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Psalm 37:12-13

"The wicked plots against the righteous and gnashes his teeth at him, 13 but the Lord laughs at the wicked, for he sees that his day is coming". ESV. My emphasis.

What is the nature of this laughing? e.g. Is it celebratory, mocking or amused? In Proverbs 8:30 "sachaq" is "rejoicing".

Ezekiel 33:11

"Say to them, 'As I live, declares the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel?"

What can we make of God who pleads "turn back, turn back" and yet "laughs" at wicked people set on evil ways? In answering such a question I imagine a definition of "laughs" might well be a likely starting point. So what does "laughs" mean in Psalm 37:13?

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This verse should be taken in the context of the entire Psalm, which declares God's ultimate sovereignty and the triumph of good over evil. The psalmist encourages his readers/hearers to do what is right, because God is faithful.

Trust in the Lord and do good;
    live in the land and enjoy security.
4 Take delight in the Lord,
    and he will give you the desires of your heart.

5 Commit your way to the Lord;
    trust in him, and he will act.
6 He will make your vindication shine like the light
    and the justice of your cause like the noonday.

The poet speaks metaphorically of God laughing at the wicked but does not intend to portray Him as actually finding their plans humorous. Rather the writer wants us to know that, in God's sight, the plans of the wicked amount to nothing. Ezekiel uses a very different literary style. God speaks through him, rather than his describing God's actions. But in neither case does the author want us to believe that God finds evil funny or pleasurable.

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  • Edits OK? Kiel and Delitzsch Biblical commentary mentions "a gesture of anger, not mockery".
    – C. Stroud
    Commented Apr 23, 2023 at 12:44
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The operative verb in Ps 37:13 is שָׂחַק (saqhaq) which has (according to BDB) three shades of meaning:

  1. to laugh at in contempt or derision, eg, Job 30:1, Ps 37:13, 52:8, 59:9, Lam 1:7, etc.
  2. to make sport or play, including music and dance, eg, Judges 16:25, 27, 2 Sam 2:14, Prov 8:30, etc
  3. to joke about, Prov 26:19, etc

Note that the use in Ps 37:13 is definitely meaning #1 above. However, we should notice what the God of heaven laughs at. Let me quote Ps 37:12, 13 -

12 The wicked scheme against the righteous and gnash their teeth at them,

13 but the Lord laughs, seeing that their day is coming.

Here I would understand that the Lord laughs not so much at the wicked, but at the futile schemes of the wicked. This is perfectly exemplified in the next two verse where God turns the futile schemes of the wicked against them:

14 The wicked have drawn the sword and bent the bow to bring down the poor and needy, to slay those whose ways are upright.

15 But their swords will pierce their own hearts, and their bows will be broken.

Indeed, as the OP has correctly noted, "GOD has no pleasure in the death of the wicked". (Eze 33;11) God wants all people to repent (2 Peter 3:9) and live (Eze 33:11).

See the appendix below for more about futile schemes of the wicked.

APPENDIX - Futile Schemes of the Wicked

God often allows sin and evil to reap its own consequences and cause its own downfall.

  • Job 5:13 - He catches the wise in their own craftiness, and the schemes of the wily are brought to a quick end.
  • Ps 5:10 - Declare them guilty, O God; let them fall by their own devices. Drive them out for their many transgressions, for they have rebelled against You.
  • Ps 7:15 - He has dug a hole and hollowed it out; he has fallen into a pit of his own making.
  • Ps 9:16 - The LORD is known by the justice He brings; the wicked are ensnared by the work of their hands.
  • Ps 37:14, 15 - The wicked have drawn the sword and bent the bow to bring down the poor and needy, to slay those whose ways are upright. But their swords will pierce their own hearts, and their bows will be broken.
  • Ps 69:22 - Let their own table before them become a snare; and when they are at peace, let it become a trap.
  • Ps 141:10 - Let the wicked fall into their own nets, while I pass by in safety.
  • Prov 5:22 - The iniquities of a wicked man entrap him; the cords of his sin entangle him.
  • Prov 11:6 - The righteousness of the upright delivers them, but the faithless are trapped by their own desires.
  • Prov 12:13 - An evil man is trapped by his rebellious speech, but a righteous man escapes from trouble.
  • Prov 28:10 - He who leads the upright along the path of evil will fall into his own pit, but the blameless will inherit what is good.
  • Hos 11:6 – A sword will flash through their cities; it will destroy the bars of their gates and consume them in their own plans.
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אֲדֹנָ֥י יִשְׂחַק־לֹ֑ו כִּֽי־רָ֝אָ֗ה כִּֽי־יָבֹ֥א יֹומֹֽו׃ (Psalm 37:13, BHS2003)

  The Lord laughs at him, 
     for He knows that his day will come. 
             (Psalm 37:13, JPS1985)

The lexical meaning of שׂחק (laugh) in the Qal:

שׂחק: by-form of צחק (with צ‍ for שׂ, see Brockelmann Grundriss §55dα); ... qal: pf. שָׂחַק, שָׂחֲקוּ; impf. יִשְׂחַק/חָֽק, (וַ)תִּשְׂחַק, תִּשְׂחַק/חָֽק, אֶשְׂחַק/חָֽק, יִשְׂחָֽקוּ; inf. cs. שְׂחוֹק. —1. to laugh: ... —2. to amuse, entertain with jokes, serve as a joker Ju 16:27. —3. שחק ל with both these meanings in Sir 13:6 to joke with, 1311 to laugh at (Smend), 473 to mock, ridicule. † -- Koehler, L., Baumgartner, W., Richardson, M. E. J., & Stamm, J. J. (1994–2000). In The Hebrew and Aramaic lexicon of the Old Testament (electronic ed., p. 1315). E.J. Brill.

The picture here isn't God laughing at the wicked's destruction. It is laughing at their schemes in which the wicked believe they can outwit God. The picture is that God isn't threatened at all because His plans will succeed. The wicked's plans are futile.

יָבֹ֥א יֹומֹֽו -- "his day will come" could mean the day of the wicked, but it might make more sense that it means the Day of the LORD (Isa. 13:6,9; Joel 1:15; 2:1,11; 3:4; 4:14; Amos 5:18,20; Oba. 15; Zeph. 1:7,14; Mal. 3:23). In either case God knows the future which cannot be thwarted.

We have difficulty understanding that God knows the future, yet God gives us opportunities to make responsible decisions. As far as humor, we see that when Moses complained to God about the children of Israel, and God tells Moses to step aside while he destroys them, knowing very well how Moses will react but showing Moses the futility of his complaint.

Commentary:

The wicked plot against the righteous, but the Lord laughs at them (vv. 12–13). We do not often think of the Lord laughing, especially at wickedness, and it is right we do not since to us laughter usually means that someone is taking a matter lightly. The laughter in verse 13 is like that of Psalm 2, which says that the Lord “scoffs” at those who think they are able to overthrow him and thus determine their own rebellious destinies. God laughs at the wicked scornfully, because he knows their appointed ends. He knows they will be brought low and be judged by him.

If God can laugh at the wicked, shouldn’t we be able at least to refrain from being agitated by them? Shouldn’t we be able to trust God and commit our ways to him in quiet confidence? -- Boice, J. M. (2005). Psalms 1–41: An Expositional Commentary (p. 320). Baker Books.

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