Psalm 126 Study
Sycamore Presbyterian Church Friday Men’s Bible Study Psalm 126 (see notes)
This is a Song of Ascents (Psalms 120-134). There are many explanations for this subtitle but there does not seem to be any consensus. One explanation is that these psalms were sung by the Levites as they ascended the fifteen steps from the Holy Temple courtyard to the inner section of the courtyard. Other ideas are that they were collected and sung to either commemorate Israel’s ascent into the Promised Land out of bondage (Egypt) or exile (Babylon) (only Psalm 126 alludes to this directly); or that each of these psalms is hopeful, (half are cheerful); that the songs were sung in ascending pitch; that the songs were sung in a high pitch.
Question 1. What do you think was the “great thing” God did for the people of Israel in verses 1-3?
1When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.
2Then 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.”
3The Lord has done great things for us; we are glad.
4Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like streams in the Negeb!
5Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy!
6He who goes out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy,bringing his sheaves with him.
Henry says that it is about the restoration of Israel after the Babylonian captivity. I didn’t find much to dispute this idea. God restored the fortunes of Israel, here called Zion, to nationhood after their exile; the reference to “Zion” is used by the Israelites to note the special joy they had at their return to their physical home: the City of David, or the City of God, Jerusalem. This is what they understood the word “Zion” to mean. We understand “Zion” more fully.
But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. (Heb 12:22-24)
So Zion, fully understood, is the heavenly Jerusalem; and this heavenly Jerusalem is mentioned again.
And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. (Revelation 21:2)
This is obviously the Church; and this ought to move us to see the restoration of Israel as a type of what God has done/is doing/will do for us in the church.
Moving on, the people rejoice not only in their restoration to Israel, but because their reputations among the nations, who noted this divine act (not to say celebrated it, if they were God’s enemies), were restored also. They (the nations) noted the great things. We should remember the many times Moses prayed to God to refrain from justly destroying His people, and the reason for his prayer: God’s glory. So we should see the restoration of Israel’s fortune also (and primarily) as God restoring His own reputation – glorifying Himself. I wonder how many non-believers in “the nations” became believers as a result? Also, since we know about our citizenship in the real Zion, shouldn’t we pray for the restoration of the Church’s reputation among non-believers, for God’s glory?
But there is a deeper theme to Psalm 126 that goes beyond the occasion for it. We cannot disconnect the thankfulness in vv. 1-3 from the somewhat mysterious allusions to captivity in vv. 4-6, about which more below.
Question 2. Despite the tremendous help god has given them in the past, Israel is now desolate (vv. 4-6) and in desperate need of his help again. What does this teach us?
The prayer for the restoration of their fortunes tells us that God’s “great thing” was ongoing; not yet complete. Maybe some Jews were still in Babylon; maybe Jerusalem was a wreck. Psalm 126 does not say. In fact, because this isn’t history (we have Ezra for that), but a songbook, we should simply learn that we are to pray without ceasing. When the Israelites asked the LORD to restore their fortunes in the midst of this great blessing, they were adding prayers of petition to their prayers of thanksgiving. They acknowledge their dependence on God in everything, refusing to become sleek and fat as a result of their restoration and blessing. This is a fantastic example for us. To generalize grossly, we mostly pray during times of distress; how much more pleasing to God would our prayers be if we men and our church prayed as fervently in good times as in bad? And since we often give thanks to God for the safety of His churches in the U.S., we ought to add suitable petitions to these thanksgivings as the Israelites did upon their release. There are many things we should pray for: family and marriage relationships; our congregation and larger church body; our nation; missionaries; enemies, etc.
Question 3. Verses 5-6. What does the psalmist teach us when he likens weeping to “sowing”? What do you think is the difference between just weeping and “going out … sowing” with tears?
One of the things that strikes me the most about the gospels is the amount of time Jesus spends criticizing the people in general or the Pharisees in particular about such things as a lack of faith, little faith, disobedience, blaspheming the Holy Spirit, replacing God’s law with man-made laws, etc. His harshest criticism came against Peter, whom He called “Satan,” when Peter opposed Jesus’ foretelling about His upcoming death. What is missing? Any criticism over rank national idolatry.
The Judaic exile, imposed by God upon His people for their whoring after foreign gods, had its intended effect. God imposed a death penalty on the Judaic civil order (through which much of the impetus to worship foreign gods came – see Ahab & Jezebel); but kept a remnant. In exile, the people finally “got it.” When they returned they were cured of their widespread and ongoing worship of idols and were free to pursue other widespread and ongoing sinful habit patterns, like those listed above.
While in exile, the Jews were aliens in a pagan culture. They had to live under a man-made civil order. They did not own their own land. Their children were doubtless tempted to be absorbed into the existing Babylonian culture, which would have included their religion and language. They had no idea when the exile would end. And the thoughtful among them knew that they had earned this hard treatment because of their national idol worship. This was the sowing in tears part.
When they returned to Jerusalem, they knew that they had been mostly cured of their idol worship and could begin the process of rebuilding and waiting for their Messiah. While their road was not perfectly smooth between the exile and the incarnation (there were wars, like the Maccabean Revolt), at least there was no longer any problem with widespread national idol worship risking another exile (which was a form of ritual divorce, seen as God throwing His wife out after enduring her whoring after other gods for centuries).
This new thing, plus the blessing of their return to the land, is why the Jews’ mouths were filling with shouts of joy and laughter. Their long national separation from God was finally ended, and as His bride, they looked forward to a better future.
Question 4. If you did not already discuss this under #3, how can sorrow for a believer be used to produce joy, even as sowing produces a harvest? Read 2 Corinthians 4:17 and read verse 6 from a Christ-centered perspective.
I wonder if the question had a typo; did Keller mean to assign 2 Corinthians 4:1-7 (which would include verse 6)? Very confusing. So I read the whole chapter to see how it would pertain to Psalm 126.
Vv. 1-6 are a defense by Paul of his and his associates’ gospel ministry; Paul defends the integrity of their message, associating it with the truth and God’s glory. In vv. 7-12 Paul compares the difficulties with ministerial life with the deaths of Jesus (i.e. Jesus’ earthly afflictions, which were many), and announces that despite their weaknesses, God preserved them. In vv. 13-15, Paul explains his boldness by his faith, and announces his missional objective: God’s glory. In vv. 16-18, Paul contrasts this life with the life to come, and tells us he is keeping his eyes on the eternal things.
Paul tells us about his difficulties: affliction, perplexity, persecution, and being struck down. As a Pharisee Paul presumably led a nice life; as a Christian missionary, he was shipwrecked, imprisoned, stoned, left for dead, and hounded out of one town after another. Maybe worse, he had to endure the sinfulness of his fellow Christians (one needs only to read through 1st & 2nd Corinthians to see this.) He ended his life under house arrest and suffered a judicial murder at the hands of the Romans. Paul led a life of tears. His entire ministry was sowing in tears. But he turned the world upside down.
Seen like this, one could easily see how the psalmist could make a connection between a life spent sowing in tears but reaping in joy. This was the arc of their national life and at the end of their exile they could see the whole arc.
Our problem, if we are sowing in tears today, is that we cannot see the whole arc of our lives. There is no way to know, apart from a strong belief in the promises, that our sowing in tears will result in victory. It may be that the only manifestation of that victory will be to hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” at the end, without experiencing any victory in this life. This is hard to write.
Question 5. Verses 4-6. Why does the psalmist employ two such different metaphors to explain how God can “restore our fortunes”?
The Jews were still an agricultural people. Some of them lived in the Desert (Negeb.) A stream of water in the desert is an invitation to grow, eat, survive and prosper. A stream of water is also a persistent metaphor for God’s blessing (see Psalms 42 & 43 study, Question 1.) The psalmist was using a stream to equate the fortunes of his people with blessings from God. That is the first comparison (a simile, not a metaphor.)
The second comparison (actually a metaphor) was discussed above in question 4.
Question 6. What have you learned in this psalm that can help you “pray your difficulties” better?
Just in being forced to write out the answer to question 4, I have realized that there may be only tears in this life. This is a big deal. If I was correct in so writing, then having expectations of earthly joy and prosperity (that is, according to earthly standards) may be misplaced. I’ve always thought that there would have to be some victory – something – that I could see here on earth that I could claim as a result of my Christian walk. Paul did, but at a remove, and ended up being martyred by beheading. I still think that Paul’s life was a life of tears.
This doesn’t teach me how to pray differently; it teaches me that I might be forced to adjust my expectations in prayer.
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