Summary: Psalm 126 shows us two advents of God’s redemptive blessing of his people, and provides advice for how to between the advents.
Third Sunday in Advent 2005
Living Between the Advents
Psalm 126 – the Psalm appointed for this third Sunday in Advent – is one of 15 psalms grouped together in the Psalter which all bear the designation “a psalm of ascents.” The word “ascents” is a noun form of a verb meaning “to go up,” and it alludes to the idea of “going up to Jerusalem,” since you approached Jerusalem from lower countryside. You never went DOWN to Jerusalem, you always went UP to Jerusalem. And, according the Law of Moses, all the men of Israel were to go up to Jerusalem three times a year to celebrate the feasts of Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles.
There was a hymnody for these festal seasons, just as we have hymns for Christmas. And, they were the “going up psalms,” the psalms you sang when you were in caravans, traveling across Israel or Judea toward Jerusalem.
So, Psalm 126 is one of those going-up psalms, and it clearly dates from after the time when Israel went into the Babylonian Captivity. In fact, it is looks back in time to that event.
I want to examine Psalm 126 more closely today, because it provides for us a template, a pattern, if you will, for thinking about Advent this year and every season of Advent. Psalm 126 mentions, if you will, two advents and it also contains advice for how to live between these two advents.
The first advent mentioned in Psalm 126 is contained in the first three verses. It was the advent of God’s promises of redemption. Those promises were just about all the people had left of their religious heritage as they were held in slavery in Babylon. Their was no temple worship. There was, most likely, next to no worship at all. During those 70 years, those who remembered Jerusalem told their children about a land the children had never seen. Jerusalem was no more real to the children of the exile than a fable, or a story of the past. The only thing left to them was God’s promise to redeem his people out of slavery and to restore them to their home and to restore them to His worship.
That event is what opens the words of Psalm 126. “1 When the LORD brought back the captivity of Zion, We were like those who dream.” If you asked someone what is the most remarkable feature of dreams I think almost everyone would point to their surreal quality, the way in which dreams combine actions, people, and situations that are weirder than anything you could create from scratch if you tried.
But, there is another quality of dreams which I think is even more important: the intense sensation of reality that accompanies dreams. It’s this quality of dreams that makes people fear dreams when they are bad dreams. And, it is this quality of dreams that make people reluctant to come fully awake if they are enjoying a pleasant dream. In either case, it’s not just the pleasantness of the dream, or the scariness of a dream that either entices or repels us – it’s the fact that the dream always feels more real than real.
And, that is how the exiles felt when the Gentile King who held them captive decreed that they could return to Israel and to Jerusalem. Yes, it was real, but it was so good, so real, that it made you feel that this was a dream – it was too real, and too good, to be factually true. And, yet, it was. And so their mouths were filled with laughter and singing. The reality of it all was verified by other Gentile nations,
“Then they said among the nations, ‘The LORD has done great things for them.’ “ And, so, finally the reality of the Lord’s blessing on them ceases to feel like a dream, and instead becomes a dream come true, so that they confess “ 3 The LORD indeed has done great things for us, and we are glad.”
Now as this Psalm sits in the Psalter, it has the same quality as so many of our Christmas carols: it looks back at a previous, glorious advent of God’s blessing. And, it also looks forward to a fuller, more complete and decisive advent of God’s redemption. That looking forward to a second advent is contained in verse 4:
“ 4 Bring back our captivity, O LORD, as the streams in the South.”
What’s this all about? After recounting their joy when God brought back the captivity of Zion, why are they asking God to do the same thing again?
Well, it’s no great secret. God’s redemption isn’t like a light-switch – either on, or off – it’s a process. It has a beginning, and it has an ending. And it is possible to acknowledge one that has happened in the past while we are still looking forward to the other one in the future. That, in fact, is what Psalm 126 does. The singers of the Psalm, as they would go up to Jerusalem for the feasts, would look backward at the time when God began his promised redemption; and at the same time they looked forward the time when that redemption would be complete.