In our wedding ceremony, my wife and I incorporated the Hora—a Jewish family dance in which everyone moves in a circle. Above all, it is an expression of joy. As a non-dancer, I loved learning the simple steps that keep time to the rhythm.
One of the most amazing verses describing the breathtaking love God has for us comes from the prophet Zephaniah:
The Lord your God in your midst,
The Mighty One, will save;
He will rejoice over you with gladness,
He will quiet you with His love,
He will rejoice over you with singing.3:17, NKJV
God “will dance for joy over you with singing” (TLV—Jewish Translation).
Did I say dance? Yes, but I don’t mean a traditional waltz. It’s more like leaping into the air with unbridled joy and spinning with immense emotion. The God who leaps for joy feels a deep and moving passion. Never unfeeling or distant, God expresses an everlasting love that bursts out in great joy and dancing. How else might we describe it? Think of a father skipping with his child, a husband dancing with his bride, or a little lamb leaping about with unbounded joy.
Viewed from the ancient Middle Eastern perspective, which embraces such emotional expression, God expresses jubilation. I love the image of God dancing over me with elation, shouting with unrestrained joy. God surrounds me with a joyful dance, whirling around me with songs of deliverance (Psalm 32:7).
What kind of a God is this?
When considering God’s portrayal in the Old Testament, many conclude that He is a stern monarch, sitting unmoved on His throne. He seems a distant bookkeeper, a cosmic policeman. We may even see God as a strict lawgiver who keeps tabs on us. But picturing God in dynamic expression—leaping for joy as He belts out a love song—changes our view of who He is and how He feels about us.
Can you imagine God literally skipping and singing boisterously with joy over you and me? The very idea is astonishing. How breathtaking it must be to see God whirling about, rejoicing over us with complete adoration. How have we missed this picture of God when we have been told that He delights in us? “As a bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you” (Isaiah 62:5). How beautiful is that?
Picture God inviting you to enter such celebration and joy. Imagine Him taking you by the hand, holding you close as He spins you around and sings His love song over you. Now, you may think that this text describes God rejoicing over repentant Jerusalem and is thus only a Jewish experience. So, how does God address the rest of us? As Jesus says in Luke 15:10, “there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
Jesus’ parables in Luke 15 share a common theme. In one, a shepherd goes out in search of a lost sheep. When he finds it, he joyfully lays the lost sheep on his shoulders, and as he returns home, he calls together his friends and neighbors to rejoice with him. Similarly, when a woman finds a lost dowry coin, she assembles her friends and neighbors, asking them to rejoice with her. When a father’s lost son returns home, he is so elated that he throws a party, rejoicing as the sounds of music and dancing ring out into the desert air.
Human recovery and returning to a welcoming home are wonderful indeed, but the God who rejoices and dances when that which was lost is found is more wonderful still. The focus remains on God Himself. He is the pursuing shepherd; He is the searching woman; He is the elated, dancing father. But Jesus also joins people—men, women, and children—in God’s dance, inviting everyone to participate in His celebration.
God draws us into the divine celebration to partner with Him and one another. When the man finds his sheep, when the woman finds her coin, when the father finds his lost son—the pattern is rejoicing. This string of three parables, however, ends with joy missing. Everyone is rejoicing in the first two parables, but the third celebration is rejected by the father’s oldest son, who refuses to participate. When he hears the music and the dancing, he stomps his feet in defiance. The older son avoids his father’s party, refusing to be influenced by his father’s joy.
In this third parable, Jesus teaches a profound point. When that which was lost is found, joy is appropriate; and if you don’t experience God’s joy, something is wrong. Sour religious faces come from sour hearts. If you’re not rejoicing, something is wrong with your heart. The older son violates his father’s joy by framing it as dishonorable. For the older son, his brother’s return is a time for punishment, not singing and dancing. For the father, however, there is only joy. “Celebrate and rejoice with me,” the father pleads. The authoritative voice of punishment is silenced by love, and there is no condemnation, no stopping of the music. Jesus does, however, speak of the arrogant generation that refuses to dance to His music (Matthew 11:17).
How does God feel about the sinners who want to gather with Him? He welcomes them and rejoices over them. We too should be rejoicing with God. Stop holding back. Lord, let me hear you serenading me with your song. Pull me into your divine embrace and with your powerful right arm, teach me to dance with you. Lord, help me to accept your invitation, stepping into your divine movements to experience you “rejoicing over [me] with gladness . . . exulting over [me] with loud singing” (Zephaniah 3:17, ESV). I want to join that rejoicing. I want to experience the deep and earnest stream of God’s love pulling me into fellowship with Him, spinning me around with the greatest joy and affection.
What an amazing moment it must have been when the Israelites miraculously escaped from Pharaoh’s pursuing army of chariots and horsemen. Miriam sang and danced as she led the Israelites into the joyful exuberance of thanksgiving (Exodus 15:20–21). King David, seeking to return God’s glory, led the people and danced before the returning ark, skipping and whirling with all his might (2 Samuel 6:12–15). King Solomon went up to the temple, and all the people followed him, “rejoicing with great joy” (1 Kings 1:40). The Bible says the celebration was so great and joyous that the earth shook from the movement.
I don’t want to overemphasize this experience, lest it be misunderstood as license to jump and shout at every impulse to worship, which may agitate others. Something greater unites the huge hosts, integrating them into one heart. We should sound like the buzzing of this rejoicing, harmonizing together in the song of joy. God provides the content and the external force that unites us, for “the love of God has been poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us” (Romans 5:5, NKJV). This flow of God’s eternal love beats with passion. God’s love binds us to Him and flows through us to all those around us. God is readying the bride for the coming wedding dance.
Amid the angels is a wonderful picture of a rejoicing God. Will we hear His song and yield our hearts to join His music and dance?
God invites the world into joyful contact with Himself. He does not want us to stay at arm’s length; rather, He pulls us into the circle of His love, into the dance through which we will be changed. God invites us into His great joy. Don’t resist it! Let His love break through your defenses. Let it touch your heart and cultivate celebration. Rejoice with Him. We must let His dancing joy flow into us as we place our hands on His shoulders and follow His lead, allowing the next step of our lives to reflect His joy. Focus on keeping time to the measure of His love song. Look at His expression and listen to the tone of His sweet voice as He sings over you. It’s the most beautiful song you’ve ever heard, like a groom singing over his beautiful bride. Now, sing along with Him.
Nothing should keep us from joining the celebration of divine love and intimate fellowship. Listen to Him singing to your heart and rejoice with Him. Let Him pour out that delightful love and grace into your heart and life. Let your contact with Him change you. Step into the sacred circle, place your hands on His shoulders, and let the strong, wonderful arms of Jesus turn you right and left, dancing arm in arm forever, as He shouts words of approval and delight.
I want to be taken up into the dance of God’s love—to become so filled with the Father’s joy that others will hear my rejoicing and seek to join my joyful celebration.
Craig Ashton Jr.