Please read Psalm 126 in your preferred version of the Bible. I prefer the NIV (1984) and used it to prepare these remarks.
Joy comes with God’s renewal of His people.
I hear concerns raised about how the Church in America is losing its influence on popular culture. There are lots of reasons offered but I think it’s our impaired sense of humor that is a reason I don’t hear being discussed much. We excel at “mourning with those who mourn,” but are morose about “laughing with those who laugh.”
Realize two things: One, among all the beliefs on the face of the Earth, the Christian faith gives the greatest reasons for joy. Two, the Bible is a book that is full of life and a great deal of what it has to say is couched in humor.
I could go on and on with examples and explanations, but it’s such a chore and time is limited, so let me offer just one example. The humor of the Bible is situated in a time and culture that is very distant from our own. Humor is something that is very dependent on the moment. Have you ever related something funny that happened to you and got a deadpan reaction? What do we say in response but, “I guess you had to be there?”
William Shakespeare wrote a number of comedies. But to modern audiences, it’s hard to get the joke, especially when reading it. Sir Richard Eyre, former head of the National Theatre and one of Britain’s most celebrated Shakespearean directors, said topical comedy dates “very quickly”, leaving the meaning lost to history.
More recently, here are some 19th century American jokes, tell me what you think:
“If conceit were consumption, he’d be dead a long time ago!”
“They say that too many minors have enlisted in the army, however I think that some of the minors are doing better than some of the Majors.”
“What’s the difference between a drunkard and a condemned man? One takes a drop to live and the other takes a drop to die.”
Not exactly side splitting stuff, right? So we need Bible scholars to tell us why Bible humor was humorous, how Jesus’ reference to a plank in your eye was probably LOL to His peeps. After all, we don’t have a “laugh track” to tell us which are the funny parts.
But let there be no mistake that the Bible has a lot to say on the subject of JOY and its perfectly obvious. Let’s start with today’s text.
- Praise God for a dream fulfilled. (126:1-3)
The text offers four very descriptive signs of joy.
Joy Sign #1: WE WERE LIKE MEN WHO DREAMED. We think of “dreams” as visions we receive while sleeping and as visions we realize while awake.
Normally, dreams are simply ways our subconscious ways our minds try to work out waking problems while we sleep. God created dreams as a psychological “safety valve.” Biblically, God has used dreams to reveal His will. There is no indication in the Bible that God has ceased to do this.
On the other hand, we express our aspirations in order to give inspiration to others. We need to be cautious here to not mix up our will with God’s. Self-deception comes so easily we must submit these aspirations to the scrutiny of the church for affirmation. Especially when we envision ways to do God’s will, the fulfillment of our DREAMS brings a special and abiding kind of JOY. What we have here is a JOY so intense it feels dream-like, “too good to be true.”
Joy Sign #2: OUR MOUTHS WERE FILLED WITH LAUGHTER. This phrase describes people who were giddy with joy, a happiness that demanded expression, one that could not be denied. Laughter is not a sign of immaturity nor is it unspiritual if it flows out of godly joy. The morality depends on what inspires a person to laugh: what’s in their heart at that moment.
Joy Sign #3: OUR TONGUES WITH SONGS OF JOY. Like laughter, singing is a way we spontaneously express our JOY. Wouldn’t it be great if life were more like a musical comedy? We could express our JOY with singing and dancing, backed by a full orchestra!
Joy Sign #4: WE ARE FILLED WITH JOY. They were FILLED, even to the point of overflowing, with JOY! Anyone who doesn’t desire this level of JOY in their life is missing a vital part of a living, maturing faith. To me there is a parallel between being FILLED WITH JOY and being Filled with the Spirit.
As verse two testifies even the pagan NATIONS noticed what God had done. They offer the testimony of a “hostile witness” which carries extra weight because they have nothing to gain by misstatement or exaggeration.
We also need to understand the times. People of this age were superstitious and tied their gods to their national identity. For example, when your nation won a war, it was thought to be proof that your god was more powerful than your enemy’s. In this instance, when the Babylonians conquered the people of Judah, the NATIONS concluded that the Babylonian gods were more powerful than the Jew’s God, Yahweh.
This means God allowed His name to be slandered among the nations in order to discipline His people. On the other hand, later, when the people of Judah were allowed to come home, that was seen as their God’s triumph over the gods of Babylon.
Here’s what the NATIONS concluded: “THE LORD HAS DONE GREAT THINGS FOR THEM.” (2)
Here’s the people of God agreeing with the pagan NATIONS; THE LORD HAS DONE GREAT THINGS FOR US. (2)
Here’s the result: WE ARE FILLED WITH JOY. (2)
This joy was not from the pampered and comfortable, but from those who were CAPTIVES in Babylon. There is a spontaneous kind of JOY that comes like a clap of thunder. It is often undeserved or at least unexpected, and it departs as suddenly as it disappears. There is also the kind of JOY that abides with you. It comes as a sense of satisfaction after a good work well done. It settles on your heart and warms it. It stays with you, to some degree, and recurs when you recall the circumstances. The first kind is exciting, the second kind, encouraging.
Those persons who, after 70 years of captivity, endured and then returned to their homeland experienced the first kind of joy when the news was announced and the second kind when the returned home and rebuilt Jerusalem.
The ones who experienced this divine JOY were the ones who remained faithful in spite of what it cost them.
The ones who experienced this divine JOY were the ones who stood against the seemingly impossible odds, travelling hundreds of miles on foot to a set of ruins.
The ones who experienced this divine JOY were the ones who persevered against the elements and their enemies to rebuild Jerusalem and the temple.
This is how life works for all of us, folks. The worldly culture around us offers flashes of happiness in return to submitting to the captivity of their “groupthink” and the slavery to sinful appetites that is called “consumerism.” Not content to only offer distractions, the world also actively opposes faith; it belittles and battles genuine devotion to God.
We will know divine JOY when we ignore the distractions and remain faithful when we face persecutions. This is a depth of JOY as described in this passage that the world will NEVER be able to give.
- A prayer for dreamers. (126:4-6)
When dreams come true, there is still work to be done. When the initial joy of hearing that they COULD return to Jerusalem, then the realization of what that would take set in. That’s why the passage makes the sudden jump from JOY to pleading with God.
RESTORE OUR FORTUNES, O LORD, sounds to me like a plea, a heartbroken prayer spoken when the ruins of Jerusalem were finally in sight. Imagine how those returning from exile must have felt when they saw all the work and struggle that lay before them. As people of faith, they cried out to God to help them do what, to worldly eyes, must’ve looked impossible. Don’t let the word FORTUNES throw you; this is not a plea for prosperity as much as it is a desperate prayer for survival!
Historically, we know the returning exiles had to overcome a great deal of adversity to rebuild their land: lack of shelter, opposition from neighboring nations; the insecurity of the lack of suitable defenses; raiders; locusts; bad harvests; an extended drought; mountainous problems inflicted by both man and nature. They had no idea what they’d got themselves into when they arrived, but they knew enough to prompt this crying out to God.
LIKE THE STREAMS OF THE NEGEV refers to a common experience of the people. In that climate, streams and rivers can dry up completely. One might not even recognize a riverbed when walking on it. However, when the rainy season arrived, flash floods were common and the streams would be restored, full of water.
This would have been a common experience in the NEGEV, a desert area in the southeast part of modern-day Israel. The people felt like a desert-dry stream bed, so they prayed that God would RESTORE them and fill them with life, just as He did with the dry streams in the desert.
In spite of the intimidating task before them, the returnees had hope. They trusted in God, and from that trust came this promise expressed twice in vs. 5+6.
THOSE WHO SOW IN TEARS WILL REAP WITH SONGS OF JOY.
HE WHO GOES OUT WEEPING, CARRYING SEED TO SOW, WILL RETURN WITH SONGS OF JOY, CARRYING SHEAVES WITH HIM.
The TEARS and WEEPING are the physical signs of great sorrow. They are the trails of trials that track down our face when we have to face opposition and obstacles.
If we think of them as “seeds” we can be assured these sorrows are designed to ensure a fruitful future. We’d prefer a gentler, kinder, experience, but that’s not the way the world works.
In ancient cultures, sowing a seed was a symbol of burial and came to be associated with grief over a death. Both Jesus (John 12:24) and Paul (1CT 15:36) used this imagery to teach about life overcoming death. Trust that the seed will grow; that with the harvest, there will be SONGS OF JOY.
I read a provocative statement in an article entitled “Three Absolute Truths that Determine the Harvest,” by Dr. George Bannister. He wrote, “It has been said that the problem with Southern Baptists is that we are ‘A harvest oriented denomination in a unseeded generation.’”
His point was that there can be no harvest without sowing. It is not enough for churches to keep their doors open and expect people to seek us out and step through them.
Ken Ham made a similar point in his new book Gospel Reset: Salvation Made Relevant. We are living in a culture that is ignorant of the basic truths of Scripture. The culture has dismissed the Bible as irrelevant and disregarded sin as a relative to the situation. The Church in America is stuck in a mode where we’re answering questions no one is asking, using language they don’t understand, referencing things that have largely disappeared from our culture, except as objects of ridicule.
We want the joy of salvation. There is no joy in this life that is sweeter than helping someone find Jesus as their Savior. If we are to know this joy, we must plant those seeds. There is an unmistakable connection between joyful reaping and passionate seed-sowing.
God announced this principle in Galatians 6:7, “Be not deceived; God is not mocked: a man reaps whatever he sows.” We can resist this cultural trend in media and politics, but the forces allied against us have the advantage in those areas. Our advantage is the power of God and the truth. These advantages are most influential in personal relationships. Rather than assault the culture directly, it makes more sense for us to put the majority of our effort into establishing relationships and making friends with those outside our faith.
The Daily Study Bible Series, George A.F. Knight
Bible Commentary, Jamieson, Fausset, Brown
The Interpreter’s One-Volume Commentary on the Bible, Lawrence E. Toombs
Zondervan Bible Commentary, F.F. Bruce