“Jews in Exile” by Eduard Bendemann
Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne
CC BY-NC, Magdeburg, Flickr
Encouraging articles about persevering through tough times are plentiful; there is nothing wrong with them. But I want to share with you an inspiring coming-out scenario lifted directly from scripture. Since we all are in process and will encounter tough times, it would do us well to keep this text handy. It offers a glimpse of God’s rescue.
Psalm 126 is one of 15 psalms (120-134) called “Songs of Degrees” or “Songs of Ascent.” Four of them are attributed to David (122, 124, 131, 133), one to Solomon (127), and the remainder have unknown authors.
The origin of the name—Degrees, Ascent—is uncertain. It is often thought that they were purposed for pilgrimages to Jerusalem or sung by the Hebrews upon their return from captivity. There is also the notion that there may be a thought progression in them. The truth, however, is that the categorization is not understood. The circumstances of their composition or the occasion for which they were used granted them a certain unity and distinction by the editor of Psalms. Still, the title would have been fully understood by Hebrew readers.
Psalm 126 is one of only two (the other: Ch. 122) that could possibly have anything to do with a Babylonian return; and it appears that the return of exiles may very well be the subject here. The psalm is a first-person testimony of exiles recalling their release from captivity.
“When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion…”
Have you ever been in hardship so severe that it seemed that you would never get out of it? Pain and suffering has the tendency to make us feel isolated and locked in circumstance. Sometimes we forget faith and cast off hope (Isa. 49:15). But this verse reveals a God who always knows where we are and how to free us.
Some Bible versions are worded more aligned to the New King James (NKJV)—“When the Lord brought back the captivity of Zion…”—the word “captivity” meaning “return,” referring to the captives themselves. The notion is the Lord’s deliverance and by not only bringing us out of misery, but also freeing everything connected to us. It is a recovery or recompense in ways we may have resolved would never happen.
You see, God has the power to free us, our goods, and our ability to prosper. He doesn’t just release the captives; he establishes them and gives them livelihood. “He will beautify the humble with salvation” (Ps. 149:4). The word “fortunes” used by some versions is good.
“…we were like those who dream.”
Our burdens were so monumental that, once delivered, we could hardly believe it. It was surreal. Too often we’ve watched news stories of a man wrongly imprisoned for 10, 15, 25 years, only to be set free immediately after conclusive evidence proved his innocence; certainly it takes time for him to understand his new reality.
It is the great disparity between our dire situation and unexpected relief that shocks the senses and may even cause us to fear that our new state isn’t lasting. For instance, people who have starved have to learn not to hide food when they finally have enough to eat. They fear that satisfaction won’t last and that they’ll starve again.
“Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy…”
These people were exiles—prisoners—for years. Now they were free, and it came without expectation and with ecstatic joy. What we’re witnessing in these two verses is a reversal of what we understand of the Kubler-Ross model, or five stages of grief. The first two stages are denial and anger. Denial encompasses shock at a great sadness, just as shock and denial, seen here, was the initial response of the exiles’ great joy. Now, the shock wearing off, they cannot contain their giddiness.
They’re so full with excitement that all they can do is laugh with incredulity. I imagine it to be like a person on the verge of bankruptcy suddenly inheriting millions of dollars. The NKJV expresses the latter clause as “our tongue with singing.” Music often expresses what mere sentences cannot.
“…then they said among the nations, ‘The Lord has done great things for them.’”
The “they” here are non-Israelites, or heathen (KJV), those that don’t know the Lord—they testify to his mighty deeds! It reminds me of Nebuchadnezzar, after seeing the fourth man in the fire, standing back in amazement and acknowledging the reality of the Hebrew God.
People around us often know details about our lives. It is not possible to hide everything about ourselves (and who really cares to expend a great deal of energy trying?) And non-Christian people on our jobs, in our social organizations, our peers and neighbors will see us, the Christians, go through trial. Some will mock for the seeming lack of regard our so-called God shows toward us. But we should be encouraged. Not only is pain working a reward within us and for us, it is also working toward a testimony of the greatness of God.
In the end God will prove himself and no one will be able to deny that it is his doing. Some struggles are so monumental that only God can change them, but we must be convinced—like the Hebrew boys—that God is able even if he doesn’t answer. He just might shock us all with his goodness!
And isn’t that the point? The glory of God is a testimony of his affection, that he is for us and his nature is goodness itself. He is eager to show us kindness.
“The Lord has done great things for us!”
This is the reply of the Israelites—“Absolutely!” “Indeed!” And there’s also an element of “You cannot possibly understand.” We see people, perhaps smiling on the outside or getting on with their lives, but never have a clue about the depth of pain, lack, or suffering they’re dealing with. If they told us stories about the ins-and-outs of their daily lives…the number of jobs and the type of schedule they manage just to put food on their tables or the domino effect of trouble that fell upon them—we might be stunned.
So when God delivers people like this, we can rejoice with them; yet there is an intimacy about the whole thing that only they can share with their Deliverer. Only he knows how their hearts hurt, how situations tried their souls, the things they lost, and the lessons they learned.
“…we are glad.”
Our souls are satisfied. Others can be happy for us, but only we can be satisfied. If the Lord permits us to go through pain, he knew what the pain would accomplish. But when he brings us out, the true reward is not the mere reversal of fortune; instead it is the satisfaction of seeing the full scope of his purpose. It takes a really “seasoned saint” to acknowledge on the coming-out end, “It was good that I went through my affliction” (Isa. 53:10-12). The experience may have been hell itself, but the work of God within us and through us makes it all worth it.
“Restore our fortunes, O Lord…”
This verse implies that the restoration wasn’t complete and was most likely in progress. So the psalmist implores the Lord that full deliverance would be manifested. It very well could have been a prayer that all of his Israelite compatriots be freed from exile since we know that the exiles returned in stages over several years.
This is a good place for us to stop and ask the Lord to finish his work within us, using that great Pauline verse, Philippians 1:6: “Being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”
Lord, we thank you that our lives are hidden in you. You have ordered our every step along this path of life. Where we must face trial, teach us patience and help us to trust your providence. You will deliver us; you will satisfy us. You will make your name great to all who see. Complete your work in us. Cause us to one day acknowledge that when you tested the good in us, it was a good thing indeed. In Jesus’s name, Amen.
“…like streams in the Negeb!”
Restore our fortunes like the dry desert streams that are restored and swollen by the autumn and winter rains.
“Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy!”
Isn’t this wonderfully poetic? Agriculture is obviously a readily used illustration tool and a worthy one. But what I like about this verse is the oblivious thing happening with the subject. No one views suffering as valuable; pain is visceral—you feel it, spurn it, run away from it. God allows the yoke to come upon us and we ask why. It all seems so needless.
The psalmist images tears as seed. All of our misery is borne in our tears, yet our tears, in God’s eyes, are rudiments of renewal and reward. Suffering people might never be convinced that their grief is a spiritual act of sowing, but the scriptures assure us of this concept in many places.
God’s promise comes through resoundingly in this verse: “I will repay your trouble.” And to anyone experiencing hardship, you should know that God has not forgotten your pain. He has seen every tear you’ve cried. You’re gonna get through this. The harvest sprouting for you is going to make you shout with joy.
“He who goes out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing…”
The concept continues. Picture that person ambling along dejected and softly weeping.
“…shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him.”
I like the assurance of the NKJV here: “shall doubtless come again…” The allusion to the sower remains, but the reward is imaged here: a sheaf. A sheaf is a bundle of grain produced from a harvest.
Need I say more? The one who trod the earth lamenting his or her lack and loss and without a clue that their own tears were working toward the answer of their prayers will “doubtless come again” leaping and laughing and falling over in disbelief that the Lord has favored them with more than they could have ever imagined.
More: Lectio Divina: Psalm 130