THE BOOK OF PSALMS
A Psalm of Restoration
The exile of the Jewish people into Babylon in 586 BC severely tested their faith. For centuries they had lived in Judea with Jerusalem as their capital, believing that ultimate harm would never befall them. For sure they would suffer defeat at the hands of their enemies from time to time. At times even the holy city would be sacked; however, never in their wildest imaginations did they think that God would allow them to see the city of God destroyed, to be completely uprooted from their homes, and then to be transported to another country. That just was not going to happen since they were God’s people; however, that is exactly what did happen.
Through the ministry of the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel, the Jews came to understand that God’s punishment was for the purpose of turning the people back to Him. Since the days of Solomon in 960 BC, the people had flirted with idolatry. At times they had even given themselves to the wholesale worship of idols. God punished them in order to remove once and for all the scourge of idolatry from their midst. As a result, the punishment, while lengthy, was not permanent. After spending 70 years in Babylon, God allowed them to return home by softening the heart of the Persian Emperor, Cyrus. The return to Judea, while a physical return to the Holy Land, was nothing less than a spiritual return to the Lord. The psalm before us celebrates this restoration. While the physical return dominates this passage, the Jews knew that it was only because of a spiritual restoration that they were allowed to return home. As a result, over a period of time this psalm expressed their beliefs about spiritual revival and restoration.
In the history of the Jews, the Babylonian exile led to their restoration. Today, God does not send His people into physical exile in order to restore them; however, at times He does let them suffer in order to bring them to their senses. The suffering may involve financial loss, physical illness, loss in relationships, etc. These do not necessarily mean that a person has veered away from God; however, when these things do happen, we need to seek the Lord to discover if restoration is the purpose of these misfortunes.
THE EFFECTS OF ISRAEL’S RESTORATION (126:1-3)
Before looking at the effects the restoration had upon the Jews, we need to discuss, first, what is necessary for God’s people to experience restoration (spiritual revival). One of 2 things prevents us from experiencing God’s presence (restoration): (1) sin in our lives or (2) a tenacious grip on our comfort zone. I don’t know which of these 2 categories I fall into, but the Lord has really worked on my life since last September, bringing me restoration. Two circumstances were affecting my relationship with the Lord. The first dealt with friends who proved to be faithless. Paul teaches ministers in 1 Thess. 2 that they are not just to impart the Word to their flock but to impart themselves also. A family who had been very close to Nancy and me, who had been very supportive of my ministry, one Sunday just upped and left the church because they got upset with somebody else in the church. That totally blew me away. They were such a source of encouragement in my life; I really trusted them. When they had shared some personal things about themselves to Nancy and me, we in turn reciprocated. Then all of a sudden, they are gone. It made me wonder if I could trust anybody from now in the church. If they just upped and left because of a rift with another family, what was going to keep everybody else or anybody else from abandoning ship? I took it extremely hard.
The next situation, which put me in crisis, was learning how to deal with difficult people. (Now you need to understand that I am writing from MY perspective. From an objective viewpoint, I might have been the one at fault. We’ll only know on Judgment Day.) It was an on-going type situation, which I honestly did not know how to deal with. Fortunately, I was able to spend some time alone with Mel Blackaby during the revival discussing my situation. Through our discussion I was able to come to what I believe is Christ’s solution to the situation. If you have a difficult person(s) in your life, you’re supposed to love them. Love wisely, to be sure, but nevertheless love. With regards to the first situation, I had to forgive. You just don’t dump on relationships; however, when somebody does that to you, you just have to forgive them and move on. After dealing with these 2 circumstances in my life, I felt God’s presence like I had not felt in quite some time. I felt like a big burden had been taken off my back. Had God been with me all that time? Just like He had been with the Jews in Babylon, He had been with me during these desert months; it’s just that now I felt His presence in a more intense way. Those were the 2 situations which I had to deal with in order to experience restoration. What are yours?
The psalmist describes first the way Israel’s restoration affected the Jews—“we were like those who dream.” One day they are sitting by the River Chebar in Babylon, and the next day they are preparing to return to their spiritual home in Judea. It seemed too good to be true. It was like what the 11 disciples experienced on Easter Sunday. When they first heard that Jesus had risen from the dead, they did not believe it—not because they didn’t want to but because it seemed too good to be true and they did not want to be disappointed again (Luke 24:41). Well, just like the resurrection, the restoration of the Jews was too good to be true, and yet it was still true. It was like they were in the midst of a wonderful dream, and they were afraid that at any moment somebody might pinch them and awaken them from it.
The first result of the restoration was that the Jews broke forth in praise to God: “Then our mouth was filled with laughter. And our tongue with joyful shouting” (126:2). One element that is missing from many churches is that of testimony, that is, telling the congregation about the wonderful things God has accomplished in their lives. The reason we probably fail to share is that we fear being vulnerable, or even being condemned. Why fear of condemnation? Because unfortunately many times Christians do not zero in on the wonderful thing God has done in a person’s life but on the horrible thing God rescued them from. Some ministers shy away from testimony services because they feel threatened whenever their congregation may have had a dramatic encounter with God recently and they have not. No matter the reason, the absence of testimony from worship deprives God’s people of the joy of and excitement of hearing how God has operated in their midst. Not just in the midst of His people 2000 years ago but in their midst today! In fact, God may not act dramatically in the lives of some of His people because He knows they will keep the knowledge to themselves and not share it with others. God operates dramatically in our lives not just for our benefit but also for the benefit of others (2 Cor. 1:4).
The second result of this restoration was that the nations, that is, the Gentiles praised God for what He had done for the Jews. They could not believe it at first when the Babylonians had come and destroyed the nation of Judah. What was once a powerful force in international affairs was now just a distant memory. For all intents and purposes, they believed that Israel was a dead nation. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes though, the Jewish nation rose to life again. In the opinion of the foreign nations, the impossible had just come to pass—Israel had come to life again.
The result was that the nations praised God. They actually saw the God of Israel perform a tremendous act on Israel’s behalf. This was one of the reasons God allowed Israel to undergo punishment and restoration—to show His great power on Israel’s behalf to the nations. God would prefer to show His power through more positive steps, but He is willing to show it through negative means if necessary. The power of God in the midst of God’s people more than anything else convinces a lost world of the reality of God and of His loving commitment to His people.
The same holds true today. The church has been most effective in communicating the gospel to the world. You cannot turn on the TV without seeing either a commercial, paid program, or regular program about the gospel. Billboards “quoting” God are displayed around the Dallas/Ft. Worth metroplex these days. (I especially like the one that says: “If you don’t stop taking My name in vain, rush hour’s going to get a lot worse!”) By no means should we stop communicating verbally God’s Word; however, our primary focus should be on allowing God to live His life through you and me so that the world will have to encounter God. The only explanation that the world should be able to give for your life and my life is the power of God. If the world can give anything less than that explanation for our lives, then we have failed in our obligations to the world and to God. [“I shall find out not the words of those who are arrogant but their power; for the kingdom of God does not consist in words but in power” (1 Cor. 4:19).]
PRAYER FOR FURTHER RESTORATION (126:4-6)
At first, you would think that the psalm would conclude with verse 3. God has restored His people. Not only has He restored them, He has done so in such a fashion that all the world has come to know what God has done. Yet starting in v. 4, the psalmist throws us a curve. Whereas God has restored His people, the psalmist prays for further restoration: “Restore our captivity, O Lord, as the streams in the South.” Apparently the first group of Jews who returned to Jerusalem from Babylon wrote the psalm. They were small in number, whereas the group they left behind numbered in the tens of thousands. The returning exiles pray that God bring back the ones still in Babylon in such numbers that they will resemble the rushing torrents in the South, the area below Jerusalem. Judea is for all practical purposes a wilderness. Dry riverbeds dot the landscape; however, during rainy season these dry riverbeds can become raging floods. As a result of this, the desert blooms during the spring and early summer. The restored exiles are praying that with the massive returns of the exiles still living in Babylon, the Holy Land will once more bloom. Restoration has come; it’s just not complete.
Of all the verses in this psalm, I believe that this verse most particularly applies to our church. I really believe that FBC Corsicana has received a touch from God. God used the prayers of His people to speak through Mel Blackaby during our spring revival. I sense that our people took his words as really being words from the Lord. His emphasis on prayer continues to affect our church as we see B.F. emphasizing prayer more than any pastor I’ve served under. Prayer meeting, which once had been reduced into prayer for the elderly and sick has actually become a time of praying for other hurts and needs in our church. This past week, our prayer group prayed for some of the youth who are not doing well spiritually. About 2 weeks ago, about 50 adults during prayer meeting prayed for every member in my SS class. During that time, I felt God’s real presence in our midst.
Well, as good as God’s touch on our church has been, we have not arrived. In fact, there is no such thing as arriving in the Christian life until we actually die or Christ returns. Paul writes: “Not that I have already obtained it or have already become perfect, but I press on in order that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus. . . . I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:12,14). Now Paul is not writing this right after he had been converted. He has been a Christian for almost 30 years and has already gone on his 3 great missionary journeys. Within a few years he will be dead. If Paul at this late date in his life had not yet arrived spiritually, then how much less have we arrived as individuals and as a church. There is still much ground to cover.
Look at how the psalmist characterizes life in this present age: “sowing with tears.” In other words, life—even the Christian life—can be hard work. Sometimes it is hard to keep true to the Lord. I’m not talking about doing something horribly bad. What I mean is that for some Christians, it is hard to show love to the unlovely. For other Christians, it would be so easy to withhold the tithe and spend on themselves the very money God has designated for promoting His kingdom. In the case of others, it is easy to withdraw from ministering to others because they just don’t respond the way you would want them to respond. It would be easy as a leader to give up because people just don’t always do what they’re supposed to do. Well, not only is there no arriving, there is also no giving up. As Paul writes: “I press on toward the goal!”
Whereas this may seem pessimistic, the fact is that a joyful harvest results from this labor of sorrow and perseverance. I’ve seen it in my personal life, and I’ve seen it in the life of churches. Sometimes God works on areas of my life that I thought were completely submitted to Him. Well, He wants to plow deeper. Plowing, though, tears up the soil; it hurts when God plows. God, though, is committed to deepening us and drawing us closer to Him. But just like tilling the soil leads to physical harvest, by not giving up as an individual and as a congregation, the day will come when we will experience spiritual harvest. As individuals, we sense God’s presence in and favor on our lives. As a congregation, not only are we our worship services charged with the movement of God, God’s people are excitedly engaged in the task God has set forth for them—reaching a lost world and developing God’s people. Genuine fellowship, then, occurs in the church. God’s people, then, get serious about His Word. They read it, meditate over it, and even honor it in their own lives. Prayer is not put on the back burner but actually becomes the spiritual force, which revitalizes the entire congregation. Whereas we won’t arrive until death or Jesus’ return, we can to a real degree experience the wonderful harvest that is God going to bring about when Christ does return.