Summary: Having joy is not dependent on circumstances but comes from God, is Jesus-specific, and something that we are called to practice.
Introduction: A Joyless World
As we continue listening to these songs for the road, we come to a song of joy. To begin I want to read a couple of quotes about joy. C.S. Lewis once said this: “We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition, when infinite joy is offered to us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in the slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” We let ourselves sometimes be satisfied with all kinds of things that do not give us real, lasting joy.
Eugene Peterson says that “the enormous entertainment industry in our land is a sign of the depletion of joy in our culture. Society is a bored, gluttonous king employing a court jester to divert it after an overindulgent meal. But that kind of joy never penetrates our lives.” So much of the joy people seek in our world is a temporary escape from boredom on the one hand and suffering on the other.
Joy is not about circumstances
Look at our psalm. It is a psalm of joy, but when you consider the circumstances for the people of Israel at the time you wouldn’t think the people would be very joyful.. There is a good chance that Psalm 126 was written after the exile to Babylon and before the restoration of Jerusalem that we see in Nehemiah, when he led the effort to rebuild. I don’t know if you realize, but the Babylonian captivity of Israel was horrific: their nation was destroyed, their freedom lost, there was violence and rape in the streets, cannibalism, and a 600 mile forced-march across the desert to a foreign nation to be enslaved as captives. And finally when God delivers them from captivity, they return to Jerusalem only to find it in ruins.
So the people of Israel are surrounded by hard times. There’s captivity behind them and the need for restoration ahead of them. Behind them and before them are times of sorrow and trial. We can even see this in how the psalm is structured. The first three verses are in the past tense (Babylonian captivity) and the last three are in the future tense (now they pray for restoration upon return). But look at the middle of the psalm where we find the words, “and we are filled with joy.” These words are in the present tense. The joy they know, express, and pray for in this psalm is one that comes only from God, not circumstances. “The Lord has done great things for us,” it says in verse 3. But in the middle of it all, they rejoiced. In the middle of it all, despite what faced them, they were filled with joy.
This is true elsewhere in Scripture, too. Look at the apostle Paul and his letter to the Philippians. This letter is often called the “epistle of joy.” There are nearly 10 references to joy and rejoicing in this letter. Even when the specific terms aren’t used we can see that joy fills this letter. What do you think the circumstances are here? His joy is definitely not because of his immediate circumstances. When writing this letter Paul is in prison for preaching the gospel and false teachers are preying on churches that he founded; and there’s nothing he can do about it in person. He’s imprisoned and he can’t be with those whom he loves to help them. Yet Paul is joyful even if the circumstances instead provide plenty of reasons for despair.
For Paul and the people of Israel joy is not dependent on circumstances. In fact, let’s look at what Paul says elsewhere in Romans 5: 3: “We also rejoice in our sufferings.” In The Message, Eugene Peterson translates this verse this way: “We continue to shout our praise even when we’re hemmed in with troubles.” Charles Spurgeon once said that “there is a sweet joy which comes to us through sorrow.” Paul finds joy in suffering. Paul could say in hard times, along with the Israelites in our psalm, “we are filled with joy.” Can we say this, even when our circumstances don’t seem to justify it?
Joy comes from God
So now the question we may ask is this: how can we have this joy? Where does this joy come from? What is the source of this joy? We already know that many in our world, even some who are Christians, try and get joy from all kinds of places. But it doesn’t last. And the temporary joy we try to get for ourselves doesn’t last in difficult times. If money is your joy, for example, what happens when you lose you job? If your career ambition is your joy, what happens if you can no longer work? How can have a joy that outlasts circumstances and doesn’t depend on our situation? These questions bring us to our second point. Here is it is: true joy comes from God. It is not something we can get for ourselves.