April 27, 1997

THE GOD WHO SINGS

The Lord your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing. Zephaniah 3:17

Can you imagine God throwing a party? Can you imagine him putting on a feast, complete with music and dancing? And can you imagine the Lord himself standing up in the middle of the party and singing a happy tune? Can you picture that in your mind? Maybe not. Maybe you think of God as solemn and somber and silent. He’s not the party type, and he certainly isn’t the type to break out in song. But believe it or not, the Lord is a God who sings. And not only does he sing, but he sings over us!

I’m not just making this up. God himself says so. Tucked away in the Old Testament part of the Bible is the small book of Zephaniah, and this little book contains one of the most stunning and stirring statements in all of Scripture. In Zephaniah 3:17 the Bible says, “The Lord your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing.”

Did you hear that? “He will rejoice over you with singing!”

That may sound shocking at first, but we really shouldn’t be surprised that God would rejoice and sing. In the Bible God shows us that he is a God of immense, overflowing, never-ending joy. In fact, that’s the basis for the entire Christian message.

If I asked you, “What is the gospel?” what would you say? You might say that the gospel is the teachings of Christianity, or that the gospel is the way for people to be saved from their sins. That’s all true enough–the gospel does teach great truths, and it does present the way of salvation–but listen to how the Bible summarizes the gospel in 1 Timothy 1:11. It speaks of “the good news of the glory of the happy God.”

Some Bible versions translate this as “the glorious gospel of the blessed God,” and that’s okay. But having looked at the original Greek, I agree with author John Piper that the plainest, most literal, word-for-word translation is “the good news of the glory of the happy God.” The word “gospel” isn’t just a religious buzzword. It simply means “good news.” And what is this good news? It’s news of glory, God’s glory, his worth and splendor and excellence, and it’s the good news that God is not by nature a grumpy God but a blessed God, a God whose joy and wellbeing are infinite and eternal–a happy God, a God who sings.

In other words, the gospel isn’t first of all about you or me. It’s always and above all about God. The good news isn’t just that our sins can be forgiven and that we can escape hell. That’s important, of course, but the really good news is that God is God, his majesty is eternal, his joy is immense and indestructible, he rejoices in doing good to all who call on his name, and his joy can become ours through Jesus Christ. The gospel is “the good news of the glory of the happy God.”

When we think of God’s happiness, one thing we need to realize right from the start is that God doesn’t need us in order to be happy. God’s happiness is full to overflowing apart from any of his creatures. God does rejoice in his creatures–the Bible makes that very clear–but let’s not think God’s joy depends on his creatures.

Children sometimes ask, “What was God doing before he made the world? Didn’t he get lonely and bored, with nobody to relate to and nothing to do?” You might wonder the same thing. You might figure that God made creatures to give himself something to do and to put an end to his loneliness.

But if you think that way, you need a clearer picture of who God is. As long as you think of God as a lone person who just happens to be a lot stronger, a lot smarter, and a lot older than anyone else, you’ll figure that before God made creatures, he was all by himself, doing nothing. But the Bible shows us that God isn’t just a lone person. God is a union of three persons, a Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Within the Trinity there is such a fullness of vitality and activity and creativity and love and joy that God couldn’t possibly feel bored or lonely. According to the Bible, God the Father said of Jesus, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). That wasn’t just true when Jesus was on earth. It was true before the Son ever became human. From all eternity, the Father and Son, and also the Holy Spirit, loved and were infinitely well pleased in one another.

So, then, what was God doing before creation? If I may say so reverently, God was busy being God–and enjoying it immensely.

The Lord created the world, not from a shortage of love but as an outpouring of love, not from a lack of joy but as an overflow of joy. God’s delight in being God–the mutual love and pleasure of Father, Son, and Spirit–is so infinite and eternal that no creature can ever make God’s joy any greater or any less.

But how can that be? Doesn’t the Bible say that God rejoices over his works of creation and that he sings over us? And doesn’t the Bible also say that God grieves over our sins and sorrows? How can his joy not decrease when he grieves over us? And how can his joy not increase when he sings over us?

Think for a moment in terms of math. If you take the number five and add it to infinity, have you increased infinity? No, infinity plus five is still infinity. Or suppose you subtract five from infinity. What do you get? You still end up with infinity. Infinity plus anything is still infinity. Infinity minus anything is still infinity.

Now, maybe I shouldn’t compare abstract, lifeless numbers to the joy of the living, personal God, but here’s what I’m trying to say: However much God might rejoice over us or grieve over us, God’s eternal, unbounded, overflowing joy in the union of Father, Son, and Spirit is so immense, so infinite, that nothing can improve upon it, and nothing can ruin it. That’s where “the good news of the glory of the happy God” begins: with the news that apart from any creatures God might make, apart from anything his creatures might do, God the Trinity is an inexhaustible fountain of infinite and indestructible joy.

A Christian from centuries ago, Lady Julian of Norwich, once envisioned God in human form, holding something in his hand that looked like a small nut. When she asked the Lord what was in his hand, God replied, “This is everything that has been created.”

In the book of Job, the Bible speaks of how God spreads out the vast skies and churns up the ocean depths. We can hardly imagine this kind of power, and yet Job says, “These are but the outer fringe of his works; how faint the whisper we hear of him! Who can understand the thunder of his power?” (Job 26:14).

Take all the power and energy in the universe, and what is it? A few threads somewhere on the fringe of God’s power, or a whisper that’s barely a faint echo of his thunder. Put all the mass and matter in all the the vast reaches of the galaxies together, and what is it? Just a small nut in God’s hand.

So, then, when the Bible speaks of a God who sings, it’s not talking about some weakling whose emotional needs drive him to look for happiness wherever he can get it and who breaks into song any time somebody notices him and does something he likes. God isn’t a pitiful, unhappy, needy God who depends on you and me for happiness. He’s a God of glory and power. The Father’s pleasure in his Son Jesus is so immense that every other pleasure is a faint whisper or a tiny nut by comparison. That puts us in our place whenever we’re tempted to take God lightly or to think his joy is held hostage by our reaction to him. God doesn’t need us in order to be happy.

Is that bad news? No! It’s good news! The good news is not God’s emptiness without us. The good news is God’s fullness in Christ, a fullness which overflows to us. The source of every gospel blessing is the awesome pleasure and joy that the Father has in his Son. And the final outcome of the gospel is not merely that God gives us a little of this or that to make us happy, but that he enables us to share in his own joy.

In the Bible Jesus tells his friends that he loves them as the Father has loved him; he urges them to obey him as he has obeyed his father; and then Jesus says, “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete” (John 15:11). That’s why the glory of the happy God is such good news for us: Jesus wants his joy to be in us. To all of us who trust Christ and live for him, Jesus will someday say, “Come and share your master’s happiness!” (Matthew 25:21,23). The Master will welcome us to come and share in his unbounded, irrepressible happiness–the happiness of the God who sings.

Everything else God does–forgiving sinful people and taking away their punishment, judging the unrepentant who refuse his joy and wreck others’ joy–all of this is preparation for the moment when God throws a celebration for his people. We will sing and shout for joy that God is with us, and the Lord himself will sing and rejoice over us. Earlier I quoted from Zephaniah 3 about the God who sings. Here’s a bit fuller quote:

Sing, O Daughter of Zion; shout aloud, O Israel! Be glad and rejoice with all your heart… The Lord has taken away your punishment, he has turned back your enemy. The Lord, the King of Israel, is with you; never again will you fear any harm. On that day they will say to Jerusalem, “Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands hang limp. The Lord your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing.”

David Feddes here again, and we’re thinking about the good news of the glory of the happy God, the God who sings. We’ve seen that God is a union of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, overflowing with such infinite joy that he doesn’t need anything or anyone else to be eternally happy. At the same time, though, we’ve seen from the Bible that this eternal, joyful God does rejoice and celebrate and sing over the people whom he saves.

We’re sometimes tempted to think that God rescues people from sin grudgingly, almost reluctantly. But the good news of the Bible is that God not only saves people but he positively enjoys and delights in doing so.

The Bible speaks in a number of places about God’s “good pleasure” in choosing people to adopt as his children and in working out a plan to save them (eg. Ephesians 1:5-9, Luke 10:21). When you hear of God choosing people and planning their salvation, you might not not like it. You may get the idea that God does this in some random way, and the phrase “God’s good pleasure” is just fancy language for God’s arbitrary actions. But what if “good pleasure” means exactly what it says? God chooses people because he is good, and he takes pleasure in doing so.

God takes pleasure in choosing people for salvation, and he takes pleasure in doing whatever it takes to bring them to himself. The Bible even goes so far as to say that God was pleased to crush his Son and cause him to suffer (Isaiah 53:10). Why was God pleased by something so horrible? Well, God takes pleasure in anything his Son does, and he is pleased that Jesus’ death shows the infinite value of God’s name, which human sin has denied. But God was also pleased to crush his Son simply because Father and Son take such pleasure in saving and adopting people, and Jesus’ death was God’s way of accomplishing that.

Do you have any idea how much God enjoys saving people, and how far he will go to do it? Sometimes we’re tempted to think that once we’ve gone too far from God, once we’ve become too lost and sinful, there’s no way that God could possibly take pleasure in us ever again. Even if we repent, how could God possibly want to share his kingdom with filthy sinners? But listen to Jesus. He says, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32). Did you hear that? Not only does God give us the kingdom, he is pleased to give us the kingdom.

During Jesus’ time on earth, he spent a lot of time feasting and celebrating with cheaters and prostitutes and other bad people whose lives he turned around. Some of the stricter, more somber people griped that Jesus was a party animal (Matthew 11:19). They couldn’t understand why any decent person would welcome sinners and even have parties with them. On one occasion when they complained about this, Jesus responded by telling three stories, one right after the other. The stories are recorded in Luke 15, and each story ends with celebration.

In the first story, Jesus tells of a shepherd who has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. What does he do? He leaves the ninety-nine and goes out looking for the lost sheep until he finds it. “And when he finds it,” says Jesus, “he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and carries it home.” Notice that he doesn’t just put it on his shoulders. No, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders. When he gets home, he calls his friends and neighbors over for a celebration. (If it sounds odd that a shepherd could be so happy over one silly sheep, then you don’t know the Good Shepherd very well.) “I tell you,” says Jesus, “that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine [so-called] righteous persons who [supposedly] do not need to repent.”

The second story Jesus tells is about a woman who has ten silver coins and loses one. She lights a lamp and shines it into every dark and shadowy place in the house. She sweeps every nook and cranny, looking for that lost coin. When she finds it, she is so happy that she calls her friends and neighbors together to celebrate: “Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin. “In the same way,” says Jesus, “I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:10).

Jesus saves the best story for last. In his third story, a son tells his father, “I want my inheritance.” What he’s really saying is, “Dad, I can’t wait till you’re dead! I want your money, and I don’t want you.” The kid takes the cash, leaves home, and squanders it all on wild living. Eventually he finds himself working for a pig farmer and wanting to eat the garbage the pigs are eating. That’s when he comes to his senses and decides to go home. His father will disown him, of course. He won’t want him back as a son, but the young man figures that if he offers to work for room and board, his father might at least take him back as cheap labor and give him food and lodging.

But what happens? While the son is still a long way off, his father sees him. And what does he do? Does he stand scowling, arms folded, waiting for the kid to come crawling back? No, the father is filled with compassion, and he does the last thing you’d expect a wealthy, prominent, elderly man to do. He lifts his robes and races to meet his rotten son as fast as his old legs can carry him. The youngster is a mess and smells like a pig, but his father throws his arms around him and kisses him.

The son starts to give the speech he’s been planning. He says, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But before he can finish his speech, before he can make his offer to work for room and board, his father quiets him and calls for the most expensive clothes, a family ring, new shoes, and an all-you-can-eat dinner of prime beef. “Let’s have a feast and celebrate,” he shouts. “For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” They begin to party, and the music and dancing make such a racket that it can even be heard outside the house. When the older brother complains about all this, the father answers, “We had to celebrate and be glad.”

Zephaniah 3 says that God “will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing.” As the father in Jesus’ story delighted to see his son back, so God delights over all who humbly call on his name. As the father hugged his son and quieted him even before he could offer to become a slave, so God quiets us with his love and welcomes as not as slaves but as sons and daughters. And just as the father felt he had to celebrate with music, so God has to sing and celebrate over his redeemed people.

Does that sound too good to be true? Well, God knows we have a hard time believing such good news the first time we hear it. That’s why he keeps telling us over and over, in parables and prophecies, in doctrinal statements and in down-to-earth stories,  that he’s not reluctant to save; he rejoices to save.

A father who rushes out to welcome his child and throws a party–that’s one picture of God’s joy when you return to him. Another picture the Bible uses is that of newlyweds. Scripture says, “… the Lord will take delight in you… as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you” (Isaiah 62:4-5). The love and the thrill and the delight of new honeymooners–that’s just a hint of how much God rejoices in us. And this is one honeymoon that doesn’t end. God will never grow weary of us or we of him. The singing will go on for eternity.

I emphasized earlier that the Father’s joy in his Son Jesus is so gigantic that we can’t improve it or detract from it. But if that made it sound like we don’t really matter to him or bring him much joy, let me emphasize something else: the joy the Father takes in us is the very joy he takes in Christ, for Christ lives in all who repent and trust him. God’s love and pleasure in his only begotten Son embraces all his adopted sons and daughters, for the Spirit of his Son lives in us.

Is any of this sinking in? Are you starting to realize that God is a God who sings? Are you starting to grasp at least something of how much God enjoys doing good to those who trust him? In the Bible God says, “I will never stop doing good to them… I will rejoice in doing them good … with all my heart and soul” (Jeremiah 32:40-41).

Is the Lord helping you to hear him singing and celebrating over you? Does it set your heart to singing? Scripture says, “The Lord delights in those who fear him, who put their hope in his unfailing love” (Psalm 147:11). “They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away” (Isaiah 35:10). “For the Lord takes delight in his people; he crowns the humble with salvation. Let the saints rejoice in this honor and sing for joy on their beds” (Psalm 149:4-5).

If you know Jesus and his Spirit is living in you, you can sing for joy, because you belong to the God who sings.     Listen one last time to Zephaniah 3. “Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands hang limp. The Lord your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing.”

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.