The Joy of Our Salvation: An Exposition of the 126th Psalm

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The pilgrim sees the joy at the end of the journey and endures joyfully all the trials along the way


Psalm 126:1-6

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 dif 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.
The psalms were written for a particular occasion. Sometimes we know about them. Most of the time we do not. But as we have seen how Psalm 126 was applied to different situations, we realize that God’s word also speaks to us directly, even though we might live thousands of years later halfway around the world. The Holy Spirit acts as out stream in our desert. The problems we face might be different on the surface. But underneath, the problems we face are the same. Babylon is alive and well, and for a season it looks bright and shiny. The Christian has been released from a captivity far more bitter than the captivity of the Jews. The Good News of our release from the captivity of sin has been proclaimed by Jesus Christ who is far greater than Cyrus. The city He has prepared is one He has built Himself. All will be ready when we get there. All we need to do is to get up and follow Him.
One would think the proclamation of the release from the bondage of sin to everyone would be met with great joy and enthusiasm. But, alas, it is not. There are many “Christians” who are far too comfortable in Babylon. Maybe if the situation changed, they would think differently. But for now they are prospering. The promise of a greater city does not excite them. They are deceived in their own riches. They say they will come just before they die, when they no longer have a choice. There is no compulsion now. They want a fire escape and not Jesus.
There are many Christians who originally received the good news with great joy. But persecutions and the troubles faced in life erode the joy. When we find the joy of our salvation has become weak, we like the psalmist need to return to the joy of our salvation. “Bring us back to the day when we first received you as Lord and Savior!” This is why we come together to worship and admonish one another. When we come to the church service, we need to be reminded of the joy that is set before us. It is time for us to reset our attitude. We need to do two things. Paul tells us in Colossians that we need to look upward to where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. The other is to look forward to His return. As this is the season of Advent, we remember that Jesus is returning to receive us unto Himself. The one who can be truly joyful in this season is the true Christian. That person is ready.
The world tries to ape our joy. They try to celebrate Christmas. But the Christmas joy is only superficial. And with the pandemic, the world is even trying to blow out the last embers of joy. They say it is too dangerous to celebrate. Those who will celebrate thing that the Wal-Marts of this world are the saving places. The world puts up its lights. Much tinsel is put on the tree. People hope for the joy of a good shopping season which will lift our economy. People will eat rich foods. The people await a baby Jesus who came 2000 years ago. They are happy to serve a baby, but not the King of Kings. They can control the baby Jesus safely protected by us in our arms. And for those who are a little more secular, there is always Santa Claus. It is said “He knows when you’ve been sleeping; he knows when your awake; he knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake!” What drivel! Santa has replaced the Lord Jesus in their hearts. He is a jolly fat man. The terrors of the Last Judgment has been replaced by a lump of unlit coal for those who are naughty. He points to the goodness of men rather than the goodness of Jesus Christ who became flesh for the purpose of saving us from our sins.
It is indeed saddening to me that so few believe and follow Jesus. They don’t realize that they can have real joy which is for all situations and not just for good times. It is even more saddening to me to realize that we have lost this joy. We talk about a dying church rather than a living Lord who is coming to take us home to Him. We are as those who had remembered the splendor of the first Temple and were dismayed at how inferior the new Temple was. (Haggai 2:3) The first Temple was built in prosperous times. But the returning exiles built the second out of their poverty. Is it possible that God would have been more pleased with the Temple built out of poverty? Maybe the prosperous times of the church with its cathedrals have passed. But God is more pleased with tabernacles in the wilderness erected by pilgrims than mighty temples build without true faith. We are pilgrims would be better off in booths in the wilderness in the presence of God than great houses which are empty.
So let us this Advent look up to heaven. Let us be lifted up by God’s precious promises which He has given us in Jesus Christ. Let us continue to proclaim the year of the LORD’s release to all the captives that they might find true freedom in Jesus Christ. May they have listening hearts, so they might become like us. It is our joy in Jesus that will make some realize that God has indeed done great things for us. If the world sees this, how much more should we remember that God has indeed done great things for us. In the midst of the desert of plenty in the Babylons of this world, let us be instead refreshed by the streams in the desert of scarcity. For where the Lord is is no desert at all.
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