"A SONG OF ASCENTS. When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; 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 fortunes, O LORD, like streams in the Negeb! Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy! He who goes out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him." (Psalm 126).
Have you ever laughed so hard you thought you were going to pull a muscle? Tears flowing from your eyes? It is right for believers to remember God is the designer of the human body, soul, and spirit. He made us with the capacity for uncapacitated laughter and joy. The God who invented that brand of hilarity is the God who longs to give us the truest measure of satisfaction -- joy unimaginable.
Our next pilgrim song is a song filled with such joy, gladness, and laughter -- and these are not trivial matters. Because humans are on a constant quest for fulfillment, we must believe authentic joy comes from life with God. If we aren't, then we will search for satisfaction elsewhere. It is in our "elsewhere" glances that we enter the hardest pains of life, at worst, and the lesser states of happiness, at best. The pilgrim knows where real joy is found. They know how to look back in life, seeing great joys God gave. They also know how to look forward to the blessings only God can provide.
The song begins with the look back to their history. They sang, "When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion." But what fortunes had been lost? And how had God restored them?
God had restored Israel's fortunes countless times. Some of those restorations were highly public events. Israel's exodus from Egypt, David's escape from Saul, or several victories over invading foreign powers could fit this song. Something was lost — freedom, security, fruitfulness — but God restored them. And it is possible that no specific historical moment is in the author's mind. But if there is one event the singers address, it would have to be the return from the Babylonian captivity. Some Bible translators have felt this the case. Many interpret the first verse like this: "When the Lord brought back the captives of Zion" (NASB).
The return from Babylon is one of the most memorable events in Old Testament history. It had all started, years earlier, when the Israelites ignored one of God's Sabbath laws for 490 years. Not only were they to Sabbath every Saturday, but they were also to let the land have rest one out of every seven years. Each field could be sown, planted, and harvested for six years, but the seventh year it was to lie fallow. It was to rest. This command was difficult for Israel to obey, for it meant trusting God in the financial realm. Believing God for daily provision has always been difficult for God's people. And for 490 years they neglected God's command, refusing to allow the land its rest.
Since their disobedience lasted 490 years, and the land was to rest every seven years, seventy Sabbath years had been skipped. So God began declaring the land would receive its Sabbath rests. For seventy years the people would be carried off to Babylon for captivity, which is precisely what happened. King Nebuchadnezzar descended upon Judah and took them captive. For seventy years, Babylon enveloped the people of God. They were there so long God encouraged them to live in Babylon, pray for Babylon, and bless Babylon. Entire generations were born there and also died there. After a while, Babylon became the norm.
But God had also promised the days in Babylon would end. Well before the Babylonian captivity had even begun, God predicted who would end it. Many decades before King Cyrus' empire was prominent, God predicted he'd be the one to send Israel home. One hundred years before Cyrus' birth, God said, "Cyrus, he is My shepherd, and he shall fulfill all my purpose, saying of Jerusalem, 'She shall be built,' and of the temple, 'Your foundation shall be laid' "(Isaiah 44:28). He also said Cyrus would "build my city and set my exiles free, not for price or reward" (Isaiah 45:13). So years before Cyrus was born, years before the Babylonians invaded, and years before Cyrus' people were prominent, God predicted Cyrus would send God's people home to rebuild Jerusalem and her temple.
Eventually, God's predictions came to pass. The book of Ezra chronicles the grace of God as King Cyrus made the exact decrees Isaiah predicted. At the seventy year mark, as Jeremiah had predicted, Cyrus commissioned the people to go back. He paid the way, and 50,000 of them responded. With great joy, they returned to Jerusalem. Most of them had never seen it with their own eyes. Some of them held faded memories of Jerusalem from their childhood years. But God had heard their cry. They had returned! It appears this pilgrim song has this historical event in mind. The joy of that moment would have been off the charts.
God's Joy Is Like a Dream
"When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream" (Psalm 126:1).
The pilgrims' first description of the joy God gave them was that it was like a dream. For years, they had lived a nightmare, but now they were living a dream. Living in captivity, under Nebuchadnezzar's thumb, was a horror. At night, in his realm, they would sleep and dream of a return to Jerusalem. When Cyrus released them, it was the living out of a dream. They never thought it possible, but God had done it.
The God of the impossible can give us a dreamlike life. Humankind was lost to a nightmare through the eating of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Adam lost humanity's innocence and our relationship with God. Each is a contributing factor to our joy. But, through the promised cross of Christ, God made way for us to escape the nightmare and live the dream. No longer are we held captive to sin -- believers have been set free. This freedom brings us great joy. God restored our fortunes by bringing us home. God restores our fortunes by returning our innocence and relationship with Him.
We ought to know this from God's Word. The cross shows us He is immensely concerned with restoring fortunes. The Father longs to be reconciled to a lost and dying world. The Son suffered and substituted Himself for a lost humanity. The Spirit draws and searches for lost human hearts. God looks to restore the fortunes which were lost through sin.
One day, during the life of Jesus, the religious people began to complain of His affiliations with the sinners of the day. He told them a story, actually a cluster of stories (Luke 15). In the first, a shepherd left his ninety-nine safe sheep to look for one lost sheep. In the second, a poor woman had ten coins but lost one, so she swept and searched her entire house until it was found. In the third, a good father lost one of his two sons because the prodigal divorced himself from his family to pursue his lusts. When he returned, humbled, the father rejoiced. It was the same joy the woman and the shepherd had when the coin and sheep were found. Jesus' point was simple: "There is joy in before the angels of God over one sinner who repents" (Luke 15:10). The shepherd, the widow, and the prodigal's dad all rejoiced when the lost were returned. Perhaps each is emblematic of every member of the Trinity. The Shepherd-Son, the widowed-Spirit, and the grief-stricken Father conspire to bring back what is lost.
So the God who does this in the macro also does this in the micro. It is His nature. What have you lost? What stands out to you as only a dream? What nightmare do you currently live in? God has dreamlike joy. Look back to the forgiveness and rescue of God, and believe He is willing to do dreamlike things in your heart today. There is no sin too big, no relationship too broken, no calamity so massive, that He cannot restore.
God's Joy Is the Best Joy
"Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy…" (Psalm 126:2).
The pilgrims' second description of the joy God gave them was simple: it was the best version of joy ever known. Laughter, shouts of joy, gladness -- the only way they could describe it. The pilgrim knows this to be so. We often look to the wrong places for satisfaction and delight. One reason pilgrims need to understand how to look back to the dreamlike grace of God upon their lives is so they won't go looking for joy in the wrong places.
Entertainment -- the purchase of someone else's imagination in an attempt to find joy -- is a shallow replacement for the comfort found when God is at work in your life. But it is easier to turn to food or art or cinema or sports to find a modicum of temporary joy. The team scores -- we shout! The episode took us to a faraway time and place -- we rejoice! The food brought us flavors never before known -- we are glad! But in it all we must discipline our minds to remember these are no replacements for the more profound joys of God. Let them serve as clues of His fuller joy and gladness, for He is often the author of such delights, but do not become their servant.
Often, we look to other people to fill our joy-tank. We look to friendships to give us a sense of belonging. We look to love to give us a sense of identity. We look to romance to give us a sense of thrill. But sex, relationships, and friendships can never deliver the most ultimate of joys. The kind of joy God gives is of the belly-busting laughter and shouts of gladness variety. The Bible started with a wedding (Adam and Eve). Jesus' miraculous ministry kicked off at a wedding (in Cana of Galilee, where He turned water to wine). This age ends with a wedding feast (Revelation 19). All the weddings and relationships and families and friendships of the world -- the very best of them no less -- ought to point us to something deeper. There is a God who desires to fill our mouths (and hearts) with laughter.
I will never forget the first time I sensed the presence of God. It started at a worship service far from my home. It ended a few months later. I then began to chase the lesser joys in life. The years ticked by and, eventually, I had to return to Christ and His grace. I felt compelled, forced to return. Why? In all my searching, I had never tasted anything as beautiful as those few months with God. It was to my great advantage to look back, like the pilgrim, and sing of the time my mouth was filled with laughter, and my tongue with shouts of joy.
But what had happened in-between the first and second episodes of grace? I had searched for joy elsewhere. And to get back on the pilgrim path, I had to remember my first joy. It was nothing like the lesser and false joys I had been pursuing. At the end of myself, I asked God to receive me anew, to restore the joy I had lost. A prodigal, I wanted to come home. And, like a dream, I returned.
God's Joy Gets Noticed
"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" (Psalm 126:2-3).
The pilgrim's third description of the joy God gave them was that it impressed the nations around them. God had told Solomon that if future Israelite generations neglected the worship of God, He would release them to their will. They would inevitably, then, become a curse and a byword among the nations. Here, we see the opposite. By His grace, as they walked with Him, they became a symbol of God's grace among the nations.
Imagine the Israelite packing his bags, preparing to leave Cyrus' realm. The local townspeople began to wonder: "Where do you think you're going? Who gave you permission to leave? How do you think you'll fund this journey? How do you think you'll rebuild your temple?" The Israelite would report: "Cyrus (or Darius or Ahasuerus or Artaxerxes) told us to go. He said he'd pay for it. Probably with taxes, so I guess you're paying for it. Goodbye!" The locals began to sing their own song: "God has done great things for them."
But all this started with the joyful response of God's people to God's grace in their lives. The dour, sad, and bitter Christian is no witness at all. But the joyful, forgiven, and rejoicing Christian evokes questions — "Why are you so glad?" It is joy that elicits such questions, rejoicing at what God has done for us. To ruminate upon the cross leads to celebration. To think of our past rescues leads to gratefulness. To hear the stories of God's miracles in the lives of others leads to praise. And all that celebration, gratefulness, and praise lead to witness. Everyone noticed when Cyrus showed such favor towards Israel. And everyone sees when God shows such favor to you, but only if you let the joy of it radiate from your face.
Look for More of God's Joy
"Restore our fortunes, O LORD, like streams in the Negeb!" (Psalm 126:4).
Here is where the song turns. No longer do they sing of the past. The past was wonderful. God blessed them. But they aren't living in the past any longer. Neither are you. We can only live in today, and for today, the pilgrims began to pray afresh. As thankful as they were for the previous times God restored their fortunes, they looked for the next time. They began to pray for the same fortune-restoration He'd done in the past to be done today. How so? "Like streams in the Negeb."
The Negeb (Negev) desert is arid, but when the rains do come, they arrive swiftly, quickly, and violently. Once the water runs off or evaporates, it leaves behind a series of channels, dry river beds, to where it will return in the future. The pilgrims remember those dry river beds; they sat there awaiting the next flood of water to fill them. The pilgrims feel the same way. The water was there once, but when will it come again? They awaited the next time God's blessings would rain down upon them.
The pilgrim life is one of waiting on God for His next time in our lives. Out of our hearts will flow rivers of Living Water, the Spirit Himself, but we often await God's fresh current in our lives. But the pilgrim will wait for it. Others won't. The pilgrim will.
James tells us to "be patient until the coming of the Lord" (James 5:7). Three examples of the patience he had in mind leaked from his pen. In the first, he compared the believer to the farmer who planted his seed and waited through the early and latter rain for the fruit to come (James 5:7). The pilgrim life is like the waiting farmer; we endure through the entire season. We know we must pass through it. On the other side, we believe, is fruit. We dare not shortcut the process. We dare not quit too soon.
In the second, James compared the believer to the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord (James 5:10). The pilgrim life is like that prophet life, for God's people mostly rejected them. Only later were their lives (and words) embraced and validated. The pilgrim lives the same way. At first glance, following after Christ runs against the grain. It is a different life. Could this really be fruitful in the long run? Alas, like the prophets, the pilgrim's way eventually proves to be the greatest and most joyful life around.
In the third, James compared believers to Job's steadfastness and God's purpose for Job. Job's long ordeal ended with God's blessing on his life -- all his possessions doubled and his health returned. God's long-run purpose in Job's life seems to have been to make Job a miniature of the entire human story. Job's life began well, and in the garden of Eden, so did humanity's. The long middle section of the book of Job attempts to make sense of tragedy. And from Genesis 3 to Revelation 19 humanity did (and does) the same. Job's life ended well, and at the return and reign of Christ with His new heaven and earth, so will humanity's. So Job's life is a miniature representation of God's redemptive work for humanity, the Bible's story in capsule form. The pilgrim life is like Job's in that we may endure years of dryness, but the rains will come.
The pilgrim life does not try to rid itself of the desert but instead asks God to bring moisture to the desert. It is natural and human to try to remove every source of pain in our lives, but this is futile and impossible. Does your marriage hurt? The ordinary person runs, but the pilgrim remains in the desert. Does your church need reviving? The ordinary person runs, but the pilgrim remains in the desert. Does your discipleship group demand much of you? The ordinary person runs, but the pilgrim remains in the desert. But in remaining the pilgrim cries to God, trusting He will hear and bring streams to those deserts of life.
"I'm waiting for my tides to turn," we say. We don't know when things will turn around for us, so we wait. But we can set our calendars and watches by the ocean's tides. We know exactly when they will rise and when they will recede. Perhaps pilgrims ought to consider that God has a tidal calendar for our lives. We wait for the tides to turn, but He knows the precise moment when they will. Don't quit! Continue on! Someday, the dryness will give way to the rains. Streams will flow into your Negeb.
Wait Confidently for God's Joy
"Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy! He who goes out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him" (Psalm 126:5-6).
Finally, the pilgrim sings the highest heights of the song. It is one thing to look back with laughter and joy, but quite another to look forward to it. Here, the pilgrim sings an allegory — "The farmer sows seeds, awaiting a harvest. We have sown tears, and we await a harvest of shouts of joy! We will have sheaves of it!"
The New Testament is thorough in its teaching that trials can produce fruit in our lives. Paul said, "We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us" (Romans 5:3–5). James said, "Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing" (James 1:2–4). Peter said, "In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ" (1 Peter 1:5–7). So Paul, James, and Peter agree: trials can develop our holy faith.
But in that brand of fruit, the connection between the trial and the fruit is often unclear. If my trial is childlessness, my fruit might be a depth of compassion, but it could also be patience. If my trial is poverty, my fruit might be a stronger trust in God, but it might also be contentment. If my trial is sickness, my fruit might be healthy spiritual vitality, but it might also be a more evangelistic heart. Sometimes the line from the trial to the fruit is clear, other times we take it by faith.
But this psalm deals with fruit required by the very tears which have been sown. The line is straightforward, direct. Behind the sorrow of the prayers is an answer. Behind the pain of the early morning discipleship meeting is spiritual growth. Behind the sexual fidelity in a world against it is a healthy relationship and family. Behind a submission to God's plan for finances is God's provision. Behind the hard parental decisions is a parental joy. Behind the discipline to work for oneness in marriage is marital health. Again, the line here is more direct. The tears in a particular area, by faith, produce in direct relationship to those tears, just as a seed produces after its kind.
The pilgrim must believe the hard choices they make to engage the disciple path will directly lead to a shout of joy. Fruitfulness will come. Without this attitude, the pilgrim will not continue. And this attitude must be cultivated. Believe, be confident, shouts of joy are coming! Be as convinced as the song is.
Imagine a married couple telling you they'd like to have children someday. "I'll pray God gives you children someday," you respond. Imagine another couple, at the tail end of the wife's third trimester, also standing before you. "I'll pray God gives you a child someday," you say. No! The pregnancy is obvious. You might pray for a healthy baby and a healthy mother, but you would not pray that someday a baby would be given the family. They are expecting. So should you.
It is this expectation God seems to try to foster in songs like this one. When Paul and Silas were in Philippi, they were arrested for their ministry work. In jail, in the lower dungeon, in the middle of the night, they sang praises to God. The earth then shook. The prison bars burst open. The jailer was saved (along with his family). Paul and Silas were granted their release. They departed, rejoicing. I think this psalm teaches us to sing like Paul and Silas. Before the earthquake, before the release, sing your heart out in anticipation and expectation. Believe a direct line is being made from the seed of your tears to the harvest of your joy. Wait for it. It surely comes.