“The gods are fond of a joke”, said Socrates in the dialogue Cratylus. The God of the Old Testament doesn’t go in much for chuckles, but he has a hearty laugh in verse 4 of Psalm 2.
He who sits in the heavens laughs…
What tickles him, as he gazes down to earth from his throne, is the hubris of the kings and nations of the earth hoping to rise against him:
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.
God has another hearty guffaw in verse 13 of Psalm 37, and for much the same reason:
The wicked plots against the righteous, and gnashes his teeth at him; but the Lord laughs at the wicked, for he sees that his day is coming.
What prompts God’s laughter is his more complete perspective on events: he laughs at the wicked because he not only sees their devious plotting, he knows that these plots will come to naught. The teeth-gnashers themselves don’t know this, they’re caught up in the moment, plotting away as best they can, but God can see the absurdity of their designs, and he can’t help but hoot in derision.
It’s as if God is seeing the people on earth as foolish characters in a cartoon. He looks down from outside the events of the cartoon, he sees the bigger picture. This clash between what we on earth think and intend and what God knows and sees sub specie aeternitatis tickles him immensely. It’s the old Yiddish saying: “Man plans, God laughs”.
God’s view on events is exactly that of the viewer of this Gary Larson cartoon, of a magnificent leaping stag about to come a cropper:
This is a God’s-eye view of nature, and it has exactly that mixture of o’erleaping pride and unforeseen calamity that amuses God so much in those verses from Psalms. Part of the humour is simply this: that we know what the stag doesn’t. Larson has drawn it with a fine sense of self-satisfaction as it easily clears the tree trunk, so confident in its abilities that it barely has to open its eyes. But then there’s the caption, which points out that we don’t generally have this perspective on events (“Nature scenes we [humans] rarely see”), with the implication that this sort of thing goes on much more often than you’d think. The caption is a comment on the limited perspective of the viewer: we’re not generally privy to this kind of event, but Larson is granting us a taste of omniscience.
We’re getting a glimpse through the eyes of God: “And before him no creature is hidden, but all are open and laid bare to the eyes of him with whom we have to do” (Hebrews 4:13); “The secret things belong to the Lord our God” (Deuteronomy 29:29).
A similar kind of perspectival shift often occurs in jokes: where we are led to believe (in the set-up) that such-and-such is the case, only to have (in the punchline), our beliefs shown to be utterly false as the bigger picture is revealed. Only the comedian knows “the secret things” of the joke that he is about to reveal. Unless you’ve heard the joke before, of course, which doesn’t necessarily stop it being funny. You can still enjoy the journey you’re being taken on, even if you know where you’re going.
An interesting feature of God’s laughter is that it occurs in eternity: there’s no revealing of the bigger picture. He just knows it. After all, he created the entire situation. In other words, he’s a cartoonist chuckling at his own cartoon, he’s a comedian laughing at his own joke. Which, by the way, is something comedians quite often do on stage: they emit a kind of ‘guide laugh’ to let the audience know that they themselves find the material funny, and to give them a sense that it’s right and proper to laugh along with them.
In these terms: God is the all-knowing, all-creating comedian, the Bible as his stage, and his laughter is a kind of guide for us, so that we laugh along with him. We’re meant to find the ways of man absurd, as God does. To find absurd what God derides as ridiculous. We’re getting a glimpse of ourselves through the eyes of God. Turns out we’re hilarious.