The Israelites sang the Pilgrim Psalms or the Psalms of Ascent (Psalm 120 – 134) as they went up to Jerusalem three times a year to celebrate the feasts of Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles. They found themselves leaving the cares of their homes and livelihood and making this journey towards Jerusalem to draw closer to God and come to experience peace, wholeness, provision, faith, forgiveness, hope and joy!

Psalm 126 talks to us about Joy. Happiness depends on “happenings” or external circumstances, but Joy is more permanent. So, what is Joy? Joy is more than a feeling. It is the fruit of the Spirit and is the confident assurance of God’s goodness now and into the future, no matter the circumstances! Kay Warren in her book “Choose Joy: Because Happiness Isn't Enough” defines Joy as this: “Joy is the settled assurance that God is in control of all the details of my life, the quiet confidence that ultimately everything is going to be alright, and the determined choice to praise God in every situation.”

Background & Context
To understand Psalm 126, it is important to understand the background and context in which Psalm 126 was written. Psalm 137 helps paint this background.
Psalm 137:1-4 (NIV)
1 By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.
2 There on the poplars    we hung our harps,
3 for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
4 How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land?

In 597 B.C. Judah was conquered by the Babylonian king, King Nebuchadnezzar and the people were taken into exile. In reading Psalm 137, we witness the profound sorrow of people ruthlessly taken away from their land and from Jerusalem where they worshipped God at the temple. As they gather by the rivers of Babylon, they are cruelly taunted by their captors and forced to sing joyous songs of their homeland and of their God. These people were defeated, and depressed and could not sing their joyous songs anymore. It seemed impossible that they could ever come out of captivity and be able to rejoice again. Yet we can read in 2 Chronicles 36: 22-23, how the Lord stirred up King Cyrus of Babylon to not only let go of the people but also help appoint someone to rebuild a temple for God in Jerusalem!

2 Chronicles 36:22-23 (NIV)
22 In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, in order to fulfill the word of the LORD spoken by Jeremiah, the LORD moved the heart of Cyrus king of Persia to make a proclamation throughout his realm and also to put it in writing: 23 “This is what Cyrus king of Persia says:
“‘The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and he has appointed me to build a temple for him at Jerusalem in Judah. Any of his people among you may go up, and may the LORD their God be with them.’”

After 70 years, the people in exile in Babylon were back in Jerusalem! The pain of God’s people was not permanent, and the reversal and deliverance was great! Weeping may last for a night, but joy comes in the morning! Psalm 126 was written after the return from exile in Babylon probably around 516 BC.

A Closer Look at Psalm 126
We can unpack Psalm 126 in 3 sections: verses 1-3 which are written in the past tense, verse 4 written in the present tense and finally verses 5 and 6 written in the future tense.

1. Remember God’s Work in the Past
Psalm 126:1-3 (NIV)
1 When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dreamed. 
2 Our mouths were filled with laughter, our tongues with songs of joy.
Then it was said among the nations, “The LORD has done great things for them.”
3 The LORD has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy.

This event of the exiles returning to Jerusalem from Babylon was hugely significant for the people and a time of great joy, so much so that it seemed that they were dreaming at the time. Even the surrounding nations could not believe a ruler would return the captives back to their homeland. Exile was usually so effective in wiping out a people group that it was considered irreversible. And so, when God bought them home to Jerusalem, they were filled with laughter and joy and could not believe what God had done for them!

However, note that these verses are written in the past tense. The present circumstances in Jerusalem were difficult – their homes were in ruins, the uncultivated land was fallow and the temple a heap of rubble and rubbish! There was so much work to do and it was overwhelming. The joy was already in the past, the present difficult and the future uncertain. Despite this, the people stopped and remembered the joy of their deliverance. They looked back and recounted how God had done the impossible for them! The Israelites as they were back in Jerusalem now started celebrating the festivals of Passover, Pentecost, and the Tabernacles and also remembered how God had delivered them from slavery in Egypt and the many supernatural miracles he did in establishing them in the Promised Land.

We too can feel that we are in exile when we look at the difficult circumstances in our world and in our own lives. For us on the other side of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, we can remember and reflect on the joy of our salvation, the many times and ways God has worked in our lives to bring provision, healing and a way out for us when we too were faced with the impossible. No matter what we currently face, our present joy can be found in remembering what God has done for us in our past as this psalm reminds us!

2. Pray for and Expect Restoration in the Present
Psalm 126: 4 (NIV)
4 Restore our fortunes, Lord, like streams in the Negev.
The psalmist here is now facing the devastation on their return to Jerusalem and saying a prayer, a request, a petition to God to restore them! He is asking God for a spectacular restoration like the Negev region does when it gets rains. The Negev region is the desert region in the south of Israel and is an arid area that is very dry and parched. However, in certain seasons when there is rainfall in the Negev, it comes copiously and abundantly and what was a dry riverbed is transformed into a torrential streams and the whole area blossoms.  This is the vivid picture of restoration that we need to expect! It speaks of a sudden outpouring of God’s Holy Spirit and blessing!

Psalm 126: 4 (MSG)
And now, God, do it again—  bring rains to our drought-stricken lives
In reading the Message translation, we are reminded that God can “do it again” and restore our present drought-stricken lives just like He did it in the past! We can put our trust and confidence in God because of the lavish promises that God has given us.

The captives experienced the restoration of God. God helped the captives re-establish themselves in the land and to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem overcoming much difficulty and discouragement just as the prophet Jeremiah had prophesized to the exiles while they were in exile. 
Jeremiah 29:10-12 (NIV)
10 This is what the Lord says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place. 11 For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. 12 Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you.

Just like how the streams suddenly flowed through the parched Negev when the rain comes, so too the obstacles in our lives can be swept away even as God sends His Holy Spirit to do a mighty work in our life! So, there is Joy in intimacy with God in placing our prayer requests and in the anticipation of what He will do next! We can have joy as we expect a mighty restoration when we pray for the present difficulties we face.

3. Sow and Anticipate a Great Harvest in the Future
Psalm 126: 5-6 (NIV)
5 Those who sow with tears will reap with songs of joy.
6 Those who go out weeping, carrying seed to sow,
will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with them.

Often God also works through a slower but very certain way in our lives - through the process of sowing and reaping. The pilgrims who sang this psalm knew that there were hardships and heartbreak in this life. Jesus told us in John 16:33 that in this world we will have trouble but to take heart as He has overcome the world! In the journey of life, we too are pilgrims moving our way up to Heavenly Jerusalem, the city of our God where there will be no more tears. We need to persevere through these trials, and we don’t give up because it will be so worth it when we see our God face to face!

Jesus is our example and He is calling each of us to model after Him. Jesus sowed His life on the cross in anticipation of the joy of our redemption and harvest of our souls!
Hebrews 12:1-2 (NIV)
. . . . . let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, 2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

God has given us seeds to sow in this life – seeds of purpose and destiny in our lives, seeds of the Gospel, seeds of hope, seeds of prayer, seeds of love and kindness that we need to sow. Often when we sow these seeds, things may not be perfect in our lives and there may be many areas that we are waiting on God for a breakthrough. However, we need to persevere and sow in tears anyway as the promise from God is that we will reap a rich harvest that will fill us with much joy! Regardless of our present conditions, we need to sow today in anticipation of the great harvest and unending joy ahead of us!

This beautiful pilgrim psalm, Psalm 126 reminds us that we can have Joy in our journey as pilgrims of God
  • Remembering what God has done in the past
  • Praying in expectation for restoration in the present and
  • Anticipating a great harvest of joy in the future as we sow

Let us live joyfully and in great confidence of God’s goodness both now and into the future. The Joy of the Lord is our Strength!

Discussion Questions
1. What is your definition of Joy? Does it align with the Biblical definition of Joy that Kay Warren’s summarises here: “Joy is the settled assurance that God is in control of all the details of my life, the quiet confidence that ultimately everything is going to be alright, and the determined choice to praise God in every situation.”? 
2. Why did the people who returned to Jerusalem from exile in Babylon remember their past and what God had done for them (Psalm 126:1-3)?
a. What are some of the instances in your own life where God has powerfully worked, and you would not have got through without God’s help? 
b. How can remembrance and reflection of these instances help you with joy in the present?
3. Why is prayer important to experiencing joy (Psalm 126:4)? What are some areas in your life you could do with restoration? What is your part in bringing about this mighty restoration and what is God’s part?
4. How does the prophecy given by Jeremiah (Jeremiah 29:10-12) to the people in exile in Babylon reveal God’s goodness and intention for their lives? How did this prophecy manifest in the lives of the returned exiles? What lessons can we learn from this to encourage us to further trust God in our life’s journey? 
5. Why is it important to sow into the future even when we are experiencing difficulty in the present? How does Jesus’ example (Hebrews 12:1-2) motivate you?
6. What are some of the things you could practically do to experience more joy in your life?

Join Andrew, Liz and Greg discuss what joy means to them in a time of isolation and uncertainty. Watch the Conversation video here.
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