Description / Transcription
I invite you turn in your Bibles with me tonight to Psalm 126 as we continue our study of the Psalms of Ascent. I want to thank Nathan for the songs that he chose tonight, always of course does a wonderful job, but the songs just fit so well with the psalm that we’re going to be studying and particularly just moved a bit when we sang the song, Abide With Me, Fast Falls the Eventide. Moved by that song because it was a week ago Sunday, sitting in morning worship and began to get some texts from Davina Pruitt saying that the nurse doesn’t think it’s going to be very long. Can you come right now? And so just left the message a little bit early and Bob Goudzwaard and I went to visit Mike in the final hours of his life. And we sang around his bed, Abide With Me. There was a hospice nurse that was there, and I think we sang the first and last verse, you know kind of ones that you can sort of remember off the top of your head. We sang, “Hold thou thy cross before my closing eyes. Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies. Heaven’s morning breaks and earth’s vain shadows flee in life in death, O Lord, abide with me.” And the beautiful thing was, this hospice nurse, she sang right along with us. She’s a Christian helping Mike. She’s a believer.
But you know that song, at a moment like that in the final hours of someone’s life, kept saying to Mike through this song, through the scriptures, “My joy is coming, joy is coming. The tears soon going to be no more. Joy is coming.”
And that’s what Psalm 126 reminds us of. So let’s read that psalm together. Psalm 126. This is God’s Word.
“When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. That 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 Negev. 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.”
Let’s pray together.
Father in Heaven, we do pray that you would bless the preaching and the hearing of your Word to our hearts tonight, that you’ll encourage us with this gospel psalm that reminds us of all that you have done for us in Christ Jesus and all that you will do for us in Christ Jesus. So, minister to our hearts tonight. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Dear people of God, J Stephen Yuille, in one of his books, tells a story about Florence Chadwick, who in 1952 stepped off the beach at Catalina Island and into the water determined to swim the 22 miles that would take her from Catalina to the California mainland. Chadwick was already a world class swimmer. She was the first woman to swim across the English Channel, both there and back. And as she set off from Catalina Island that morning, the weather was foggy, it was chilly. She could hardly see even the boats that would accompany her across those 22 miles. But she began to swim. And for 15 hours she swam. She begged to be taken out of the water, but her trainer urged her on, telling her over and over again that she could make it, that the shore was not too far away, keep going, keep going. However, physically and emotionally exhausted, Chadwick gave up, and she quit swimming. She was pulled out of the water, into the boat, which then headed for shore, a mere half mile away.
She gave a news conference the next day and what she said was this. She said, “I do not want to make excuses for myself. I am the one who asked to be pulled out. But I think that if I could have seen the shore, I would have made it.” And two months later she proved her point. On a bright and clear day, she jumped back into the water and she swam to the California mainland.
That story is a great picture, I think, of our lives. Sometimes it’s hard to swim, isn’t it? To keep living by faith, to keep living by hope, especially when life is dark, when things are foggy, when the waves are pounding on us, when the seas are rough. And the fact is that that is often what life is like. And that’s true even for Christians. And, oh, how we’d be helped if in those moments we could look ahead and see the shore, to see where we’re going, to see where we’re heading, to see what God has promised us, to see with the eyes of faith the destination and all the promises that God holds out for believers.
And Psalm 126 is so helpful because it gives us that picture. Psalm 126 paints a picture for us of what is ahead, of what is to come; but Psalm 126 also helps us to look back at what has come before. It retells us what is behind us. And friends, those are the two simple sections of this psalm. If you wanted to break this psalm up, it’s very simple. The first three verses talk about God’s past mercies. The last three verses talk about God’s future promises. And also it tells us where we live in between.
Psalm 126 says where we live now between the past, before the future, is a place of joy. Maybe you can even see it in the psalm at the end of verse 3, right at the hinge point of the psalm. Three simple words. The psalm says, “We are glad.”
Friends, this is an already but not yet psalm. What that means is it reminds us that we have God’s deliverance in Christ but not yet the final and full deliverance that is to come. And yet for God’s people, there is joy. Eugene Peterson says it like this, “Joy is characteristic of Christian pilgrimage. It is the authentic Christian note, a sign of those who are on the way of salvation.” Or as Kevin put it in the introductory message of the series, it is the characteristic note of those who are on the way home, those who are headed home.
First of all then, this psalm reminds us of joy experienced, joy from the past. And it reminds us of Israel’s restoration. So, the psalm begins in days gone by. The psalm begins with memories, looking back. You see it in the very first verse, “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,” when he did that sometime in the past, “we were like those who dreamed.”
Now we don’t know with absolute certainty what the psalmist is referring to in this psalm. When this restoration of fortunes occurred, and friends in some sense that’s a good thing because we can take this psalm and apply it to all different kinds of circumstances in our life. We don’t know the exact circumstances and that way we can take this psalm and say, “Well, it applies here in my life, it can apply here in my life, and maybe at this point in my life.” But we are able to enter this psalm with whatever our experience has been from God.
What seems probably to be behind this psalm, however, was the restoration of God’s people from Babylonian exile. This psalm recounts God’s restoration of Israel. After 70 years of living away from their homes, of being uprooted from their country and living in Babylon, and those were brutal years, the walls of Jerusalem had been torn down, you remember, from the Biblical story. The temple was toppled. Homes destroyed. Families separated. God’s people brutalized. It made me think about what it might be like today to be a Ukrainian refugee. Bombs fall on your city. A missile hits your home. There’s no place to go back to. You say, “I can’t live here anymore.” You end up leaving and going to another country. All of this, of course, voluntary for Israel it wasn’t. But that’s the kind of experience that God’s people had as the Babylonians came. But then comes the decree of Cyrus. And Cyrus says, “You can go home again. You can return.” And after a time, the walls were rebuilt, the temple was restored, and it was amazingly good.
God’s people had to pinch themselves. Could this really be happening? Is this really true? It was like a dream to them. They were living the dream back in the land of promise, back in the land of God’s presence where God was among his people, where the temple was, where covenant with God was experienced. And they said, “When God did this for us, we were like those who were dreaming.” And what a response and reaction they had. It wasn’t just like they were dreaming, but they go on and they said, “When this happened, our mouth was filled with laughter and our tongue with shouts of joy. All we could talk about was how God had reversed our fortunes. We laughed.” You understand, of course, this was sort of a giddy, joyful laughter. “Ha ha, I can’t believe the Lord has done this for us.” And shouts of joy filled their tongues and their mouths. I kept thinking, they surely weren’t Dutch nor Presbyterian. They were exuberant with gladness. “Even the nations took notice,” they said. They said among the nations. This isn’t Israel speaking, this is the nations speaking. The nations said, “The Lord has done great things for them. Even the nations were amazed. Those who didn’t know God, acknowledge God, and recognized His works. This has to be from God. And then Israel echoes it back. “The Lord has done great things for us. We are glad.”
Testimonies were flowing, speaking about what the Lord had done. It was the Lord, not luck, not coincidence, not chance, things didn’t just happen. It was clear acknowledgment that God has done this for us.
John Calvin probes into the spiritual implications of this experience of Israel and he says, “Their restoration to their own country was a proof of their renewed adoption by God.” Like they had been cast off, they had been separated from the land and separated from the place of God’s presence among them because of their wickedness and sin. And their restoration was proof of their renewed adoption by God. This was like a salvation moment for Israel. You can understand their joy.
Friends, what mercies has God brought into your life over time, over your days, over your years that might make you say, “What God did in my life was so good. It was like I was dreaming. So unbelievably marvelous that I had to pinch myself. Is this really true and real?” Maybe it was a cancer diagnosis but then along sometime after comes three liberating words, you’re cancer free. You got to pinch yourself. Can this be happening to me? Maybe it’s a marriage that seemed dead in the water and the Lord worked a miracle in the relationship and restored your marriage and you didn’t believe it could happen and God came and reversed things. Or maybe you’ve been uprooted and moved to a new home, a new community, and after a period of suffering previously in your life, and you go to this new place, you go to this new home and the Lord does a great work in your life and brings healing into your life.
There are some amazing reversal of fortunes that the Lord gives us sometimes, isn’t there? And we shout and we laugh at what God has done. But it’s true, not all of us have had those kind of experiences. But even if you haven’t had one of those kinds of experiences, don’t forget if you’re a Christian, God has done something amazingly wonderful for you. He has saved you. He has reversed the fortunes of your life heading in that direction, and God turns everything around and you’re heading in that direction or you’re going down and God lifts you up as he lays his hand of grace upon you. That is the biggest restoration of all, isn’t it, that we could ever experience.
One author put it like this, that fortune in this psalm is almost synonymous with God’s favor. So going from being an enemy of God to being His child, that is the greatest reversal that anyone could ever know, from bondage to freedom, from death to life, it’s all of God, all through Christ, and it’s like a dream. How would you love me? Why would you save me?
One of the members of our new members class a couple weeks ago, I taught on the Five Points of Calvinism, for two weeks in a row he’s come up to me and said, “I don’t understand why God would elect me.” I said, “Well, you’ll never get its mercy, right?” It’s mercy, like a dream. In fact, it’s one of the hardest parts of being a Christian for a long time that God’s grace at some point sometimes no longer is like a dream. We just get used to it. But that isn’t true of new believers, is it? They are dreamlike. And friends, to get the joy back, we don’t have to think just about where we were when God saved us, all we have to think about is where we are now and the fact that His mercy still rests on us. This is a dream, it’s unbelievable that God would love me, God would save me.
Well, the psalm moves from joy experienced to joy awaited. And, in fact, this is where the psalmist is at when he wrote the psalm. People of God, this is where life is at now for us often. Our joy is not always at peak performance is it? All we have to think about is pressures, problems, sickness, death, brokenness, disappointment, conflict, fears, failures, and we could keep going on with the list, all kinds of things that steal our joy. And so the psalmist, you see in verse 4, this shift in the psalm offers a prayer. “Restore our fortunes, O Lord like streams in the Negev.” It’s an echo, isn’t it from the very first verse of what he’s been reflecting upon “when the Lord restored our fortunes” to now “restore our fortunes, O Lord.
There’s some new kind of trouble for the people of God. Babylon’s over but something new has arised and this isn’t hard to imagine because new troubles that keep coming in life day after day to all of us, we might have a good day, up day, down day, whatever it may be, but they keep coming. For Israel, even restoration to the land was not always easy. Again, we’re not exactly sure what the psalm writer is referring to, what kind of problem that needs now a present restoration, but maybe it had something to do with even the first restoration of building the city walls. And you remember all the resistance that happened in the days of Nehemiah to building the walls.
Or you might think about the temple being erected, and you remember God’s people, even after the temple and the walls of the city are erected again, God’s people are saying, “But you know, Jerusalem isn’t anything like it used to be. I mean the glory of the temple, it doesn’t match the glory we used to have.” And so there was even this difficulty for them remembering what used to be to where they were today. But friends, whatever it was, it led to a prayer. “Restore our fortunes, O Lord.” The psalm writer is saying this, “Lord you did it before, do it again. Come again. Restore once more. Come and change and reverse the fortunes of your people.” And the rest of the psalm is powerful images to describe what that’s like.
The first image has to do with this prayer because he gives us a description of how those fortunes ought to be reversed. “Restore our fortunes, O Lord.” And he says, “like streams in the Negev.” The Negev is the southern-most part of Israel. In Israel, when you go from north to south, so from the heights of Mount Hermon down to the Negev, you go from precipitation and vegetation in the north to drought and barrenness in the south. You can just watch it fall, raining, raining, raining, little less rain, little less rain, little less rain, no rain, and everything is dry. The Negev is a desert. It’s dry, it’s dusty, it’s dead.
A few years back, Sheri and I had the privilege to go to Israel and one of the days we went out to the Negev. The tour guide bus goes out to the Negev, you get off the bus, and we step out in the middle of a desert, 115°. No plants, just rocks and sand. That’s the Negev. And the psalmist says, “Restore our fortunes in the Negev, in this place of death and barrenness.” You kind of scratch your head and you say to the psalmist, “What are you talking about? Streams in the Negev, there aren’t any streams in the Negev. There are none.” And friends, that’s true in June through October where there is zero rain. But you go to December and February and there’s about one and three-quarters inches of rain per month, and we say, “Well, that’s not hardly any rain.” No, that’s true, that’s not much rain for us. But when that rain falls, the dry gullies fill up with water and the desert springs into life for a short time.
Some of you have taken trips to Arizona in the winter. And you can go out in the desert and what is the desert doing in the wintertime when there’s some rainfall? It’s blooming. There’s flowers in the desert, right? Life has come back to the desert. And the psalmist says that is what we are praying for. The picture here is a picture of a sudden shower of God’s blessing. An immediate flash flood of God’s grace. What a prayer to pray when you find yourself in the wilderness, “Come, O God, restore the fortunes to my life like streams in the wilderness. Bring life out of death. Bring abundance out of barrenness. Bring flowers, life, back to my life again.”
You see friends, it’s past mercies in this psalm that lead to that kind of prayer. Where do we get the courage? Where do we get the confidence to pray a prayer like this? To be so bold to ask this of God? And part of the answer to that question comes from thinking about what God has already done. As the psalmist, of course, had reflected upon, and in those first verses we think about what God has done, his previous blessing in our life, and we say to God, “Visit me again. Come again, O God and restore the fortunes of my life.”
But friends, it’s not only by looking at past blessings. But the psalm also reminds us that it’s by looking at his future promises because that’s where the psalm goes to the rest of these verses. It looks ahead. We need to learn to be people who pray the promises of God. Not just praying on what God has already done but praying on the basis of what God has promised to do. We need to pray His promises back to Him. We pray taking God at His Word. We pray holding God to His Word. As the Old Testament prophet said, “We ought to give God no rest” based upon what He has told us in the scriptures, what He has said to us, and that’s what the psalmist does here, “Restore our fortunes, O Lord.”
And he turns to a promise that that prayer was based upon. It’s the final two verses of the psalm. “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.” So, the image is a bit different here, isn’t it? We go from the desert image to a sowing and reaping image. It’s not an image of a sudden shower, as in verse 4, but this is an image of patient hope. The images of a farmer going out to sow his seed. You know how this goes. When it’s planting time, the ground is bear. You plant your seeds and the ground looks lifeless. It’s barren. There’s nothing there. Winter has just broken.
I remember Hank from our first church in West Central, Minnesota. I love when Kevin tells about Orange City, Iowa because I just go back to my first church, the same kind of place as Orange City, Iowa. But I remember Hank, and Hank would say to me, I think it was Good Friday, Hank would say to me the time to plant potatoes is on Good Friday. You know Good Friday moves, right? I mean, it might be late March. It could be the middle of April, but when it’s Good Friday, it’s time to plant potatoes. “Hank, there’s no leaves on the trees.” “Hank, the grass isn’t even green yet.” “Nothing’s growing yet, Hank.” “Oh, no it’s time to plant potatoes.” When you plant, you have to have great patience, don’t you because you leave your seed in the ground and you may cultivate it. You may tend it. You may do some things to help it grow well, water it, but most of the time what do you do? You wait, you wait, and you wait some more. Faithfully work but you wait and you wait.
What a difference between planting and harvesting, a difference between sowing and reaping. Sowing is done with blood, sweat and tears, but when you get to the other end, reaping, that happens with shouts of joy.
Mike Miller traveled across the country recently to help his daughter move and called me a time or two and said I’m driving across Kansas. It’s great, all these famers, I’ve got a new appreciation for farmers. And I said to Mike, I said, “Did you see any combines out there?” “Yeah, I’ve seen a few combines harvesting.” And I got so excited just talking to him about it because I still think back to those days in West Central, Minnesota among the farms. At harvest time, there’s a buzz in the air. People are excited. They are joyful. They are glad. They stay up late at night to get the crop out and come home at harvest with shouts of joy. What’s the yield? How many bushels per acre did you get? They’re all excited about that. They come home bringing sheaves.
The psalm is saying to us what a reversal there is between planting and harvesting. What a change between sowing and reaping. And the promise that the Lord holds out in this psalm is simply this. Friends, harvest is coming. Harvest is coming. Reaping time is coming. Those who sow in tears, they shall reap with shouts of joy. Friends, this was the hope of the prophets that spoke about it often as they looked ahead to the coming of Messiah. Harvest time is coming. Isaiah in Isaiah 43:18 and following, “Remember not the former things nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing. Now it springs forth. Do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” Just like verse 4 where the pastors read from Jeremiah 31:11 and following, read the first 14 verses, but 11 and following, “For the Lord has ransomed Jacob. He has redeemed him from hands too strong for him. They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion; and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the Lord, over the grain, the wine, the oil, the harvest, over the young of the flock and the herd, their life shall be like a watered garden and they shall languish no more. And then shall the young women rejoice and dance and the young men and the old shall be merry and I will turn their mourning into joy. And I will comfort them and give them gladness for sorrow.” The prophet says they looked ahead to the coming of the Christ.
This is what it will be like when Messiah comes. People of God, we have that already in Christ Jesus, don’t we? And yet the Bible says we have it already but not yet. There is more yet to come.
Tears is where some of you are at right now. If you write one word over your life, this might be the word, tears. Shouts of joy, few. Tears are many. It is hard to see ahead and to see through to the sheaves that you will bring home. All you can see is a sowing of seed. You’re waiting, you’re waiting, you’re waiting. And the Lord in the psalm says to you tonight, “There is a day when waiting will be over. Harvest is coming.” It’s coming and God promises you this.
Do you remember what the Lord does with tears? Psalm 55 verse 8, the psalm writer says, “The Lord keeps them in His bottle.” Any tear that falls from your eyes does not fall to the ground wasted, unnoticed, missed by God. But he captures, he collects your tears in a bottle, and there is one day coming when there won’t be any more tears for the Lord to capture and catch. They are all going to be wiped away. That’s one of the great promises, isn’t it, in the Bible. One of the great promises of the end of time when harvest comes, when we go home.
Revelation 21 “Behold the dwelling place of God is with men, and He will dwell with them and they will be His people and God Himself will be with them as their God, and He will wipe every tear from their eyes.” I love how the scriptures say that. The Bible doesn’t say there will be no more tears. Yeah, that’s what it’s saying but it says something more than that. What’s it saying? He will wipe every tear from your eyes. Can you imagine it? God Himself dabbing your eyes, wiping away the tears. God doing this for you and death will be no more and there will be no more mourning or crying or pain for the former things will have passed away and God will say, “Behold, I am making everything new, from tears to joy, from sowing to reaping.”
Friends, you may have gotten a foretaste of this in the past, but maybe tonight you need to pray, “O God, do it again. Restore our fortunes. Bring it on.” And the Lord says, “I will one day. Persevere, trust, believe, be glad.” How do we know that this indeed will come, is it because of this final point, joy confirmed? It is because of Christ Jesus. For you see, people of God, He has gone this way before us. His life full of tears, His reward fullness of joy.
The characterizing word of Jesus’ life, we say it in the Apostles’ Creed or we define it in the Apostles’ Creed, humiliation, born of a virgin, suffered, died, buried, all part of His humiliation. He knew the fullness of human suffering, and even more, He suffered under the wrath of God for us, but the characterizing word of his resurrection, ascension, His reign, not humiliation but exultation. From tears to joy, and he knows the fullness of the Father’s reward. In one verse, he can cry out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” and in the very next he can shout victoriously, “It is finished and into your hands, Father, I commit my Spirit.”
And you see friends, because He has walked this way before us, that is our guarantee that all that this psalm promises will indeed come true. It will be a dream come true. I wonder if in glory we are going to pinch ourselves and we’re going to say, “Am I dreaming? Is it real? God, you’ve done it. Amazing, amazing, unbelievable. I like what one author said, “Will you let the psalmist who lived 500 hundred years before Christ out-trust you?” This psalm writer, “Will you let him out-trust you? Would you let him out-hope you? Will you let him out-joy you?” When you’re not looking forward to Christ, but you have Christ, I have Christ.
This is the Word of God and we are called to believe it. “Restore our fortunes, O Lord. Like streams in the Negev, those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy. And he who goes out weeping bearing the seed for sowing, he will come home. Get that word. He will come home with shouts of joy bringing his sheaves with him.
Father in Heaven, we do thank you for the glorious promise of this psalm, how the psalm helps us to look back upon your past mercies and to embrace your future promises. For those tonight who find themselves in a place of tears, really for all of us tonight, Father we pray that we might look ahead. If we could only see the shore, we can make it, and here’s a vision of the shore. And so Father, we pray that you would encourage us and strengthen us and help us to hope and to live in your promises. In Jesus’ name. Amen.