Volume 9, Issue 2: Exegetica
Thorns Under the Pot
It is all very well to talk about the joy and laughter of Christian living, but does not the Bible have anything to say about inappropriate mirth? After all, the apostle Paul tells us to not have anything to do with "coarse jesting," and Solomon in his great wisdom said that the house of mourning was better than laughter. So what about it? When various readers over the years have written in to tell us to quit being a bunch of goofs (Eph. 5:4), why do we not heed this word in due season?
Some of these counterexamples are easily addressed. When Paul prohibits coarse jesting, he is simply rejecting the kind of vulgarity that deals with bodily functions--bathroom humor of the kind which is so tempting to eight-year-old boys, or various forms of bawdiness. The word is eutrapelia, which refers to ribaldry or low joking. It does not refer to humor per se.
Now humor depends in large measure on the element of surprise, and when someone is not very funny, it is fairly easy to substitute the shock of a violated taboo for the surprise of a clever verbal twist. This kind of coarseness surrounds us on every side--sitcoms constantly go for the cheap laugh through jokes about sex because it is relatively easy to do. While some prunes act as though anything funny is the moral equivalent of "the one about the farmer's daughter," this should be set aside as more of a personal problem than anything else.
Solomon's admonition is a more difficult case. He says, "It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for that is the end of all men; and the living will take it to heart. Sorrow is better than laughter, for by a sad countenance the heart is made better. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth" (Ecc. 7:2-4).
Wisdom is in this case set across from an empty comedy, comedy pursued as an end in itself--hollow laughter, "the crackling of thorns under a pot" (v. 6). The mirth rejected here by Solomon is the laughter of fools, laughter which has not been tempered with the sorrow which comes from the house of mourning. It is there, in the home of the dead, that we learn we are mortal, and we learn that life under the sun is vain. When we learn this, God gives the gift of joy.
Solomon simply rejects that type of laughter which is froth. This is the laughter which must be driven before its contemporary handlers by a laugh track, that great cattle prod of American comedy. We are all too lazy to know when to laugh any more, and so the experts of humor (!) signify for us when we are supposed to cackle. Nothing exhibits the laughter of fools better than the laugh track.
Solomon does not contrast wisdom with the deep satisfaction and joy, issuing in laughter, which comes as the gift of God. Throughout the book of Ecclesiastes he shows that a deep and abiding joy is the gift of God. "Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has already accepted your works. Let your garments always be white, and let your head lack no oil. Live joyfully with the wife . . . [but now notice the foundation] whom you love all the days of your vain life which He has given you under the sun, all your days of vanity" (Ecc. 9:7-9a).
The person who receives this kind of wisdom and rejoices has learned in the house of mourning. That wisdom teaches that man is mortal, and that joy in this vain life can only come as a gift from a sovereign God. The result is grave dignity--with a merry heart.
Another concern which some have with humor deals with a particular kind of humor--i.e. sarcasm or irony at the expense of someone else. Paul says that every word which is spoken ought to be for the edification of the hearer. "Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers" (Eph. 4:29).
The apostle here prohibits rotten or decayed words (the word is sapros). Our talk should not be putrid. The contrast to such corruption is speech which brings grace to the hearer.
The standard for evaluating whether or not this is happening is Scripture, not standards of nineteenth century drawing room decorum. Measured by this standard, we see that Paul most certainly does not prohibit vigorous or sarcastic speech--as he himself displays on more than one occasion. It was he who expressed the desire that those who were so enamoured of circumcision would go the whole distance and cut the whole thing off (Gal. 5:12). It was he who taunted the Corinthians for putting up with fools so gladly, being so "wise" themselves (2 Cor. 11:19). Paul was not a teacher who would punch them out--which is why they found him weak and intolerable (v. 20-21). Those familiar with his writing know he used this kind of forceful speech both within the church and without, on both God-haters and professing Christians.
The Lord Jesus liked to deliver His taunts to the personal mailboxes of respected theologians. He would call them all kinds of things--decorated gravesites (Matt. 23:27), visually-impaired, sight-seeing tour guides (Matt. 15:14), camel-swallowing contortionists (Matt.23:24), and more.
So for he who disputes the verbal standards set and established for us by Scripture, we must say, with all due respect, and with concern for the whole man, that this selfsame one is a knucklehead.