Summary: Joy is the outcome of the Christian life; we don’t generate it—God does.
Psalm Steps>> “Restoration Realized”, Psalm 126 Pastor Bob Leroe, Cliftondale Congregational Church, Saugus, Massachusetts
We can detect in the words of Psalm 126 a sigh of relief. The release from captivity in Babylon was like a dream come true. The people knew about the promises of return to Israel, but when the actual moment came, it was an overwhelming experience. I think of returning home following lengthy military deployments. I was finally going to see my family again, and life would begin to return to normal. Taken from the Hebrew songbook of the “Psalms of Ascent”, we see:
1) Reflection> looking back on release, verses 1-3; and
2) Anticipation> looking forward to the harvest and restoration, verses 4-6
Have you ever known a sour Christian? We think of the much-maligned Puritans, who have been wrongly labeled as stern, serious and grim; people think they never cracked a smile. One particularly sober-minded person was eulogized as a saint who “never committed a pleasure.” Verse 2 shows us how saints should look: “our mouths were filled with laughter, our tongues with songs of joy.” Rejoicing is the theme of this psalm. Joy characterizes the Christian journey.
Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof describes life as “One season following another, laden with happiness and tears.” Life includes sadness; just as being a Christian doesn’t mean we should look serious all the time, it also doesn’t mean we’re always smiling. “There is a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance” (Ecclesiastes 3:4). Joy is not the absence of sorrow; it is the ability to have faith and be thankful in the midst of all conditions. Joy is as unpredictable as the One who gives it, so much so that C.S. Lewis titled his autobiography Surprised By Joy.
Joy is the outcome of the Christian life; we don’t generate it—God does. None of us have joy within ourselves. People seek to attain joy through entertainment, which offers temporary, artificial joy. The vast entertainment industry in our nation is a sign of the depletion of joy in our culture. Many people act like bored kings in need of a court jester. I’m not saying it’s wrong to be entertained, but it’s foolish to think we will find joy from entertainment. Joy is not a commodity; it can’t be purchased. We don’t need a distraction from our stressful lives; we need a cure. The only cure comes from a living relationship with Christ. Our need for joy is legitimate, but how we get that need met often isn’t.
The joy of Psalm 126 is past, present, and future: “We were filled with laughter” and “songs of joy”, vs 2; “we are filled with joy”, vs 3; and we “will return with songs of joy” vs 6.
This joy is lavished on Israel, giving the nation a reputation for blessedness, vs 2: “Then it was said among the nations, ‘the Lord has done great things for them’.” The “nations” refers to the heathen gentiles, who became convinced that Israel had something special that set them apart—a God who took care of them. He allowed them to be taken captive to preserve their ethnic and spiritual identity, then returned them to the land of promise. So great was this act of restoration that the nations heard about it—even without CNN or the internet! God’s deliverance makes unbelievers stand back and take notice. The psalmist deliberately says it was “the Lord” who “brought back the captives to Zion” (vs 1)—not king Cyrus of Persia, who is credited with the release of the Jewish captives. In 538 BC he signed an edict releasing the Jews, allowing them to return to their homeland. In Proverbs we’re told, “The heart of the king is in the hand of the Lord”. Humanly speaking, the Persian king allowed Israel to return; but it was all part of God’s plan. The psalmist gives credit where credit’s due. The Lord declares in Psalm 46, “I will be exalted among the nations” (vs 10).
The gentile nations were impressed; they admitted that God had accomplished “great things” for Israel. What great things? The release from Babylon, but so much more. We discover these “great things” on nearly every page of Scripture. Every divine act was a miraculous intervention. Eugene Peterson writes that “Joy has a history. Joy is the verified, repeated experience of those involved in what God is doing…Joy is nurtured by living in such a history, building on such a foundation.”
Release was a dream realized. What else seems too good to be true? Being released from the bondage and penalty of sin. Other world religions give rules, but none offer a means of forgiveness when the rules are broken. We can look back on our sins knowing that they are nullified by Christ. The Jewish Temple sacrifices atoned for sin, and pointed toward the perfect sacrifice of Christ.