serves the Holy Spirit’s intention to reveal the character of God, instill knowledge of God, and create faith in God through the teaching of Scripture.