Psalm 126 is part of a collection of psalms bearing the same title, A Song of Degrees, or, A Song of Ascents. And these are Psalms widely thought to have been collected together and used by the pilgrims of God, the children of God in the Old Testament, and especially at times of festival when they would have gathered together in Jerusalem for worship. Turn with me then, to Psalm 126.
“When the Lord brought back the captive ones of Zion,
We were like those who dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
And our tongue with joyful shouting;
Then they said among the nations,
‘The Lord has done great things for them.’
The Lord has done great things for us;
We are glad.
“Restore our captivity, O Lord,
As the streams in the South.
Those who sow in tears shall reap with joyful shouting.
He who goes to and fro weeping, carrying his bag of seed,
Shall indeed come again with a shout of joy,
Bringing his sheaves with him.”
Thus far, God’s holy and inerrant word. May He add His blessing to it. Let’s pray together.
Our Father in heaven, as we look now into Your word, we ask for the help and ministry of You Spirit, Lord; that we might see something of Your greatness, and of Your beauty and of Your glory, because we ask it for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Now, it sounds almost trite, doesn’t it, to say it: that the Lord’s people are in this world. That is to say that in the here and now we are not what we want to be. We are not even what we shall be. But we find ourselves in this fallen and corrupt world of pain and hurt, hostility and difficulty, of, what this Psalm calls in verse 5, “tears.” Tears are the order of the day, and many of you tonight have come to this prayer meeting and know all about tears...tears in your home, and tears in your personal lives...sadness and distress, and grief and heartache. It’s the stuff of our prayer meetings, isn’t it? It’s one of the reasons why we gather together. If we were to collect together all the prayer reminders of a year and make out a list, they would in a very real sense echo the phenomenon of which the psalmist speaks here, the tears that characterize our lives.
And it’s interesting, is it not, if we were just to take a cursory look at this Psalm, that it begins with tears and ends with joy and laughter? And that, I think, provides us with a signal as to why it is we find these Psalms in the middle of our Bibles to be so meaningful and relevant, and we find ourselves going to them again and again for solace and comfort and help: because they speak to us, and they speak to our condition.
And although the context of this particular Psalm is altogether different from any context that you and I have ever known or are ever likely to know, yet the context is sufficiently vague that we can immediately identify with the principles that the psalmist is speaking of here, and we readily identify with this deepest of all principles: that life as we know it is very often characterized by tears and joy.
The background of this Psalm is, of course, the period of history recorded for us in such books as Ezra and Nehemiah, when the people of God were brought out of captivity in Babylon and returned to Jerusalem to rebuild the city, and then to rebuild the temple.
The background lies in the year 586, and the 70 years of captivity that followed that, and the immediate years following that return to Jerusalem, when the people of God knew that experience of profound joy and gladness at returning to a land that God had given to them that for 70 years they had been deprived of.
Many of the captives in Babylon, of course, had never known the land of Canaan. Only those who were in their eighties and nineties – folk like Daniel, who had been taken captive as a teenager and perhaps returned as an old man, and would remember at least some thoughts about what Canaan looked like, and remember Galilee and the plains of central Palestine, and the hills of Zion and Jerusalem, and the Negev in the deep South. Imagine that sense of euphoria when those folk returned to a land perhaps that they had long since thought they would never, ever, see again; and to see, even though the walls of Jerusalem were torn down, and the temple of course was destroyed, that they were at least back in the land that God had given to them. Imagine the sense of joy in returning.
Well, this Psalm divides into three sections. There is, in the first place, a song; there is, in the second place, a prayer; and there is, in the third place, a promise. A song, a prayer, and a promise.
The song occurs in the first three verses. It’s a song of deliverance. It’s the song of the restored people of God – the people of God who had known captivity and restoration, and in many ways that provides for us a cameo portrait of the entire history of the Old Testament, because what is the history of the Old Testament? It is a picture of captivity, followed by restoration, followed by captivity, followed by restoration. That is the Old Testament. And what this Psalm is giving to us is a brief portrait of what it was like to live in Old Testament times.
Imagine being in captivity in Egypt and then being brought into the land of Canaan. Imagine being in captivity in Babylon, and then being brought back to Jerusalem. On the one hand, it’s a story about Pharaoh, and Nebuchadnezzar, and King Darius; of men like Daniel, and Ezra, and Nehemiah; of decrees of kings like Nebuchadnezzar and Darius; but notice also the perspective of the Psalm here, because it gives to us a principle as to how we are often meant to interpret life and meant to interpret history, and meant to interpret the providences of God in which we find ourselves. Because although the history of the Old Testament is about Pharaoh and Nebuchadnezzar and Darius, that’s not the perspective from which this Psalm views the Old Testament history, because notice how he puts it: “When the Lord brought back the captive ones of Zion...” and at the end of verse 2, the nations are saying, “The Lord has done great things.” And then the psalmist echoes it again in verse 3: “The Lord has done great things for us.” And isn’t that a lesson that we so often need to learn about viewing history and about viewing the lives in which we find ourselves, the stages on which our lives are set, that history is His-story worked out by a divine plan and purpose and according to divine decree?
What we have here is the perspective of a psalmist who views the totality of life from the perspective of Almighty God. And that’s how we are meant to live our lives and view our lives, because we find ourselves, like the psalmist, experiencing the joys and the hurts of this life, and all of it in their sum-total are to be interpreted from the perspective of a divine hand that orders all things after the counsel of His own will.
Some of you, as you come to this prayer meeting tonight, know all about a sense of captivity. Some of you are in jobs and vocations that, if you were to be honest with me tonight, you absolutely loathe and detest. Isn’t that true? Some of you find yourselves in circumstances that you long were different, and perhaps you’re even ashamed to admit it tonight, but it’s true. And some of you find yourselves in marriages that to all intents and purposes may well be captivity. And some of you find yourselves in captivity because of the results of sin, of pride and jealousy, and frustration – when you long for deliverance. I wonder tonight, have you forgotten what it means to laugh? To know real, solid, joy in your heart?
Have you ever talked with someone who has been delivered from bondage? Have you ever talked to somebody who has been delivered from cancer? And the sense of joy...and they can hardly believe it, because they’ve wrestled with the consequences of that disease, and they have emerged, not through anything that they have done, necessarily, but from the perspective that the psalmist has here: that God has delivered them, and they’re filled with joy and they’re filled with gratitude.
Do you remember that film by Cecil B. DeMille on the Ten Commandments? (They don’t make films like that anymore.) And you remember how he has a character coming through that Exodus, and when Moses bids the waters of the Red Sea to part and stand up as walls on either side, and he has this character who’s a little anxious looking coming with his family through that dry ground and over to the other side. And all the while he’s saying, “Hurry up! Hurry up!” because he can’t believe what he sees. And I wonder is that you tonight?
Actually, there’s a two-fold reaction here, isn’t there, to this sense of joy? Because it’s not only the people of God who say God has done this, but also the nations of the world. I am reminded of one of the principles indeed of the Book of Exodus, and you find it recorded in many chapters in the Book of Exodus, and particularly in chapter 7 when Moses reminds us that one of the purposes of God in bringing the afflictions that He brought upon Pharaoh was that Pharaoh and the Egyptians might say as a consequence of the deliverance of the people of God, ‘God has done this. God has done this.’
God is asserting His authority.
And whence do these feelings of joy arise that give us this song of deliverance that we have here in these first three verses? And they arise, of course, from the profound experience that we are loved and cared for.
Isn’t that true? That the knowledge and conviction that we are supremely loved and cared for by Almighty God arises and causes to rise within our hearts a sense of joy and gladness which is unspeakable and full of glory. And there’s a sense, isn’t there, in which every Christian knows something of this. If you’ve ever tasted and seen that the Lord is gracious, if you’ve been brought out of captivity, the captivity of your sins, if you’ve been brought into union and fellowship with Jesus Christ so that you can testify this evening that Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior, and my sins are forgiven, and that I have peace with Almighty God, you know something of what the psalmist is expressing here: a sense of joy and gladness that is like a dream. You can hardly believe it! “We were like those who dream,” the psalmist says. And I wonder, can you testify to that tonight in your own personal experience? That it’s almost as if we were dreaming; that the goodness of God, and the graciousness of God, and the forgiveness of God, and the provision of God, and the deliverances of God in my own life and in the life of my friends are so wonderful and spectacular that it’s almost as though I was dreaming. I can hardly believe that they’re true.
But if there’s a song here of which the psalmist sings, there is also a prayer, and that is found in verse 4: “Restore our captivity, O Lord, as the streams in the South” – or the Negev.
And the Negev was of course that southern region of Palestine extending from just below Jerusalem all the way down to Beersheba, and consisted of that land desert-like and arid, and barren. And if you make a visit to Israel today and you make a visit down to the Dead Sea, for example, and visit Messadah, and you climb to the top of Messadah and you look at that vision that’s before you that’s almost like an apparition of the Dead Sea, and stretching south as it glistens in the sunshine...and you wonder if anything can ever grow in that region. And of course, what the psalmist is expressing here is a phenomenon all too well-known in that region of southern Palestine, namely that when it rained in the northern hills and mountains, the water would come flowing down. And if you were to go to Israel today, for example, they would warn you not ever to sleep out near the wadis of the southern Negev, because you can find yourself washed away by streams of water that come in an instant. It’s flash flooding for which the psalmist here is praying, and he’s praying down the blessing of God. He wants to know this blessing in his life: “Restore our captivity, O Lord, as the streams in the South.” Restore our fortunes, is what he means.
And why should he be praying that after he’s just sung a song of joy and gladness? That’s the problem, isn’t it?
And you know the answer: because no sooner have you been delivered by Almighty God than you find yourselves again in captivity, and you find yourself slipping back again. It was the experience, of course, of the people of God when they came out of Babylon and to Jerusalem. And you remember the problems and the difficulties and hostility and the setbacks, and how difficult it was to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. And you remember the insults of men like Tobiah and Sanballat, and you remember how the prophet Haggai had to reprove them because they were living in their fine houses when the temple of God was in ruins.
And it’s a prayer, and it’s a graphic prayer, a prayer for the flash-flooding of God. He’s praying for a flood, a flood of grace to come rushing down and sweeping through his heart. It’s an understandable prayer, isn’t it? It’s the longing of our hearts that the waters of revival would come down and sweep through the lethargy and the despondency and the grief that so often strikes the church of Jesus Christ. It’s the reality, isn’t it, that we live in the sphere of difficulty? And many of us can testify tonight of times of leanness and stress and pain in our personal experience and communion with God. I wonder tonight, can you relate to what the psalmist is saying here? That you long for those spiritual showers to revive you? Not only to revive you individually, but to revive you corporately as the people of God? And to experience what the prophets of the Old Testament so often spoke about when they spoke of God coming down, and God rending the heavens, and God returning, visiting His people. Is this you tonight, that you long for Him to come into your soul again and refresh you with those waters of refreshing?
Well, if there’s a song and there’s a prayer, there’s also a promise, because the prayer of verse 4 is based upon and derives its energy from the promise that is made in verses 5-6, because in verses 5-6 we’re given yet another picture of a man who goes forth to sow, and the promise is that though he goes forth to sow in tears and with pain, he will reap with joy and gladness, and he will come again, bringing his sheaves with him.
And isn’t that so very graphic a picture of what life in this world is like? And isn’t that a graphic picture of what life between the two comings of Jesus Christ is like? Between the first and Second Coming, that we live in a sphere of time that is characterized by pain and hurt and distress? “In this world you shall have tribulations,” Jesus said, and in many respects what we have here in the church of Jesus Christ is the workshop. But the showroom of God’s grace is yet to be seen. And here the psalmist lays hold of this mighty promise of God, and what a promise it is! That though you sow in tears and in pain and in grief, you will reap with joy, and you will reap a harvest.
Do you remember? That’s a principle that Jesus told His disciples: that unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains alone. Some graces, of course, as Samuel Rutherford said, some graces grow best in winter. And sometimes it is only through the lean times and the difficult times, and the painful times, that God is able to mold and fashion us according to the plan that He has dictated, because He is adamant that He wants to make us like Jesus Christ. He is absolutely resolute and determined to make us like Jesus Christ, and He will stop at nothing. He will stop at nothing, to ensure that we are made like Jesus Christ.
“God moves in a mysterious way,
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea,
He rides upon the storm.
“His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour.
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flower.”
And isn’t it altogether moving to remember this evening that even though you may find yourself with tears running down your cheeks...and for some of you that is a reality...you remember that beautiful, beautiful, verse in Psalm 56:8: that God keeps your tears in a bottle. That He keeps your tears in a bottle...and what that Psalm is saying, of course, is simply this: that He knows our pain, and that He knows our hurts, and that we have one who sits at the right hand of God who ever lives to intercede for us; who knows our frame, that we are dust.
And isn’t that wonderful, my friend? Isn’t that simply wonderful to know and to be assured of, and to have that promise written on the pages of Scripture? That even though you may be passing through the valley of the shadow of death in this life, even though you may be sowing in tears, you will reap a harvest in that age which is to come. You will reap a harvest when God accomplishes and fulfills His mighty plan in your life.
So I say to you, and I appeal to you tonight – and those of you especially who are burdened and heavy, and for whom the joy of laughter has gone out of your lives – lay hold on this promise. Underline it in red ink. Do whatever is necessary. Place it before your hearts and eyes and walk in the knowledge and certainty of it: that God’s word cannot be broken, and that His covenant is inviolable, and that He will finish what He has begun in your life, through the grace of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Isn’t this a beautiful, beautiful Psalm, my friend, to those of us who may be just a little discouraged, and who may find ourselves having experienced the grace of God in the past, but now having moved into the place of tears again? You will reap, my friend, if you persevere in Jesus Christ, and you look full into His wonderful face.
May God bless this wonderful Psalm to our hearts and to our lives. Let’s pray together.
Our Father in heaven, we thank You for Your word, and we are amazed by the pastoral way in which You deal with us over and over again. Truly, You know us through and through. Bless this word now to the hearts and lives of our dear friends here, passing through such pain and turmoil; and may they see that glorious promise shining in all of its brilliance ahead of them, and in the face of Jesus Christ. And hear us, Lord, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Will you stand and receive the Lord’s benediction.
Now may the grace of our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God our Father, and fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all, now and forevermore. Amen.
© First Presbyterian Church.
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