The journey of the Christian life is succinctly summarised in the psalm before us. The opening three verses capture the sudden, sovereignly-bestowed commencement of conversion, along with what is most usually a response of astonished joy. The second half of the psalm describe the ebb and flow of that joy as the Christian encounters his or her realisation of how much remains of our conformity to Christ. These two sections also serve to highlight the two sides of the same coin with reference to our salvation; namely, God’s sovereignty (vv. 1–3) and the Christian’s responsibility (vv. 4–6). We can say that this psalm summarises what those who follow the Lord can expect: joy and weeping. Yet the joy assures us of hope in our weeping.
Derek Kidner helpfully summarises, “Delirious happiness and relief—such is the mood of the first half of the song. But now it is only a memory, and the psalm turns into a prayer for a comparable transformation of a barren and cheerless scene.” More succinctly, as another suggests, the first half is a praise for help and the second a plea for help. I am persuaded that Christians can identify with both statements. “For most Christians life is ebb and flow, shadow and sunshine, need and supply, sorrow and joy, reverse and success. In times of ebb, shadow, need, sorrow, and reverse we have warrant for seeking the reverse” (Scroggie). This psalm instructs how to do so.
This psalm, in my Bible, is titled, “A Joyful Return to Zion, A Song of Ascents.”
It is a psalm that encourages us to rejoice in God for his past faithfulness and to hope for more rejoicing because of God’s future faithfulness. This enables us to rejoice in God for his present faithfulness. It is a psalm that encourages us to hope for a harvest of God’s promises. For this reason, it is perhaps particularly appropriate as a psalm for the beginning of a new year.
As we study this psalm, I want us to be hopeful for a wonderful spiritual harvest in the year ahead. This psalm highlights three things we need to do if we will reap the promised harvest.
Keep Remembering the Past
First, we must keep remembering the past:
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.
This is the seventh of fifteen “Psalms of Ascent.” They were songs that worshippers sang as they made their ascent to Jerusalem for worship at the various Jewish feasts. The psalms well encapsulate the varying experiences and emotions of the Christian pilgrim.
These poetic prayers remind us of a biblical worldview: Our covenant keeping creator God is at work redeeming and restoring his people and the world in which we live. A worldview, Wright informs us, is “like a pair of glasses: it is what you look through, not what you look at.” With a biblical worldview, we realise that there is more to what is happening than what we merely observe. The psalms help us to realise this. For this reason, we should make practical use of them. As Wright says, “The Psalms are the steady, sustained subcurrent of healthy Christian living. They shaped the praying and vocation of Jesus himself. They can and will do the same for us.” This is my desire as we meditate on Psalm 126.
The Realism of Christianity
In this particular psalm, the saints were remembering, rejoicing, and hoping—hoping for a harvest in the face of acknowledged hardships.
Christianity is nothing if not realistic, which is why it is usually not popular. We prefer Disney fantasies over the hard reality that life is painful and which does not always include a prince or a princess. Yet, thankfully and more necessarily, it does include a King.
If you are not a Christian, I invite you to listen and see what is offered to you in Christ Jesus the Lord. It is not a rose garden but more like a field of mielies: a lot of hard work with a view to an abundant harvest.
In this psalm, the worshippers remembered some great, remarkable and marvellous deliverance of God in their past. The term “restore” means “to reverse misfortune or disaster.” Commentators debate what this particular bringing back or restored fortunes refers to. The majority of commentators are persuaded that it refers to the restoration of Judah after the seventy-year exile in Babylon. Calvin was absolutely certain this was the case. Others disagree. Scroggie is representative of such when he writes, “There is nothing in this psalm by which we can decide its date, further than this—that it is a song after a great deliverance from oppression.” He points to the example of Job, which utilises similar language: “And the Lord restored Job’s losses when he prayed for his friends. Indeed the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before” (Job 42:10).
I’ll not argue one way or the other, but I will use the example of the Jewish return from Babylon to illustrate much of this psalm. It is worth noting that the seeming ambiguity gives us the liberty to apply this psalm widely to our own situations of God’s marvellous deeds and remarkable restorations which, at times, seem almost too good to be true.
While Marching to Zion, they Remembered
As the pilgrims ascended to Jerusalem, they were grateful for what God had done for them. The pilgrims rejoiced as they remembered God’s past deliverance, his turning their fortunes. They were rejoicing in what God had done. Whatever the precise deliverance, it was a sovereign work of God. He received the credit.
One thinks of the exodus from Egypt. That was a work of God so amazing that it seemed too good to be true. It seemed like a dream. We might think of God’s amazing deliverance of his people from the grip of the Assyrian army under Sennacherib. God destroyed an army of 180,000 without them raising a sword. Or consider the amazing deliverances in the book of Judges. And, of course, this also the case with God’s restoration of his people after Babylon.
We read in Ezra 1:1–8a of God using a Donald Trump-like indiidual to do something remarkable:
In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the LORD stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom and also put it in writing:
“Thus says Cyrus king of Persia: The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all his people, may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and rebuild the house of the LORD, the God of Israel— he is the God who is in Jerusalem. And let each survivor, in whatever place he sojourns, be assisted by the men of his place with silver and gold, with goods and with beasts, besides freewill offerings for the house of God that is in Jerusalem.”
Then rose up the heads of the fathers’ houses of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests and the Levites, everyone whose spirit God had stirred to go up to rebuild the house of the LORD that is in Jerusalem. And all who were about them aided them with vessels of silver, with gold, with goods, with beasts, and with costly wares, besides all that was freely offered. Cyrus the king also brought out the vessels of the house of the LORD that Nebuchadnezzar had carried away from Jerusalem and placed in the house of his gods. Cyrus king of Persia brought these out in the charge of Mithredath the treasurer, who counted them out to Sheshbazzar the prince of Judah.
This was a most marvellous work of God. Yahweh, covenant-keeping, kingdom-establishing, restoring creator God, kept his promise and fulfilled his prophecy (Isaiah 4:28–45). After seventy years of exile, God provided a wonderful restoration (Jeremiah 29:10–14).
Think about what this meant for a Jewish person. The temple was the symbolic dwelling place of God. Jerusalem was the designated city of Yahweh. No other place on earth at the time was like it. But it had been destroyed and, according to Ezekiel 10, God had actually moved out. Such devastation is impossible to fully describe. But God brought them back, using a pagan king. We might compare this to the Chinese Communist government releasing all Christian prisoners, funding restoration to their homes, and offering to build churches. It would unbelievably transform a nightmare to a dream.
Have you ever experienced a restoration of your fortunes in such a way that it just seemed too good to be true? A marvellous miracle that seemed like a dream? Perhaps she said yes to your proposal. Perhaps you finally finished your degree. Perhaps you finally got that job or promotion at work. Perhaps a healing came as an answer to prayer. When prayers are answered, they sometimes appear to good to be true. Peter, and many in the first church could relate to this (Acts 12:1–11; 12ff). And never forget the most amazing restoration: when God saved you.
What should be our response when such a thing occurs? We should memorialise the marvel. That is, we should remember. Remember what the Lord has done. Remember what he did in the past.
The Joy of Remembrance
When God turns his face of favour towards us, joy—visible, noticeable joy—results. We experience merriment and laughter at what God has done. How much laughter is in our life? Our church? Our home? “Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34). What does our speech communicate?
As we face very difficult times in South Africa, what will our speech communicate about what God has done in the past for us? Do we want to laugh again? Have you reached a point where you wonder if you will ever laugh again? Have you reached a point where you wonder if you will ever be able to sing again? Let us pray for this laughter. Let us pray for such a remembrance of the glory of our salvation.
We must pray to remember the joy that our deliverance brought about. These worshippers were ecstatic. They were like children at Christmas who received that longed for present but weren’t sure they would get it. Better, they were like the lame man at the temple who received healing and responded by walking and leaping and praising God (Acts 3:1–10).
The joy was not so much in the deliverance itself, though it included that. The joy was in knowing that God is faithful. Our joy is in realising that God is God and we are not! Our joy and gladness and singing and shouting is because we are assured that we are not alone in this conflicted, even hostile, world. Our joy is due to our proverbial spectacles enabling us to see through the afflictions to that which otherwise seems hopeless. Our joy arises because our worldview is improved. Our joy is because we are seeing God and him at work on our behalf.
We do well to store up these memories. I have never personally been very good at journalling, but I recognise the benefit that it has in remembering what God has done in our lives. I want to try to do better at this discipline in the coming year.
Having a record of what God has done for us is a wonderful way to encourage ourselves when things grow dark. Remembering past restorations can produce a sense of celebration, which can lead to wonderful transformation of our outlook.
But there are other ways of storing up memories: fellowshipping with other brothers and sisters; reading church history; praying and remembering; reading Scripture; the Lord’s Supper; pausing to reflect and forcing yourself to do so; etc.! Take yourself in hand and remember.
While Marching to Zion, Others Noticed
These worshippers remembered how unbelievers marvelled at what God had done for them. They remembered the testimony they had before a watching world (cf. Isaiah 52:10; Ezekiel 36:36). This would motivate them to desire more of God’s blessing.
Laughter occurs fifteen times in the Old Testament, often in a negative context in the sense of derision or mockery (e.g. Job 12:4). Here, it may carry a dual implication. Those experiencing the blessing of God’s restoration might express heartfelt, joyful laughter. But it would also result in laughing mockery towards those who said that they were foolish for trusting in the Lord (see Job 5:17–22).
What motivates us to pray? To experience revival? To experience a rescue? To experience God’s favour? A pastor, recently incarcerated for his faith, said, “I hope God uses me, by means of first losing my personal freedom, to tell those who have deprived me of my personal freedom that there is an authority higher than their authority, and that there is a freedom that they cannot restrain, a freedom that fills the church of the crucified and risen Jesus Christ.”
There is a place for godly discontent, which arises from remembering God’s blessings in the past. That is, as we remember what God has done, and how he was glorified as the gospel was vindicated, it both causes us to be content in our circumstances (for God is in control) and to want more of his blessing for his glory (discontent that he is not glorified more and that the gospel is not vindicated more often and in more places).
Be encouraged that God can turn things around. God desires to turn things around for a people who will seek him with their whole heart. I am thinking particularly about the matter of revival. God desires to do this because this brings him pleasure and it brings him honour as it brings him glory. He is the Lord of the harvest. He is the Lord of restoration. He is the Lord who can do the otherwise impossible. Consider the resurrection of his Son!
When Marching to Zion, Be Glad
Life can be very dark at times: very, very dark. Nevertheless, Christians can be glad if we keep remembering all that God has done. We might say that God’s faithfulness in the past is his pledge of faithfulness for the present and for the future.
Christians can be glad as we remember so many blessings, so many “fortunes” that God has provided us. He has saved us from eternal condemnation in the past and that continues in the present and in the future. He has forgiven all of our sins. He has removed our sins as far as the east is from the west. He has given to us his Holy Spirit to conform us to Jesus Christ, his Son and our Saviour. He has promised that he will never leave us nor forsake us. He has delivered us from a condemned world system. He has delivered us from enslavement to sin, Satan, and self. He has given to us purpose for living.
With reference to where we are as a nation, many of us can remember the early 1990s and the first election. There was much doom and gloom. Yet we remember how God brought us through. This should cause us to be glad in the present.
We need the worldview of Psalm 126. O that God would come down to us. O that God would return to us. O that God wold restore us. O that God would revive us! For then we would have a remarkable impact upon the nations, not to mention upon our own homes and our own communities. Further, what a remarkable impact we will have upon our church. We truly would be glad. But I am getting ahead of myself.
There is not a lot of gladness going around. It is time for that to change.
Keep Asking in the Present
Second, we must keep asking for God’s blessings in the present: “Restore our fortunes, O LORD, like streams in the Negeb!” (v. 4).
As we march towards Zion, continuing our sojourn to glory, and as we continue to submit to our King and pursue the extension of his kingdom to the glory of God, we will find that the path of doing on earth God’s heavenly will is often difficult. There will be heartaches along the way, as many experienced in the past year. Some experienced unemployment. Many others experienced too much month and not enough money. Some experienced the death of loved ones, shattered relationships, opposition, and even forms of persecution. It is precisely at such times that you will find this psalm relevant. It is at such times that you will want to both remember what God has done in the past while continuing to ask God in the present. If vv. 1–3 are a celebration of the past, then v. 4 is a supplication in the present for the future. We might say: Let your memory of what God has done in the past (vv. 1–2) fuel your joy in the present (v. 3) and lead you to pray for the future (v. 4).
Do It Again!
The image here is of the southern portion of Judah, which was known for its dryness for most of the year. The Negeb, however, would turn into a well-watered area once the spring rains fell. That which looked hopeless, lifeless and barren would, almost overnight, become hopeful, teeming with life and with fruit. It was like going immediately from a nightmare to a wonderful dream (v. 1).
It is wonderful to remember what God has done in the past. But we must beware the danger of staying in the past. Beware the temptation to assume that God’s blessing are only past tense. When we find ourselves in a desert—spiritually parched, relationally fatigued, emotionally barren—it is precisely then when we need to pray asking God for more, asking God to do it again.
We learn from this the importance of remembering what God has done for us serving as an encouragement for him to do it again. From the context, we can say that there is a lot at stake here: the glory of God among the nations as well as among his people. That is, just as God was honoured before the nations when he restored the people earlier, so he is honoured as he does so again and again.
In February 1985, the church of which Jill and I had been members for many, many years were having our last service on a property prior to moving into a new facility. It was a memorable service. That church building had witnessed several renovations as the membership grew from roughly one hundred to over one thousand. Hundreds of people had been saved at that location and scores of couples married there. I think Jill and I were one of the last. Hundreds of God-honouring funerals had been conducted there and my own parents had grown grey in their 25 years as members. That location had been the scene of so many of God’s blessings, including his bringing back those who had wandered, including myself.
The final prayer was offered up by one of the pastors, Don Melton. I can still remember his final words: “Do it again, Lord; do it again!” Don was asking the Lord to repeat the marvellous works he and we had witnessed over the years. And though the location of the church premises was shifting several kilometres up the road, the expectation—yea, the supplication—was that the Lord would do there what he had done here. This is what the psalmist is reflecting in v. 4. Having reflected on what God had done, and having been encouraged by the past power, grace and faithful providence of God, the psalmist prayed for God to do it again.
Reading church history is a great blessing, especially reading about revivals, great spiritual awakenings, and great progress with the gospel beyond frontiers. But reading these should lead us to pray for God to do it again.
Yes, we are glad that God gave victories during the Arian controversy. We are thankful that he raised up Wycliffe who paved the way for the reformers of the sixteenth century, which provided a firm foundation for the Puritans of the seventeenth century. We are grateful for the Wesley brothers, for George Whitfield, for William Carey, and for Adoniram Judson and his martyred wives. We are grateful for the Moffatt family and for the Livingstones of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. We are grateful for Spurgeon and Martyn Lloyd-Jones century. But let this gratefulness yield hopefulness. Let this knowledge of God’s past blessings drive us to our knees and ask God to do it again.
Read and believe and ask God for what he did in Acts 4 for the early church. Read and believe and ask God for what he did in Acts 12 for the early church. Read and believe what God did in England in the eighteenth century. Remember and believe and ask God to sustain SA as he did in 1994. Read and remember what God did for Wales in the early twentieth century and again during the ministry of Lloyd-Jones in the mid-twentieth century. Take God at his word and pray
In our darkness, we need to lament, which means we need to turn to God (not away from him). We then need to biblically complain to God (not critique him). Then we need to ask him to do something (not give him the silent treatment). Finally, and tying this all together, we need to trust God (not doubt him). This last observation brings us to our final point.
Keep Trusting for the Future
Third, and finally, we need to keep trusting God for the future: “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” (Psalms 126:5–6).
The psalmist moves from the image of a desert blossoming to a field yielding a harvest. He wants us to trust God when things look dry and hopeless. These verses are a helpful dose of spiritual reality. These words, “attest to God’s lovingkindness and assure God’s people in any age of his abiding faithfulness. His promises are secure” (Van Gemeren).
Spurgeon said somewhere, “God is too good to be unkind and too wise to be mistaken. And when we cannot trace his hand, we must trust his heart.” This well summarises these closing verses. They exhort us to trust God as we march toward Zion.
In our quest for ongoing restoration, increasing sanctification, and conformity to Jesus Christ, trust is vital: trust in God’s faithfulness and power as revealed in his word. The exercise of this trust will at times be painful. God will put us in situations where we feel desperation, perhaps even hopelessness. But this is for the purpose of building our hope.
When we are in such a spot, we are called upon to sow the seed, which he has entrusted us to bear. Again, such sowing will at times be difficult and challenging. It will be done with weeping.
Imagine a farmer. The harvest has come and has been abundant. He rejoices with shouts of joy. His celebration includes feasting and, for many months to follow, he and his family feed on it. But as the year carries on, the supply begins to deplete. One day, he sees that it is scarce and the weather is not looking very hopeful. Drought is on the horizon.
Nevertheless, he knows that God has proved faithful in the past. The farmer trusts God to be faithful in this new season. So he keeps sowing; keeps trusting. And he does so with tears. Each handful that he scatters is literally a handful of food taken out of his and his family’s mouth. But there is no other way. Sowing is like sacrifice. It is painful. But the goal is that it will prove fruitful. Sowing seed is an act of faith. He sows because he expects a productive outcome. He sows with a hope of harvest. Jesus made this clear on a couple of occasions (Mark 4:1–9, 26–29). The seed sown is the word of God (v. 14); specifically, the word of the kingdom.
What’s the point? As we march toward Zion seeking increased restoration of soul (individually, corporately, cosmically) we must keep trusting God. This will require faithfully clinging to his word (“bearing precious seed”)—sorrowfully at times; “riskily,” if you will.
As we loyally follow Jesus, obeying his word, we will at times be like Abraham: not knowing where he was going (Hebrews 11:8). But because we trust the one who has provided the seed of his promises, we journey forward.
Think of the children of Israel while in Egypt. They had God’s promise that he would deliver them after four hundred years (Genesis 15:12–16). They also had his promise they would be fruitful (Genesis 15:1–6). They experienced this fruitfulness (Exodus 1:1–7). Their prosperity was like a dream. But then hardship arose.
For those bearing this precious seed, there was much weeping (see Exodus 2:23–25). But this was not the end of the story, for God fulfilled his promise and an amazing rescue and restoration took place (Exodus 14). This was followed by shouts of joy (Exodus 15:1–2). This is the pattern given to us in Psalm 126.
When Judah was carried away to Babylon, this too was the pattern. They went away weeping (Lamentations; Psalm 137:1). But those who paid heed to the prophets also had a promise: a promise of a restoration (Jeremiah 29:10–11). And perhaps it was this very fulfilled promise that Psalm 126 celebrates.
The point is that when we find ourselves in a desert—when things seem dry and perhaps God feels distant, when we are discouraged by the sinful corruptions of our soul—we need to keep trusting. Keep sowing the seed of God’s promises. Do so with the confident hope of a harvest. Jesus did.
Jesus wept (John 11:35). And Jesus trusted God and his faithfulness to his word. Jesus felt the desert of desertion. In his Negeb, he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” But he kept trusting, so much so that he could still call God “Father” as he commended his spirit into his hands (Luke 23:46). Three days later, he rose from the grave with a mighty triumph o’er his foes. All heaven rejoiced. He was restored to his former glory.
Christian, so will you. Keep trusting God and his word. Throughout 2020 let him be your vision. While grateful for past spiritual growth, trust God for increasingly Christlikeness, with its attendant joy.
Non-Christian, you need to be restored. You need to be rescued. You need to be redeemed. You need this now. You are held captive by sin, by Satan and by your fallen self. There is only one who can deliver you. His name is above every name. His name is Jesus the Christ, the Son of God.
Because he died for the sins of rebels who repent and turn to him, and because he rose from the dead to settle the account of those rebels, such rebels can be saved. He lives today to plead their case thereby saving their souls.
If you acknowledge that you are one of those rebels, and if you acknowledge your desire to turn from rebellion and to submit it him, then Jesus will save you now. Call upon the name of the Lord and you will be saved. And, having been forgiven, having been accepted by God, you will then begin your journey that promises glorious hope. This will yield an increasing harvest of hope.