For some it was a day of great rejoicing. For some it was a day of deep distress. Though Solomon’s temple had long since been destroyed by the order of King Nebuchadnezzar, the people had now returned from exile and had commenced work on a new temple, a new home for their God. Once the builders had finished laying the foundation, the priests and musicians called for a celebration, a time to praise God for the work begun. Then, as the priests came forward with their trumpets, the sons of Asaph with their cymbals, the voices of young and old alike joined in a great shout that resounded through the city and into the countryside beyond.
Yet those who observed carefully and listened attentively would have noticed that not all the shouts were the same, for where the young cried out their praises, the old cried out their sorrows. The young cried out in joy for the glory of what would soon be, the old cried out in grief for the glory of what had passed away. For from the very foundation, they knew this temple would never attain to the grandeur of the old.
Solomon, the builder of the first and greatest temple, once observed that “even in laughter the heart may ache, and the end of joy may be grief.” This world offers many joys, but those joys are never far from sorrows. Few pleasures are greater than the birth of a child, yet a child enters the world only through the long discomfort of pregnancy and the searing pain of delivery. As a man and woman are joined together to become one, they have to acknowledge they will not always be together, for their vows extend only “’til death do us part.” It is good to rejoice when one of God’s people has gone home to Jesus, but to be present with the Lord is to be absent from the earth and from all who loved him here. In our greatest joys we are never far from tears and in our deepest sorrows we are never far from laughter. Such is life in this broken, beautiful world.
Indeed, the gospel itself requires acknowledging darkness before light, shame before celebration, wrath before forgiveness. In baptism we must pass through the waters of judgment and be buried with Christ in his death before we can rise with him to walk in new life. In the Lord’s Supper we must witness the breaking of flesh and pouring out of blood before we can take, eat, remember, and believe. For us to appreciate the extent of God’s mercy, we must first acknowledge the depths of our own depravity. For us to follow Jesus, we must first bear a heavy cross. For us to take hold of life, we must first lose our own. There are few joys, even in worship, that are not attended by some degree of sorrow.
“Rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep,” instructs Paul. Yet often there is only the slimmest margin of time between the two, for triumphs often turn to tragedies and tragedies to triumphs. We need to be cautious, then, before we judge one another by outward appearances, for there are many mysteries to the human heart and many more to how it expresses itself in emotion. We must be compassionate with one another even when times seem good, for there are no pure joys in life. We need to be considerate towards one another even when times seem hard, for neither are there any pure sorrows. There are deep waters within each one of us, and it takes time, skill, and patience to draw them out.
Yet even then, “The heart knows its own bitterness,” says Solomon, “and no stranger shares its joy.” None of us can fully know what is within the heart of any other man, for smiles may mask aching pain and tears of sorrow may spring even from laughing eyes. None of us can even fully know what is within our own hearts, for we lack the knowledge, we lack the vision, we lack the ability. We are complex beings who exist within a complicated world.
Thankfully, God is unswayed by our complexity, “for the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” He sees beyond what is outward and gazes into the deepest recesses. He sees beyond the jumble of joy and sorrow, the combination of laughter and tears, and he does so to minister the perfect blessing. He can always provide just what we need because he always knows just what we need. We can have great confidence that when we cannot know and be known by any other man or woman, or even by ourselves, God himself has a mind unswayed by appearances, a heart filled with love, and hands that reach out to dispense the perfect blessing. “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion,” he says. And in your need, in your happiness or sadness, your plenty or want, he will act toward you with the tenderest mercy and the kindest compassion.