In a moment when we seem inebriated with our own self-esteem with little hope of achieving it by the intoxicating route we have chosen, it may seem odd to speak of God laughing sarcastically at the little efforts of humankind to establish its status and prerogative. Yet the psalms choose just that image when their writers imagine the Lord who rules over the nations surveying efforts to unseat him.
This laughter is a fine sound—a manner of euangelion—for those Israelites who find themselves encircled by gentile foes whose declared enmity against the God of Jacob must have concrete consequences for his daughters and sons. Often the mention of heaven cackling at their designs is preceded by some statement on their part to the effect that ‘no one hears’ or ‘no one sees’.
Take Psalm 59. There the writer is preoccupied with what appears to be a bellicose threat by gentiles against the people of Israel and/or Judah. His description of warfare in canine terms is gripping:
Each evening they come back,
howling like dogs and prowling about the city.
There they are, bellowing with their mouths,
with sharp words on their lips—for “Who,” they think, “will hear us?
Then the sound of laughter:
But you laugh at them, O LORD;
you hold all the nations in derision.
O my strength, I will watch for you;
for you, O God, are my fortress.
My God in his steadfast love will meet me;
my God will let me look in triumph on my enemies.
The image marks moves against Yahweh’s sovereignty over his world as the stuff of lunacy. It seems prudent from a certain level but laughable when the proper perspective is gained.
Or take, more famously, Psalm 2, a paean of confidence in the Lord’s historical architecture and the status of his anointed king:
Why do the nations conspire,
and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers take counsel together,
against the LORD and his anointed, saying,
“Let us burst their bonds asunder,
and cast their cords from us.”
He who sits in the heavens laughs;
the LORD has them in derision.
Then he will speak to them in his wrath,
and terrify them in his fury, saying,
“I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill.”
It would be a too common mistake to read into such scoffing hilarity an adversarial role on the part of Yahweh towards the nations as nations. To the contrary, the same material presents a commitment to their redemption that is at points breathtaking in its scope and beauty. Yet there runs through such passages a strong current of humility and sometimes humiliation. That is, redemption in the psalms and prophets comes to the nations as they subject themselves to the God of Jacob and sometimes to Jacob/Israel itself. Needless to say, the history of interpretation has labored long to discern just what shape such subjugation—forced or embraced with joy—might take.
When this variety of divine laughter is heard, it is not leveled against non-Jews in toto, but rather against the nations as they seek to escape the determined sovereignty of Yahweh not only over his people Israel but over the whole created world. For the writers who indulge in the genre, the Yahwhs realm includes not just his Abrahamic tribe but also—the phrase is important for its fixing of God’s attention on people—the tevah, the ‘whole inhabited world’.
It is folly, indeed it stands as something of a joke, that little men should think themselves capable of resisting such ruling power.
It is more to their benefit, the literature seems to suggest, to find his mercy in his force, his goodness in his counsel. His future—veiled by the apparent bewilderment of chaos—in the story.