Joy: A word study

As a Christian, I am fully aware that joy is supposed to be one of the nine components of the singular fruit of the Spirit. In other words, all believers are supposed to exhibit joy in ever-increasing measures. I’ve also seen and heard countless times that joy is not contingent on our present circumstances but a certain knowledge that everything will work out for good in the end, as has been promised in numerous places in Scripture. But to be perfectly honest, I have not ever sat down and really studied the occurrences of the word in Scripture to discover consistent themes and ideas. So today I’m starting just such a study.

Any word study starts with some basic trivia information. The word “joy” appears 245 times in the New International Version. In addition, the word “rejoice” (i.e., the verb form of joy) appears 154 times, for a total of 399. Since this is the version of the Bible that I usually use for preaching and personal study, and I think it’s a pretty good median between an utterly literal and an absolutely conceptual translation, I think that’s an interesting point of information. It tells me, if nothing else, that the Bible has a lot to say about the subject.

Interestingly, the New American Standard Bible, which is widely regarded as the most literal English translation available, contains only 211 occurrences of “joy” and 191 appearances of “rejoice,” for a total of 402. It will be interesting to see which instances the NASB translates differently, why it does so, and what sort of ramifications it has for the meaning of the word.

Another important thing to know going into a word study is a good, solid definition of the word that you’re working with. In English, the word “joy” is defined by Apple Dictionary (i.e., the dictionary built into Apple’s Mac OS X) as “a feeling of great pleasure and happiness.” Clearly, this definition is a pretty stark contrast to what I’ve always thought, so I went looking for some more definitions. Webster’s Dictionary (1913 edition) defines “joy” as “the passion or emotion excited by the acquisition or expectation of good; pleasurable feelings or emotions caused by success, good fortune, and the like, or by a rational prospect of possessing what we love or desire.” That sounds more like what I’m looking for, but even Webster’s adds, “gladness; exhilaration of spirits; delight.” So clearly, the two concepts of knowing that things will work out in the end and being glad or delighted are connected. I guess that makes sense.

So now that we know what the word means in English, let’s start looking for what it’s going to mean in the Bible. In this case, we have to recognize that the Bible was written in two different languages: the Old Testament was written in Hebrew, and the New Testament in Greek. To explore the most common words in each language which are rendered in English as joy or rejoice, I’ve pulled Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (VCED) off the shelf. VCED identifies three primary Hebrew words which we read as “joy” or “rejoice:”

  • samah (Strong’s 8055), which is a verb meaning “to rejoice, be joyful” and occurs approximately 155 times in the Old Testament. It “usually refers to a spontaneous emotion or extreme happiness which is expressed in some visible and/or external manner.” Conversely, “it does not normally represent an abiding state of well-being or feeling.” VCED notes that “the emotion expressed in the verb… usually finds a visible expression… [and] is usually described as the product of some external situation, circumstance, or experience.” It also explains that the verb usually suggests three things: “(1) a spontaneous, unsustained feeling of jubilance, (2) a feeling so strong that it finds expression in some external act, and (3) a feeling prompted by some external and unsustained stimulus.”
  • simhah (Strong’s 8057), which is a noun translated “joy.” It occurs 94 times in the Bible, and has a dual meaning. The first is as an external expression of “joy.” And the second, more prevalent use, is as “a representation of the abstract feeling or concept ‘joy.'”
  • sameah (Strong’s 8056) is an adjective rendered “joyful; glad” which occurs 21 times in the Old Testament.

In addition to these Hebrew terms, VCED identifies ten distinct Greek words which are rendered “joy” or “rejoice” in the New Testament.

  • chara (Strong’s 5479) means “joy, delight” and is found frequently in Matthew, Luke, and John, but only once in Mark. It also appears often in 2 Corinthians. Generally, it is used as the cause of great joy, but it also appears in James 1:2, where the apostle exhorts, “Consider it pure joy whenever you face trials of many kinds.”
  • agalliasis (Strong’s 20), means “exultation, exuberant joy” and is a synonym of gladness.
  • euphrosune (Strong’s 2167) is translated as “joy” by the King James Version and “gladness” in the Revised Version. Interestingly, VCED notes that this sort of joy is related to life experiences, particularly negative ones. For instance, in John 16, Romans 5, and 2 Corinthians 7 and 8, “experiences of sorrow prepare for, and enlarge, the capacity for ‘joy.'” Also, as in Matthew 5:11-12 and Acts 5:41, “persecution for Christ’s sake enhances ‘joy.'”
  • chairo (Strong’s 5463) is rendered “to rejoice, be glad” or “joyfully.” This is often used in conjunction with a reason to rejoice, and as such, we learn much about the things which should give us joy.
  • kauchaomai (Strong’s 2744) means “to boast, glory, exult”
  • agalliao (Strong’s 21) translates “with exceeding joy.”
  • oninemi (Strong’s 3685) means “to benefit, profit.”
  • sunchairo (Strong’s 4796) speaks of rejoicing with others when something which was lost is now found.
  • euphraino (Strong’s 2165) “to cheer, gladden.”
  • kaucaomai (Strong’s 2744) “to boast, to glory” and often rendered “to rejoice”

And finally, before I get started, I should make one more thing clear. While this is a public blog, and I’ll be happy if someone else gets something out of this study as a result of reading it, this study and any subsequent blog entries are really about me. I’m not saying that to be selfish or anything; just to say that this study is first and foremost a part of my personal devotions. So it’s about me.

All of that said, clearly, there is a lot on my plate as I embark on this study. So I don’t know how long it will take. But I’m going to work through it slowly and steadily and see what I can learn about joy in the process.


3 Responses to “Joy: A word study”

  1. 1 pastorchar59 December 9, 2014 at 1:37 pm

    Just found this. Four years have passed since this posting. Did you not continue with your study?

    • 2 jgeerdes December 9, 2014 at 3:18 pm

      I sure did! In fact, it took two years to complete! I think you’ll find most of the entries here:

      I also this fall completed a sermon series which digs further into many of the discoveries I made during my initial study. I need to push that info out onto the church website, and then I’ll post a link.

  1. 1 Joy: Day 1 « Jeremy R. Geerdes Trackback on November 5, 2010 at 3:38 pm

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