The psalter teaches us that our songs before the Lord are prayers. I do not mean that a particular passage in the psalms states that our sung praises are prayers. I mean that the psalms are clearly prayers to the Lord but have always been used in the church’s sung worship. One of my fears about many modern outlooks on what we sing in church is that our perspective has shifted from thinking about singing as an act of prayer to thinking about it as a way of stirring up our emotions. It is good to be affectionally invested in all of worship. If, however, we shift our focus to provoking emotions rather than letting affections rise rightly from true, good, and beautiful things, then we are headed for disaster.
As parts one and two have explored, Psalm 126 is about restoration and rejoicing. This song celebrates the wonderful things that God has done for His people and cries out to Him to act on our behalf again. This final part is about thinking through why God’s people still need to sing this song together.
Rejoicing at Good Things
The first reason Christians ought to delight in singing Psalm 126 is that it is a rejoicing prayer for God’s work for His people. Whether we think about the big sweeping events of salvation history that ground our confidence that God will complete salvation history or the smaller mercies of our life where we look back and see God’s care for us, both sorts of graces should instill joy in the hearts of God’s people.
Sometimes it is hard to discern where our hearts ought to be when we sing a particular song in worship. To put it another way, we often take our lead for the disposition of our heart from a song’s melody rather than the text. We sing lyrics with the heartfelt posture suggested to us by the music rather than digesting what we are saying.
Psalm 126 reminds us that thanksgiving is meant to be a real aspect of how we pray to God in song. That message then ought to shape our disposition. Nothing in our churches is perfect. No church does everything we want. We are often left uncomfortable with various things in our congregational life and practice. In the grand scheme of things, however, we live in restored fortunes. God has worked in such a way as to bless us sufficiently to prompt shouts of joy. Even the nations see that “The Lord has done great things for them.” (Ps 126:2) We too are meant to land resolutely on, “The Lord has done great things for us; we are glad.” (Ps 126:3)
Our confidence in what God has already done sets our tone of trust and thankfulness for what God will do. Even as God has restored our fortunes, we can pray that God will continue to restore our fortunes (Ps 126:4). Whereas modern praise songs can often devolve into droning monotony, creating a sense of ambiguous spiritual experience, Psalm 126 focuses us on the concreate reality of God changing our lives in a way that results in a lifted demeanor.
Psalm 126 then brings liveliness to our sung prayers, reminding us that some of our prayers ought to be overflowing with the sense of rejoicing at the Lord in our lives. We ought sometimes to have a real sense that we live in a state of grace and walk in the goodness of the Lord. We should sing about it too, praying to God in true thanksgiving and hope.
The Pastoral Power of Laughter
Laughter is a gift from God, meant from creation to give voice to our delight and useful after the Fall as a powerful medicine to heal the soul, overcome division, and renew our perspective. I remember reading Psalm 126 in a pastoral visit once and being struck by how the psalmist commends laughter as a fitting response to God in the Christian life.
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 (Ps 126:1–2)
Obviously, this sort of laughter is not at God or in any sense flippant about divine truths. Rather, it is a response of a joy-filled heart rejoicing over those truths.
Why should we sing prayers about laughter and even with laughter in our hearts and in our mouths? Everyone has likely experienced one of those moments where we are deep in the sobs of real and relentless tears, only for our weeping to be broken by even a small reprieve of humor that raises us into moments of laughter. The sadness itself lifts its press, even if the hurt does not fully recede. God uses laughter as medicine for the aching soul to relieve the stinging pain of a given grief. Laughter then has a healing effect.
Laughter also brings unity between people. It is very hard to have or maintain animosity toward someone with whom you are sharing a laugh. Some of the most strident situations of bitterness can be dissolved by laughing together. Laughter then can have the power to overcome division, which is a particularly valuable tool for many pastoral situations.
When I pastored in London, we had members from all around the world. A former member of the church there, who had come from a quite different culture, once told me that some friends from his church back home thought I had “left behind godliness” because I smile and even laugh when I preach. On the one hand, I realize that cultures differ in their values for interpersonal communication, which is a warning for us against prescribing the one correct posture of delivery for even the most important messages. I also sympathize with the concern that we do not trivialize the momentous occasions of gathering in public worship as God’s people.
On the other hand, there is something deeply humanizing about laughter. Although I personally avoid cracking jokes in the pulpit, I do tend to use stories and illustrations that are supposed to be humorous at my own expense. I think that in the contexts where I have served, that sort of approach helps to bind people and pastor together as we realize that none of us are perfectly spiritual and all of us need grace from the Lord and from each other. So, laughter can help bridge the gap between people where there is greater possibility for someone to think their leader is unapproachable.
Laughter has still more pastoral juice for overcoming division than that. I can remember situations in the DMV, always an undesirable situation, where I have bonded with other customers instantly over the ridiculousness of a situation’s difficulty by meeting eyes and laughing. In other words, even perfect strangers can unite to be relieved the stress of a given situation by the power of laughter. All the more, God’s people can find relief in laughing together. Even when people are least happy with us, we should look for opportunities to laugh with our brothers and sisters. It can depressurize a situation. It can erase ill feelings that were fermenting division. I do not believe that this is a superficial fix, but a God-given healing effect of laughter.
There is, however, law and gospel to laughter’s pastoral use to overcome division. Being able to laugh, especially at ourselves, demands repentance. If we take ourselves too seriously, thinking our piety is all in good order, we will never be able to laugh. As John Cleese, the famous British comedian, has said “all humor is critical,” meaning laughter requires us to reckon with the reality of our own shortcomings. If we are unwilling to hear the law criticize us in our failings, we will never laugh. Alternatively, laughter can be the gospel gift to those who see their failings and rejoice at the free grace of God given to those who need rescue. Most tense and threatening moments—a dangerous driving situation, an unimaginably difficult exam (I am thinking of my mid-term in Psalms and Wisdom with Bryan Estelle)—break in the relief of laughter as we realize the joy of escaping what felt like certain doom. Such is the gospel balm for sinners. So, we learn to laugh.
Laughter’s self-critical dimension also informs the life of gratitude in pastoral situations—whether you are an ordained church officer or just a Christian friend giving advice. A well-implemented laugh can be the law to someone who needs to see their folly. When even a believer digs in their heels so firmly about a negotiable matter, a discerning laugh can diffuse the situation and bring fresh perspective to someone who has been blinded by their own intensely narrow focus. I have found that many pastoral situations present the option of either becoming very angry or laughing. Psalm 126 has guided me to the latter.
We should sing about laughter because the church needs to be pastored in laughter. Laughing teaching us repentance, humility, wisdom, and joy, which are all bound into various Christian virtues. We pray Psalm 126 in song because it trains us to be light on our feet for godliness and light in our hearts in gratitude to Christ.
Christ as our Future Hope
We also ought to sing Psalm 126 because it describes the nature of the joy we have in this age as believers. We look back at how God has restored our fortunes in Christ to fill our mouths with laughter. We also look forward to when Christ will restore our fortunes again at His return. We live in the already-not yet between Christ’s first and second comings.
So, Psalm 126 puts its finger right on the New Testament type of joy, learning to be content even to the point of laughing in every circumstance (Phil 4:10–13) but also looking forward to our great, last day hope (Rom 5:1–5). We sing Psalm 126 because of Christ since Christ has given us the context to pray it to His praise.
©Harrison Perkins. All Rights Reserved.
You can find the whole series on Psalm 126 here.
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