Interview with

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Audio Transcript

Welcome back to the podcast. In our Bible reading this week, we hit Psalm 43. And within Psalm 43 we find one amazing little verse that unfolds into all sorts of implications, leading to a wonderful question from a pastor named Robert, who lives and ministers in Wisconsin. “Hello, Pastor John, and thank you for the way you have served and encouraged pastors like me, from a distance, over the decades through your faithful labors. I love Psalm 43:4, a life verse for me, and one I want to better understand. I know you love this text as well. ‘Then I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy.’

“If I remember correctly, somewhere I heard you translate the Hebrew of this text like this: ‘Then I will go to the altar of God, to God the joy of my joys.’ God is the joy of our joys. I cannot find where you said this, but you’re not the only one, as I have come to see this in other interpretations of this verse from Puritan Thomas Goodwin in the seventeenth century (Works, 4:392), to William de Burgh in the nineteenth century (A Commentary on the Book of Psalms, 380), to classic Hebrew scholars today (David J.A. Clines, Dictionary of Classical Hebrew, 8:166).

“So, can you walk us through the Hebrew briefly, and then explain what this means that God is the joy of our joys? I’ve historically thought of this text as saying what the ESV here implies, that God is the most exceeding joy above all other joys — a comparison. But you seem to indicate that this text is speaking of source — God is the joy, that is, the giver of all other joys. That changes the text completely. If so, expand on this. This seems like a huge discovery!”

Well, that’s not quite what I mean. I totally love what he loves here and want to get at it, because there is something really quite right. I don’t mean source when I say, “joy of our joys.” What I mean is, God is the essence of our joys. God is the substance of all our joys. He’s the best part of every joy if we are enjoying things rightly. So, he’s not only supreme joy — which is what the ESV brings out: our “exceeding joy” — but he is also the best part of all other joys. He is to be what makes all our joys most enjoyable. That’s what I mean.

‘Joy of My Gladness’

Let’s see if that’s so, and get the verse in front of us here. The psalmist is crying out to God, and he says,

Send out your light and your truth;
     let them lead me;
let them bring me to your holy hill
     and to your dwelling!
Then I will go to the altar of God,
     to God my exceeding joy. (Psalm 43:3–4)

So, the psalmist identifies God as his exceeding joy, which the ESV, the NASB, the King James Version all translate “exceeding joy.” The Hebrew (śim-ḥaṯ gî-lî) has two different words for joy or happiness or pleasure. Literally, then, the phrase could be translated, “the joy of my gladness,” which in fact is exactly what’s in the margin of the old King James: “the joy of my gladness.” So, the question is, What does that literal phrase — “the joy of my gladness” — mean?

The ESV and the other versions take it to mean that, at least, he’s my best gladness. “The joy of my gladness” means, of all my gladness, he’s the best. And surely that’s right. I mean, at least it means that. God is supreme. God never made anything more valuable or more enjoyable than himself. So yes, God is our exceeding joy. That’s what it means to be God, I think, and that’s what it means to love God. But the question remains, Is that all the phrase means? Is there more implied in the phrase “joy of my gladness”?

Avoiding Idolatry

So, way back — I’m guiding our friend to where I actually said that (he said he couldn’t find it). Well, on February 26, 2006, it’s on the DG website on this text. I preached on this, and I remember it so clearly because it was twelve days after my prostate-cancer surgery. I chose this text precisely for that. So, way back on February 26, 2006, I preached on this, and here’s what I argued. I’ll quote two sentences:

God, who in all my rejoicing over all the good things that he has made, is himself, in all my rejoicing, the heart of my joy, the gladness of my joy. Every joy that does not have God as the central gladness of the joy is a hollow joy and, in the end, will burst like a bubble.

Now, the reason that insight is so important is because, without it, all our enjoyment of God’s gifts — the things that he’s made — would not honor God the way that enjoyment should. Or to put it in the form of a question, What keeps our enjoyment of pizza or friendship from being idolatry? That’s the question. Now, you could answer, “Because we always enjoy God more than pizza, and we always enjoy God more than friendship, and that keeps it from being idolatry.” And that’s true and that’s crucial. God is our exceeding joy, supreme joy.

“God is the best part of every joy if we are enjoying things rightly.”

But I think God intends to be glorified not only by being enjoyed more than pizza and more than friendship, but by being enjoyed in the very enjoyment of pizza and in the very enjoyment of friendship. I think God intends for us to enjoy his sweetness in the sweetness of chocolate, his saltiness in the saltiness of french fries, his juiciness in the juiciness of a sizzling steak, his friendship in the company of our friends, his brightness in the sunrise, and so on.

When Paul says in 1 Timothy 6:17, “Set [your hope] . . . on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy,” I don’t think he meant only, “Make sure you enjoy God more than everything he made,” but rather, “Make sure you enjoy God in everything he made” — under everything as the source of joy, over everything as superior joy, and in everything as the best part of the enjoyment of everything.

Thankfulness Is Not Enough

Now, you could also say that — and this is true — thankfulness for God’s gifts is another key to keep the enjoyment of God’s gifts from becoming god, to keep ourselves from becoming idolaters. To be consciously thankful that every legitimate pleasure in this life is a gift of God is a good thing. That’s a right thing. By all means, we should be thankful. It’s a sin to be ungrateful for every good thing God gives. Paul said in 1 Timothy 4:4, “Nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving.”

But here’s the issue. I want to push into this. Thankfulness is not enough to keep the enjoyment of God’s gifts from becoming idolatrous. Think with me about this. Why is that? Why is thankfulness not enough to keep God’s good gifts from being idols to us? It’s because we all know that someone may give us a gift we enjoy more than we enjoy the person who gave it. We know this.

Being thankful to God or anyone does not mean we love the giver more than the gift. It doesn’t. A cranky, mean-spirited old man may give you the gift you’ve wanted all your life, and you’re thankful. Yes you are. But you don’t like him. He’s cranky. He’s a mean-spirited old man. You’re not sure why he gave it to you, but he gave it to you, and you’ve wanted it all your life, so you’re thankful for it. If we’re going to glorify God in the enjoyment of his gifts, we have to go beyond thankfulness.

Taste and See, Smell and Feel

So, back to Psalm 43:4. “God is the joy of my gladness” means not only that he is better than the gladness I have in other things — that is, “my exceeding joy” — but that he is the best part of the gladness I have in other things. He’s the joy of my gladness. He is what makes the enjoyment of those other things more enjoyable.

When the psalmist says in Psalm 73:25, “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you” — wow, what a statement — he might mean, “I desire nothing above God.” He might mean that. But it sounds like he means, “I don’t desire anything on earth of which God is not the chief part.” “I don’t want to enjoy anything,” he’s saying, “which is not also an enjoyment of God.” I want to enjoy God in friendship. I want to enjoy God in eating. I want to enjoy God in the pleasures of the marriage bed. I want to enjoy God in music and reading and rising early to see the dawn.

Now, if we’re onto something here, let’s see what some other significant Christian thinkers have said about this. Here’s the way Thomas Traherne put it: “You never enjoy the world aright, till you see how a sand exhibiteth the wisdom and power of God: And prize in everything the service which they do you, by manifesting His glory and goodness to your Soul” (Centuries, 13–14). That’s not mere thankfulness. This is enjoying God in our enjoyment of what he has made. Every part of creation is designed by God to communicate something of God. And when we enjoy that part of creation, we are to savor God in it.

Here’s the way Augustine put it in his prayer: “He loves thee too little” — speaking to God — “who loves anything together with thee, which he loves not for thy sake” (Confessions 10.29.40). Now, “for Thy sake” I take to mean this: we love what is not God properly by loving it for what we taste of God in it — not just out of thankfulness, but what we taste and see, smell and feel of God in it.

So, let us go with the psalmist to the altar of God — that is, to the cross of Jesus Christ — and enjoy the forgiveness of sins that he purchased there. And through that gift, let us know and enjoy God as our exceeding joy — yes, and as the gladness of all our joys.