Psalm 126 is an interesting text, if not slightly tricky, at first glance. With its mention of laughter and joy in the first few verses, it seems a celebratory song in need of an accompanying upbeat tune. Upon deeper inspection, however, the text takes a hard turn and calls for restoration through tears and weeping.
Bernard Howard addressed this text in a sermon to his congregation at Good Shepherd Anglican Church in New York City on August 9, 2020, titled “When Dry Riverbeds Flow Again.” Howard holds up Psalm 126 as a precious jewel meant to remind us of better times and point us to future hope. Those currently experiencing dry riverbeds are encouraged to read the text in terms of a natural breakdown of the psalm, which recalls past joy, exercises present prayer, and ends with future hope in the joyful harvest that’s promised.
The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy.
Bernard Howard: Well, it’s time for our second Bible reading, Psalm 126, A Song of a Ascent. “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Our mouths were filled with laughter then, and our tongues with shouts of joy. Then they said among the nations. ‘The Lord has done great things for them.’ The Lord had done great things for us. We were joyful. Restore our fortunes Lord like watercourses in the Negev. Those who sow in tears will reap with shouts of joy. Though one goes along weeping carrying the bag of seed. He will surely come back with shouts of joy, carrying his sheaves.” This is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Let’s bow our heads and pray for God’s help before the sermon. The writer of Psalm 119 says to God, “How sweet are your words to my taste. Sweeter than honey to my mouth.” Father, as your word is preached this morning, we pray that we would taste its sweetness. We ask this for Jesus’ sake. Amen. Well, here’s a question for us to start off with, that I think will help us engage with Psalm 126. That Psalm I just read. Bearing in mind that the Psalms are songs, they’re meant to be sung. Imagine you’re a musician and you’ve been given the job of writing a tune for Psalm 126. Would you set it to cheerful, happy, fast paced music? Or would you treat this Psalm as more of a lament, and use chords and melodies fitting for sadness and distress? We’ve all just heard the Psalm being read out loud, but since it’s short, why not glance through it again now? So I’m 126 and ask yourself, merry and fast paced? Or sorrowful and tender. I’ll give you a moment.
Well, I wonder whether you were able to reach a decision about the kind of tune you would give to this song. At first sight, it looks like a happy song. In verse two, we find laughter and shouts of joy. Verse three ends with joyfulness. There are more shouts of joy in verse five. And the Psalm finishes with still more shouts of joy. As a farmer comes home with a cart loaded high with freshly harvested sheaves of grain. But before we bring out the tambourines and the trumpets, before we put on our dancing shoes, we need to take a closer look. Verse four says, “Restore our fortunes Lord like watercourses in the Negev. Restore our fortunes Lord.” That’s a prayer that someone would pray when the nation or the local community is in a bad way. In case the phrase restore our fortunes sounds very financial to your ears, it’s worth saying that the phrase in their original language translated by those English words, is a very general phrase. It’s been called a restoration formula.
The classic wording used by ancient Israelites when pleading with God to turn their situation around. Restore our fortunes. Elsewhere in the Old Testament, the same phrase is used to describe Job’s personal restoration at the end of the book of Job. Which as you may know, was much more than just a financial restoration. So verse four, there in the middle of the Psalm, tells us that this is a song for people in a bad way. People who are longing for God to restore their fortunes. Verse four mentions the Negev, which is Israel’s desert region, where water courses or river beds are usually dry, but can sometimes fill with rushing water.
Psalm 126 is a song to be sung when the river bats are dry, and you long for them to flow with water once again. In keeping with the mood of verse four, we find tears in verse five and weeping in verse six. This Psalm is a distress call. It gives us words to bring to God when our riverbeds have run dry. My favorite sung version of Psalm 126 is a recording by a group named Bifrost Arts. Slightly strange name, Bifrost Arts.
And you need to be careful before you listen to their recording, because it may bring on tears. But despite the tearfulness of Psalm 126, it’s a Psalm that remembers past joy. And it’s a song that expects joy to return. Psalm 126, it’s like a beautiful jewel, a precious family heirloom held in your hand. That brings back memories of better times, and also holds hope for the future. The Psalm divides into three sections, past joy, present prayer, and future hope. And we’re going to look at it section by section, beginning with past joy, verses one through three. These verses seem to be talking about a particular event in the life of Israel. I’ll read from verse one.
“When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Our mouths were filled with laughter then and our tongues with shouts of joy. Then they said among the nations, ‘The Lord has done great things for them. The Lord had done great things for us. We were joyful.'” What’s the event that same view in those verses the past restoration, that verse one speaks of. The best fit seems to be the Israelites return from exile in Babylon, which happened in the year 538 BC. It needs to be an event that’s big enough to attract the attention of other nations, because the second half of verse two says, “Then they said among the nations, ‘The Lord has done great things for them.'” And the Israelites return from Babylon to Jerusalem, yes, that was certainly big enough to attract international attention. It was a remarkable restoration.
Imagine living in forced exile in a foreign land. Think of the daily fear that would come with living in that enemy nation’s territory. You’d constantly keep your head down to avoid catching the eye of local people. In case on a whim, they decided to torment you. Imagine the longing you would have in your heart for your own homeland. Imagine how passionately you would pray to be released from your captivity. That’s the prayer God answered for the Israelites in 538 BC. He brought their exile in Babylon to an end. He restored the fortunes of his people. Those decades of misery in Babylon came to an end when King Cyrus invited the Israelites to return to their homelands. If that is the correct backdrop to verses one to three of this Psalm, then verse one is describing the exiles who returned to Israel. They can’t quite believe what’s happening.
Verse one says, “We were like those who dream.” They’re saying to each other, “Am I asleep and dreaming? This just seems too good to be true. Am I going to wake up and find myself in Babylon again?” Then in the first half of verse two, we have the soundtrack to the Israelites return. Mouths filled with laughter tongues filled with shouts of joy. No doubt when the exiles crossed the Jordan river, that natural boundary forming the Eastern border of Israel. No doubt when they crossed that river on their way back from Babylon, and set foot on the soil of their homeland, there were shouts of joy. Hallelujah, hallelujah. And when those returning exiles first caught sight of Mount Zion in the distance, there would have been more shouts of joy. Hallelujah, that’s Mount Zion. That’s where Jerusalem is
Psalm 126 revisits that wonderful national memory, because that past event demonstrates what God can do. For the writer of Psalm 126, those memories haven’t lost their meaning. Because the same God who did such a great thing before, can do something similar again, he can restore his people’s fortunes. Once again, in our period of salvation history, we can also look back on great things that the God of the Bible has done for us. Even greater things than the return from Babylon. As believers in Jesus, we can look back on an extraordinary restoration of our fortunes. The Bible says we were dead in our transgressions and sins. It says we were objects of wrath. God was angry with us because of our rebellion against him, and our sinful treatment of one another and his world. That’s where all of us naturally were in spiritual exile. Far from the joyful relationship with God we were created for.
But then God did great things for us. He sent his son so that we could come home. As it says in Ephesians chapter two, verse 13, “Now in Christ Jesus, you who once were far away, have been brought near through the blood of Christ.” Now in Christ Jesus, you who once were far away. Spiritual exile. Have been brought near, through the blood of Christ. The blood mentioned in that verse, the blood that brings believers home to God, is the blood Jesus shat. When he died on the cross. His death on the cross is the world’s only hope because in his death, Jesus takes God’s punishment away from sinners and onto himself. Through Jesus’ death gone has provided the full forgiveness we need to come home to him.
If you’re listening to this as someone who hasn’t yet received that forgiveness, you could come home to God today. Put your trust in the death and resurrection of Jesus. So your sins will no longer come between you and God. God wants to have an eternally good relationship with you. Come out of exile and come home to him. If you’re listening as a Christian believer, then whenever you sing a song about Jesus’ death, you’re doing the new covenant equivalent of singing the first few verses of Psalm 126. It is good to remember the great things that God has done for us in the past. It’s good to remember the power and love of the God who brought us home.
Well, it’s time to move on to the next section of the Psalm, verse four. The verses we’ve just been looking at verses one to three, are all in a past tense. When the Lord restored, we were, on miles were filled. Then they said, “We were joyful.” Everything in those verses is in the past. But in verse four, the action isn’t recorded it’s live. So the title for this section is present prayer. Present prayer, verse four says, “Restore our fortunes Lord like watercourses in the Negev.” Something is wrong. That’s a crisis of some kind. We’re not told what exactly the crisis is, but absence of specific detail makes the Psalm all the more useful for worship. This Psalm would have been somebody Israelites year after year for centuries and verse four would have been fitting for a wide range of tragedies or times of crisis.
After the Israelites return from exile, they stayed under the control of foreign rulers. And sometimes those foreign overlords were cruel. Verse four is a perfect fit for those years of oppression. Restore our fortunes, Lord. Famine is something else that would have made verse four highly relevant. It’s impossible to read the Bible without bumping into famine after famine. People in the ancient world did not have food security. Verse four is the perfect fit for those years of hunger. Restore our fortunes Lord. Disease would also make people turn to verse four. We know all too well in 2020, how disease can sweep through a nation. And that would also have happened then in the ancient world. And verse four would once again have been a perfect fit, restore our fortunes, Lord. The second half of the prayer says, “Like watercourses and the Negev.” As I said earlier, the Negev is the driest part of Israel, the desert region.
In fact, the name Negev means dry or parched. There are watercourses and the negative that are usually dry river beds, empty channels. You can walk down them without sinking into mud because there’s not enough water to make mud. The channels are bone dry, but in that region, and you can see this in YouTube videos, those dry rivers can come roaring back to life. There are times when heavy rainfall in the mountains sends torrents down those previously dry watercourses and the rivers flow again.
That striking picture from nature tells us this is a prayer for swift restoration. It’s a prayer for God to quickly town around his people’s fortunes. If God can bring water rushing back to dry river beds in the Negev, he can act just as swiftly to help his people when they’re in need. That’s the logic of the prayer in verse four. Fast forward to our period of salvation history. And God’s people still faced situations that make us call out, “Restore our fortunes Lord.”
We may not have used those exact words this year, but we’ve been praying a version of that prayer for most of this disease ridden year. Restore our fortunes Lord. Bring the pandemic to a swift end. It’s also the prayer that many black Christians and their white allies have been praying after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Restore our fortunes Lord. Bring true racial reconciliation, and equality of opportunity, and policing that upholds justice. Moving from the national level to the level of the local church. Whenever you hear about a fallen pastor, a pastor guilty of stealing from church funds, or committing adultery. In those situations, there will be a congregation left behind trying to hold things together, praying, restore our fortunes Lord. Or if a church falls victim to disunity with different groups in the church, in the words of Galatians 5:15 biting and devouring one another. Restore our fortunes Lord, bring back loving unity to your people.
And even though the prayer in verse four is originally a group prayer, a community prayer. There’s nothing to stop individual Christians making these words their own. Restore my fortunes Lord. The Christian who has lost his or her job, the Christian facing uncontrollable grief, or bankruptcy, or chronic ill health. The Christian experiencing marital stress. Even the threat of marriage breakdown. The Christian caught up in a situation of injustice, wrongful accusation, restore my fortunes Lord. Verse four teaches us that while the big problem of our spiritual exile from God, has been solved. We may yet have to face temporary pressing problems that can be painfully hard to deal with, or cope with. But go can bring water rushing back along dry river beds. And in our period of salvation history, we have even more spectacular illustrations of the same principle, think of the women on their way to Jesus’ tomb, on the first Easter Sunday. They expected to find the cold body of their beloved leader, Jesus.
Instead they found an empty tomb and angels proclaiming that he had risen. Well, think of what the new Testament teaches about Jesus Christ’s return. The second coming. Whatever difficulties Christians might be facing at that time, will be instantly brought to an end when Jesus returns. At that time, the fortunes of God’s people will be restored more quickly than watercourses and the Negev. God can swiftly restore his people’s fortunes. He did it with Jesus’ resurrection. He will do it with Jesus’ second coming. I’ve seen it happen at the community level. And I’ve seen it happen at the individual level. God can bring speedy help. But how should we live while we wait for that help to come? How should we live while we wait for his help to come?
The third and final section of the Psalm, answers that question. In the third and final section, future hope. The imagery changes, the imagery changes. It switches from that verse four extraordinary rush of water, to the ordinary work pictured in verses five and six. Sowing seed and reaping crops. The message of the third section is that we should faithfully carry out our duties, even if we do so with tears, because at the proper time a joyful harvest will come. That’s why this third section is titled future hope. If you can see the passage, please look down with me to verses five and six, and I’ll read them now. “Those who sow in tears will reap with shouts of joy. Though one goes along weeping carrying the bag of seed. He will surely come back with shouts of joy, carrying his sheaves.
You might be wondering why these farmers are weeping. Farmers aren’t known for being particularly tearful people. These farmers are probably in tears because of the national crisis that’s underway. The crisis behind that prayer in verse four. Or alternatively, perhaps verse five is a kind of proverb that’s always true. Those who sow in tears will reap with shouts of joy. Sowing is just less fun than reaping. Sowing is work that may or may not result in crops. Reaping is work that results in crops, with every swing of the sickle. Crops that mean food in the pantry and profit in the bank. Those who sow in tears, will reap with shouts of joy. The people who sang this song year after year, needed this ordinary picture of agricultural labor, as well as the extraordinary river picture, because God his people to serve faithfully while waiting for his divine intervention.
It’s the same for us, in our period of salvation history. We’ve been called to be faithful, as we carry out our God given responsibilities, while we wait for Jesus to return. And yet there are ways in which the New Testament adds extra significance to verses five and six. One of Jesus’ best known parables is the parable of the sower. And in that parable, sowing seed stands for spreading the word of God. Communicating the good news about Jesus, to people who haven’t heard it. That work of sowing can often be tearful. If you talk to any missionary about that early years, you’re likely to hear stories of frustration and opposition, and hardship. But as that gospel work develops, and people are saved, and new churches are established, the tears give way to shouts of joy and songs of praise.
What’s more, in the New Testament, the harvest of crops is used as a picture of gathering of God’s people into his own eternal dwelling place. John the Baptist says this about Jesus. “His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor, and to gather the wheat into his barn.” In that image, grains of wheat stand for God’s people and Jesus’ barn stands for the world to come.
A piece of preaching advice I once heard, is that preachers should try to throw a baseball rather than a handful of sand. Because a baseball is easier to catch. The idea is that it’s good to give people one clear takeaway, one easy to grasp principle, or message. Instead of just a bunch of thoughts that can’t be easily held onto. Here’s the baseball that I want to throw out at the end of this sermon on Psalm 126. Here’s the baseball, spiritual maturity is directional. To be mature, to be consistently godly, wise, servant hearted, eager to do good. It’s directional. We need to look back at what God has done for us. We need to look up to him. We need to look down, and we need to look forward. Spiritual maturity is directional. I’ll say more about each of those directions.
We look back as Christians, to the great things God has done for us in the death and resurrection of his son, Jesus. Saving us from our sins, from our guilt, from our fear of death and future punishment. We look back. We also look up at God in heaven. We look up towards him. He hears prayer. He has the power to swiftly restore our fortunes. Suddenly the dry river beds can flow again. And yet we also need to look down to the ground that needs to be plowed and sewn. We have responsibilities that God wants us to fulfill, and fulfilling those responsibilities can be a tearful process. The Bible doesn’t promise us smooth sailing in our daily duties or in the work of spreading the gospel seed. Whatever tears might be flowing, as we look down to the ground that needs to be sewn. We must also look forward, to the joy of the end time harvest that is coming.
Spiritual maturity is directional. Mature Christians, you may already be one. I’m sure you know some. Mature Christians look back, they look up, they look down, and they look forward. Let’s pray for God’s help with this. Heavenly Father, we thank you for Psalm 126, for its lessons for your people in the time when it was written, and for its lessons for us in our own period of salvation history.
We thank you for the encouragement we gained from this Psalm, to look back and remember the great things you’ve done for us through Jesus. We ask father that you would stir us up to look upwards to you, our powerful and loving God. Keep us praying. Give us faith in your power to restore our fortunes. We ask, Heavenly Father that you would help us to look down to the ground that needs to be plowed and sewn. Help us to carry out our God given duties, faithfully. And Heavenly Father, we pray for your Spirit’s help. As we look forward to the wonderful harvest to come when Jesus will return and gather us all, all his people, to be with him forever in his eternal barn. We pray these things in his name. Amen.
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Bernard N. Howard is a Jewish believer in Jesus. He is the pastor of Grace Church Birmingham in Alabama, and he previously served as a pastor in Manhattan. He is the author of the widely used Passover resource A Short Messianic Haggadah. He and his wife, Betsy, have two young sons. You can follow him on Twitter.