Psalm 126: Wonder, Work, and Work

By on December 19, 2017
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May only truth be spoken, and only truth received.

When was the last time you felt like giving up?

At times, I can be pretty quick to give up when it comes to inconsequential things; But I’ve persevered too, if it’s important. Every once in a while an old children’s book will pop into my mind called  ||   “The Little Engine that Could.” I remember my dad telling me this story a long time ago. It teaches the value of perseverance, optimism, and hard work.

(Summarize “The Little Engine that Could”)

Psalm 126 is one of the “Psalms of Ascent” – a group of psalms that would be sung by pilgrims travelling to Jerusalem on pilgrimage three times a year. These psalms were sung to remind the people of what God had done for them – it was an ancient version of the “Little Engine that Could.” This Psalm, 126, is specifically written about the Jewish people’s freedom from Babylonian exile.

This Psalm is more than just a reminder though, it’s also a prayer and a promise of God’s goodness. In essence, this Psalm is a call to not give up!

The Psalm begins, with a reminder:  ||  When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dreamed. Our mouths were filled with laughter, our tongues with songs of joy. But more than a reminder, it describes the experience of the Israelites who returned from exile. To me, it sounds a lot like wonder – look at the feelings they felt: dreaming, laughter, joy.

One of my all-time favourite novels is by Dostoyevsky, about a prince named Mishkyn, who – because of exhibiting wonder, as well as open-hearted goodness – is seen by the other characters as simple-minded and unintelligent. The novel is called “The Idiot,” and I think it does   a great job of showing both the value of and cynicism towards wonder in our world.

If you’re a child, wonder is precious. But for an adult, wonder is childish – unless it’s for things like seeing your first child born, or a beautiful panoramic view from a mountaintop (normal sunsets are too mundane).

And that’s the thing I think: the world has become so mundane that we forget the wonder of the things around us. We forget the wonder of the design of the human body, or of the leaf of a tree. We forget the wonder of God becoming a child in order to become our Saviour. We forget the wonder of being saved into God’s family and Kingdom.

And actually, these words also remind me of something we might see in a movie, where a tragedy is about to happen, let’s say a car is going to be hit by a train, and at the very last second the car escapes, and the passengers laugh in relief.

And how true that is, for those who have come to Christ! What a great tragedy we’ve escaped – or more accurately, have been rescued from!

Implicit in wonder is gratitude towards God who restored Israel’s fortune, which is affirmed in the next thought:  ||  Then it was said among the nations, “The Lord has done great things for them.”

 The Lord’s bringing the people out of exile and back into their homeland caused the surrounding nations to see and exclaim God’s work. We know from other Scripture passages that not everyone was happy about Israel returning to the land, but here the work of God for Israel causes others to glorify God.

When God does a work in our lives, or answers our prayers, it’s never just for us, but for others   to see and hear about Him too. We see this happening with the miracles that Jesus performed – even though it was usually just for one person: healing a disease or freeing them from demonic possession – others would believe in Him because of it. And in fact, the most effective way of sharing our faith is not through speaking objective truths at people, but by sharing what God has done in our own lives, by testifying to our experiences of God.

Then it was said among the nations,The Lord has done great things for them.” – past tense. “The Lord has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy.” It’s almost like the Psalmist is being reminded himself that “Oh yeah, God had done great things for us.” There’s power in remembering and wondering at the work of God in and around our lives.

Of marveling at the fact that He loved and liked me enough that He would save a sinner like me. Or that He would gift me with a beautiful wife who for some reason loves and wants to be with me.

Of wondering at the beauty of His created world and the things in it.

Wondering and remembering the works of God will both draw us to God in worship, and sustain us when life and faith get hard. And, I wonder if that’s the secret of joy too.”The Lord has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy.

Now, this isn’t the whole story apparently. There’s more going on here. Because the very next verse is a prayer:  ||  “Restore our fortunes, Lord, like streams in the Negev.” It doesn’t strike me as a cry of desperation or a lament, but it’s still a prayer that admits that not all is well, and God is needed. The Psalm starts by saying “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Israel…” but here the prayer is “Restore our fortunes, Lord.”

I’m not sure what the Psalmist is asking restoration for when he wrote this psalm – probably it’s related to agriculture – but I’m sure that when Jews on pilgrimage in the first century sang it they were thinking of the Roman occupation, and praying that God would free them.

The psalmist asks for restoration “like streams in the Negev.” The  ||  Negev is a desert area in Israel, normally dry and arid, with empty river beds. A “stream in the Negev” doesn’t sound like the psalmist is asking for a very big restoration to me, whatever it’s for. When I think of streams I think of pretty shallow things we can hop over or walk through and only get our feet wet, though I know they can be bigger, and the Psalmist means a lot bigger. Normally the Negev is dry, but in the winter when it rains there, even an inch of rain causes a rapid river with destructive force to flow down the mountains into the desert. So actually, the Psalmist is praying for God’s sudden and overwhelming blessing.

Now, notice that I’m  ||  calling prayer here “work.” And I’m not doing it because prayer is hard – though it is sometimes for sure, and especially if we don’t understand it’s necessity, power, and effectiveness for our lives – but I call it work to denote it’s power and effectiveness for our lives.

We tend to see prayer as the thing we do when we get up in the morning before we go to our jobs or to school, or if you’re on a church committee or ministry, that thing you do before you get down to the “real” work of planning or practicing or going out.

Or we tend to make prayer the last resort, after everything else has been tried, instead of the first resource. That’s the difference between doing things in our own, fallible and mortal strength, and doing things by God’s all-powerful strength.

But prayer is an important work – perhaps the most important work that we can engage in. That’s why even Jesus spends much time in prayer throughout His time on earth.  Prayer, mysteriously, is the way God has ordained to do much of His work in and through this world; One of the more frequent commands in the New Testament is the command to pray, especially for our situations or for others’ benefit or blessing. “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17).  “In every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God” (Phil. 4:6).

And, fun fact – or amazing fact actually, did you know that right now Jesus is praying for you and me? I mean, at this very moment and at all moments – did you know that?  ||  “Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.” Now this is something to wonder at!

And not only that, but the Holy Spirit, who dwells within us, is also interceding for us! Read Romans 8:26-27.

I understand this to mean that sometimes the Holy Spirit inspires us with what to pray for, and    sometimes He’s like “nah, Josh shouldn’t’ve prayed for that God, He should have prayed for this instead.” But however He intercedes for us, praise God that He does!

And prayer is not just for the times of trouble, or for seeking God’s restoration or favour. Throughout Scripture prayer is often prayers of thanksgiving. Prayers for God to bless and give. It’s as important for us to pray in the good times as it is the difficult ones. In the times of blessing and abundance as it is in the times of need and want.

Right now, I’d say it’s especially important for those of you who love the Christmas season to pray for those who find Christmas an emotionally difficult time. Statistics show that depression and suicide go up at this time of year; I’m sure partially because of the increased darkness, but also because of family loss or brokenness too.

Prayer is important work. It reminds us how powerless we actually are, and places our dependence on God – the only one with all power and ultimate sovereignty.

Remember to that this Psalm, like many of the prayers and songs in Scripture, is a corporate psalm. It would be prayed and sung in community, not alone. The pronouns are plural pronouns: “us,” and “our,” and “them.”

How much more powerful, and transformative, and mutually encouraging would it be for 20 or 30 or even 60 of us to be praying “restore us O Lord”?

Finally, Psalm 126 ends with a promise:  ||  “Those who sow with tears will reap with songs of joy. Those who go out weeping, carrying seed to sow, will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with them.

Israel, like most ancient near-eastern nations, was a heavily agricultural nation; that was the main industry, if you will. And farmers, when they planted their seeds, didn’t have extra seeds to spare. When they planted it was everything, and unless there was a good harvest, they were in trouble. There was no backup plan.

So when they planted, they were desperate for God to give them a good harvest. That’s what the Psalm is promising here: Those who plant everything they have, will reap bountifully.

This Psalm calls us to wonder at the works of God in our lives (and our lives). It calls us to the work of prayer. And it calls us to the work of our hands, too.

It calls us, whatever we do, whether a student, or working in a hospital, or office, or factory, to work with all of our strength. Whether it’s chores at home, or volunteering at church or in the community, to put our all into it.  As Paul says “whatever you do, do it for the glory of God.” And elsewhere, to work with all your heart as if God is your boss, and you want to please Him.

Part of that work is by prayer, and this type of work is the kind I think we’ll most often do with     tears, “sowing with tears.” Most people wouldn’t cry to God in prayer for luxury things, like a    Porsche or a Playstation 4, but we cry for real needs. We cry for the provision, the touch, the help, the restoration that can only come from Him.

I realize that most of us here are decently well-off and quite gifted and capable people, but I believe everyone has a need that only God can resolve. A need that we would sow in tears for.

Maybe it’s a broken relationship. Maybe it’s a prodigal child or other loved one who has walked away from the Lord. Maybe it’s a physical or mental illness that persists despite doctors and medicine.

What do you need to sow in tears?

The promise in this Psalm is sure: Those who sow in tears will reap in songs of joy. It reminds me of something else Paul said in one of his letters:  Read Gal. 6:7-10.

” Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”

Those who go out weeping, carrying seed to sow, will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with them.”

This is the promise we can tell ourselves when things get difficult. Not “I think I can, I think I can,” but “I know God will, I know God will.”  ||  As we wonder at His past works in our lives, as we pray for Him to restore us again, as we work with all our hearts, we can be confident that God hears, is working on our behalf, and will give us a harvest of joy.

Nowadays, this Psalm is an Advent Psalm, normally read on this third Sunday of Advent, because it reminds us that – though waiting for the Saviour to rescue and ultimately redeem us – He is coming soon, and we will have joy, so don’t give up!

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