Psalm 66 – A Prayer of Joy

PSALM 66

If I were to invite you all, on a count of three, to make a joyful noise, what, I wonder, would be the noise that you would make? Well, let’s do it! Forget for the moment that you are polite well behaved Anglicans, and allow yourselves to make whatever noise the word joy provokes in you. With actions if you wish!

One, two, three…….!!!

Psalm 66 is described on, our pew leaflet as a Prayer of Joy – and that is made clear by the opening words. But those opening words are easy to misunderstand. We read: ‘O be joyful!’ and we tend to assume that this must have something to do with feelings. But in the original Hebrew, the meaning is not ‘feel joyful’, still less ‘feel happy’. The meaning is: ‘Make a joyful noise! And that is good, because joy is a physical thing that  comes from deep down within us. The writer Thomas Wolfe says of joy: ‘It is first of all a physical quality; then it is a quality of spirit.’

This ties in well with what we experienced a few minutes ago – joy is not simply or even mainly a question of feeling something. The Anglican writer Harry Williams,  popular in the second half of the 20th century, claims in his book ‘The Joy of God‘ that joy goes deeper than feelings, even though feelings spring from it. He suggests it is a way of knowing or seeing. 

Now if I were asked: knowing or seeing what? I would answer:

‘Knowing or seeing that life has meaning & value & beauty’; and I would suggest that to know that is also to know God. And furthermore, it is to know that joy is God’s gift, not our achievement.

There are many sources of joy, and they are by no means only found in religious contexts. Harry Williams suggests that, sometimes at least, we can and should find joy in our work; in nature; in art and music; and especially in relationships and within our own self. He describes it as: ‘a way of seeing and knowing that opens up the world to us’. And it often comes when we least expect it; many of us will have read C S Lewis’s great spiritual autobiography, ‘Surprised by Joy’. But wherever and whenever it comes to us, there can be no odubtign its importance. Another writer, Rollo May, claims that:  ‘Joy, rather than happiness, is the goal of life, for joy is the emotion which accompanies and fulfills our nature as human beings.’

Let’s go back to psalm 66. It falls into three sections:

(1) Thankfulness for deliverance in the Exodus from Egypt.

(2) Thankfulness for more recent deliverance from foreign conquest.

(3) Personal thanks of an individual who brings sacrifices to the temple, in thanks that a time of suffering has passed.

There are two important points here:

First, the writer’s thought moves from the corporate to the individual – which reminds us of the importance of shared joy. I suspect that some of our modern worship songs may be too individualistic in their expression of joy: too much ‘I’, not enough ‘We’. That burst of joy we shared a few minutes ago was very much a corporate experience.

Then, secondly, the psalmist, whoever he was, knows that the reality of pain and suffering is not denied by joy. Joy comes on the far side of distress. Archbishop William Temple wrote: ‘The Christian joy and hope do not arise from an ignoring of evil in the world, but from facing it at its worst.’ Lament and joy do not deny one another. Indeed it may even be that we only really know the meaning of joy when we have been through the mill of pain and suffering. Psalm 51, which is regularly said or sung on Ash Wednesday, is definitely a psalm of lament; but it also contains this verse: ‘You shall make me hear of joy and gladness……that the bones which you have broken may rejoice.’ Those extraordinary words do not flinch from acknowledging the reality of suffering – and of God’s part in it – but they see light in and beyond the darkness. Hospices can be the most joyful of places.

The Psalms, as we know but may sometimes be tempted to forget,  come from Jewish Scripture; and I sometimes think that  Jews have a deeper understanding of joy than Christians.  If you’ve ever been to a Jewish wedding you’ll know what I mean. The recent recent production of ‘Fiddler on Roof’ at Chichester Festival theatre, which I know some of you have seen, brings this out beautifully. Jesus – a Jew –  found joy in the depths of his own being and wanted to extend it to his disciples: ‘I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you and your joy complete.’ And in the prayer book of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in north London, which some of us from this congregation have had the privilege of visiting, we find these words: ‘On the Day of Judgment, we shall have to account for any good thing we might have enjoyed but did not.’ Now there’s a challenge if you like: to imagine a God who asks us, at our own judgment, not: ‘Why were you not holy enough, virtuous enough, or successful enough?’, but….. ‘Why did you not enjoy your life enough?’ 

May God grant to  us all the precious gift of joy.  Amen.