When we read in our Bibles about God’s ancient people, it soon becomes clear that there are frequent swings between high points and low points in their relationship with Him.
Psalm 137 certainly describes a low point for the people of Judah. In captivity, they sat by the rivers in Babylon, remembering their homeland and unable to sing the ‘songs of Zion’ as requested by their captors because of the sadness of their hearts. How could they sing songs of joy when they were experiencing the bitterness of enforced exile? Harps that had been played when singing songs of praise to the Lord back home in Judah now hung, silent, on the willow trees of Babylon.
The people would have 70 long years to regret how they had repeatedly ignored the Lord’s pleadings with them to return to Him, through prophets like Jeremiah.
Turning to Psalm 126, however, we find an altogether more uplifting theme. This is one of the Songs of Ascents that the people would sing years later when making their way up to Jerusalem, to Zion, to the temple, with the intention of worshipping the Lord.
The words of the psalm recalled the emotions of those original exiles who returned from Babylon to live once more in the city that meant so much both to them, and to the Lord. As perhaps Solomon had earlier testified:
“For the LORD has chosen Zion;
He has desired it for His dwelling place:
This is My resting place forever;
Here I will dwell, for I have desired it.”(1)
The joyful tone of these words tells us a lot about how the people felt about their return:
When the LORD brought back the captivity of Zion,
We were like those who dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
And our tongue with singing.
Then they said among the nations,
“The LORD has done great things for them.”
The LORD has done great things for us,
And we are glad.
Bring back our captivity, O LORD,
As the streams in the South.
Those who sow in tears shall reap in joy.
He who continually goes forth weeping,
Bearing seed for sowing,
Shall doubtless come again with rejoicing,
Bringing his sheaves with him.(2)
The truth of the words, Those who sow in tears shall reap in joy, would not be lost on them. The people had spent 70 years sowing in tears and now, by the grace of God, they were reaping in joy, having returned. Those who had gone out weeping, were now coming again, but this time with rejoicing.
So the ransomed of the LORD shall return,
And come to Zion with singing,
With everlasting joy on their heads.
They shall obtain joy and gladness;
Sorrow and sighing shall flee away.(3)
Then, years after the exiled remnant returned, each time there was a feast in Jerusalem, those who made the pilgrimage would make the ascent to the city, up to Mount Zion, to the temple, and would sing these songs of joy, reminding themselves of just how it felt to be delivered from oppression, to be free to serve God as He asked. Their spirits would be lifted as they climbed higher, both in terms of the approach to Jerusalem, and also spiritually as they drew closer to the worship of the Lord their God in the temple, taking the same route as those same returning captives had so many years before.
The title of ‘A Song of Ascents’ has also been interpreted as ‘a Song of Drawing Upwards’. It seems an appropriate description of the experience of those who were coming to Jerusalem to worship Yahweh, their God who still loved them with an everlasting love, despite all their unfaithfulness to Him in years past. Being drawn upwards, lifting their minds and hearts from the things of this world to an altogether higher person and purpose. They were going to give to God.
Joy and rejoicing are written all over Psalm 126. This was a people who were full of songs and shouts of praise to God, remembering His grace towards them and by their actions also bearing witness to other nations that, “The LORD has done great things for them … The LORD has done great things for us”.(4)
References: (1) Ps. 132:13-14 (2) Ps. 126:1-6 (3) Is. 51:11 (4) Ps. 126:2-3
Lennie Shaw, Swindon, England
Bible quotations from NKJV