“When the LORD turned again the captivity of Zion, we were like them that dream. Then was our mouth filled with laughter, and our tongue with singing: then said they among the heathen, The LORD hath done great things for them. The LORD hath done great things for us; whereof we are glad.”(Psalm 126:1–3)
The 150 Psalms shall have the principle place in the singing of the churches.” This is the first line of Article 39 of the Church Order and a right and true understanding of the importance that the Psalms should have in our worship. When we come together as a body to praise God’s name, our hearts are joined to the universal church. For many of us it may be a struggle to find ourselves within the context of the Psalms. When we sing a well-known hymn our hearts are moved; tears often well up in our eyes. Yet when we sing the Psalms that same fervor is not always present. Certainly we grieve over our sin along with David in Psalms 32 and 51. We have great joy when we sing Psalms of praise like Psalm 23 or Psalm 100. As we come to Psalm 126, we come before the almighty God to lay our lives before Him as a sacrifice of praise. The song had meaning in the time it was writ- ten, and it still holds much meaning for us. As we seek to see the Psalm’s meaning, we see that the Lord’s covenant people cry out for the return of the captivity of Zion. As people of that same covenant, we look to the Lord renewing and restoring a right relationship with His people. We cry out with the Psalmist in remembrance of past restoration in verses 1–3 and we cry out for future renewal in verses 4–6.
When we read Psalm 126, we perhaps struggle with the language and imagery of the Psalm. What does the Psalm mean when speaking of the captivity of Zion? How do we proclaim the goodness of our God to the nations? How do we see our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in this song? These are all valid concerns; concerns we need answer by remembering who we are.
We are members of the covenant. We may not live in Jerusalem upon Mount Zion, yet the blessing of the covenant found in Psalm 126 stretches to us as a song about our Father’s faithful upholding of His people. It is a song passed from generation to generation, one that continues to be understood by the church with greater and greater insight to this day.
“When the Lord brought back the captivity of Zion we were like those who dream.” The Lord has always been faithful in bringing His people back, and restoring the life and love of His people. God’s people are standing in the present, singing praise to God for His work in the past of restoring His people. In the time of the Old Testament the people looked back to how God out of the house of bondage, and restored their fortunes by bringing them into the Promised Land. The Father had been faithful to His promises made to Adam and Abraham. Indeed after Israel’s wandering in the wilderness it must have been as surreal as a dream to come into a land flowing with milk and honey, a land promised to their fathers.
The people of God living in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah were given the awesome opportunity of returning to Jerusalem to rebuild the city and the temple. They, too, had looked back at the Lord’s past restoration and, as they looked at the entrance into the Promised Land and the return to Zion, they could now understand that feeling and emotion. As they returned from Babylon they too were like those who dream; the blessing was more wonderful than they could imagine.
The blessings of the past resound in the Scriptures. Our Father has filled this verse with even more meaning for us by sending His Son, Jesus Christ. When Jesus was sent into Jerusalem, into Zion, He restored the fortunes of Zion. The Lord was restoring the relationship that His chosen people were to have with Him. That restoration makes us like those who dream. “Can this Christ really be who He says He is? Did He really come to save me from my sins? Why would He make me a member of the covenant line that stretches all the way back to Adam?” In the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ, He has gathered us to His holy hill. It still should seem like a dream that the good news of the Father’s redemptive work throughout history. This is why the Lord’s people gathered for worship. His blessing and covenant faithfulness need to bring us to His house of prayer and praise to lay ourselves before Him. When God’s people have been restored, as we reflect on the salvation that is ours in Jesus Christ, “Then our mouth was filled with laughter and our tongues with singing.” Worship is the only appropriate response to the Lord’s faithfulness. Ezra and all Israel worshiped as they looked at the past and present goodness. In Ezra 3:11a, “And they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the Lord: “For He is good, For His mercy endures forever toward Israel.”
As God’s people today we have the blessing of Jesus Christ, a gift that should fill our mouths with laughter because our hearts are filled to overflowing with the joy of the Lord. We desire to take this psalm on our tongues and sing it out because of the Spirit who has filled us. The Lord has restored our fortunes by bringing us back unto Himself, and we can do nothing but join with the church of the past in exalting the name of the Lord with all praise, honor, and glory.
The faithfulness of God is visible and in these ways audible to the world all around us. Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, and Rome witnessed the mighty power of God in the saints of the Old Testament, in the person of Jesus Christ, and in the saints who would be martyred but would not relinquish the faith. Every generation has seen God’s faithfulness, and can only say among them selves, “The Lord has done great things for them”
The wonder of God’s past restoration is that it is so obvious. David remembered the blessing of Abraham and Moses. Egypt marveled in God’s goodness to Solomon. In Nehemiah’s return to Zion, the power of God is seen in Nehemiah 6:16, “And it happened, when all our enemies heard of it, and all the nations around us saw these things, that they were very disheartened in their own eyes; for they perceived that this work was done by our God.” The world today can see the blessing of the Word. They should be able to see and hear the testimony of God’s faithfulness in our lives as we proclaim even in a dark world how the Lord has done great things for His chosen people.
Indeed, “the Lord has done great things for us.” We look to the Word and are amazed by the great things God has done for us. He has created a most wonderful creation. He has continued covenanting with us in the midst of our sin. The Lord provided a plan of redemption for us, sending His one and only begotten Son into the world as the perfect sacrifice for our sins. He has continued, at each and every point of redemptive history to be faithful to His Word and promise.
The past restoration of God’s people must make us alive in the hope and security of God’s revelation and faithfulness. It with abundant joy, even as we sing the Psalms together. When we see our own lives in that framework of history, we rejoice more fully. When we see the Lord’s faithfulness to us in Jesus Christ, we should be filled with such awe and thanks that all mankind, every person would hear and see the great things God has done for us. The Lord’s past restoration is one of relationship, one of joy and worship, and one of witness and evangelism.
We have been blessed with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly realms and yet we still sin. While Psalm 126 is a word of tremendous praise, it is also a memory of how we have fallen short and how our sin separates us from the blessing of our covenant Lord. Adam rebelled against the Word of the Lord. Abraham and Moses knew their sin. Israel wandered for forty years because they failed to trust the sovereign word. David sinned. Israel sinned and war forced them into exile away from the Promised Land. We are sinners. While we have been restored by the grace of God that comes by faith in Jesus Christ, we still have need, as did the Old Testament and early church saints, of the continued and future renewal that can come only by the hand of the One who is faithful in the midst of our unfaithfulness.
As God’s redeemed people we still stray from the command of the Lord. As we look back upon God’s goodness to His people, it can be hard in the midst of our sin to cling to the promised renewal of God’s Word. When we wander from our Father in our unrighteousness, so often we cower in fear, we run and hide.
Yet in God’s faithfulness we are brought to our knees, asking for renewal, restoration, and for the Lord to turn to us. We desire that the Lord would restore our fortunes, that He would bring back His complete and total control over us. Our desire is for renewal in our relationship with the Father by the work of the Spirit. Psalm 80:19 calls out, “Restore us, O Lord God of Hosts, cause your face to shine and we shall be saved.”
O God of our salvation, And cause Your anger toward us to cease.” Adam hid and yet desired the fellowship of the Lord, fearing the One who gave Him life. Our fathers desired to be renewed in grace and mercy after sin. Psalm 51 declares David’s desire as a man and as God’s chosen king to be cleansed and renewed by the Spirit. We as the Lord’s covenant people today cry out for the same captivity, for continual renewal by the blood of Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit.
We cry out for God to return His blessing of covenant renewal, “as the streams in the south.” In Israel, when the streams in the southern region dry up, the the ground is so hard that a person can walk through it without knowing that a river had once flowed there. But when the winter rains come, that same riverbed is filled to overflowing, a mighty torrent of water saturating everything in its path. The Psalmist desires renewal that comes in such an always-faithful way.
This cry for renewal must enter our own mouths. In our lives because of sin and unfaithfulness, we dry up. We ignore the waters of God’s Word and our lives become as empty and desert-like as those dry riverbeds. Yet when we cry out to our faithful Father, He sends us the winter rains. He fills us with His Spirit. He opens up the living waters, the Word of truth, that we may know our faithful God who has revealed Himself, to us, and that we might be renewed in our relationship with Him. We call out with the church of all ages for our God to fill us once more when we become dry in our sin.
God is faithful in hearing our call. Isaiah 41:17–18 states,
The poor and needy seek water, but there is none, Their tongues fail for thirst. I, the Lord, will hear them; I, the God of Israel, will not forsake them. I will open rivers in desolate heights, And fountains in the midst of the valleys; I will make the wilderness a pool of water, And the dry land springs of water.
The Lord will always be faithful in filling His people, a faithfulness living water promised in John 4:14, “but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst. But the water that I shall give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life.”” Our Father is faithful to renewing us by filling us with Himself and with His Word.
Mr. Matt Nuiver is a graduate of Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, Indiana and a candidate for the ministry in the United Reformed Churches in North America.