1 When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like those who dream.
2 Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts 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 rejoiced.
4 Restore our fortunes, O Lord,
like the watercourses in the Negeb.
5 May those who sow in tears
reap with shouts of joy.
6 Those who go out weeping,
bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
carrying their sheaves.
As we watch and wait for the Lord who comes, our yearning may resemble those who are displaced from home. In this ‘song of ascent’ for pilgrims to Jerusalem, the psalmist recalls both the longing and rejoicing of those living in exile centuries before Jesus was born.
At first, and for long years of captivity in a strange land, the hope of these displaced people for Zion in Jerusalem was only a dream… A hope-filled dream that passed to a second – and perhaps into a third – generation of God’s faithful, before being granted their release by Cyrus of Persia.
“Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongues with shouts of joy.”
Joy they felt, not just for themselves, but in praise to the LORD God of Israel who had delivered them. This is a song about “joy remembered and joy anticipated,” as Professor Jim Mays explains. “In both cases the joy is the work of the LORD…through the restoration of Zion …and the renewal of those who sing the song.”[i]
Their deliverance, of course, was the marvel of other nations, the psalmist proclaims:
“The LORD has done great things for them.” (verse 2b)
And then the song of grace is brought home to Israel – and to us, too, in our pilgrimage of faith:
“The LORD has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.” (verse 3)
There are verses in the scriptures, we may find, to underscore and recall. This single verse in the heart of a psalmist’s song of praise may be one of them. Advent bids us to remember the God who has done great things for us. In the midst of a world that seems to have lost its way… to a people who may only dream of a ‘home’ that’s far removed and away from reality…God came to them – God comes to us – to reveal the way of truth and to invite all with ears to hear… “Follow me.”
In our northland’s encroaching darkness of winter and its solstice…In our prefabricated merriment of a season which can distract our need and focus on God’s true blessings… The song of a Hebrew poet echoes down and rings true through the prophet, priest and king who was born in Bethlehem…who lived and taught in Galilee…who died and rose from death in Jerusalem… and who promises his followers – then and in every age… “I am with you always.”
The final verse of this ancient song became the words of a gospel hymn that some of us used to know and sing: “We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.”[ii] Yet a newer hymn seems to capture even better the hope and joy-filled words of the Hebrew psalmist
(and sung to the lively gospel tune, “I’ll Fly Away”).
“When the Lord returns in victory, we will rejoice.
When we live in glorious liberty, we will rejoice.
We will rejoice with gladness. We will rejoice.
All our days we’ll sing to God in praise.
We will rejoice!”[iii]
A prayer for this day:
Lord God of all creation. Let us rejoice and be glad as we watch and wait for the Lord who has come and whose promised return fills our lives with hope and praise. Amen.
Rev. Dr. W. Clay Macaulay (D. Min., 1985)
Campbell Memorial Presbyterian Church
[i] James L. Mays, Psalms – Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Preaching and Teaching (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1994), Psalm 126: Restore Us, p.399.
[ii] From Bringing In the Sheaves, Knowles Shaw and George A. Minor, from The New National Baptist Hymnal (Nashville: National Baptist Publishing Board, 1977), #392.
[iii] From When the Lord Redeems the Very Least, Sylvia G. Dunstan, 1991, Glory to God – The Presbyterian Hymnal (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013), #852, verse 4; music: Albert E. Brumley, 1932.