Nicholas Wolterstorff was for many years professor of Philosophy and Liturgical Theology at Yale University in the United States. He is married and has five children. On 11 June 1983 his 25-year-old son died in a mountain climbing accident in Austria.
He diarised his painful and reflective thoughts for his family. Out of this came a small book, Lament for a Son. I read it recently and found it profoundly touching and instructive. His musings are raw because they are real.
Wolterstorff is a Christian, and so the truth of God’s word impacted how he grieved. He reflects biblically about the malevolence of death. He calls it an evil. He rightly identifies death as a fiend, not a friend. He points out that death is not natural but has rather come into our world, as the Bible teaches, because of sin. Though God is sovereign over death, sin is to blame. The New Testament emphasises that death is an enemy, albeit an enemy conquered by the Lord Jesus Christ. Nevertheless, it remains our last enemy until Jesus sets everything right; until he sets everything glorious (1 Corinthians 15:26).
But this promise causes Wolterstorff to wonder why the victory must take so long. In conversation with the Lord, he hears God saying to him, “Remember, I raised my son from the dead and so I can also—” Wolterstorff interrupts,
I know, I know. But why don’t you raise mine now? Why did you ever let him die? If creation took just six days, why does re-creation take so agonizingly long? If your conquest of primeval chaos went so quickly [“Let there be light”], why must your conquest of sin and death and suffering be so achingly slow?
I appreciate his expression of reverent honesty. That is what biblical lament looks like. That is what Christian grieving is supposed to be. We grieve for many reasons, but one of those reasons is because we have to wait for a much better day. We have to wait for a day when all things are revealed as new (Romans 8:14–30).
Wolterstorff asks what we all ask in some shape or form: “How long, O Lord?”
Cosmically, we lament: How long until the world is at peace and war is no more? How long until disease is eradicated? How long until funerals are nothing but a footnote in history? How long until justice reigns over every square centimetre of our planet? How long until racism, ethnocentrism, and tribalism are eradicated? How long until all the nations are discipled and the anti-Christian governments and ideologies bend the knee in submission to Jesus the King? How long until the church is reformed, revived, and restored? How long until we see Jesus face to face and are transformed into his glorious image?
But more personally, individually, and immediately we ask: How long until I overcome my sinful habit(s)? How long until I experience financial relief? How long until the Lord grants employment? How long until my loved one is converted? How long until a broken relationship is mended? How long until I have a wife, a husband, a child? How long until I am healed?
These are very real and very raw burdens that many of us carry. Yes, we believe God’s promises, but we battle with his delay. Surely the harvest should be around the corner? We expect a better day. And so we lament, “How long must we wait?”
But better, and more to the point, we need to ask, “How should we wait?” Psalm 126 provides some insight for that question. For that reason we return to it in this study. This psalm has a realism about it. And in that realism it offers a reassurance: the reassurance of a much better day.
Summary and Overview
We considered this psalm previously and were reminded to remember. We are to remember what God has done in the past. We are to remember God’s sovereign, sudden rescue—beginning with our conversion. All of a sudden from being dead, depraved, doomed, the sudden and triumphant, ‘But God!’ appears (Ephesians 2:1–4).
God did a work that seemed too good to be true. He took our lives from a nightmare to a dream. And so it has been on many occasions since we were first reconciled to God.
Often, we are surprised by God, and yet we should not be. After all, he is faithful to his promise. But our situations can often appear so hopeless that we find ourselves shocked when the answer arrives. We are grateful for God’s sovereign intervention. We need to remember these and hope for more.
In this study, however, I want us to focus, not so much on God’s sovereignty but rather upon our responsibility as we wait for God’s sovereign intervention. Psalm 126 equips us how to wait.
We Must Worship While We Wait
First, we learn that we must worship while we wait. This is the emphasis of vv. 1–4, which reveals a twofold disposition of worshipful waiting.
A Disposition of Adoration and Celebration
In the opening half of the psalm, we see those who are worshipping. Having experienced some wonderful deliverance, there is an accompanying celebration—yea, an adoration—of the one who has done an amazing work.
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.
There is rejoicing and much gladness. Eugene Peterson notes that this theme of joy and gladness is a dominant one in this psalm. As the worshippers headed to the city of God, they gave him his due. They were thrilled that the surrounding nations were giving God credit for a miraculous work.
We can liken, fundamentally, this to our experience of conversion and then to other blessings experienced when things looked rather bleak. We should respond with worship.
Worship is a submissive response to greatness. The great God had done great things (vv. 2–3) for the Jewish nation. They remembered. They reverently responded. They went to the place of worship, as prescribed by God. They made the effort. They paid the price. They honoured God by their submission. They celebrated his goodness, faithfulness, and power, among other things.
Keep in mind, as we will soon see, that not everything had been fully restored (v. 4). There was still more to be done. By God. God’s people had not experienced a full restoration. They awaited a much better day. But while they waited, they worshipped.
If this psalm celebrated their return from Babylon, there were still many who were back in that land who needed to return to Judah. There was much restoration and reformation to be done in Judah, and particularly in Jerusalem. But though they are aware of what still needed to be done, nevertheless they continued to worship. They continued to march to the city of God with other believers, adoring and celebrating and honouring God along the way. They continued to gather with the people of God to offer God what he deserved.
We are called to do the same. As we wait for a better day, we are to continue to worship. We are to continue to adore and celebrate and honour our God. We are to continue to obey God’s prescribed way to live and worship. And we are to do so together with other worshippers. Together, we are to worshipfully wait for a better day.
Let me practically summarise. Among other things, we must continue to worshipfully wait by gathering to learn, to sing, to pray; by gathering to make disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ; by gathering to serve and to encourage one another; and by gathering to keep our focus on seeking God and his righteousness. As the writer to the Hebrews exhorted,
Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.
Make 2020 a year of corporate commitment to gaining 20/20 spiritual vision. Remind yourself and others what God has done and what we should expect. Know God’s word so you will know what to expect. Let us worship as we wait.
A Disposition of Expectation and Supplication
Verse 4 highlights a disposition of expectation and supplication: “Restore our fortunes, O LORD, like streams in the Negeb!” (Psalm 126:4).
The singing pilgrims were still worshipping. Nothing had changed since v. 3, except their expression of expectation for more. They expected God to do more. They worshipped God for who he was and for what he had done. But they continued to worship him as they continued their faithful march toward the city of God. And this expectation fuelled their supplication. Based on their knowledge of God’s promise of more, they prayed for more. But, what more?
Ezekiel 40–48 is a rather perplexing section of Scripture to most of us, but in it the prophet speaks of the much better day that these Jewish pilgrims anticipated, expected, and therefore prayed for. Their conviction that God would do this empowered their worship while they waited—in what at times were dismal circumstances.
In those nine chapters, Ezekiel writes about a new temple with a new priesthood. But it is clear as you read the text that this is not speaking about a physical temple. Rather, it is prophesying of God’s eternal meeting place, the ultimate temple of God: the Body of Christ—the church.
Ezekiel records that that a better day was to come for the people of God. He envisioned not merely a temple rebuilt under Zerubbabel and Joshua the high priest, with the help of Haggai and Zechariah. He envisioned not even Herod’s later magnificent temple (which, upon completion, lasted a mere twenty years). Ezekiel, like almost all of the old covenant prophets, wrote about the messianic age when God’s Son would come to earth, live a sinless life, die a substitutionary death, experience the wrath of God for sinners like you and me, and then be raised from the dead. He would establish the true temple, which he identified as his body (John 2:18–22). That is, Jesus would provide the final meeting place between God and man—the Jerusalem from above (Galatians 4:26–31), otherwise known as the new Jerusalem (Revelation 21:1–2ff).
That new temple has come, and yet we await a much better day when it is gloriously complete.
So, as wonderful as it was to be free from Babylon, nevertheless God’s remnant worshippers were longing for the day when their full restoration would come. They longed for the day when Israel and Judah and all the nations of the world would own Messiah as King of kings and Lord of lords. And what they waited for has come and is coming to pass.
What Are We Waiting For?
When we move into the pages of the new covenant, there is a similar expectation; a similar patient, active, worshipful waiting.
The New Testament exhorts the Christian to faithfully and actively wait. We are expected to wait. We are expected to wait with expectation. And this expectation of what God will do should fuel our worship with adoration and celebration as we too march to Zion (see Romans 8:18–25).
In the words of the apostle Paul, we wait with eager anticipation (See Romans 8:19, 23, 25; 1 Corinthians 1:7–9; Galatians 5:5; Philippians 3:20; see also Hebrews 9:28). The word in these texts means “to expect fully.” What were they waiting for? What are we waiting for? The fulfilment of God’s promise of a much better day. They were expecting, and we should be expecting, the complete redemption of the cosmos, including our bodies (Romans 8:23; 1 Corinthians 1:30; Ephesians 1:14; 4:30; cf. 2 Corinthians 5:19). They were expecting, and we should be expecting, the full ingathering of the nations to Christ (Isaiah 11:9; Habakkuk 2:14).
That is the better day—not necessarily a better economy and a better health system and a better government (although the Scriptures indicate that, as the day gets better in the above areas, so will these).
Again, the informed, believing old covenant people of God were also expecting this. Of course, they would not have the fullness of light as those in the new covenant. Nevertheless, they were expecting the full spiritual restoration of Israel that would only come with the advent of Messiah. Ezekiel and Isaiah and Jeremiah and other prophets spoke of a day when God would bring his exiled people back to himself through his appointed King, his Son Jesus. This is what they were ultimately waiting for.
Biblical Anticipation Makes us Wait Worshipfully
A recent Heinz commercial I saw in the United States suggests that the anticipation of how good it tastes makes the wait worth it. We too wait, for many things. Let us learn from the history of God’s work with his people to keep worshipping in the midst of imperfection as we wait for a better day.
We can make a connection with our discipleship. The thrill, perhaps, is gone. We now face the challenging journey of growing in Christlikeness. It is difficult. We face discouragements, dryness, opposition, and even the forces of darkness. We stumble. We sin. We realise how far short we have fallen before God. The progress towards the goal seems so slow. We wonder if we will ever get there. The posture is still one of worship, but the position is that of waiting—not of passivity but rather the waiting of perseverance. It is a hopeful waiting, but a hard one as well. The Christian life, like ageing, is not for sissies.
This should lead us to supplication. It should lead us to engage with others for help and to help. It should result in meaningful relationships in the body with fellow pilgrims.
Think of the children of Israel who suffered enslavement for four hundred years in Egypt. Would it ever end? They had God’s promise (Genesis 15:12–16), and doubtless there were some who faithfully held onto this.
By the time the book of Exodus opens, things looked extremely dismal. Though God had, of course, proved faithful in Israel’s biological multiplication (1:6–7), that blessing ushered in affliction. We read,
Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. And he said to his people, “Behold, the people of Israel are too many and too mighty for us. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, lest they multiply, and, if war breaks out, they join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” Therefore they set taskmasters over them to afflict them with heavy burdens. They built for Pharaoh store cities, Pithom and Raamses.
And things grew darker:
During those many days the king of Egypt died, and the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help. Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw the people of Israel—and God knew.
The children of Israel could be excused for lamenting, “Where is the promise of God’s coming to deliver us?” Or in the words of Wolterstorff, “God, why must your conquest be so achingly slow?” We can relate. We ask God, “Why are you not in more of a hurry? Lord, I believe. Please, help my unbelief.” I am persuaded that Psalm 126 is a means to provide that help.
Allow me to conclude this point by observing some realities of the Christian journey:
We are broken yet hopeful. As we realise all is not as it could or should be, we must not settle for less. Rather, with a godly discontentment, we should pray for reformation and revival. We should pray for a fuller restoration. As we will see, we should be worshipfully waiting for God to bring in all the elect. In fact, it is in our faithful worship that we are strengthened as a means to this end.
We Must Work While We Wait
Secondly, we must learn to work while we wait: “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).
Here, we learn that these faithful worshippers were committed to working as they waited. They had a mind to work, a commitment to actively doing the normal while awaiting the abnormal. They were committed to sowing the seed, though times were tough, because they anticipated a harvest. In other words, they were committed to doing the works that biblical faith demands.
These worshippers worked as they worshipped. Better, they worked because they worshipped. Their trust in God would not allow them to be at ease in Zion, especially since Zion needed so much more blessing. So they sowed the seed of the word, watering the soil with their tears. They were sure of a harvest. God had promised (Genesis 15; Jeremiah 29; etc.).
These words remind us of the biblical principle that we walk by faith, not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7). Faith, as we see illustrated in Hebrews 11, is acting upon God’s word because of confidence in his character. It does not require seeing all that lies before but rather, like Abraham, the faith-filled and faith-fuelled believer finds him- or herself going out not knowing where he or she is going (Hebrews 11:8). We have God’s word, and that is enough. So we do the normal things prescribed by God and trust him for the promised outcome. We go, and we sow as we trust God for it to grow.
This is true with the growth of the kingdom of God (see Mark 4:13–20, 26–29). The missionary and the pastor continue to pray, teach, visit, counsel, and disciple with tears. But they do this work believing that, as they plant the word of God, it will not—cannot—return void, for it will accomplish what God has ordained for it (Isaiah 55:10–11), whether that be life or death (2 Corinthians 2:16).
Like the early disciples in the book of Acts—and like generations of faithful disciples since, keep proclaiming the gospel and trust God for a harvest. So often the work seems inconsequential and ineffectual. But God knows and grows his kingdom as he grows his church. Keep at it!
The same is true when it comes to God meeting our financial needs. You continue to put one foot in front of the other, going from interview to interview, sowing God’s promise to your heart: “My God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:19). You remember his promise that he will never leave or forsake you and so you plod and plough on.
It is equally true in child-rearing. You continue to teach your children the word of God, sowing the seed of God’s word with the conviction that it will not return void. You work hard at growing in the fear of the Lord, remembering God’s truth of Psalm 128.
This applies to discerning God’s plan for your life and making decisions. Believing that God will direct you, you trust the Lord with all your heart, not leaning on your own understanding, but acknowledging him and waiting for him to make your paths straight (Proverbs 3:5–6).
This is true when it comes to our growth in Christlikeness. You continue to pray, to study God’s word, striving to walk in the Spirit with the conviction that you will grow in conformity to the Lord Jesus Christ. Keep doing the normal—the often uneventful—anticipating God’s abnormal intervention.
This is true when it comes to making disciples. You continue to get together with another person to read Scripture together, to hold one another accountable, to learn together, to serve together, with the belief that this will result in mutual discipleship.
The principle is clear and encouraging: God uses appointed, simple means towards his appointed, sovereign ends. Keep working as you wait. What you do now matters not only now, but later as well (Matthew 6:19–21). Learn these means. Know God’s word and sow it!
We Will Weep While We Wait
Even as they worked, they wept. Psalm 126 is no prosperity gospel. You can expect tears on your journey. You can expect brokenness, dryness, and even failure. “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).
This psalm, however, does provide comfort that there will be a harvest. It may not be what you expected, but it will be what God has designed. The harvest is godliness. The harvest is the kingdom of God. But it’s more. The harvest is God: a growing relationship with him. But, again, this means that we will weep. We will ache. But we will do so with hope.
The pilgrims of Psalm 126 were such. They ached with anticipation of what could be, for they knew what one day would be. It may not be in their lifetime (and it wasn’t). It probably won’t be in ours. But one day it will be.
As we have seen, Psalm 126 provides us with encouragements to keep clinging to God’s promises. It encourages us to persevere. And it does so realistically. It informs us that such perseverance will include tears.
The worshippers were broken. The Negeb of their life was painful. Drought was front and centre. They cried as they journeyed. Perhaps they were tears because of what it once was or tears of how they could have failed so badly. This is a scene weighed down with a burden. Nevertheless, they continued to worship.
I have sought to be very careful as I have thought through this passage and preparation of this study. I dare not present the false picture that, if just persevere in our prayers, we will always get what we desire. We will not always experience healing. We will not always secure employment. We will not always receive the promotion, or achieve financial security, or find a spouse, or rejoice at raising a family, or see large scale church growth. Corrupt and oppressive governments will not always immediately fall and persecution may persist.
Though the Joel Osteens of Christendom make promises that we will always get what we want, such false promises are false, empty, and fraudulent. Instead, the word of God reveals that, yes, one day a great harvest will occur. But that harvest is God’s harvest: the harvest of a renewed and glorious world. And yes, when that occurs, all the above will occur. Even empty wombs and empty arms will experience what true and deep and lasting family is. But in the meanwhile, affliction and disappointment and sorrow will still be our experience. Yes, we will weep as we wait. We will weep as we work. We will weep as we worship. And though we weep, we must keep waiting and working and worshipping.
Listen once again to Wolterstorff, the grieving father, as he expounds Matthew 5:4 (“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted”). He writes,
Who then are the mourners? The mourners are those who have caught a glimpse of God’s new day, who ache with all their being for that day’s coming, and who break out into tears when confronted with its absence. They are the ones who realize that in God’s realm of peace there is no one blind and who ache whenever they see someone unseeing. They are the ones who realize that in God’s realm there is no one hungry and who ache whenever they see someone starving. They are the ones who realize that in God’s realm there is no one falsely accused wand ho ache whenever they see someone imprisoned unjustly. They are the ones realize that in God’s realm there is no one who fails to see God and who ache whenever they see someone unbelieving. They are the ones who realize that in God’s realm there is no one who suffers oppression and who ache whenever they see someone beat down. They are the ones who realize that in God’s realm there is no one without dignity and who ache whenever they see someone treated with indignity. They are the ones who realize that in God’s realm of peace there is neither death nor tears and who ache whenever they see someone crying tears over death.
He summarises, “The mourners are aching visionaries.” Such a worldview indicates 20/20 spiritual vision. May it be ours in 2020 and beyond.
We Will Win if We Wait
Finally, there is the promise of victory for those who wait: “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).
The desired harvest will come. This is the promising conclusion of this wonderfully honest psalm. Though the life of the Christian is not easy, nevertheless, it is and will be fruitful for those who persevere to the end. And we can, because Jesus did.
Jesus Christ came to earth clinging to the seed of God’s promise. Jesus lived a life of perpetual worship, always doing what pleased the Father. He marched to Jerusalem with joy, even though he knew the weeping he would experience there. Yet he remained faithful to God’s word and accomplished God’s work. He died and looked initially like a loser. But three days later he arose the winner. Because he won, so can you. Christian, so will you.
If you are not a Christian, you need to repent of your rebellion against holy God. He will put you on the pilgrimage to a much better day: the day when you receive a sinless because glorious body. Come to God in Christ today.