What the Bible REALLY says about joy

When I finally decided to stop talking about it and actually start writing Radically Normal, my first step was conducting an extensive study on the word “joy” and words like it throughout the Bible.

As I looked at the total context of how the Bible (and hence God) views joy, my own thoughts and opinions were reshaped – I was pushed to emphasize earthly joy more (not less) in light of what the Bible teaches. So while I’ll only site this study a handful of times in the final project, it forms the basis my book and makes it what it is. I think this study is one of the things that gives this book such a unique perspective.[1] To my knowledge, no other study like this was been publicized.

The Study Itself

Regarding my methodology: I basically used Bibleworks to create a search of every synonym of “joy” I could think of, working from the ESV translation but referencing to the original languages to help develop the word list.[2]

That gave me a list of 1,100 verses, from which I removed about 350 verses that did not seem to apply, taking the list down to 730 verses. This sifting was a challenge and I know that at several points the decision was arbitrary. The criterion was basically “does this verse seem to express some joyful type experience?”[3]

This sheer number of references to joy is itself very significant. By contrast, “love” in all of its forms occurs 650 times (without being filtered for irrelevant references). Grace and mercy about 350, right and righteous 900, just and justice 375, law and commandments 750 (all unfiltered). This alone tells us that happiness is a big deal to God, which makes the relatively small amount of attention it gets all the more glaring.[4]

From there was the simple, but time-consuming, process of notating each verse. I tracked the following information:

1. What was the Biblical stance toward the joy? I broke these down into four categories:

  • C: Commanded (e.g. Lev. 23:40)
  • N: Neutral/No comment (e.g. Gen. 31:27)
  • NP: Not commanded, but treated as positive (Exo. 18:9)
  • NN: Not forbidden, but treated as negative (e.g. Judges 16:23), or else it includes a negation “not enjoy” (e.g. Prov. 18:2)

2. Who is the subject? Who is the one rejoicing? This was divided into five groups:

  • S: Individual, a specific person (e.g. Gen. 30:13)
  • H: Humans (non-specific, typically Israel in the OT, but I work from the belief there is a carry over to us). This also used for an individual if it was a generic individual (e.g. Lev. 23:40)
  • G: God (e.g. Deut. 30:9)
  • W: Wicked people or a specific wicked person (e.g. Esther 5:9)
  • N: Nature (e.g. 1 Chr. 16:33)

3. What caused the joy? What kind of joy was it? [5] This broke down into four categories:

  • S: Spiritual joys, not things of this earth – in the end these are joy in God and the things of God (e.g. Ps. 2:11)
  • E: Earthly joys, not manifestly spiritual (e.g. Ps. 104:15) [6]
  • S/E: Dual joys, where it seems to be a mix of spiritual and earthly joy (e.g. Prov. 11:10 where the joy is both in righteousness but also the earthly happiness that comes from “no more bad guys”)
  • W: Wickedness, people being happy doing bad stuff (e.g. Prov. 7:18)


This being done, I entered all of my findings into an Excel spreadsheet and then used Access to sort and evaluate the data. Here are some of the more notable findings:

  • The total number of reference to joy is evenly spread throughout the Old and New Testament.[7]
  • Most of the “approved” joy in the OT comes either partially or entirely from earthly things (58%).[8]
  • In NT, that number drops to 5%.[9] This supports my theory that the OT emphasizes earthly realities and the NT spiritual ones.[10]
  • Four-fifths of the time that God is seen as being joyful his joy is in earthly things, his creation. The vast majority of the 15 “S” joys are in righteousness or God’s character.[11]

The most important conclusions, for the sake of my book, are that 1) Joy and happiness are really important to God, and 2) God fully expects and desires for us to enjoy both the things of this earth and the things of heaven, to delight in him and in his gifts, which is basically the point of my sermon, “Radically Normal V: Is God Your Only Joy?

In case you are interested, here is the Excel version of my study: Joy Word Study – Public. If you don’t have Excel, you can download a viewer from Microsoft here. This is a rough draft, filled with spelling and grammatical errors galore. Sorry for that, but I was not about to edit almost 750 entries!

You are welcome to share this study, though I would appreciate credit and a link back to this page. If you edit the file, please note that you have done so.

[1] Let me qualify that – this study along with a hermeneutical approach that refuses to marginalize the Old Testament but treats it an equal companion to the New Testament. Without that approach, we could simply dismiss the most of what the Bible says of earthly joys by saying “That’s just in the OT” as David Platt (et al) basically does in “Radical” (p. 117 and footnotes).

[2] In case you are interested, here is the complete list (“*” represents a wildcard, allowing variations on that word to found): Joy*, Enjoy*, Happy/Happiness, Blessed, Glad*, Delight*, Rejoice*, Pleasure*, Exult*, Jubilant, Thrill*, Satisfy*

[3] Most problematic was “blessed/blessings” word group (barak in Hebrew) which typically means to bless or be blessed but sometimes implied happiness in light of the blessings. In the end, I kept the occurrences where humans (as opposed to God) were the receivers of the blessing and the use was basically synonymous with “happy is…” (cf. Ps 1:1).

[4] For instance, Girdlestone’s “Synonyms of the Old Testament” doesn’t even have a section on joy. Huh?!? On the other hand, let me add that John Piper (pulling from C. S. Lewis) brings joy back into the limelight with his “Christian Hedonism.”

[5] These designations were the trickiest. For instance, does salvation in the OT count as “spiritual” (as we would think of it)? Or as earthly since the original readers were typically thinking of being saved from their very literal enemies? I did my best to make assignments based upon the original context, not anachronistic readings. Obviously, these designations are also subjective – even now looking back through the list I am tempted to change some, but I know that once I start, I won’t want to stop, and this study is sufficient for its purpose.

[6] Arguably, all true joy makes its way back to God (in fact, I do argue that in my book), but for the purpose of this study it is far more useful to designate a given joy as earthly or spiritual.

[7] OT: 555; NT: 185; therefore the OT has 75% of the references and comprises roughly 77% of the Bible.

[8] OT: 357 times not “done” by God and either commanded or approved of (70% of such Biblical references)

E: 157 (44%)

S: 149 (42%)

S/E: 51 (14%)

[9] NT: 150 times not “done” by God and either commanded or approved of (30% of such Biblical references)

E: 8 (5%)

S: 142 (95%)

S/E: 0

[10] However, I strongly stand against any suggestion the NT “updates” the OT, as if God was cool with earthly joys during the OT era, but during the Intertestamental era he slaps his anthropomorphical forehead and said, “What was a I thinking?!? I need to tell them to stop with the earthly joys!” Rather, the OT and NT complement each other and we would be incomplete without either. See my post “Reading the New Testament but not the Old fosters a stoic, hyper-spiritual Christianity.”

[11] I bring this one up as an illustration of the shortcoming of systematic theology. In his book “The Pleasures of God,” John Piper says, “What I want to try to show in this chapter is that the happiness of God is first and foremost a happiness in his Son” (The Pleasures of God, p. 26) and then goes on to say that “We may conclude that the pleasure of God in his Son is pleasure in himself.” (p. 42). In other words, God greatest joy is in himself. Is this true? Perhaps. But since the Bible doesn’t express itself that way, we should be reluctant to do so. This, in my mind, demonstrates the necessary evil of systematic theology: it attempts to answer questions the Bible doesn’t ask with language that the Bible doesn’t use and hence creates emphases foreign to the Bible. I fully believe that systematic theology is vital, but it must be used with care.

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