Summary: The pilgrim is one who sees the joy at the end of the journey and is joyful even in hardship.
The Joy of our Salvation: An Exposition of the 126th Psalm
The 126th Psalm is a collection of 15 psalms which are known as the Songs Of Ascents. The Hebrew word is hard to define, but some think that because there were 15 steps leading up to the altar of the Temple, that each of these psalms were recited in turn as they ascended to the altar. Others saw these as psalms sung by pilgrims going up to Jerusalem to attend the three yearly feasts. One always went “up” to Jerusalem. There is a moral quality to this ascending to Yahweh in Jerusalem as well as the physical climb up Mt. Zion. These certainly would be considered applications of these Psalms, but we must remember that they were not originally composed for this purpose. Some of these psalms were written by King David, but others like this one were written after the return of Judah from the Babylonian captivity hundreds of years later. These psalms have different original contexts, but they share in common a theme of uplift. The 130th psalm is a lift from personal despair and failure, for example. The 126th psalm is being uplifted by being freed from Babylonian Captivity and returning home which refers to many Israelites. Let us now dig deeper into this psalm.
One would think from the joyous strains of this psalm that all of the Babylonian captives were ecstatic about the good news that they could return home. The 137th Psalm talks about how hurtful the taunts made against the Jews when the Babylonians asked them to sing the songs of their homeland. They were so angry that the psalmist cries that it would be good for the children of the Babylonians be dashed against the rocks. (Psalm 137: 9) This a deeply felt anger and resentment.
However, the gospel of their release from captivity was met with much apathy as well. A lot of the Jews remained in Babylon. They had prospered there, and they felt little urge to come home. They were happy for their new “Egypt” and the good life it brought. Only a small remnant returned to the land of Israel, and this in several groups over many years. It was only those who had a strong faith in the promises of Yahweh who would undertake the arduous journey home. They were like Father Abraham who had left the riches of Ur of the Chaldees to a very uncertain place. But Abraham had believed in the word of Yahweh. Those who believed on Him were overjoyed at the good news that they could return to the land that the LORD had given them.
The mind of the pilgrim and stranger on this earth is different than that of the world. They are those who are willing to endure hardship for a greater future reward. The world, on the other hand, sees that one should live one’s best life now: “You only live once! Go for all the gusto.” The pilgrim sees this world as a transient dream. It is an illusion and a fraud. The true city is one which has foundations, whose builder and maker is God. Pilgrims let the promise of God ascend in their hearts and break out in outbursts of joy. Even the world recognizes something different about them. Even though they live in the splendor of Babylon, the worldly person knows they are miserable. They see the pilgrim’s joy in the face of certain hardship praiseworthy. “Surely the LORD has done great things for them!” But even when the invitation rings out for them to join the merry band, they shrink back. The LORD who has done great things for the Jewish pilgrims returning from exile extends His promise to all who will believe and follow Him.
When this psalm was written, the Jews had returned to a city which had no foundations or walls at all. It was hardly the City of the Great King. (Nehemiah 1:2-3) What a dismal comparison to the palaces of the King of Babylon!. God had called them to return to this place, but He had not rebuilt the city for them, they would have to do the hard and dangerous work of rebuilding their homes, the Temple, and the walls of the city. The friction of the hard work eroded some of the original enthusiasm they had. So the psalmist calls out to have the LORD restore the joy they had when they had first received the message. They had become captive to the problems they faced. They were in a dry place. They were in a spiritual desert. In the Negev, the land was dry and filled with ravines. It was a very hard land to live in. But when the rain fell and the water filled the gullies, the desert would explode with flowers. What great joy when the rain came! This is the type of uplift the Jews needed from the LORD. They had shed many tears, and they were asking that the tears of sorrow might be returned into rivers of joy. It is as the joy of the harvest where after months of toil and care that the time of harvest had come. They come with joy bringing their sheaves with them. Jesus tells us that the woman in labor has great sorrow. But when the child is born, there is great joy.