One of my favourite verses right now is Zephaniah 3:17. I already wrote about the verb ‘quiet’ and whined about the confusion caused by bible translations. Now, I want to hone in on ‘exult’, which the Lord does with ‘loud singing’ as per that verse. Exult is not a word we use much these days. I don’t sing over my kids when they obey me, which is essentially what God promises to do here. My kids might even say I sometimes overlook their obedience and remember only their disobedience. Once again, God sets a better standard. You don’t say?
Exultation is Jubilation
The Oxford English Dictionary online often provides definitions I particularly appreciate, especially when capturing the majesty of scripture. They say that ‘exult’ means ‘feel or show triumphant elation or jubilation.’ Furthermore, word-experts at this site point to the word’s 16th century usage ‘from Latin exsultare, frequentative of exsilire leap up, from ex- out, upward + salire to leap.’ At etymonline.com, I discovered that ‘ex’ comes from the Latin ‘out of, from within; from which time, since; according to; in regard to’. ‘Ult’, then, perhaps relates to the Latin ‘ultra’: a’ word-forming element meaning beyond or extremely’.
Put them together and you get ‘leap-up extremely’, or ‘upward beyond.’ Something like that. I can see why direct translation has to be considered carefully, as my bilingual daughters remind me when translating French descriptions on groceries into English. We laugh, except I laugh ignorantly, not having continued to study French after Grade 8. They get to laugh doubly as I become the object of their amusement. I live to please.
‘Agalliaó’, the Greek for ‘exult’, translates closely to our English definitions; the Hebrew ‘alaz’ likewise. Abba Father celebrates in Zephaniah, like the Prodigal Father of Christ’s parable. ‘McLaren’s Expositions’, found on Biblehub.com, exclaims ‘what a wonderful rush of exuberant gladness’ the Lord will demonstrate when his people obey his direction.
The Father Exults
I counted more than 15 exhortations to exult in the Lord or instances where the writer exults in God within the Psalms alone. Generally, I think of the privilege and requirement of exulting in His great name, but the Lord sometimes celebrates over us to such an extent that words are barely adequate to describe the depth of his love.
Take Luke 15:22-24, where the Father of the prodigal parable yells ‘Quick! Bring the best robe’, calls for the ‘fattened calf’ to be killed and cooked so they could ‘have a feast and celebrate’ the return of his wayward son. The Father cries ‘this son of mine was dead and is alive again’. (NIV) Christ portrays more than gladness, but also urgency; the Father is beyond relieved. He can’t wait to embrace his son and have a party to demonstrate joy, forgiveness, and the wholeness of his family. His lost son is home, safe within his fold.
I remember when my older daughter was missing for a period of one hour on a sunny summer day. She was ten year’s old and grew impatient for me to collect her from a summer day camp. I was on my way with her younger sister. Thinking she knew the way home (which was not on my driving route), daughter number one tried to walk home and got lost. When I finally found her, my emotions were inexpressible. Sure, I said some bad words, but mostly I exulted. Joy isn’t enough; relief won’t cut it; but even my emotions were nothing compared to God’s when one of his lost sheep turns to find him waiting, arms outstretched, ready to provide shelter, safety, and love.
Exulting in Hope
Our Father sets the example for exultation (extreme leaping, remember?), so we follow suit or that’s the general idea. Our purpose in life is to glorify God, have a relationship with him through Jesus, and to spread the good news. Unbelievers really see the meaning of our faith when we do as it says in Romans 12:12: ‘Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer’ (ESV).
Living this way takes practice, but also assurance. We have the greatest hope – eternal life in the Kingdom of God, seeing Jesus face to face, and the end of all suffering. Of course, we should dance at this prospect, even if non-believers consider our happiness a little strange or silly. We don’t want to be disingenuous and suggest that being Christian means never feeling sadness, fear, grief, or anger. Dancing at the news that a town of believers was wiped out by a tsunami would be callous, even though all who are in Christ Jesus will be home with him from the moment they leave this world. On the other hand, hope should comfort and enable us to experience joy when life is far from happy or smooth. Can we exult when a loved one dies? Can we capture that hope which our relational God wants to impart?
That’s a matter of personal experience, and might not be as automatic as we would want. Severe crisis is atypical of everyday living, at least for most Westerners today. I can’t imagine that Christians in Nazi death camps facing execution and watching families led to torture or death daily, hourly, were quick to dance on the spot. I have no idea how a family whose baby is still born or whose teenager is killed by a drunk driver will snatch moments of joy amid the heartache, but I’m told that some families manage to see Jesus in the darkness, although it might take time.
From reading Corrie Ten Boom and others, though, I get the feeling that jubilation returns after terror and grief and is far more profound to the individual whose experience has taken him or her to depths so low, they were nearly in the same hell as Christ experienced before his resurrection. Perhaps this is a comfort of sorts, I really don’t know. My own periods of grief and distress have been profound, but nothing like the ones mentioned above, so I cannot speak from experience, only to say that God, the expectant Prodigal Father as Tim Keller calls Him in his book Prodigal God, always waits for us to return. Corrie Ten Boom wrote that ‘in darkness God’s truth shines most clear.’ (The Hiding Place, referenced from GoodReads.com) That gives me reason to hope and, consequently, to truly exult in the Lord my God.