“Here today, gone tomorrow.” “Like the flip of a switch.” “In the blink of an eye.” “At the drop of a hat.” We have a stack of phrases to express how quickly our situations can change, even unexpectedly so. We can all think of moments in life, good or bad, when the quality of our circumstances flipped more quickly than we anticipated, changing our situation and outlook entirely. As Christians, we know that God reigns over our circumstances. We know that the Lord oversees what we have or do not have, providing for his people, and directing our lives for his glory and our good. Psalm 126 reflects upon these matters and how quickly God can redirect our circumstances for good.
Psalm 126 sums up two principles that I hope guide my own Christian life, pastoral ministry, and what I try to convey to God’s people: That God has restored our fortunes in Jesus Christ; and because of that, Christians should learn to laugh. Our outlook is drastically reshaped because of God’s work in our life, and that allows us to recognize more good things in the world around us. So, this article argues the practice of Psalm 126 is that God’s work for our good provides us with palpable joy.
As with a great number of psalms, we are not entirely certain about the background to Psalm 126. Some think that this psalm is about a literal abundant harvest after a worrying season of planting and waiting. The psalmist wrote in verse six:
He who goes out weeping,
bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
bringing his sheaves with him.
Here he spoke of going out to sow and coming back with the return of what has been sown, suggesting a literal harvest. Others think that the psalmist speaks figuratively about God restoring Israel after exile, using various metaphors about what God would do to return his people to their homeland.
The background for the exile naturally shapes much of Israel’s prophetic hope as they looked to the future. After years of living under but violating the Mosaic covenant, God sent them into exile under Assyria, Babylon, and Persia for their transgressions of the law. Throughout the prophets, the hope held forth is the return from the nations to the promised land. Perhaps the most catching parallel to support this figurative view is Jeremiah 30:18–19:
“Thus says the Lord:
Behold, I will restore the fortunes of the tents of Jacob
and have compassion on his dwellings;
the city shall be rebuilt on its mound,
and the palace shall stand where it used to be.
Out of them shall come songs of thanksgiving,
and the voices of those who celebrate.
I will multiply them, and they shall not be few;
I will make them honored, and they shall not be small.”
The language of restored fortunes and celebration resembles Psalm 126, suggesting that the psalmist might have also spoken this way about God returning Israel to the land after exile, likewise using metaphors from the seasons and harvest to enrich his point. This background of prophesied restoration from exile is more likely.
Regardless of that question, the point is clearly to celebrate how God’s restoration results in his people’s rejoicing. Psalm 126 has two halves, both reinforcing the same point from two different perspectives. In verses 1–3, the perspective is past tense, stating the certainty of God’s restoring work. Then, in verses 4–6, the perspective is future tense, calling on God to do his restoring work. It opens by stating the surreal feeling like you are dreaming as things are so good, just to realize the dream is real: “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.” From the outset, then, the psalmist teaches that God’s goodness is better than we can imagine.
We frequently believe we know the limits of what God can do. We see the only options available and think God must work within what we see as possible. He is not bound by our limitations nor by what we can think up. Psalm 126 teaches us not to limit God in how good he is to his people. His ability to be good to us transcends what we can ever imagine according to the restrictions of human ability.
We see the two effects of God’s restoring work in verse 2: “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 first effect is personal, experiential in a sense. God’s restoring work pours renewed joy into us. Notice though, that this joy is certainly palpable. Laughter happens. Shouts of joy occur. Reverence for God then should indeed be, well, reverent. We might even say to some degree somber. Yet should also be jubilant. Jubilee does not mean flippant, as if it is not serious, but does mean rejoicing.
The second effect is external in the sense that God’s goodness to his people will cause the nations to recognize it. The nations say that the Lord has done great things for his people. Now, why would the nations notice that? Because they saw the change in the people’s demeanor. They noticed abundant laughter and joyful shouts, so they investigated what caused it, only to notice the people’s new state of affairs.
The important qualification is that God does not restore his people just to make them happy and give them laughter. No, he works good for his people for his own glory, so that his fame rebounds through the world. The nations recognize the true God’s goodness. But his people themselves celebrate not only their circumstances but moreover the God who gave them those restored circumstances. Verse 3: “The Lord has done great things for us; we are glad.”
What can we learn so far? We see how if we lack reason and prompting to laugh in the Christian life, we have arguably not properly accounted for the great things that God has done for us. If your outlook is dour, perhaps you have not reckoned rightly with the things that God has already done for us. There are seasons of hardship, but there is always reason to laugh because of what God has already done for us. There is an ideal of God’s work for us that grounds our hope and joy in a fixed way.
Even with that ideal, often our joy and ready ability to laugh is dislodged by troubles. Interruptions happen that make us need God’s work again. The shift of perspectives from the psalm’s first to second half helps us see how rejoicing at how God has restored us in the past relates to our experience of hardship now. One of the tensions in the Christian life is knowing that we are meant to have the joy of the Lord, and that there is trial, tribulation, and suffering in it. That tension did not originate in the New Testament but is built into even Psalm 126.
The first half affirms the premise of joy in the Lord, the ideal, perhaps leaving us with the question: what if I do not feel like shouting for joy? What if I am not laughing even when I think on what God has done for me? The second half then addresses that problem.
This second section starts calling out to God to bring restoration, even though the previous section was devoted to extolling restoration that he had already granted: “Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like streams in the Negeb!” Each wet season, the waters of the Negeb would flow with new vigor and fullness, bringing greenery and life back to the land that had dried out. The psalmist cried to God to treat his people like that, treat them like a newly reinvigorated river that brings new life back to a dried-out land.
We must reckon with the experiential reality that this psalm depicts: a certain hopeful opening and a second half crying for help. Namely, we know the fixed hope of what God has provided for us in the past. Yet, life contains such trials that seem like interruptions to a constant enjoyment. Even though we have this fixed restoration, we find ourselves constantly crying out to God for new restoration.
Such is the pattern of the Christian life though. God has ensured our restoration, but we do not possess it in full measure yet. We have the guarantee of glory but not the present experience of it. Psalm 126 then describes our experience as Christians, living in the tension of the ages as our restoration has been accomplished and we also look ahead for it to happen.
So, we must reckon with how Christian joy does not mean that there are no hardships in life. We can expect an interruption to our experience of joy in the restoration that God has given us. We live where we look back to what God has done, knowing the certainty of his restoration and finding joy and laughter in it, yet longing for him to restore us now.
The last two verses of Psalm 126 reflect more fully on that tension over the interruption of joy in the Christian life, and forces us to reckon more thoroughly with this psalm’s likely context. The psalmist illustrates the nature of our tension, at least how we should think of it, with an agricultural metaphor: “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.” The metaphor’s point is that God will restore his people’s fortunes. This metaphor, however, shows us something profound that is for our encouragement, namely how long this restoration might take. Both parts of the metaphor describe sowing and reaping, a season occurs between those actions. Time passes before the situation requiring our restoration changes.
When we are in the midst of hardship, the time between sowing in sadness and reaping in laughter can feel like forever. Still, Scripture promises that God’s restoration is coming. So, we are forced to ask how we can hold onto our joy and laughter from certain restoration even during the periods of sowing with weeping.
We start by remembering that this psalm is likely about Israel’s restoration from exile under foreign empires. Because of their sin in continually breaking the law of the covenant God had made with them, the nation was convicted of transgression and sent away from the place where God had promised to dwell with them. Yet, God would restore them and bring them back to their land, so that they might live with and for God once again.
That signals how this psalm points us to Christ. We rebelled against God by our sin. We turned against his ways and broke his law. We sowed iniquity, therefore should reap destruction, specifically by being sent away from God’s blessed presence to receive his everlasting wrath. Yet, God has not left us under the curse of sin’s exile. No, he has provided a mediator. He sent his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, to bear our sin’s curse and to live the righteous life we should have lived. Christ earned our citizenship in heaven and removed the penalty of our iniquity from us. God himself came in our place to endure our exile so that he might grant us restoration.
We then truly find ourselves living within Psalm 126. Christ has restored our fortunes before God himself, and has purchased our everlasting life to dwell with him in everlasting reset in his coming kingdom. As we bear up waiting for that kingdom to come fully, we often cry out to the Lord to bring his restoration to us. Yet, we also know that he has already given us restoration in Christ.
Even in our hardest moments, then, even as we struggle in the season of sowing and waiting for the reaping—because we have an intermediary, Jesus Christ who lived, died, rose, and intercedes on our behalf—we know that our ultimate and everlasting fortunes are restored, our restoration causing our rejoicing, teaching Christians to laugh over the riches joy given to us by Jesus.
©Harrison Perkins. All Rights Reserved.
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