Ecclesiastes 3:1, 4
1 To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
4 … a time to laugh….
I often say God has a sense of humour. He made us, after all, and we’re rather silly creatures sometimes. But some people think humour is frivolous and inappropriate, especially when speaking of the things of the Lord. Certainly, it can be used wrongly, but I’d like to look at some examples of humour in Scripture to show that this is a tool that God Himself uses, and it is certainly fitting for us to use as well.
There are many plays on words in the original languages of the Scripture, and this is probably the most frequent use of humour. But little of that survives in translation, so I’ll focus on those things that we can see in the English.
1 Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing?
2 The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD, and against his anointed, saying,
3 Let us break their bands asunder, and cast away their cords from us.
4 He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh: the Lord shall have them in derision.
We normally view sarcasm as the unacceptable side of humour. Yet, this is very common in the Bible, as God uses it repeatedly to mock those who oppose Him, worship idols, or teach falsehood. His purpose seems to be to show that such behaviour is not only wrong and rebellious, but it is downright foolish, even ludicrous.
And none considereth in his heart, neither is there knowledge nor understanding to say, I have burned part of it in the fire; yea, also I have baked bread upon the coals thereof; I have roasted flesh, and eaten it: and shall I make the residue thereof an abomination? shall I fall down to the stock of a tree?
This is the end of a passage in which Isaiah mocks the foolishness of idolatry. He says they take a single piece of wood, and burn some for heat and some to cook — and another part they worship. They worship the same wood, from the same tree, that they burn.
I Kings 18:27
And it came to pass at noon, that Elijah mocked them, and said, Cry aloud: for he is a god; either he is talking, or he is pursuing, or he is in a journey, or peradventure he sleepeth, and must be awaked.
This is the famous contest on Mount Carmel with the prophets of the false god Baal. They called on Baal for fire all morning, and it hasn’t happened, and Elijah sarcastically says, “He is a god” — and then suggests lots of things that couldn’t be true of a real god.
There are many other examples of sarcasm in Scripture. Sometimes, rather than directing sarcasm against a person, God moves him to make himself the object of ridicule:
And now, though thou wouldest needs be gone, because thou sore longedst after thy father’s house, yet wherefore hast thou stolen my gods?
Laban complains about his stolen gods. Some gods! One wonders, did they notice they were being stolen? Just before, he said that Jacob’s God had spoken to him the night before. “Your God told me not to harm you, but I’m upset because you stole my gods!” One man’s God protects His servant, the other man has to try to protect his gods from theft! 🙂
Perhaps the most hilarious example in the Bible of “sin makes you stupid” is the man who got in an argument with his donkey.
26 And the angel of the LORD went further, and stood in a narrow place, where was no way to turn either to the right hand or to the left.
27 And when the ass saw the angel of the LORD, she fell down under Balaam: and Balaam’s anger was kindled, and he smote the ass with a staff.
28 And the LORD opened the mouth of the ass, and she said unto Balaam, What have I done unto thee, that thou hast smitten me these three times?
29 And Balaam said unto the ass, Because thou hast mocked me: I would there were a sword in mine hand, for now would I kill thee.
30 And the ass said unto Balaam, Am not I thine ass, upon which thou hast ridden ever since I was thine unto this day? was I ever wont to do so unto thee? And he said, Nay.
31 Then the LORD opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the LORD standing in the way, and his sword drawn in his hand: and he bowed down his head, and fell flat on his face.
If I were riding a donkey and it started talking to me, I wouldn’t argue. Would you? But it gets better. The donkey WON the argument, even before Balaam saw the angel! Balaam had to admit to the donkey that it was a well-behaved donkey. 🙂 By any standard, this is hilarious stuff, all the better because it is a true story.
Hyperbole is the use of an absurd overstatement to make a point. The examples below are all cases where a very real point is being made, and they are somewhat akin to the sarcasm above in showing the foolishness of sin. But the overstatement in these cases goes beyond making the point to giving a really funny mental picture, one that wasn’t necessary to make the point, but the humour of it becomes a memorable teaching tool.
Ye blind guides, which strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel.
Just as in the “sarcasm” cases, because Jesus is pointing out the silliness of their behaviour, but He creates an amazing image in the mind’s eye here. We see a long-robed Pharisee with his bowl of soup, and he spots a tiny insect. (“Waiter! There’s a FLY in my soup!”) He carefully strains it out, eats his soup — and then goes over to his camel.
This is going to be tricky. Do you start by swallowing the nose, or do you go with what you see in that picture, put the thing on a great big spoon, open wide, and just gulp it down in one shot? 🙂
Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature?
Again, Jesus uses hyperbole to point out that worrying about things just isn’t going to do any good. You can’t add an inch by thinking about it, let alone an entire cubit.
Proverbs is full of visual images which are somewhat hyperbolic — and quite funny.
As a jewel of gold in a swine’s snout, so is a fair woman which is without discretion.
“And there in a wood,
A piggy-wig stood,
With a ring at the end of his nose,
His nose, his nose,
With a ring at the end of his nose.” 🙂
I love the sluggard Proverbs. These have to be hyperbole. Does anyone really think that there has ever been a sluggard so attached to his bed that he turns on it like a door on its hinge (a squeaky door, no doubt)? What about one who invented the “lions outside” excuse to stay in bed, or who is grieved at the work of lifting food to his mouth?
13 The slothful man saith, There is a lion in the way; a lion is in the streets.
14 As the door turneth upon his hinges, so doth the slothful upon his bed.
15 The slothful hideth his hand in his bosom; it grieveth him to bring it again to his mouth.
Sometimes, people use the funniest excuses (almost like the sluggard ones above, except these really happen), and God records a few so we can laugh at them.
And I said unto them, Whosoever hath any gold, let them break it off. So they gave it me: then I cast it into the fire, and there came out this calf.
Aaron made a golden calf for the people to worship, but when Moses appears, he has his excuse: “All I did was throw the gold in the fire, the calf came out by itself!” I’m a parent, I’ve heard the “it did it by itself” excuse before. 🙂
13 Saying, Say ye, His disciples came by night, and stole him away while we slept.
14 And if this come to the governor’s ears, we will persuade him, and secure you.
15 So they took the money, and did as they were taught: and this saying is commonly reported among the Jews until this day.
In explaining how Jesus’ body disappeared, they came up with a really good one — His disciples stole Him while we were sleeping! Except, well, if you were sleeping, how do you know what happened? Did they leave you a note? Explain again, sir, how you saw them (in your sleep) roll the stone away. This is so dumb it’s funny — you could just imagine a lawyer asking questions and the whole courtroom laughing at these guys.
Think about Haman going to the king to ask for Mordecai’s head, in Esther 6. Before he gets out his request, the king asks what he should do to honour someone, and arrogant Haman assumes he’ll be the one honoured. The result is hilarious.
We have Peter, running for his life in Acts 12, and Rhoda leaves him knocking at the gate while everyone inside debates whether it is him or not. (Why not just let him in and find out?) It’s even better that they had been praying for him, the answer to their prayer is knocking at the gate, and they decide it must be his ghost. 🙂 There is Paul preaching so long that poor Eutychus will forever be famous as the guy who fell asleep during a sermon in a third-story window. Long-winded preachers always laugh about this, while those who listen to us will at least give a wry smile.
Then there is Jonah — when a whale swallowed him he prayed that God would let him live, but when a worm ate a plant he prayed that God would let him die. And since we are talking about Jonah, what about this from the king of Nineveh?
But let man and beast be covered with sackcloth….
Sackcloth on animals? 🙂 He really was afraid of Jonah’s message!
There are also cases that are not LOL funny, but where clever wording is used to make a point memorable.
21 And I will give this people favour in the sight of the Egyptians: and it shall come to pass, that, when ye go, ye shall not go empty:
22 But every woman shall borrow of her neighbour, and of her that sojourneth in her house, jewels of silver, and jewels of gold, and raiment: and ye shall put them upon your sons, and upon your daughters; and ye shall spoil the Egyptians.
Usually, “spoil” means to take by force, but God tells them they are going to “borrow” / ask, and the Egyptians will give. This isn’t going to be repaid.
We see Samuel talking to Saul (who was a head taller than anyone else) about being “little” in his own sight. And we see Jesus telling Peter (the “rock”) that Satan wants to sift him like wheat (for an alternate view, see Stephen’s comment below).
Paul must have had a glint in his eye when he wrote to Philemon that he wasn’t going to mention how much Philemon owed him — obviously, in saying that, he mentioned it! Or in Titus 1 (as I mentioned here) when he quoted Epimenides saying something that was self-refuting and thus couldn’t be absolutely true in every case — and then said, “This witness is true.”
Perhaps one of the best stories of humour in the Bible is the story of Sarah and the birth of Isaac. God had told Abraham that he would have a son, and Abraham laughed (Genesis 17:17), so God played a lovely little joke on His beloved friend. He told him (verse 19) that he was to name this son Isaac (laughter). By the next chapter, Sarah is laughing, too, and God was still using the laughter of this joke 200o years later. I’ve written on that before (Sarah Laughed), so I won’t elaborate here.
There’s another delightful joke coming. Some day, the Lord will say to some, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:21). And if, by God’s grace, I hear those words I will know it was “God which worketh in you both to will and to do of His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13). In sheer delight over that best of jokes, that God could not only take wicked sinners and make us fit for glory, but also commend us for that which He Himself has done in us, we’ll cast our crowns at His feet. Just thinking about it as I’m typing makes me smile at it all.