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.
Restore our fortunes, O Lord,
like streams in the Negeb!
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.
Psalm 126 ESV
Psalm 126 officially begins the center three psalms within the Songs of Ascents. Having thus far set our eyes and meditations upon Jerusalem and expressed our confidence in God’s power to safely bring us there, we now set our sights on what our journey will most likely look like.
STRANGERS AND EXILES
Imagine that you used to live in Jerusalem. A little more than one hundred years before, the northern kingdom of Israel (your fellow Hebrews) was virtually annihilated by the Assyrians. The Babylonians soon conquered the Assyrians and have been brooding storm upon the horizon for Judah (the southern kingdom) ever since. Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian king, had already squashed one rebellion ten years ago; after which, many captives of nobility were taken away to Babylon (including Daniel and his three friends). But recently a siege upon Jerusalem was ended by Judah’s new king, Jehoiachin, surrendering himself after only reigning for three months. Upon his surrender, Nebuchadnezzar ordered that the temple be stripped of its gold and took 10,000 people as captives to Babylon (mostly the craftsman and warriors). You, along with Ezekiel, are one of those exiles now forced to live in Babylon, the enemy’s capital, in order to use your skills to strengthen its expanding empire. Less than ten years later, the new king of Judah, Zedekiah, would attempt rebelling against Babylon, and Jerusalem with its people, walls, and temple would be decimated.
But for now, you are living in Babylon, strengthening your conqueror by your work, helping him prepare for the greater destruction of your people that you know is coming sooner rather than later. As you are forcibly taught your new language and surrounded by the ever-present worship of false gods, you pray to the LORD, the God of Israel, for a rescue, a message, anything, some sort of hope upon the horizon.
Then Jeremiah’s letter arrives. Jeremiah was the great prophet who was ever mocked and ridiculed by the Israelites as he warned them of their impending judgment from God by the hand of the Babylonians. Now his words were coming to pass. What message of hope could this man of God possibly have for the exiles in Babylon?
“Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let your prophets and your diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, declares the Lord.
For thus says the Lord: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you, declares the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile. (Jeremiah 29:4-14)
Wait a minute, what? What do you mean God sent us into exile? Seek the welfare of the city? But they’re the bad guys, the villains who oppress nations and give glory to false deities! Seventy years? That’s a whole generation! So God is just going to leave us in Babylon to fend for ourselves?
The exiled Jews came to be known as the Diaspora, those of the dispersion, foreigners among the nations and exiles from their home. Peter purposely used these same names for the Christian readers of his first letter. He wanted his letter to be modeled after Jeremiah’s letter. The Christian life is one of exile, after all. Our home is the New Jerusalem that will descend from the heavens one day upon the new earth, but for now, we are pilgrims here, in Babylon. We’ve been studying that idea throughout the Songs of Ascents, yet within these center three psalms, we find another principle at work. Andrew Walls calls it the Indigenous Principle, and it tugs in tension against the Pilgrim Principle. John Piper summarizes these two ideas well:
In other words, the gospel can and must become indigenous in every (fallen!) culture in the world. It can and must find a home in the culture. It must fit in. That’s the indigenous impulse. But at the same time, and just as powerful, the gospel produces a pilgrim mindset. It loosens people from their culture. It criticizes and corrects culture. It turns people into pilgrims and aliens and exiles in their own culture. When Paul says, “Do not conformed to this world,” and “I became all things to all people,” he is not confused; he is calling for a critical balance of two crucial biblical impulses.
If we are truly in Christ, we should feel that tug. We are in the world but not of the world. We are pilgrims with eyes fixed on our heavenly home, yet we are called to seek the welfare of our temporary home here. We are called to both reject and transform the culture around us. Honor the emperor, but pledge ultimate loyalty to King Jesus. Build a home and plant a garden, but be ready to forsake everything to go where Christ leads. Such is the tension of the Christian life, and it is the tension addressed within these psalms. Our pilgrimage toward the Celestial City will often occur through the ordinary events of life. Thankfully, throughout the Scriptures we are reminded again and again that God delights to work through the ordinary facets of life.
RESTORE OUR FORTUNES, O LORD
We can’t be sure when Psalms 126 and 128 were written. Psalm 127 was written by Solomon. Spurgeon thought 126 was most likely penned before the Babylonian Exile, while Calvin considered it highly likely to come from that era. Whichever came first, the Spirit obviously intended for them to connect thematically. In fact, the phrase in verses 1 and 4 about restored fortunes could also be translated as returning the captives.
The main idea of this psalm focuses upon God’s restoration of His people. The structure, therefore, is as follows: joyfully recalling a previous restoration work of God (vv. 1-3), prayerfully petitioning for the LORD to do so again (v. 4), and joyfully hoping in the coming restoration (vv. 5-6).
Regardless of when this psalm was written, there were times of divine rescue for the Israelites to recount, as the psalmist does within the first three verses. Their slavery in Egypt is probably the largest example. Even though the patriarchs were nomads, they still possessed great wealth and status (particularly under Joseph’s rule in Egypt). Nevertheless, they were enslaved to the Egyptians for four hundred years before God rescued by the hand of Moses and brought them into the Promised Land by the leadership of Joshua.
The entire book of Judges follows a similar pattern. The Israelites are dominated by enemies, but God raises up a new champion to deliver them. Exile and captivity followed by restoration. David’s life, furthermore, contains two distinct periods of exile, first when he was on the run from Saul and the other when Absalom usurped his throne.
Yet each of these events ultimately mirrors the great deliverance from captivity that occurs in the New Testament, in which God sent the ultimate Champion to rescue His people from their true mortal enemy, sin. That deliverer was, of course, Jesus.
The Exodus and even the Babylonian Exile are nothing compared to the exile that all of humanity is under because of sin. Genesis 1-2 describe the paradise that God created for mankind as typified in the Garden of Eden, but in Genesis 3, Adam and Eve are exiled out of the Eden due to their rebellion against God. Each of us are born after those events and are, therefore, ingrained in that story. Every minute of our lives has been spent while in exile from paradise with God. Whether we are able to articulate it or not, we all feel that something has gone wrong (both collectively and individually). We are not what we should be nor is the world as it should be. An honest evaluation of the eternity that God has placed within our hearts will reveal that we, almost instinctively, feel like exiles from a home that we can’t quite remember, the paradise with God for which we were made.
Jesus came to rescue us from that exile, our banishment from the presence of God. As Christians, therefore, we can easily remember when God returned us from captivity and when He restored our fortunes. It was the moment that we became alive in Christ. He saved us from our sin and from God’s justified wrath against it. Then as we found peace with God, our mouths were filled with laughter and our tongues with shouts of joy. We rejoiced to find a love so vast as the love given to us by the almighty Creator. Fredrick Lehman’s word are found to be gloriously true:
Could we with ink the ocean fill,
and were the skies of parchment made;
were every stalk on earth a quill,
and everyone a scribe by trade;
to write the love of God above
would drain the ocean dry;
nor could the scroll contain the whole,
though stretched from sky to sky.
Furthermore, the people around us began to notice the shift in character. Some may have scoffed at the change, but some concluded that God had done great things for us. Such is the nature of conversion. Our freedom from sin and union with Christ brings about a change that cannot easily be ignored.
It is worth noting that your salvation experience may not have been a 180 degree turn that can be pinpointed to one day. For many of us, the decision to follow Christ is more of a process, but this in no way diminishes the reality of salvation. The proof of conversion is not in a one-time decision, but in a lifetime of fruit produced by that conversion. Thus, one of the great purposes of church membership is to affirm the evidence of that fruit in one another. Even still we should long and pray for God to transform us to such a degree that the world around us cannot help but notice what great things the LORD has done for us.
If as Christians today we can pray and meditate from verses 1-3 by thinking about our conversion to the faith, what then are we to do with verse 4? Is it a prayer for a second salvation? Is it a prayer to be restored after having fallen away? First of all, there is no such thing as a second conversion. Christ died once for all of our sins, and, therefore, His blood cleanses away our sins once. Yes, we must continually repent of sin, but we do this to return to our Father and prove that we are His children. We are not justified again. Restored, yes, but justification only occurs once. If a second justification were required, Jesus’ blood would not be sufficient once for all. Indeed, a second act of justification would be like trying to crucify Christ again!
We can, however, as Christians experience seasons of exile. By this, I mean times of spiritual dryness (fittingly, Negeb is a dry, desert region of Israel) and melancholy. Although we may understand theologically that God does not abandon His people, times arise when we must battle to believe that truth against the felt reality around us. These are times when we simply feel isolated from the LORD. David’s cry echoes in our hearts: “How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” (Psalm 13:1).
Have you experienced such a season? You know you shouldn’t put too much stock in how you feel, but you just can’t stop feeling like one of the Israelites wandering the desert, exiled from the Promised Land. Maybe its just a general, indescribable rut, or maybe it’s a piling up of afflictions. Regardless of the cause, the fact remains that God’s people will still have the need for praying, “restore our fortunes, O LORD.”
Yet notice that the prayer for restoration is literally surrounded by hope and joy. In seasons of spiritual exile, we must first remember again the grand miracle of our salvation. When we remember that Christ died to cleanse of our sins, we can then reassure ourselves of His plan for us in the present. If we feel abandoned by God, we can cling to our union with Christ, the indwelling of the Spirit, and our status as the Father’s children. If we feel overwhelmed by the sorrows of this life, we remind ourselves that God allows nothing to befall us that will not ultimately result in His glory and our good. Consider the utter confidence of this thought being expressed in verses 5-6! God never once promises that His people will be spared from tears and weeping. If anything, the Scriptures warn us to be ready to endure great suffering in this life. Yet our hope is that that suffering will be turned to shouts of joy in the end.
Unfortunately, the confidence of reaping shouts of joy from sowing seeds of tears and weeping does not necessarily come in this life. God owes us nothing, and every good thing we have is a gracious (aka undeserved) gift from Him. He, therefore, is not obligated to remove our affliction or our down-heartedness. God told the exiles in Babylon that seventy years would pass before they could return to Jerusalem. How many, therefore, died without seeing God’s restoration come to pass? And remember, God was the very one who put them in exile. Similarly, our ultimate hope must never be simply for an improvement of this life. Such a hope should earn us the justly dealt pity of the world (1 Corinthians 15:19). Instead, our great hope must be in the life to come, in the resurrection of our bodies into eternal life with Christ. That is the joy that is guaranteed by the Holy Spirit within us (Ephesians 1:14). That joy is a treasure which no thief can steal, and no moth can destroy (Luke 12:33). Only from that joy could the psalmist declare, “It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes” (Psalm 119:71). Spurgeon, who suffered greatly throughout his life (both physically and mentally), found that same joy, so that he could claim, “Affliction is the best bit of furniture in my house. It is the best book in a minister’s library” (21 Servants, 761).
My appeal, therefore, is threefold. First, if you have never been rescued from your captivity to sin, cry out to Christ today. Pray for Him to restore your fortunes, the great treasure of God Himself, to you. Call upon the name of the LORD and be saved. Turn from the deceitfulness of sin, and follow Christ as your Lord, wherever He may lead.
Second, if you are in a spiritual drought and exile, pray to the LORD for restoration. If the cause is your own sin, repent before God and pray like David for the joy of your salvation to be renewed (Psalm 51:12). If the cause is not sin, call upon the LORD for deliverance, while trusting that even this time is meant for growth in His grace.
For all of us, this psalm calls us to hope in God, to await the fulfillment of our joy in Him. In our walk with the LORD, whether we currently feel that we are standing upon a mountaintop, within a valley, or just in the middle of a plain, we must recognize that this entire life is one of exile, meaning that we’re not home yet. Although the citizens of Babylon around us are experiencing their best life now, for we who long for Jerusalem and the God of that city, the best is yet to come.