Defining ‘ecstasy’

by Tom Swanson

Words are tools for thinking and communicating. Words define words. Wordsmiths fuss and struggle to get it “just right.” The serious authors and translators keep reworking their words with the skill and desire of a highly specialized surgeon.

Our beloved Glen Wiberg, in his book “Singing the Story,” shares the struggle and triumph of translating “How Great The Joy The Lord Provides,” a hymn by Nils Frykman (1842-1911). Glen understates when he says that translating is an arduous task.

He and Aaron Markuson happened to meet in 1976 and surprised each other by realizing they both were working to fine-tune the translation of this same Swedish hymn, and so began a collaborative effort to give us the English version of the song we have today.

Glen remembers Eric Hawkinson sharing in 1953, “We have come out of ecstatic living, often hidden, but something in our forebears that never wore off.” In the five paragraphs introducing this hymn, Glen uses some form of the word “ecstasy” ten times. This word kept jumping off the page and piqued my curiosity. What is the relationship between the words of this song and ecstasy? How can one capture the concept of ecstasy and adequately define the word?

My first response was to reflect back to the 1960s drug culture’s use of the word ecstasy. The Urban Dictionary calls that “an overpowering emotion or state of sudden, intense feeling.” Another stated, “an emotional or religious frenzy or trancelike state, originally one involving an experience of mystic self-transcendence.”

I sensed Glen used the word ecstasy to mean something incredibly special, almost indefinable. Many references in Scripture show the difficulty of trying to put the holy and eternal into words.

How great the joy the Lord provides for us so freely here,
When at His table He presides and we to Him draw near!
His grace is new each day and hour, and we can rest upon His pow’r.
Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah, amen.

Nils, Glen and Aaron all suggest, in their choice of words, that while joy might be the bottom line, ecstasy is way, way above joy. Nils in another song points again toward ecstasy:

The highest joy that can be known to those who heav’nward wend—
It is the Word of Life to own, and God to have as Friend.

Another insight and key understanding is that this joy/ecstasy cannot be manufactured by human effort. It is the Lord who “provides for us so freely here.” We are the recipients of God’s goodness. Joy is the second fruit of the spirit. The question arises whether active or passive pursuit will produce the joy/ecstasy we desire. The song suggests that it is through “trusting in his living word.” It is a daily challenge in our self-reliant world to keep trusting the Lord and to keep the eternal in mind every day.

We have all experienced the disappointment when things break, fall apart and wear out. We can expect to be frustrated in this life, but we

can also fix our minds on the stability of God’s eternal truth and gifts.

When shadows come, as come they will, and gloom pervades the day,
When hopes once bright grow cold and chill, the Lord provides a way.

God has proven to be faithful in the past, and so we anticipate the ecstasy of his eternal faithfulness.

Our hopes and dreams will be complete, when at the heav’nly feast we meet.
Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah, amen.

I think Frykman really nails it when he says we walk with Jesus joyfully in this life, and then also points to the ecstasy that awaits us for eternity. We can be encouraged to anticipate the day our hopes and dreams will be complete. As Matt. 5:12 KJV states, “Rejoice and be exceedingly glad!” Ecstasy exceeds both joy and gladness.

“Now glory be to God who by his mighty power within us is able to do far more than we would even dare to ask or even dream of — infinitely beyond our highest prayers, desires, thoughts or hopes!” (Eph. 3-20, TLB)

We can trust and accept the gift of joy, which will become ecstasy, even without a precise definition. It would be wise to leave ecstasy undefined and enthusiastically anticipated. Can’t wait to truly experience what the Lord means by ecstasy.