If you study the history of the Old Testament Hebrews, you will find a never-ending cycle of obedience, blessing, rebellion, discipline, repentance, and restoration. (But don’t get cocky. You and I have carried on that tradition.) This psalm was written somewhere in the midst of those cycles, perhaps after the Babylonian captivity. Let’s look at it line by line.
When the LORD turned again the captivity of Zion…
Miraculously, the Lord turned the heart of the king toward the Israelites and allowed them to return to their homeland from the land of their captivity. How many other times in history have you ever heard of an entire nation of slaves willingly being freed en masse? And not only that, but being equipped with tools to rebuild their homeland, and the precious items that had been stolen being restored to them? This doesn’t happen, folks. But it happened to the Hebrews. Why? Because God is faithful, and He is all-powerful.
You and I who are redeemed by the blood of the Lamb of God have also experienced a turning of our captivity. We have been freed from the bondage of sin to walk in the freedom of the family of God.
Romans 8:15 For you have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but you have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, “Abba, Father.”
We have also been freed from ritualistic religion to serve God freely with love out of a pure heart.
Galatians 5:1 Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.
…we were like them that dream….
It seemed too good to be true.
Then was our mouth filled with laughter, and our tongue with singing….
Understandably, they rejoiced like never before. Many of the freed slaves had been born in captivity. They had never known any other life. Their joyful singing rang throughout the land, echoing off the mountains and resounding in the valleys. Compare this scene to Isaiah’s prophecy:
Isaiah 51:11 Therefore the redeemed of the LORD shall return, and come with singing unto Zion; and everlasting joy shall be upon their head: they shall obtain gladness and joy; and sorrow and mourning shall flee away.
Then said they among the heathen, “The LORD has done great things for them….”
This is beautiful! When God blesses us, our natural response is to praise Him. And when we praise Him, His name is glorified in the eyes of the world around us. That is just as it should be.
The LORD has done great things for us, whereof we are glad….
It is wonderful that the world would praise God when they see the great things He has done for us, but God longs to hear our praise as well. The psalmist did not forget to praise God.
This is why ingratitude is so ugly a sin. Ingratitude steals the glory that should belong to God and places it on oneself. Think about it. When we praise God for the great things He has done, others see it and praise Him too. But what happens when we fail to praise God? At best, others fail to take notice; at worst, they notice only us, and not God.
Turn again our captivity, O LORD, as the streams in the south….
God returns to His people when they return to Him. He freed them from captivity when they repented of their sin and turned to Him for deliverance. But they still need to cling to Him. In fact, repentance is only the beginning. Now that they have returned to the Lord, the next step is to walk daily by His side, living in fellowship with Him, praying without ceasing, and praising Him. They need Him just as the land needs the water, the streams in the south. The land will never stop needing the water.
They who sow in tears shall reap in joy….
The harder the work, the richer the reward, and the sweeter the rest that follows.
In the immediate context of this psalm, the people had a long, arduous journey home. They didn’t have airplanes, bullet trains, or buses. Very likely they were provided with camels to carry their cargo, but as for them, they had to walk. The journey took many days. It was hot. They were hungry and thirsty. How many of them wished for the shelter of the house they had left behind in Babylon? When night fell, and they lay down under the stars to sleep, with their head resting upon a rock, how many of them missed the comfort of their Babylonian bed? And when they arrived at Jerusalem, there were no motels open and waiting for them, with clean sheets, a hot shower, and a free continental breakfast. The place was in ruins. They had to completely rebuild everything. But they were home. And they were free. And that alone was cause for rejoicing. They could rebuild, for the Lord had provided everything they needed. He would sustain them for the work that lay before them. And when it was done, their joy would be full.
He who goes forth with weeping, bearing precious seed…
Both this and the previous phrase are allusions to the farmer. Again, things were different then than they are in most parts of the world today. The farmer walked through the field scattering seed. Depending on the crop, the farmer may reach into his bag and fling seed everywhere, or he may painstakingly drop kernels one by one into neat rows on mounds he has prepared. Either way, he has a lot of work ahead of him to prepare the field, sow the seed, water the crops, and tend the fields as he waits for the harvest. He may well weep while he works in those beginning stages. The day grows long, and his body grows tired, hungry, and thirsty. Perhaps it is lonely work, if his companions in the fields are too far away for conversation. And then there are the variables he cannot control. Will they get the right amount of rain at the right time? Will the locusts come and eat the crops? Will he discover at harvest that some of his seed was bad? Will arsonists set fire and burn up his work? Will thieves break in and steal what he has worked for? The farmer must exercise a great deal of trust in the Lord to provide for him. He doesn’t get paid weekly, or even monthly. His pay comes at the end of all his labor.
…shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him….
The keyword here is doubtless. If God said it, then you can bank on it, my friend.
Materially, God takes care of His children.
Psalm 37:25 I have been young, and now am old; yet have I not seen the righteous forsaken, nor His seed begging bread.
Eternally, God takes care of His children.
1 Peter 1:5 Who are kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.
I believe God likens the Word to a seed so that we will see a certain connection. First, seeds germinate and grow over time. You cannot rush spiritual growth, not in your own life or in the lives of others. Just as the farmer has to wait for the harvest, we also must wait to see results of the work we do for Christ and the work He does in us and others. Second, seeds germinate at varying rates of time. I chose three plants at random and searched their germination factors. Strawberries ripen in 28-42 days. Tomatoes need 60-79 days to mature. Pumpkins are generally ready to harvest in 100 days. Nature teaches us that you cannot expect all people to grow spiritually at the same rate. God has called us to sow the Seed of the Word of God into the hearts of others, but the harvest belongs to Him. You and I may never see it, but that does not excuse us from being faithful. In fact, faithfulness is our only requirement.
1 Corinthians 4:2 Moreover it is required in stewards, that a man be found faithful.
The cycle is played over and over again because when all is well, we grow complacent and think we don’t need God anymore. We’re doing okay. At least, that’s what we keep telling ourselves. But God, in His mercy, will only let us go so far believing we can do it on our own before He makes us fall flat on our faces, putting us back in a position to look up into His dear face. If we would only keep our eyes fixed on Him, this vicious cycle would be broken, and we could live victoriously, as God desires for each and every one of us.
The hard work described here, the sowing in tears, some of that is natural. Even the modern-day farmer must work hard in order to produce a harvest. There’s no way around it. But what about the hard work of returning to the land from out of bondage, and having to rebuild that which had fallen into ruin? That labor could have been avoided if the people had chosen never to take their eyes off the Lord in the first place.
The conclusion: Trouble will come. Sometimes I bring it on myself, and sometimes it is simply part of life. But in either case, God is with me, sustaining me, and desiring sweet fellowship with me. When I stray from Him, He stirs me to come back to His side. Why? Because He loves me.
Are you struggling with your identity in Christ? Are you finding it hard to seek forgiveness for something you have done, or not done? Read that last paragraph again, and this time read it out loud, as if they were your own words. Why? Because God loves you!
Jeremiah 31:3 The LORD has appeared of old unto me, saying, “Yea, I have loved you with an everlasting love: therefore with loving-kindness have I drawn you.
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Photo taken in Milton, FL, 2018