Monday, February 20, 2012



Does the Bible say that Christians should seek happiness?

It seems that "happiness" has acquired a bad reputation, at least with many Christians. The word seems to have connotations of cheap worldliness, or fleeting fancifulness.

Some try to distinguish between joy and happiness, exalting joy and denigrating happiness.

What does "happiness" mean? Is it something less than "joy"? Does the Bible exalt joy over happiness?

HAPPINESS: (good luck, good fortune, prosperity; a state of well-being and pleasurable satisfaction; bliss)

HAPPY: (favored by hap, luck or fortune)

HAP: (chance, happening, luck)

"Hap" is an old-fashioned word that simply means an event or incident. To be "happy" means to regard an event or incident as good or fortunate. "Happiness" is an experience that one considers to be favorable, pleasureable, or good. Because experience is closely followed by emotion, happiness has come to mean the feeling that is triggered by favorable experiences.

JOY: (emotion excited by experiencing or expecting good; gladness, delight, happiness, gaiety. From Latin, gaudere: to rejoice or be glad)

The distinction is small between "happy" (the experiencing of good) and "joy" (the emotion excited by good). It is entirely acceptable to use the two words interchangeably.

Is "happiness" or "happy" in the Bible? It depends upon the translation!

The King James Version has 28 different instances of "happy". The English Standard Version has only 11, with two additional instances of "happiness".

Regardless of how the Bible is translated, what about the original language? What Hebrew and Greek words does the Bible use that are close to the meaning of the English words, "happy" or "happiness"?

Perhaps the closest equivalent to "happy" is the word used in Psalms: esher. This Hebrew word is translated differently by the King James Version (KJV) and the English Standard Version (ESV).

"Happy is he that hath the God of Jacob for his help, whose hope is in the Lord his God." Psalms 146:5 (KJV)

"Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord his God." Psalms 146:5 (ESV)

HAPPY/BLESSED: esher (happiness); from ashar (to be straight, level, right, happy; to go forward, be honest, prosper)

The same Hebrew word, esher, is translated differently by KJV and ESV.

"Esher" is used 45 different times in the Old Testament. The King James Version translates it as "blessed" in some instances and as "happy" in others. Why the inconsistency?

Psalm 128:1 translates esher as "blessed":

"Blessed is every one that feareth the Lord; that walketh in his ways." Psalms 128:1 (KJV)

In the very next verse, esher is translated as "happy":

"For thou shalt eat the labour of thine hands: happy shalt thou be, and it shall be well with thee." Psalms 128:2 (KJV)

The same Hebrew word, translated differently!

The translators seem to have used "blessed" to describe someone receiving a benefit from God. "Happy" seems to have been used to describe a person's emotional response to a benefit from God.

However, they are translating the SAME word!

The New Testament poses the same situation: "Happy" occurs 6 times in the King James Version of the New Testament. The English Standard Version of the New Testament has no instance of "happy" or "happiness".

The Greek word that KJV translates as "happy" is makarios, as used in John:

"I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you. Verily, verily, I say unto you, The servant is not greater than his lord; neither he that is sent greater than he that sent him. If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them." John 13:15-17 (KJV)

"I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them." John 13:15-17 (ESV)

HAPPY/BLESSED: makarios (supremely blest, fortunate, well off)

The KJV translates makarios as "happy" while the ESV translates the same word as "blessed".

How often does "makarios" occur in the New Testament? 50 times!

There are other words used in the Bible that are similar to what we mean when we say "happy":

GLAD: samah (to brighten up, be blithe or gleesome)

REJOICES: gil (to spin round, rejoice; cringe in fear)

JOY: simha (blithesomeness or glee); from sameah (blithe or gleeful); from samah (to brighten up, be blithe or gleesome)

The point of all this is to highlight the frequency with which the Bible speaks of happiness. Whether we call it being "glad" or "rejoicing" or "joyful", the distinctions between the words are very small. All of the words describe an emotional response to something that happens.

For a Christian, nothing happens accidentally or randomly...all things are given by God for our good. Even the hard things, the painful things, the "crosses" in our life...all things are given by God for our ultimate good.

Does the Bible encourage Christians to seek happiness?

Yes! God wants His people to seek Him!

Use a Bible reference book and look up the verses that mention the Hebrew word "esher" and the Greek word "makarios". God's Word uses happiness to encourage His people. God presents happiness as something that should motivate us to obedience and worship. God exalts happiness as an incentive and a reward...a promise given to us of the glad consequences of making Him our Treasure.

Remember, "esher" and "makarios" are translated inconsistently. Regardless of how it is translated into English, the original word is the same! In the following examples, the word printed in bold is "esher" (Old Testament) or "makarios" (New Testament):

"Behold, happy is the man whom God correcteth: therefore despise not thou the chastening of the Almighty: For he maketh sore, and bindeth up: he woundeth, and his hands make whole." Job 5:17-18 (KJV)

"Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful. But his delight is in the law of the Lord; and in his law doth he meditate day and night." Psalms 1:1-2 (KJV)

DELIGHT: hepes (pleasure, desire, something valuable)

"Happy is that people, that is in such a case: yea, happy is that people, whose God is the Lord." Psalms 144:15 (KJV)

"Happy is the man that findeth wisdom, and the man that getteth understanding." Proverbs 3:13 (KJV)

"Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled. Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God. Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you." Matthew 5:3-12 (KJV)

REJOICE: chairo (to be "cheer"ful, calmly happy or well-off)

"Chairo" is used 77 times in the New Testament! In the KJV it is translated variously: farewell, be glad, God speed, greeting, hail, joy, joyfully and rejoice.

"Cheerfulness" is so closely related to "happiness" that the distinction is negligible.

"Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed." John 20:29 (KJV)

"According to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, which was committed to my trust." 1 Timothy 1:11 (KJV)

Amazing! Literally, this verse points to the Lord as the "happy God!"

The Bible is full of "happy" references to happiness. Translators may use different English words to communicate slight shades of implied meaning, but the basic original words remain constant.

"Happiness" has lately gotten a bad reputation. The value of happiness should not depend upon different levels of emotion or ectasy. The difference between joy and happiness is not measured by time or depth of feeling. Joy, rejoicing, blessing, blessed, gladness, contentment and satisfaction...all of these words communicate the basic emotion that is a consequence of regarding current events as good and favorable: in a word, happiness!

I believe that "happiness" is often denigrated because our fallen human condition tends toward seeking happiness from people and things that at best are only temporary, and at worst they are harmful and ultimately destructive.

We tend to reserve the word "joy" for emotion we feel when contemplating people and things that are longlasting or ultimately good and healthy.

However, in exalting "joy" over "happiness", we are falsely accusing the word "happy" of being cheap or tawdry. It is not.

"Happiness" deserves to be revived as a word that describes what God ultimately promises us: Life with Jesus will ultimately be good...very good!

And that hope makes me happy, right now!

Image provided by Matthew Hine,, Creative Commons License.