That Psalm 126 bears the heading “A Song of Ascents,” and is within the grouping of the Psalms of Ascent is a providential grace of God. Likely penned later than most other Psalms, it offers a great degree of hope and comfort to those weary saints who, like the Israelites of the Babylonian exile, long to be set free from their burdens and trials. It is a Psalm that promises the pious tears of troubled saints will turn to laughter and joy by the grace of God.
The Psalm is believed to have been penned around 530 B.C., about the time certain Jews began to make their way back to Jerusalem after their decades-long captivity in Babylon (2 Kings 24:10, 14, 16).
This was a miserable time for the people of God, who were not only forcefully removed from their homes, but forced to watch their homes and places of worship desecrated by these foreign Babylonian invaders. Yet, this was the just will of God coming to pass. The people had long been in sin, and God was now fulfilling his promises to bring judgment upon his unrepentant people for their sin.
Of course, God would not punish his people forever. He promised to show his people mercy by visiting them once more and restoring them to their own land (Jer. 29:10-14). They would find joy in their God again.
It is believed that Psalm 126:1 describes the heart of those first Jews being freed from Babylon to return to Jerusalem: “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.” Have you ever received such great news that you wondered if you were really just dreaming? That was the reaction of the Jews. They could hardly believe that God was showering them with such favor and blessing. They could hardly believe the time had come to return to their own land.
Yet, as they began to recognize the reality of their situation, their hearts turned to praising the Lord. The Psalmist says that “Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy” (vs. 2a). The one who experiences the grace of God cannot help but laugh with joy and praise God with song. A spirit of mirth and blessed delight surrounds the people of God when, after a season of mourning, they find God to still be the God of their salvation.
Often, when God meets our greatest needs, others will take notice. Thus, the Psalmist notes that, “Then they said among the nations, ‘The Lord has done great things for them’” (vs. 2b). It is a Christian’s duty to recognize, as John Calvin did, that this world is the Theater of God’s glory. All that happens, happens according to his sovereign decrees. Thus, when he accomplishes good for us, he does it for his own glory. Whether he heals a sick family member, vindicates us before enemies, provides for a financial need, saves the soul of one we have long prayed for, or does any other number of things to answer our prayers, a watching world will see his power and, however unwittingly, acknowledge his glory.
Rather than flee from praising God in such moments, we must be like the Israelites who, upon their restoration, praised God and said, “The Lord has done great things for us; we are glad” (vs. 3). Our hearts before God must be marked by a spirit of joyful gladness. What great things he has done for us!
Yet, those first Jews to be set free from captivity and return home did not forget about those still in Babylon. They longed for their brothers and sisters to return home: “Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like streams in the Negeb!” (vs. 4). Some translations rephrase this verse to say, “Turn again our captivity, O LORD.” Whatever translation is chosen, the intention of the Psalmist is clear: The desire of the people is to see their friends and families return, that the land would be full and blessed once more.
The mention of the Negeb should capture our attention, as it is a reference to the dry land of the South, which received very little rainfall. The Psalmist is crying out that just as God can cause rain to fall in desert places and cause the rivers to overflow and swell, he can also cause Jerusalem to once more overflow and swell with an abundance of people.
What an encouragement it is to see the divine and providential hand of God in action, bringing about those feats we deem most impossible. In fact, while we often lament in sorrow and mourn in trials, the Psalmist reminds us that, “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” (vs. 5-6). The one who weeps will rejoice once more; the one who sows in the desert will reap an abundant harvest; the one who laments in sorrow with rejoice with mirth once more.
Psalm 126 is an encouraging reminder to saints throughout all ages that, just as the Israelites were saved from Babylonian captivity, God now saves sinners from captivity to sin. We may sow seeds of the gospel in desert places but will one day bear witness to a great harvest with unparalleled joy in our hearts. Though we often find ourselves in hard trials, the Lord will turn our sorrow to joy in his own perfect timing and for his own perfect glory.
Jacob Tanner is pastor of Christ Keystone Church, a Reformed Baptist church plant in Central Pennsylvania. He lives with his wife and two sons and is the author of the upcoming Union with Christ: The Joy of the Christian’s Assurance in the Doctrines of Grace.
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