Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 17, 2017
Psalm 126 Commentary
On this third Sunday of Advent the Lectionary directs our attention to the third post-Exilic Psalm in a row (see previous articles on Psalms 80 and 85). Each of these three is focused on the word “restore.” But in Psalm 126 the tone is decidedly different than Psalms 80 and 85, where there was much about sin and anger, enemies and despair. Here there is joy, joy, joy; “songs of joy” three times and “we are filled with joy” in the theme verse (verse 3). This is appropriate. As we get closer to Christmas, the church’s mood should rise. After all, we are about to sing, “Joy to the World, the Lord is come.”
What a surprise, then, that verse 4 should follow so quickly upon verses 1-3 and that verses 5 and 6 should be filled with tears. It’s enough to make a preacher do a double take and exclaim, “What in the world just happened here?” If “the Lord had done great things for us and we are filled with joy,” why should we pray, “Restore our fortunes, O Lord,” with tear filled eyes?
Well, strange as it may sound, that juxtaposition of joy and sorrow, memory and hope, salvation and suffering, dreams fulfilled and expectant prayer is exactly what Advent is all about. In my last church, a retired minister was constantly criticizing the idea of the church year, the liturgical tracing of the great events of salvation history. He was particularly scathing in his assessment of Advent. “So, Christ has already come, but we have to spend 4 Sundays pretending that he hasn’t. Why not just celebrate his first coming and pray for his second?”
That would be simpler, but it would miss the tension that Advent creates, the tension expressed in Psalm 126. It is the tension all Christians experience all the time, the tension between what God has already done and what we still need him to do, the famous tension of the “already, but not yet.” Christ has already come, bringing the Kingdom of God, but that Kingdom is not yet here in its fulness, because Jesus has not come again. So, we pray, “Thy Kingdom come,” even though it already has. That is spirit of Advent, and that is the theme of Psalm 126.
Let’s explore this little gem of a Psalm more carefully. I called it a post-Exilic Psalm, along with almost all scholars, because of its opening line, “When the Lord brought back the captives to Zion.” That is as clear as can be, except that the Hebrew can also be translated more generally as “restored the fortunes of Zion.” Then the Psalm could be a response to any number of times when the Lord came to the aid of his stricken people. That would make Psalm 126 applicable to the lives of God’s people at any point in history.
However, the language celebrating this restoration is so exuberant that it suggests something big, something earthshaking and epoch making, something like the Exodus or the return from Exile. We “were like men who dreamed,” like people who had dreamed of the impossible for so long that when it finally happened, we couldn’t believe it. We had to pinch ourselves to convince ourselves that we weren’t dreaming. Our dreams have come true! Can that be true? Think of the disciples’ reaction to meeting the Risen Christ: “and while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement… (Luke 24:41).”
The redeemed didn’t respond with a polite little smile and a timid cheer. “Our mouths were filled with laughter, our tongues with songs of joy (or shouts of joy).” Think of the celebration in contemporary America when your favorite team scores a touchdown in the rivalry game of the year, or when the hottest performer steps on stage before a crowd of thousands, or when an army celebrates victory against an evil enemy. Three times the Psalmist uses the same Hebrew word translated “songs of joy.” It’s as though the singing won’t stop, like the songs that European soccer fans chant throughout the match.
Except these are songs of joy over what the Lord God has done. That’s the great theological point of Psalm 126 (and, indeed, the entire Psalter). Even the nations that don’t believe in Yahweh are forced to acknowledge that Yahweh has acted for his people. “Then it was said among the nations, ‘The Lord has done great thing for them.”” And Israel joyfully agrees. “The Lord has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy.”
The nations and Israel might have come to different conclusions about Israel’s restoration to the Land. News commentators today surely would. After all, it was Cyrus the Persian who released Israel from exile and sent them back to Zion. Politics played a role in that earthshaking, epoch making event. And he might have done that for socio-economic reasons; perhaps a drought or a flood made it imperative that he get rid of those Jews. Or he might have been militarily challenged on a distant frontier, and he needed to get potentially troublesome immigrants out of the way so he could focus on the enemy to the north.
Psalm 126 joins the rest of the Bible in giving a thoroughly theological interpretation of history. While many other factors may be involved in the events of our lives, it is ultimately Yahweh who is in charge. That is cause for great joy, because Yahweh is our covenant God who is always characterized by the kind of attributes we heard about last week in Psalm 85.
So, when trouble rears its ugly head again (and again and again), our first and last response should always be to pray to our God. Rather than becoming obsessed with politics and policy. socio-economic solutions and military power, the people of God should become focused on the God who has done great things in the past. “Restore our fortunes, O Lord….”
Psalm 126 acknowledges the hard fact that being delivered by God in a stunning way doesn’t necessarily (or always or very often) result in a trouble-free life. When Israel was brought back from Exile, some of their relatives and friends were left behind in Babylon/Persia, and it would take a while before they all came home. Not all did; some chose to stay in a foreign land because it had become home. Those who did return found a land that had been devastated. Their homes had been destroyed, their fields were wasted, their Temple lay in ruins, their capital city had been leveled, and they were surrounded by people who didn’t really want those pesky Jews back. The books of Ezra, Nehemiah, Haggai, Zechariah, and the last chapters of Isaiah tell the story of people who had seen Yahweh do a great thing, but who were praying fervently that he would now come and finish his work.
The connection to Christ and us is obvious, isn’t it? In the one named Yeshua (Yahweh saves), God has done the greatest thing the world has ever seen. To paraphrase the Old Testament, has any God ever done what Yahweh has done? Not only did he make a nation out of a straggling band of nomads and then make that nation a testimony to the world, but even more Yahweh sent his own Son to save the nations from all that ruins human life. As the angels sang at his birth, he brought “glory to God in the highest and on earth Shalom for those on whom his favor rests.” “And we are filled with joy.”
In this Advent season, we all want to rush on to Christmas and sing those beloved carols about the great thing the Lord has done in Jesus. But even those carols acknowledge that the saving work of God in Christ is not yet finished. The most joyful of all carols, “Joy to the World,” has a fervent prayer in the middle of it. “No more let sin and sorrow grow nor thorns infest the ground; he comes to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found….” Sin and sorrow are still very much with us, and the effects of the curse are found everywhere.
With the Psalmist, we cry out in our joy mixed with sorrow, “Restore our fortunes, O Lord….” The Psalmist uses two metaphors to express our situation, one from nature and one from agriculture. Pointing to the bone-dry land on the southern border of the Promised Land, where it butts up against that wilderness of Sinai, the Psalmist alludes to the way the monsoons turn the Negev into a landscape filled with streams. Transform the dryness of our lives into fertile soil so we can flourish and have “abundant life in Christ.”
That metaphor naturally leads to the next, where we see farmers throwing their seeds into dry ground, hoping that one day the rains will come and those seeds will sprout and grow and yield an abundant harvest. This annual agricultural hope is a precursor of the eschatological hope of God’s final harvest. Indeed, the Psalmist promises that God’s work of sowing will not be in vain. “Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy. He who goes out weeping carrying seed to sow, will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with him.”
The Man of Sorrow spoke in these very terms as he was headed to the cross. “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls in the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces much fruit (John 12:23, 24).” So, he did fall into the ground, but then he rose from the ground, “the first fruit of those who have fallen asleep (I Cor. 15:20.” One day, all of those who have believed in him and in the great thing Yahweh has done through him will also rise from the ground, the abundant harvest of him who sowed in tears. “So it will be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable; it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory…(I Cor. 15:42, 43).”
Psalm 126 is the perfect Advent Psalm, because it stands in the middle of God’s work, proclaiming what he has done and praying for what he will yet do. In a world filled sorrow, it sings for joy, even as it prays with tears. That’s Advent. That’s the Christian life. But that’s not how it will always be. Romans 8:31, 32 promises that the hope of Psalm 126:5 and 6 will come to pass in Christ. “What then shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” We have nothing but “songs of joy” awaiting us when the Great Harvest finally comes.
The “already, but not yet” dynamic at the heart of this Psalm has many echoes in human history, most notably in times of war. Everyone knows that the decisive invasion of Europe on D-Day in World War II was the great turning point in that conflagration, but it was not yet final victory. Many months of bloody fighting would follow before V-Day. In the Iraq War, President Bush infamously announced that we had won with a “Mission Accomplished” banner behind him. And we are still mired in the Middle East. The final victory of God is completely certain; we just don’t know when it will be.
Though many will think it corny and most won’t even remember it, the old Gospel song, “Bringing in the Sheaves,” captures the mood and message of Psalm 126:5, 6.
Sowing in the morning, sowing seeds of kindness,
Sowing in the noontide and the dewy eye;
Waiting for the harvest, and the time of reaping,
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.
Sowing in the sunshine, sowing in the shadows,
Fearing neither clouds nor winter’s chilling breeze;
By and by the harvest, and the labor ended,
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.
Going forth with weeping, sowing for the Master,
Though the loss sustained our spirit often grieves;
When the weeping’s over, He will bid us welcome,
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.
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