The Psalter is a multivalent book, giving us examples for how the godly respond to the whole spectrum of experiences that we face in the Christian life. This collection of songs contains praises, laments, thanksgivings, and so many other examples of how God’s people are meant to pray to the Lord. It shows us that the Christian life is experiential, but also that God’s Word should shape how we process and react to those experiences. We are in the wrong if we think that how we react to our own emotions dictates right and wrong. Rather, right and wrong dictate how God’s people should respond to our emotions—namely, in the way that we take them to God.
There are, then, three steps to understanding and applying any given psalm. First, we need to understand what the psalm meant in its original context. What did this psalm mean for the person who wrote it (especially as they wrote it for use among God’s people)? Second, we must infer how we use the particular psalm ourselves. How do we pray this psalm in the context of our own lives, and how does it teach us to respond to the ups and downs of life? Finally, we reckon with how there are one hundred and fifty messianic psalms. How does this particular Psalm point us to Christ? These three layers of biblical interpretation shape how we think about understanding and applying each psalm.
Psalm 126 is about restoration and rejoicing. It teaches us how to respond when God improves our fortunes and renews our circumstances. More specifically, it teaches us about the need to appreciate the Lord’s goodness and to respond to God’s blessings with joy. Although Christians are realists, often somber about the world’s state of affairs and never dismissive of tragedy and sadness, we are also not meant to be dour. God created a good world—albeit the fall has limited how thoroughly we can experience its goodness—and we are meant to be glad people who know what it means to enjoy God and his blessings.
Restoration and Rejoicing in Worship: The Placement of Psalm 126
Although scholars greatly debate it, the Psalter has a structure and order. We need not be distracted here by the issue of understanding the arrangement of the full Psalter. For our purposes, we can focus more narrowly on the context of Psalm 126. The Songs of Ascent comprise Psalms 120–134. O. Palmer Robertson captures the meaning of this grouping of songs: “This distinctive collection of psalms vividly anticipates the movement of God’s people toward the permanently established focal point of their worship in Mount Zion, in fulfillment of the covenantal promise to David concerning a permanent dwelling place for God’s house.”2 God’s people sang these psalms as they made pilgrimage to Jerusalem each year to worship at the temple.
Psalm 126 is then a reflection upon restoration and rejoicing specifically oriented toward worship. This contextual aspect for worship runs both directions. On the one hand, because God has restored our fortunes and given us cause to rejoice, we should be eager to worship him. On the other hand, in worship, God reminds us of how He has restored us and given us cause for rejoicing—namely in his announcement of the gospel through the preached Word and rightly administered sacraments. Often in worship, God does the very things that bring about restoration and rejoicing, specifically grants faith to those who did not believe, strengthens faith in those who already trusted Christ, and equips us for the life of gratitude we should live as He sends us back into the world.
The Need for God: The Context of Psalm 126
Like so many psalms, we do not know precisely the background that directly prompted the author to pen these words. We can tell that somewhere in the background was the people’s need for God to change their fortunes. This need is largely cast in agricultural language.
Psalm 126 has two stanzas which inform how we should understand the whole predicament addressed by the psalmist. The first stanza in verses 1–3 states with certainty and joy the reality of God’s past act of restoration. In the second stanza, formed of verses 4–6, the trouble faced is described as crops that have not been growing. The whole psalm anticipates the reversal of this plight.2
Interpreters wrestle with the odd outline of this psalm, wherein the first stanza looks back with rejoicing on how God has already restored his people’s fortunes, but the second stanza looks forward, calling out to God in hope that He would restore their fortunes in the future. The past-future dynamic leaves us wondering if the first stanza’s certainty just expresses confidence that God will respond to the needs described in the second stanza or, alternatively, if this psalm is a dual reflection upon God’s past work (first stanza) with also a hope for God’s help in a new plight (second stanza).
The second option certainly fits the pattern of life that God’s people experience. We are constantly glad for what God has already done, but we are also aware of our need for God’s help in our coming challenges. We all live inside this dynamic that Psalm 126 portrays of rich joy over how God has already restored us but also looking ahead to need him to restore us again and in new ways.
The agricultural language may also be metaphorical for Israel’s need for rescue from exile. In this case, they look back in joy for how God has rescued them from Egypt in the Exodus but also look forward to God’s next work of restoration when He would bring them out of exile under the foreign nations that sacked Jerusalem. Still, this pattern also fits the dynamics of the Christian life. We look back to Christ’s first coming, knowing that He has already restored us to God by justifying us and providing our sure hope for the future. As we traverse this pilgrimage, however, we also look forward to Christ’s second coming when He will free us from the remaining shackles of bondage that cling to us this side of glorification.
Psalm 126 gives us a matrix for understanding the Christian life in the context of worshipping God. We live in the tension of knowing what God has done for us and still needing his help. We are then not given to despair or superficial happiness. Psalm 126 calls us to find the godly balance of trusting the Lord to be good to us because He has been good to us. We never lose hope because of the hope that we have received. We never break into pure triumphalism because we know there is still help that we need from God and more hope is before us.
This balance is meant to mark not only Christians as individuals but the corporate people of God as well. Psalm 126 is a song for worship, meant to be sung to God in connection to his temple. Today, the church is his temple.
This corporate aspect has profound significance. Verses 1–3 point in this direction:
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;
then they said among the nations,
“The Lord has done great things for them.”
The Lord has done great things for us;
we are glad.
In light of how God worked in such a way as to restore his people so much so that they felt they were dreaming, God’s people learned to laugh. Their laughter, however, was not fleeting in its meaning. It reverberated through the nations. The outside nations recognized “The Lord has done great things for them.” In our delight in the Lord, even those outside God’s people realize the Lord’s goodness. Our joy in the Lord is then not human-centered but God-centered, since He gets glory not only in our own praises offered to him but also in bringing unbelievers to recognize his goodness as they see his people learn to laugh. Amazingly, the Lord magnifies himself by being good to us. He has done great things for us; we are glad.
- O. Palmer Robertson, The Flow of the Psalms: Discovering their Structure and Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2015), 210.
- John Goldingay, Psalms, 3 vol. (Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006–8), 3:490.
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