The Laughter of the Bible

While browsing through a list of classic sermons this evening, I came upon this one on the topic of laughter by T. DeWitt Talmage (1832-1902). I liked it. Serious though it is, there were certain points made by this old preacher which made me smile, while other points brought tears to my eyes.   

Anyway, perhaps you might like to read it too. 

“Then was our mouth filled with laughter.”…. “He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh.” —Psalm 126:2 2:4

Thirty-eight times does the Bible make reference to this configuration of the features and quick expulsion of breath which we call laughter. Sometimes it is born of the sunshine, and sometimes of the midnight. Sometimes it stirs the sympathy of angels, and sometimes the cachinnation of devils. All healthy people laugh; whether it pleases the Lord or displeases him, that depends upon when we laugh and at what we laugh. My theme this morning is the laughter of the Bible—namely,

  • Sarah’s laugh, or that of skepticism;
  • David’s laugh, or that of spiritual exultation;
  • The fool’s laugh, or that of sinful merriment;
  • God’s laugh, or that of infinite condemnation;
  • Heaven’s laugh, or that of eternal triumph.

Sarah’s laugh, or that of skepticism. Scene, An Oriental tent; the occupants, old Abraham and Sarah, perhaps wrinkled and decrepit. Their three guests are three angels, the Lord Almighty one of them. In return for the hospitality shown by the old people, God promises Sarah that she shall become the ancestress of the Lord Jesus Christ. Sarah laughs in the face of God; she does not believe it. She is affrighted at what she has done. She denies it. She says: “I didn’t laugh.” Then God retorted, with an emphasis that silenced all disputation: “But thou didst laugh.” My friends, the laugh of skepticism in all the ages is only the echo of Sarah’s laughter.

God says he will accomplish a thing, and men say it cannot be done. A great multitude laugh at the miracles. They say they are contrary to the laws of nature. What is a law of nature? It is God’s way of doing a thing. You ordinarily cross the river by the bridge; to-morrow you change for one day, and you go across the ferry. You made the rule; have you not a right to change it? I ordinarily come in at that door [pointing to a side entrance] of the church. Suppose next Sabbath, I should come in at the other door? It is a habit I have. Have I not a right to change my habit? A law of nature: God’s habit—his way of doing things. If he makes the law, has he not a right to change it at any time he wants to change it?

Alas for the folly of those who laugh at God when he says: “I will do a thing,” they responding: “You can’t do it.” God says that the Bible is true—it is all true. Herbert Spencer laughs. John Stuart Mill laughs. All great German universities laugh. Harvard laughs—softly! A great many of the learned institutions of this country, with long rows of professors seated on the fence between Christianity and infidelity, laugh softly. They say: “We didn’t laugh.” That was Sarah’s trick. God thunders from the heavens: “But thou didst laugh!”

We are told that the Garden of Eden was only a fable. There never was any ark built, or, if it was built, it was too small to hold two of every kind. The pillar of fire by night is only the northern lights. The ten plagues of Egypt only a brilliant specimen of jugglery. The sea parted because the wind blew violently a great while from one direction. The sun and moon did not put themselves out of the way for Joshua. Jacob’s ladder was only horizontal and picturesque clouds. The destroying angel smiting the first-born in Egypt was only cholera infantum become epidemic. The gullet of the whale, by positive measurement, is too small to swallow a prophet. The lame, the dumb, the blind, the halt cured by mere human surgery. The resurrection of Christ’s friend only a beautiful tableau, Christ and Lazarus and Mary and Martha acting their parts well.

My friends, there is not a doctrine or statement of God’s Holy Word that has not been derided by the skepticism of this day.

I take up this Book ….I consider it a perfect Bible, but here are skeptics who want it torn to pieces, and now with this Bible in my hand, let me tear out all those portions which the skepticism of this day demands shall be torn out. What shall go first?

“Well,” says some one in the audience, “take out all that about the creation, and about the first settlement of the world.” Away goes Genesis. “Now,” says some one, “take out all that about the miraculous guidance of the children of Israel in the wilderness.” Away goes Exodus. “Now,” says some one else in the audience, “there are things in Deuteronomy and Kings that are not fit to be read.” Away go Deuteronomy and the Kings. “Now,” says some one, “the book of Job is a drama; that ought to come out.” Away goes the book of Job. “Now,” says some one, “those passages in the New Testament which imply the divinity of Jesus Christ ought to come out.” Away go the evangelists. “Now,” says some one, “the book of Revelation—how preposterous; it represents a man with the moon under his feet and a sharp sword in his hand.” Away goes the book of Revelation. Now there are a few pieces left. What shall we do with them?

“Oh,” says some man in the audience, “I don’t believe a word of the Bible from one end to the other.” Well, it is all gone. Now, you have put out the last light for the nations. Now it is the pitch darkness of eternal midnight. How do you like it? But, I think, my friends, we had better keep the Bible a little longer intact. It has done pretty well for a good many years. There are old people who find it a comfort to have it on their laps and children like the stories in it. Let us keep it for a curiosity anyhow…. let us each one keep a copy for himself; for we might have trouble, and we would want to be under the delusions of its consolation; and we might die, and we would want the delusion of the exalted residence at God’s right hand which it mentions.

Oh, what an awful thing it is to laugh in God’s face, and hurl his revelation back at him! After a while the day will come when they will say they did not laugh. Then all the hypercriticisms, all the caricatures and all the learned sneers ..will be brought to judgment and amid the rocking of everything beneath, and amid the flaming of everything above, God will thunder: “But thou didst laugh!”

Now, it is a mean thing to go into a man’s house and steal his goods; but I tell you the most gigantic burglary ever enacted is the proposition to steal these treasures of our holy religion. The meanest laughter ever uttered is the laughter of the skeptic.

The next laughter mentioned in this Bible is David’s laughter or the expression of spiritual exultation. “Then was our mouth filled with laughter.” He got very much down sometimes, but there are other chapters where for four or five times he calls up the people to praise and exult. It was not a mere twitch of the lips; it was a demonstration that took hold of his whole physical nature. “Then was our mouth filled with laughter.”

My friends, this world will never be converted to God until Christians cry less and laugh and sing more. The horrors are a poor bait. If people are to be persuaded to adopt our holy religion, it will be because they have made up their mind it is a happy religion, and they do not like a bilious Christianity. I know there are morbid people who enjoy a funeral. They come early to see the friends take leave of the corpse, and they steal a ride to the cemetery; but all healthy people enjoy a wedding better than they do a burial. Now, you make the religion of Christ sepulchral and hearse-like, and you make it repulsive.

I say plant the rose of Sharon along the church walks, and columbine to clamber over the church wall; and have a smile on the lip, and have the mouth filled with holy laughter. There is no man in the world except the Christian that has a right to feel an untrammeled glee. He is promised everything is to be for the best here, and he is on the way to a delight which will take all the procession with palm branches and all the orchestra harped and cymbaled and trumpeted to express. “Oh,” you say, “I have so much trouble!”

Have you more trouble than Paul had? What does he say? “Sorrowful, yet always rejoicing. Poor, yet making many rich. Having nothing, yet possessing all things.” The merriest laugh I ever heard has been in the sick-room of God’s dear children. When Theodosius was put upon the rack, he suffered very great torture at the first. Somebody asked him how he endured all that pain on the rack. He replied: “When I was first put upon the rack, I suffered a great deal; but very soon a young man in white stood by my side and with a soft and comfortable handkerchief he wiped the sweat from my brow and my pains were relieved; it was a punishment for me to get from the rack, because when the pain was all gone, the angel was gone.” Oh, rejoice evermore!

You know how it is in the army—an army in encampment. If today news comes that our side has had a defeat, and to-morrow another portion of the tidings comes, saying: “We have had another defeat!” it demoralizes all the host. But the news comes of victory today and victory to-morrow, the whole army is impassioned for the contest. Now, in the kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ, report fewer defeats; tell us the victories; victory over sin and death and hell. Rejoice evermore, and again I say rejoice!

The next laughter mentioned in the Bible that I shall speak of is the fool’s laughter or the expression of sinful merriment. Solomon was very quick at simile; when he makes a comparison we all catch it. What is the laughter of a fool like? He says: “It is the crackling of thorns under a pot.” The kettle is swung, a bunch of brambles is put under it, and the torch is applied to it and there is a great noise and a big blaze and a sputter and a quick extinguishment. Then it is darker than it was before. Fool’s laughter! The most miserable thing on earth is a bad man’s fun. There they are, ten men in a barroom. They have at home wives, mothers, daughters. The impure jest starts at one corner of the barroom, and crackle, crackle, crackle, it goes all around. In five hundred such guffaws there is not one item of happiness. They all feel bemeaned, if they have any conscience left. Have nothing to do with men or women who tell immoral stories. I have no confidence either in their Christian character or their morality.

So all merriment that springs out of the defects of others—caricature of a lame foot or a curved spine or a blind eye or a deaf ear—will be met with the judgments of God. Twenty years ago, I knew a man who was particularly skillful in imitating the lameness of a neighbor. Not long ago, a son of the skillful mimic had his leg amputated for the very defect which his father had mimicked years before. I do not say it was a judgment of God. I leave you to make your own inference. So all merriment born of dissipation—that which starts at the counter of the drinking restaurant or from the wine-glass in the home circle—the maudlin simper, the meaningless joke, the saturnalian gibberish, the paroxysm of mirth about nothing, that you sometimes see in the fashionable club-room or the exquisite parlor at twelve o’clock at night, are the crackling of thorns under a pot. Such laughter and such sin ends in death.

 The next laughter that I shall mention as being in the Bible is the laughter of God’s condemnation. “He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh.” Again: “The Lord will laugh at him.” Again: “I will laugh at his calamity.” With such demonstration will God greet every kind of great sin and wickedness. Bad men build up villainies higher and higher. Good men almost pity God because he is so schemed against by men. Suddenly a pin drops out of the machinery of wickedness, or a secret is revealed, the foundation begins to rock; finally, the whole thing is demolished. What is the matter? I will tell you what is the matter. The crash of ruin is only the reverberation of God’s laughter!

Rome was a great empire; she had Horace and Virgil among her poets; she had Augustus and Constantine among her emperors. But what mean the defaced Pantheon and the Forum turned into a cattle-market and the broken-walled Colosseum, and the architectural skeleton of her great aqueducts? What was that thunder?” “Oh,” you say, “that was the roar of the battering rams against her walls.” No. What was that quiver? “Oh,” you say, “that was the tramp of hostile legions.” No. The quiver and the roar were the outburst of omnipotent laughter from the defied and insulted heavens. Rome defied God and he laughed her down. Thebes defied God and he laughed her down. Nineveh defied God and he laughed her down. Babylon defied God and he laughed her down.

There is an immense difference between God’s laugh and his smile. His smile is eternal beatitude.

He smiled when David sang and Miriam clapped the cymbals and Hannah made garments for her son and Paul preached and John kindled with apocalyptic vision and when any man has anything to do and does it well. His smile! Why, it is the apple orchards in full bloom. It is morning breaking on a rippling sea. It is heaven at high noon, all the bells ringing the marriage peal. But his laughter—may it never fall on us! It is a condemnation for our sin. It is a wasting away. We may let the satirist laugh at us, and all our companions laugh at us, and we may be made the target for the merriment of earth and hell; but God forbid that we should ever come to the fulfillment of the prophecy against the rejectors of the truth: “I will laugh at your calamity.”

But, my friends, all of us who reject the pardon of the Gospel are to come under that tremendous bombardment. God wants us all to repent; he counsels, he coaxes, he importunes, he begs us. He comes down out of heaven. He puts all the world’s sin on one shoulder, he puts all the world’s sorrow on the other shoulder, and then, with that Alps on one side and that Himalaya on the other, he starts up the hill back of Jerusalem to achieve our salvation. He puts the palm of his right hand on one long spike, and he puts the palm of his left hand on another long spike, and then, with his hands spotted with his own blood, he gesticulates, saying: “Look! look! and live! With the crimson veil of my sacrifice I will cover all your sins. With my dying groan I will swallow up all your groans. Look! live!”

But a thousand of you this morning turn your back to that. And then this voice of invitation turns to a tone divinely ominous, that sobs like a simoom or an equinox through the first chapter of Proverbs: “Because I have called and ye refused; I have stretched out my hand and no man regarded; but ye have set at naught all my counsel and would none of my reproof, I also will laugh at your calamity.”

Oh, what a laugh that is! A deep laugh. A long, reverberating laugh. An overwhelming laugh. God grant we may never hear it. But in this day of merciful visitation yield your heart to Christ, that you may spend all your life on earth under his smile and escape forever the thunder of the laugh of God’s indignation.

The other laughter mentioned in the Bible, the only one I shall speak of, is heaven’s laughter, or the expression of eternal triumph. Christ said to his disciples: “Blessed are ye that weep now, for ye shall laugh.” That makes me know positively that we are not going to spend our days in heaven singing long-metre songs. The formalistic and stiff notions of heaven that some people have would make me miserable. I am glad to know that the heaven of the Bible is not only a place of holy worship, but of magnificent sociality. “What,” say you, “will the ringing laugh go around the circles of the saved?” I say, yes; pure laughter, cheering laughter, holy laughter. It will be a laugh of congratulation.

When we meet a friend who has suddenly come to a fortune, or who has got over some dire sickness, do we not shake hands, do we not laugh with him? And when we get to heaven and see our friends there, some of them having come up out of great tribulation, why, we will say to one of them: “The last time I saw you, you had been suffering for six weeks under a low intermittent fever;” or to another we will say: “You, for ten years were limping with the rheumatism, and you were full of complaints when we saw you last. I congratulate you on your eternal recovery.” Ye shall laugh. Yes, we shall congratulate all those who have come up out of great embarrassments in this world….

Ye shall laugh, it will be a laugh of re-association. It is as natural for us to laugh when we meet those we haven’t seen for ten years, as anything is possible to be natural. And when we meet our friends, over whose departure we lamented, ten, twenty, thirty years before, will it not be with infinite congratulation? our perceptions quickened, our knowledge improved? We will know each other at a flash, and have to talk over all that happened since we have been separated, the one that has been ten years in heaven telling us of all that has happened in the ten years of his heavenly residence, and we telling him in return what has happened during the ten years of his absence from earth.

We shall laugh. I think George Whitefield and John Wesley will have a laugh for their earthly collisions, and that Toplady and Charles Wesley will have a laugh over their earthly misunderstandings, and the two farmers who were in a lawsuit all their days will have a laugh over their earthly disturbance about a line fence.

Exemption from all annoyance. Immersion in all gladness. Ye shall laugh.

Yes; it will be a laugh of triumph.

Does not your heart beat and cry this morning at the thought of that great jubilee upon which we are soon to enter? I pray God that when we get through with this world and are going out of it, we may have the same vision that a Christian had when he said he saw written all over the clouds of the sky the letter W, and they asked him, standing by his side, what he thought that letter W meant. Oh, he says, that stands for Welcome.

So may it be when we quit this world. W on the gate, W on the door of the mansion, W on the throne. Welcome, Welcome, Welcome.

I have preached this sermon with five prayerful wishes: that you might see what a mean thing is the laughter of skepticism; what a bright thing is the laugh of spiritual exultation; what a hollow thing is the laugh of sinful merriment; what an awful thing is the laugh of condemnation; what a radiant, rubicund thing is the laughter of eternal triumph. Avoid the ill, choose the right; be comforted, be comforted. Blessed are ye that weep now, for ye shall laugh—ye shall laugh!

Excerpts from ‘The Laughter of the Bible’:  Source


2 comments on “The Laughter of the Bible

  1. Genesis 17:17 Abraham fell facedown; he laughed and said to himself, “Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?” Genesis 18:13 Then the LORD said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Will I really have a child, now that I am old?’ Psalm 126:2 Our mouths were filled with laughter, our tongues with songs of joy. Then it was said among the nations, “The LORD has done great things for them.” Isaiah 54:1 “Sing, barren woman, you who never bore a child; burst into song, shout for joy, you who were never in labor; because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband,” says the LORD. Jeremiah 20:15 Cursed be the man who brought my father the news, who made him very glad, saying, “A child is born to you–a son!” Genesis 1:1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Genesis 21:5 Abraham was a hundred years old when his son Isaac was born to him.

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