“The Holy Spirit has exhorted the faithful to continue clapping their hands for joy until the advent of the promised Redeemer,” wrote John Calvin in a comment on Psalm 47:12. Paul would heartily concur! Writing from a prison cell from which he had no certain knowledge of escaping other than to his execution, joy is what came to mind. Joy is what the epistle to the Philippians is all about. So much is Philippians about joy that George B. Duncan once referred to it as “the life of continual rejoicing.” The opposite of joy is misery, and miserable is something we are not meant to be. The Reformers caught the centrality of joy in the affections of Christians when they insisted that our chief goal in life is to “glorify God and enjoy Him forever” (WSC, Q. 1).
Christians are tempted, of course, to be discouraged and depressed by the force of overwhelming circumstances. But in such circumstances, we must tell ourselves that we have no right to feel the way we do! Paul, who knew what it was to be in prison, to be beaten and spat upon, to be cold shouldered and ignored, commands us to rejoice, despite what we may feel: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice” (Phil. 4:4).
Paul was never one to ask others to do what he did not do himself. That is why, throughout the record of his life, we can detect his joy even in the most difficult and testing of situations.
Incarcerated for obedience to the Gospel, the apostle is denied his freedom and dignity. He may well be dealing with personal resentment of his circumstances. Certainly, the Philippians were at pains to understand the wisdom of it all: that the most useful servant God had was cooped up in prison. Some were questioning the wisdom or sovereignty of God. Some may have been questioning both!