YHWH, in Your strength the king rejoices and in Your deliverance how he rejoices greatly! Psalm 21:1 (my translation)
Rejoices – English just doesn’t cut it. English is a language focused on things. So, we have dozens of words to distinguish slight variables in things. Just think about the many different words we have that all point to an automobile. Every year the industry introduces us to more car vocabulary. Hebrew doesn’t seem to be in love with these kinds of subtleties, but it often makes distinctions where we use only a single word. This is one of those cases. Here, David uses two different words for rejoice. The first is gyl, the second is samach. The puzzle is why there are two words and what the difference is between them.
First, let’s connect gyl to something more familiar. Abigail is a name that means “my father is joy.” You can see it in Hebrew – ab for father coupled with gyl for joy. This might not be a popular name in our culture, but it certainly has a wonderful meaning in Hebrew. Who wouldn’t want a daughter with a name like this?
Thirty-six times in Scripture, gyl and samach are found in the same sentence. Twenty-five of those times, samach comes first. Scholars believe that this indicates that samach covers a wider range of joyful expression than gyl. It is also significant that gyl is not found in the Torah. Almost all of its occurrences are in the prophets and in Psalms. Finally, while gyl has a secular use, when it is used theologically, it is usually about God. It describes rejoicing in God’s deliverance, loving-kindness (hesed), judgment and glory.
Samach occurs in almost all the Old Testament books. Although you might find this odd, samach occurs quite often in Ecclesiastes. In the consummate book on the vanity of life, joy seems to play a rather significant role. Like gyl, samach is a typical Hebrew verb that describes actions that result from emotions. Nearly two-thirds of its uses are theological.
Now we’re ready to note the difference between gyl and samach, and why the psalmist uses both so often. Samach is a word that implies external motion as a result of internal emotion. It is about clapping, dancing, shouting and singing. It is joy out loud. Gyl seems to express a more limited, and more internal experience, often associated with reflection on the character of God. Gyl is never used “to express individual, isolated events in the past.” It is a present tense, existential experience of overflowing emotion, often resulting in physical action.
Here’s what we learn. First, our language doesn’t capture all that Hebrew teaches us about rejoicing. Second, the Hebrew concept of rejoicing covers both internal experience and external action. Third, rejoicing is ultimately tied to a recognition of the character of God. When David says that the king rejoices, in both samach and gyl, he says that the king finds the character of God and God’s benevolence so wonderful that his soul is thrilled and his body moved. He just can’t help clapping and singing, dancing and shouting because what’s happening inside him is more than he can contain.
Is that how you feel about God? Are you so filled with His wonder that you just can’t stand still? Is your rejoicing unbound? Or are you a mental giant of Greek cognition who can’t quite make your feet move?
Topical Index: rejoicing, samach, gyl, Abigail, joy, Psalm 21:2, Psalm 21:1