God’s (very) dark sense of humor

God’s (very) dark sense of humor

Have you ever wondered:  if there is a god, what makes him laugh?

For many skeptics, one of the biggest challenges to believing in a god is the existence of profound evil in the world–no laughing matter.

If there is a god, then, perhaps he shouldn’t be laughing.

But the God whom Jesus claimed to be his Father does.  Why?  What’s so funny?

This past January in the peer-reviewed journal of neuroscience Cognitive Processing, a team of researchers suggested that a dark sense of humor was a sign of greater intelligence.

Dark (or black) humor is “comedy, satire, etc., that presents tragic, distressing or morbid situations in humorous terms” (so the OED).  Classic “dark humor” films include Dr. Strangelove, Fight Club, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, or various flicks by the Coen brothers (e.g., Fargo or O Brother, Where Art Thou?).

The study’s team of researchers concluded that both a comprehension of and preference for dark humor “are positively associated with higher verbal and nonverbal intelligence as well as higher levels of education” (Cognitive Processing, 2017 [18]: 159).

Most people, skeptics included, would agree that, if there actually were a supreme being of some sort, the intelligence of such a being would undoubtedly be . . . off the charts.  And such, of course, is claimed for the God of ancient Israel:  “his understanding no one can fathom,” declares the ancient prophet Isaiah.

So if greater intelligence is associated with a greater enjoyment of dark humor, what would make such a Supremely Intelligent Being laugh?

Well, the Psalms, arguably the most widely read “book” of the Bible–where severe affliction and solemn adoration meet–gives us an answer no less than three different times.  And one could easily be forgiven for thinking that the God of ancient Israel, the God of Jesus of Nazareth, does indeed have a very dark sense of humor, if these texts are taken seriously.

Here are the three texts in which God laughs:

(1) Psalm 2 envisions the earth’s evil kings and tyrants banding together in defiance against YHWH and against his “anointed one” (his messiah), the agent through whom God will effect his reign of justice and peace over the world.  How does God respond to the world’s rulers, who are responsible for an incalculable amount of oppression?

“The One enthroned in heaven laughs;
the Lord scoffs at them.”

(2) In Psalm 59, when David is forced to flee for his life because King Saul had “sent men to watch David’s house in order to kill him,” he repeatedly cries out to God to rescue him and to mete out judgment upon not only them but all powers who are bent on evil.  In the face of those committed to devouring the innocent, how does God respond?  (Can you guess?)

“But you laugh at them, YHWH;
you scoff at all such nations.”

(3) Finally, in Psalm 37, David meditates upon the prevalence of evil in the world, and how it can tempt one to be consumed by anxiety, anger, and even envy.  In the midst of offering much practical advice, he states:

“The wicked plot against the righteous
and gnash their teeth at them;
but the Lord laughs at the wicked,
for he knows their day is coming.”

In short, in the face of even the most powerful of tyrants and oppressors, Israel’s God laughs.  They make him laugh.  As one might surmise from the English, the Hebrew verb translated “to laugh” has a connotation of utter contempt–as though God simply cannot believe they actually think they’re going to get away with anything (it’s laughable).

In the first two instances above, in parallel with the act of divine laughter is an act of divine “scoffing”:  it describes an act of ridicule, derision, or mocking–as if a deeply and justly incensed God was wondering:

What the hell are they thinking?

So there we have it.  Three times in the Psalms the Christian God laughs, each and every time in response to the actions and intentions of the most powerful and oppressive of evil-doers.

Could this not fairly be called a dark sense of humor?  It’s a dark sense of humor coming from an incomparable intelligence, a deeper knowledge–as David declares:  “for he knows their day is coming.”

Two of the above psalms–Psalm 2 and Psalm 37–feature prominently in the New Testament, both in close relation to Jesus.  Both were undeniably formative for his self-identity.  Let’s focus on just one, Psalm 37, which, though lesser known today, was no less influential on Jesus (for Psalm 2, compare Ps. 2.7 and Mark 1.11).

In Psalm 37, just before David states that Israel’s God laughs at the wicked (in response to all their exploitation of the righteous), he confidently declares the following:

“The meek [οἱ πραεῖς] will inherit the land [τὴν γῆν],
and enjoy an abundance of peace.”

Here we find, of course, the “origin” of Jesus’ famous (so-called) ‘beatitude’:

“Blessed are the meek [οἱ πραεῖς],
for they will inherit the earth [τὴν γῆν].

But wait. What’s meekness?

Here’s what it’s not:  meekness doesn’t mean weakness.  Meekness, rather, is the ability to go without one’s (deserved) importance or influence.  That is, meekness is the capacity to be unfairly deprived of either status or say-so.  Whether occasioned by adverse circumstances (e.g., by being exploited or marginalized) or a specific goal (e.g., the pursuit of a just cause), meekness is the power to be perceived as of little consequence.  In short, a meek person does not need to be seen as a big deal nor be the one who seals a deal, even if they actually are the real deal.

Meekness - Final

And if anyone was the real deal, it was Jesus.  And yet, for him, meekness was a key trait by which he (famously) identified himself:

“Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek [πραΰς, often translated ‘gentle’] and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”

In fact, not only does Jesus instruct his followers about the meekness of Psalm 37 at the beginning of his ministry (in Matt. 5.5) and then identify himself with meekness (in Matt. 11.29) in the middle of his ministry, but then at the end of his ministry he, according to Matthew’s Gospel and in fulfillment of OT prophecy, embodies that meekness, when he enters for the last time into Jerusalem, riding on a donkey, in fulfillment of the prophet Zechariah (in Matt. 21.5):

“Say to the daughter of Zion, ‘See, your king comes to you, meek [πραΰς] and riding on a donkey….'”

 

Psalm Sunday by African artist Evans Yegon

 

While Jesus’ royal entrance causes a stir in Jerusalem (see 21.10-11), in the eyes of the city’s political, cultural and religious influencers he deserves neither importance nor influence–only execution.

And he doesn’t seem to mind.  At all.  Now that is meekness.

Or is it madness?  Pure insanity?  Seriously:  what was Jesus thinking?  How does one come to embrace and embody the (insane?) idea that those who are able to go without either importance or influence will actually end up in charge of the earth?  That is, how could Jesus come to believe that “the meek will inherit the land”–as David states in Psalm 37.11?

By fully embracing what David says immediately following in Psalm 37.12-13:

For the Lord laughs at the wicked,
for he knows their day is coming.”

Just before Jesus is arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, a very disillusioned Peter cuts off the ear of the high priest’s servant.  Jesus (upon healing the servant’s ear) rebukes Peter (which wasn’t the first time):

“Put your sword back in its place, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?”

Here Jesus is either simply insane or simply ingenious.  Jesus’ question to Peter–and, arguably, to all humanity–is penetrating:  “In the face of dark injustice, what are you thinking?”

In seven of the nine times in Matthew that Jesus speaks of angels, he refers to them as agents of divine apocalyptic judgment (see 13.39, 41, 49; 16.27; 24.31, 36; 25.31; possibly also in 18.10).  Jesus is asking Peter, “Don’t you understand that I could ask my Father to mete out judgment at any time?  Peter, don’t you get it–their day is coming.”

 

The Last Judgment (Michaelangelo)

 

Jesus then asks Peter:  “But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?”

What Peter perceives as a disastrous problem Jesus promises is a divinely foretold plan.

And if Peter, the foremost of Jesus’ apostles doesn’t see it, what are the odds that the foremost of Jesus’ opponents see it?  Those who have banded together against Yahweh and against his anointed one are actually and only fulfilling God’s ancient purposes.

No wonder God is laughing.

In short, by opposing God they are only helping him win.  How foolish–indeed, how insane–could they be?

Indeed, how insane could any of us be?

Jesus went down embracing and embodying David’s counsel.  Did he make the right move?

“Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him;
do not anxious when men succeed in their ways,
when they carry out their wicked schemes.
Refrain from anger and turn from wrath;
do not be anxious–it leads only to evil . . . .
The wicked plot against the righteous,
and gnash their teeth at them;
but the LORD laughs at the wicked,
for he knows their day is coming.”

. . . . . . . . . .

This is my Father’s world.
O let me ne’er forget
that though the wrong seems oft so strong
God is the ruler yet.
This is my Father’s world:
why should my heart be sad?
The Lord is king; let the heavens ring!
God reigns; let the earth be glad!

 

 

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