When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like those who dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then they said among the nations,
“The Lord has done great things for them.”
The Lord has done great things for us;
we are glad.
Restore our fortunes, O Lord,
like streams in the Negeb!
Those who sow in tears
shall reap with shouts of joy!
He who goes out weeping,
bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
bringing his sheaves with him.
This is one of my favorite Psalms. My daughter actually created a plaque for me using the last verse as the theme of a beautiful pastel painting depicting the sorrow and joy represented in the Psalm.
As we consider this Psalm it is important to understand when it was written and why. Though there are differing interpretations, the approach in the classic commentary of Keil and Delitzsch is the most satisfying to me. This Psalm was written not in the ecstasy of release from exile but in the difficulty of re-building a devastated community after their return from exile. It was written in the difficult, barren time between Cyrus’ decree of return for the Jewish exiles in Babylon c. 538 B.C. and the revival in the time of Haggai and Zechariah in 516 B.C. Cyrus’ decree released native Judeans from their captivity in Babylon. They were free to return to Jerusalem and many of them, up to 50,000, did. There was ecstasy, there was euphoria. “We were like those who dreamed.” Even the pagan nations recognized the miraculous nature of their return to Jerusalem – to rebuild their temple, to rebuild their lives, to rebuild their society.
This event is confirmed by the Cylinder of Cyrus, an archaeological artifact from this time period, a clay cuneiform tablet which records the decree of Cyrus allowing peoples taken into captivity by Nebuchadnezzar to return to their lands and re-establish their forms of worship.
The Psalm unfolds in three movements. The first is one of the ecstasy of release. The second is one of unrealized expectations and bitter disappointment, perhaps in some cases despair. This is the life situation in which the Psalm is written. The euphoria of release from captivity is replaced by the reality of the hardships of life in Judea. The amazing turn of fortune and a political miracle is now being lived out in the grim circumstances of a stagnant economy, a stalemated society, a leadership paralyzed by political and legal challenge, and a stagnant spirituality. It is not from the place of laughter but the place of tears that the Psalmists cries, “Do it again, Lord! Restore our fortunes as streams in the Negeb.” This transitions to the third movement – an exhortation to live in the faith, hope and persevering struggle that there is yet the reward of a harvest of resurrection to come.
The initial euphoria is an expression of expectation. We are going to possess our city! We are returning home. We will build a paradise. But there is no paradise, only the hard, draining work of fighting legal, political, and spiritual foes, overcoming a stagnant economy, and pushing uphill against a stagnant spirituality rooted in the malaise of unrealized expectations.
So will it ever be on this earth. The desire and expectation of glory collides with the facts on the ground. For here we have no continuing city. Nevertheless, God has prepared for us a city – one that our forebears in the faith sought earnestly. A city which has foundations whose architect and builder is God. Euphoric responses to the miraculous works of God must be tempered by this sober truth. Otherwise we are vulnerable to the chimera of utopian schemes, the cunning and craftiness of men, and of the one who turns himself into an angel of light.
C.S. Lewis addresses the issue of earthly paradise:
If we thought we were building up a heaven on earth, if we looked for something that would turn the present world from a place of pilgrimage into a permanent city satisfying the soul of man, we are disillusioned, and not a moment too soon.
C.S. Lewis, Learning in War Time
The first two movements, ecstasy and the bitter disappointment of unrealized expectations give way to a third movement, the expression of hope and a confident faith. The Psalmist looks back to past deliverance and the miracle of a political transformation, a complete change in status for the people. He also considers the natural miracle of a transformed landscape. The Negeb is the southern dessert which awakens to life in the rainy season. The dormant seed in the dead desert blossoms into a spectacle of life, even the dusty streambeds are filled with water, renewed. Past experience and nature itself remind us that there is a God of resurrection.
The entire setting is reminiscent of an illustration the late Welsh preacher Arthur Burt often used regarding flash film photography – a method some may not remember very well. The flash of God’s revelation (euphoria) was followed by a time with a negative in a dark room (disillusionment) emerging into a beautiful completed picture of the initial event or revelation. Thus God’s revelation works in our lives: glorious prophecy, the cross, the tomb, only then the resurrection.
Faith and hope are realized in the power of the lowly seed. A seed is an amazing thing often referred to in scripture. Jesus spoke of the kingdom of God as a seed. He spoke of his own death and resurrection as a seed which falls into the ground, and that does not abide alone. Sowing a seed is an act of faith, and is carried out in the attitude of the hope of a harvest. The structure of the last verses is in the form of a promise – the words for going out and returning back are written twice in the original language (Hebrew) as if in a double affirmative. It is an affirmation of the truth of the verse, a promise actually. Surely, the tearful man or woman who engages in the simple act of faith and hope – sowing a seed – will doubtless come again rejoicing with a harvest of good things!
Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed.
God calls us, by faith, from tears to triumph!