Psalm 126 – From Tears to Joy

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The Psalms of Ascent | Stepping Stones to God’s Heart

“From Tears to Joy” (Psalm 126)

“The LORD has done great things for us!” (Psalm 126:3)

INTRODUCTION: We are continuing in our study on the Psalms of Ascent, and our message series is called “Stepping Stones to God’s Heart.” These psalms trace the upward ascent of our heart to God’s heart, but it’s not smooth sailing all the way. We have seen how these Psalms operate in groups of three – a psalm of trouble, followed by a psalm of trust, followed by a psalm of triumph. In other words, it’s not all, all, all the way up all the time. We wish it were, but it’s not. And like the psalmist in the Psalms of Ascent, we make our way up toward God through a series of up and down movements. This is the first psalm in a new group of three, so we are back to another psalm of trouble.

It is also another song of Zion. Last week we looked at Psalm 125 which was the first song of Zion in the Psalms of Ascent, and we saw that Zion is a common theme throughout the remainder of these psalms. Mount Zion is a symbol for Jerusalem, which itself represents the place where God dwells with his people. Psalm 126 is a song that looks back to when the captives returned to Jerusalem following their long exile in Babylon. They had suffered so much, and now they suddenly found themselves back in their homeland, back in Jerusalem, back in the beloved city of God. Just like that, God had delivered them. This is a psalm that we need during times of crisis. It is a much needed reminder of how God brings us from tears to joy. (Read Psalm 126:1-6 and pray.)

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We all go through hard times, and sometimes when you are in the thick of sorrow, it feels like it will never end. When you wake up each morning to tears, and you go to bed each evening with tears, it is difficult to see your way forward. You begin to lose hope. You begin to wonder, “Is this all that God has for me? Will I ever be happy again?”

When you are going through a time of deep sorrow, Psalm 126 is strong medicine for your soul. It carries a powerful message of hope. It tells you that times of trouble and sorrow do not last. It tells you that God will turn your sorrow to joy and your tears to laughter. It even tells you what you should do while you are waiting.

If you are going through a challenging time right now, I trust that his psalm will speak to your heart this morning. Let me tell you right up front, whatever you’re going through, it will get better. God will change your tears to joy. I know it seems hard to believe, but it was hard to believe for the Jews returning to Jerusalem, too. So let’s look at the psalm together.

The psalm basically has two stanzas with two main ideas. The first stanza encourages you to marvel at how God has helped you in the past. And the second stanza encourages you to trust God to do it again!

I. Marvel at how God has helped you in the past (1-3)

So first of all, marvel at how God has helped you in the past. Look at verses 1-3: “When the Lord brought back the captives to Zion, we were like men 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.” (Psalm 126:1-3) This first stanza encourages you to marvel at how God has helped you in the past. Don’t just think about it, don’t just reflect on it, don’t just remember – but marvel at what God has already done for you.

   A. Pinch me, I must be dreaming!
      – Ezra 1:1-4; Job 42:10; Acts 12:9-11

When God delivers you big time, it can feel like you’re in a dream. That’s what we see in verse 1: “When the Lord brought back the captives to Zion, we were like men who dreamed.” (Psalm 126:1)

The year was 538 B.C. The Jews had been exiled to Babylon seventy years earlier. Seventy years is a long time. The people had settled down. They had established homes in the new land. Some of them had been born in exile. It was all they knew. And then suddenly, Cyrus, the new king, made a proclamation allowing all the Jews to go home. (Ezra 1:1-4)

The Jews had experienced seventy long years in captivity, and then in a moment, God turns things around. Just like that! They were in shock. They couldn’t believe it. It was too good to be true. Somebody pinch me, I must be dreaming! It was impossible. It couldn’t have happened, and yet it did! They were now back in Jerusalem, back in the holy city, back in Zion, the place where God dwells with his people, and it all felt like a dream.

You can see why this psalm became one of the Psalms of Ascent. The pilgrims making their way to Jerusalem each year for the feasts would have been acutely aware that this was the same route the captives had taken when they returned. And they would have marveled at God’s graciousness in returning the captives to Zion.

I experienced a similar feeling when the Lord led us back here to Plantation Community Church. It didn’t seem real at first. God had shut every door, and we had been out of the ministry for three years. I was even in process of writing an article titled, “In Between Churches, or Out of the Ministry?” Because we didn’t know. And then suddenly, God made his plan clear. PCC was in need of a pastor, and we were living a mile down the road. The church called, we prayed, the Lord led, and suddenly I found myself pastoring the church where we had raised our kids. It didn’t seem possible. Somebody pinch me, I must be dreaming! But it was real. Because that’s how God works.

I imagine that must be how Job felt when God restored him after his time of suffering. We read in Job 42:10: “After Job had prayed for his friends, the LORD made him prosperous again and gave him twice as much as he had before.” (Job 42:10) Now Job went through far more than you or I ever will. He must have wondered if God was through with him, whether there was any joy left on the other side. And then God did it. He restored Job and made him prosperous again.

When God rescued Peter from jail in the New Testament, it felt like a dream to him. In fact, he actually thought it was a dream. We read in Acts 12: “Peter had no idea that what the angel was doing was really happening; he thought he was seeing a vision …Then Peter came to himself and said, ‘Now I know without a doubt that the Lord sent his angel and rescued me.” (Acts 12:9-11)

   B. Laughter and songs of joy
      – Genesis 21:6-7; Psalm 137:1-4

Back to Psalm 126 look at verse 2 now: “Our mouths were filled with laughter, our tongues with songs of joy.” (Psalm 126:2) Before you can understand their laughter and joy, you must first understand their sorrow. The captives experienced great sorrow and mourning in exile. In fact some of the most heartbreaking passages in the Bible have to do with the exile of the Jews to Babylon – passages in the book of Lamentations or like Psalm 137.

We read these heartbreaking words in Psalm 137: “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. There on the poplars we hung our harps, for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’ How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?” (Psalm 137:1-4)

Their tormentors demanded songs of joy, but they just sat by the waters of Babylon and wept. How can you sing when you are held captive in a foreign land? But now by an amazing work of God they were suddenly back in Zion. And so their mouths were filled with laughter and songs of joy. Joy is mentioned four times in this psalm. Songs of joy are mentioned twice (see verse 6). Joy is all over this psalm, which is ironic when you consider it is one of the psalms of trouble.

When you are drowning in tears and sorrow, you sometimes wonder if you will ever laugh again. Psalm 126 says you will! In God’s time your sorrow will be lifted, and God will fill your mouth with laughter and songs of joy.

I think of Abraham’s wife, Sarah, in the Old Testament. Sarah knew the bitterness of being barren. I am sure she shed many tears over the years. But when God gave her the gift of Isaac in her old age, she said: “God has brought me laughter, and everyone who hears about this will laugh with me.” And she added, “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would nurse children? Yet I have borne him a son in his old age.” (Genesis 21:6-7) Who would have said that Sarah would nurse children? Who would have thought it? Somebody pinch me, I must be dreaming! In a moment, in an instant God can take away your tears and fill your mouth with laughter and songs of joy.

   C. Glory to God and joy for us
      – Isaiah 25:9, 52:10; Luke 1:49

And when God does a work like this in your life, it brings glory to God and joy for us. That’s what we see in verses 2-3: “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.” (Psalm 126:2-3)

“It was said among the nations.” What God did for Israel was so amazing that even the surrounding nations had to sit up and take notice of what God had done and give God the glory.
And then notice that after the nations give glory to God, so also does Israel. “The Lord has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy.”

God’s salvation is meant to be seen by the nations. We read in Isaiah 52:10: “The Lord will lay bare his holy arm in the sight of all the nations, and all the ends of the earth will see the salvation of our God.” (Isaiah 52:10)

These verses remind us of our responsibility to tell others what God has done for us. Do your friends and neighbors know what God has done for you? Do you share testimonies of God’s goodness with those around you on a regular basis? If the pagans nations could give glory to God for what he had done, we better do our job too!

Christians should be the most joyful of all people, because God has done great things for us! The testimony of Isaiah 25:9 should be our testimony: “Surely this is our God; we trusted in him, and he saved us. This is the Lord, we trusted in him; let us rejoice and be glad in his salvation.” (Isaiah 25:9) Or we can sing like Mary did in the New Testament when God chose her to be the mother of Jesus: “For the Mighty One has done great things for me – holy is his name.” (Luke 1:49)

Notice that verse 3 in Psalm 126 is the only verse in this psalm that is in the present tense. Verses 1-2 are in the past tense. Verses 4-6 are in the future. Verse 3 expresses joy in the present based on remembrance of the past and hope for the future. When God does a work of deliverance in your life, it brings glory to God and joy for us.

II. Trust God to do it again! (4-6)
   – Lamentations 3:22-23

So that’s the first thing we learn from our psalm this morning – marvel at how God has helped you in the past. And then secondly, trust God to do it again. Look at verses 4-6: “Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like streams in the Negev. 5 Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy. 6 He who goes out weeping, carrying seed to sow, will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with him.” (Psalm 126:4-6)

The captives were back in Jerusalem, but there was still much work to be done. They needed to rebuild the temple and rebuild the walls. They faced discouragement from within and opposition from without. God had worked a great deliverance for them in the past. Now they needed to trust him to do it again.

Lamentations 3:22-23 says: “Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” (Lamentations 3:22-23) You may face fresh troubles each day, but God has fresh mercies for you each day to face them. God has done great things for you in the past. Now you need to trust him to do it again.

   A. Pray for God’s full restoration and blessing
      – Isaiah 35:6; Joel 2:25

This second part of the psalm teaches you to do three specific things when you find yourself in times of trouble. First of all, pray for God’s full restoration and blessing. Look at verse 4 where the psalmist prays: “Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like streams in the Negev.” (Psalm 126:4) That word “restore” is the same word that is translated “brought back” in verse one. And this is the first of two images that the psalmist uses to speak of how God works in our lives.

The first way is when God works suddenly and unexpectedly. That’s what this first image of “streams in the Negev” means. The Negev was the southern part of Judah. This was a normally dry and arid land. In fact the word “Negev” actually means “dry or parched.” But in the winter and spring, rains could suddenly send waters rushing through the desert. Grass and flowers would spring forth suddenly almost overnight.

And so this first image speaks of a sudden outpouring of God’s blessing. We find similar language in Isaiah 35:6: “Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert.” (Isaiah 35:6)

Do you ever feel like your life is a desert? Spiritually dry and parched? Then you need to pray for God to restore you. God says in Joel 2:25: “I will repay you for the years the locusts have eaten.” (Joel 2:25) Pray for God’s full restoration and blessing. Ask God to pour out his Spirit in your life like streams in the Negev.

We need to pray this not only for ourselves but for the church. This is a prayer for revival. The return from captivity for Israel was something only God could do. And in the same way revival is something only God can do. Martyn Lloyd-Jones said that in revival: “God does more in five minutes than man did in the previous ten years.” We need to pray for God to open the floodgates of heaven and to pour out his blessing on the church.

   B. Know that God will turn your sorrow into joy
      – Ruth 1:20-21, 4:16-17; Psalm 30:5; Isaiah 51:11, 61:1-3

So pray for God’s full restoration and blessing. And then secondly, know that God will turn your sorrow into joy. We have this beautiful promise from God in verse 5: “Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy.” (Psalm 126:5) Know that God will turn your sorrow into joy.

We now turn to the second image we have in this section of the psalm. The first image was streams in the Negev. The second image is that of sowing tears. The first image points to a work that is all of God – sudden and undeserved blessing. The second image points to God working through your efforts – working and waiting. It’s the difference between God’s miracles and God’s providence. They are both examples of God working but in different ways.

We see this in life all the time. For example, if you are ill, you should pray for healing, but you should also go to the doctor and take the appropriate medications. There’s an old saying. Pray as though it all depended on God, but work as though it all depended on you. Perhaps the better way to put it is this: work and pray as though it all depended on God working through you.

We long for the sudden deliverance, and we rejoice when it comes, but God’s normal way of working is much slower. And so the image of sudden streams in the desert now turns to the image of God’s slow but certain work in our lives of sowing and reaping.

When the people of Israel were carried off to Babylon they sowed many tears. For seventy years they endured exile in a foreign land. But those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy. And so God brought them back. Isaiah prophesied it. He proclaimed in Isaiah 51:11: “The ransomed of the Lord will return. They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.” (Isaiah 51:11)

When I read this psalm I think of Naomi in the book of Ruth who sowed many tears. She lost her husband and both of her sons. When she returned to Bethlehem and the people greeted her by name, she responded: “Don’t call me Naomi,” she told them. “Call me Mara, because the Almighty has made my life very bitter. I went away full, but the Lord has brought me back empty.” (Ruth 1:20-21) Her name “Naomi” meant “pleasant,” but life was not pleasant for her right now. So she asked them to call her Mara, which means “bitter.”

But when we come to the last chapter of the book, her daughter-in-law Ruth gives birth to a son and brings him to Naomi. And we read in Ruth 4: “Then Naomi took the child, laid him in her lap and cared for him. The women living there said, ‘Naomi has a son.’ And they named him Obed. He was the father of Jesse, the father of David.” (Ruth 4:16-17) God restored her joy, and they no longer called her Mara, but Naomi again.

When I read this psalm I also think of Jesus and his sermon at Nazareth where he took these beautiful words from Isaiah 61 and made them his own: “The Lord has anointed me … to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion – to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.” (Isaiah 61:1–3)

Are you going through a time of sorrow? Are you sowing many tears? Know that God will turn your sorrow into joy. Psalm 30:5 says: “Weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.” (Psalm 30:5) There has never been a sunset yet that was not followed by a sunrise! “Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy.” (Psalm 126:5)

   C. Commit yourself to the Lord and continue to do good
      – Psalm 56:8; Galatians 6:9; 1 Peter 4:19; Revelation 21:4

What do you do in times of trouble? 1) Pray for God’s full restoration and blessing. 2) Know that God will turn your sorrow into joy. And then 3) Commit yourself to the Lord and continue to do good. Look at verse 6: “He who goes out weeping, carrying seed to sow, will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with him.” (Psalm 126:6)

This verse expands on the image of verse 5 and focuses on the sower going forth to work and eventually returning with the harvest in his hands. It reminds us that even in times of sorrow, there is work to be done, and that good work will bear good fruit in our lives.

1 Peter 4:19 teaches us: “Those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good.” (1 Peter 4:19) And Galatians 6:9 gives us this word of encouragement: “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” (Galatians 6:9)

Did you know that God keeps a record of all your tears? Psalm 56:8 says: “Record my lament; list my tears on your scroll – are they not in your record?” (Psalm 56:8) God keeps track of all your tears, and one day he will personally wipe the tears from your eyes. We read these beautiful words in Revelation 21:4: “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Revelation 21:4)

Times of sorrow are hard. Sowing in tears is difficult. But nothing is wasted in God’s economy. You can trust God with your tears. As Charles Spurgeon once said: “God is too good to be unkind and He is too wise to be mistaken. And when we cannot trace His hand, we must trust His heart.”

What do you do when you are walking through a time of sorrow? Marvel at what God has done in the past. And then trust God to do it again. Pray for God’s full restoration and blessing. Know that God will turn your sorrow into joy. Commit yourself to the Lord and continue to do good.

CONCLUSION: As always we look to Jesus for the ultimate fulfillment of this psalm. Hebrews 12:2 tells us: “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus … who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame.” (Hebrews 12:2) Jesus knows the trouble and sorrow we face in this life. He shed many tears of his own during his life on earth. Jesus went to the cross weeping, carrying seed to sow, and he returned from the dead with resurrection songs of joy, carrying sheaves of believers with him. If you are a believer this morning, you are part of his glorious harvest.

So Psalm 126 is a psalm of trouble, but it’s a psalm of trouble with a twist. It’s a psalm that offers you hope when you are in the midst of trouble and tears. It tells us that times of trouble and sorrow do not last. God will turn your sorrow to joy and your tears to laughter. Weeping may endure for the night, but joy comes in the morning. And one day we will leave all the sorrows of this world behind for the eternal joys that await us in heaven.

There is a time for sowing and a time for reaping. Perhaps you are in a time of sowing right now. Take comfort. Your time of reaping will come. The harvest awaits. This is God’s promise to you. God will turn your tears to joy.

© Ray Fowler

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