Like a Dream, But Not (Phil Johnson)

Psalm 126   |   Sunday, March 31, 2013   |   Code: 2013-03-31-PJ

      We are almost halfway through a series of studies on a collection of 15 psalms, grouped together in order in our Bibles, it seems, for the specific purpose of being sung on a pilgrimage. Psalms 120-134. These 15 psalms are all labeled "Psalm[s] of Ascents." Psalms for an upward journey.

      We're almost halfway through the series. We're looking at these psalms one chapter at a time, so even if you've missed the whole series up till now, you don't need to worry about catching up, because each one of these songs stands on its own. Each one has its own theme and tonality and topic.

      Most of them are upbeat—and that is to be expected. They serve the same function as the songs you might sing on a church bus on the way to summer camp—only these are more meaningful, more theologically rich, and a lot less repetitive than "Father Abraham had many sons" or "Give me oil in my lamp, keep me burnin'." These songs helped to pass the time on the road while they united the voices of groups of pilgrims in praise and thanksgiving to God. These would have been some of the best known and best loved psalms in the Hebrew psalter, because you would sing them from childhood during one of the happiest ties of life—on a trip to Jerusalem for a celebration.

      There are a couple of somber psalms in the group, but they are the exceptions. For example, Psalm 123 (one we have already studied) sounds as if it were meant to be sung in a minor key, like a dirge. It's a plea for deliverance from the contempt of proud people. And Psalm 131 (which we'll get to eventually, if the Lord tarries—Psalm 131) is gentle and whispery. (It's basically a lullaby.) But aside from those two, there is something celebratory or profoundly thankful in practically every one of these psalms. They are for the most part songs of gladness, celebratory psalms, praise choruses—reminders and assurances of God's goodness to His people. Just the kind thing you'd want to sing on the road with a group of God's people. Road-trip praise songs.

      And the text we're studying in this hour, Psalm 126, fits the profile of these pilgrim psalms perfectly. It is a glad song about deliverance. It's a threefold celebration of God's redemptive grace. And this is a perfect psalm to study on Easter Sunday, because it recognizes the fact that God's hand of deliverance often comes to us when we are under a burden of profound sorrow. "Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning." That's actually a line from Psalm 30:5, but Psalm 126 could stand as a commentary on that text.

      Deep sorrow is frequently the seed-bed in which God cultivates deliverance. Redemption, sanctification, life's richest blessings, and the greatest joy and liberty of all usually find us not on the pinnacle of some mountain, but when we are buried in some forgotten dungeon.

      That, by the way, is a running theme throughout Scripture, and you see it clearly when you trace the theme of deliverance through redemptive history.

      Joseph, for example, was sold into slavery, falsely accused, thrown into an Egyptian prison—basically forgotten or simply given up for dead by virtually everyone who ever might have cared about him. There, even in the darkest place of utter despair, Joseph kept his faith in God, and God kept Joseph from destruction.

      Then suddenly, unexpectedly, almost unbelievably, God liberated Joseph, vindicated him, exalted him, fulfilled every wish for redemption Joseph ever might have dared to hope for—and more. He completely reversed Joseph's fortunes in an instant. It was a sudden, surprising, speedy, sensational deliverance. Joseph was not merely unshackled; he was raised up high above everyone who had ever persecuted him. From the belly of the dungeon, God raised him up to a position of high honor and authority. He was second only to Pharaoh among the most powerful men in the world. God finally brought Joseph's family back together, restored his relationship with his brothers, and made both him and his offspring prosperous in everything he did.

      Try to imagine what that sudden reversal of fortune must have seemed like to Joseph. It would feel otherworldly—literally like it was too good to be true. But it was true. It was like a dream, but not.

      And Jacob, Joseph's father, in his old age, had never stopped mourning the son he thought he had lost years before. When Joseph's brothers returned from Egypt with the news that Joseph was alive and unbelievably prosperous, Genesis 45:26 says, "they told him, 'Joseph is still alive, and he is ruler over all the land of Egypt.' And his heart became numb, for he did not believe them." Again, it was too good to be true, but it was true. Like a dream, but not.

      You have exactly the same kind of situation, magnified exponentially, on that first resurrection morning. The disciples had watched Jesus die. Most of them—Peter especially—had utterly disgraced themselves by their failure to stand with Him. On the day before the crucifixion they were all boasting about how willing they were to follow him to the grave. Then Peter denied His Lord three times before the rooster crowed the next morning. Jesus had warned Peter and even foretold the sin to the letter, but Peter failed to heed the admonition anyway. His swaggering overconfidence gave way to profound shame, and that in turn was buried under overwhelming grief.

      All the disciples were all but crushed under similar burdens. Their whole world seemed to be in utter ruins. Everything they had devoted their lives to was gone—destroyed with unspeakable cruelty, in an act of utter injustice, while they cowered in craven fear and watched safely from a distance. The sense of shame, and hopelessness, and total devastation they felt that first Easter morning must have been palpable. They had reached that point where there was no earthly hope, no light at the end of the tunnel, no conceivable way anything good could ever be salvaged from the wreckage of the cross. From their perspective, it was all darkness—not merely as if the sun were hidden behind a thick cloud; it was as if the sun had been extinguished. There was no imaginable way out of this.

      Scripture records how the two Marys and Joanna found Jesus' tomb empty at sunrise that morning, and an angel told them, "He is not here, but has risen." So they went straight from the grave to where the eleven remaining disciples were gathered together in grief, and Luke says they "told these things to the apostles." What do you think the response was? Luke 24:11: "But these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them." It was simply too good to be true. Like a dream, but not.

      That is the manner in which God redeems His people. He allows us to taste the dregs of sorrow, feel the weight of guilt, sense the utter blackness of despair, and see the total hopelessness our sin has caused us. And then just when we are on the brink of absolute extermination, the Lord Himself releases us from captivity.

      He does this not to be cruel. Lamentations 3:33: "he does not willingly afflict or grieve the children of men." Ezekiel 33:11: He has "no pleasure in the death of the wicked." God speaks prophetically in Hosea 11:7-8, and He says, "How can I give you up, O Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? [those are two of the five cities that were destroyed along with Sodom and Gomorrah.] My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender." God himself is grieved at the sufferings of His people. He will deliver them in due time.

      So why does He delay? Because He is patient (2 Peter 3:9): "The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you." God is patient, and what looks to us like slackness or indifference is nothing of the sort. In fact, it is the polar opposite of apathy. It is tenderhearted patience. When we taste the consequences of sin and feel sin's miseries, not only do we learn to hate sin the way God does (so our suffering it has a purifying effect), it also makes the joy of deliverance that much sweeter.

      And that's what this psalm is about: the joy of deliverance. We're not expressly given the historical context of this psalm, but commentators almost universally believe it was written specifically to celebrate the end of the Babylonian captivity, when the decree of Cyrus suddenly, unexpectedly, granted freedom to the Jewish nation in their captivity and made it possible for them to return again to Zion. It was a classic case of the principle we're talking about: Israel's fortunes looked hopeless, and God suddenly delivered them out of that hopelessness.

      Here's some historical background, before I read the psalm: The beginning of the Babylonian captivity dates back to 597 BC, when all the men of might and all the skilled craftsmen in Israel were brought as captives to Babylon. Eleven years later, in 586 BC, the Babylonians utterly laid waste to Jerusalem, broke down the walls, burnt everything that could be burnt, and took most of the remaining inhabitants of Israel captive. That's what the book of Lamentations is all about. It is a lament over the destruction of Jerusalem. And (to give you an idea of how the Israelites themselves understood this calamity) listen to some samples: Lamentations 4:11-13: "The LORD gave full vent to his wrath; he poured out his hot anger, and he kindled a fire in Zion that consumed its foundations. The kings of the earth did not believe, nor any of the inhabitants of the world, that foe or enemy could enter the gates of Jerusalem. This was for the sins of her prophets and the iniquities of her priests, who shed in the midst of her the blood of the righteous."

      In other words, all Judah understood that this was God's doing. It was a judgment on them for their sins. And the destruction was total and preternatural. Clearly this was an act of God. It had nothing to do with the superior might of a foreign enemy. Remember how last week's psalm celebrated the absolute indestructibility of Zion? Listen, however, to Lamentations 5:18: "Mount Zion . . . lies desolate; jackals prowl over it." And it was all owing to Israel's own sin (v. 16): "The crown has fallen from our head; woe to us, for we have sinned!"

      So the Jews had become forlorn captives. They were deported to Babylon, humiliated, oppressed, with no earthly hope for deliverance. Psalm 137 is all about that time of captivity (Psalm 137:1): "By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion." And the Babylonians taunted the Israelites (v. 3): "There our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, 'Sing us one of the songs of Zion!'" Sing us some of those pilgrim praise choruses.

      But the captivity went on for decades. In fact, there was a third major deportation of people in 581 BC, which left the land of Judah almost totally desolate. 2 Kings 25:12 says they "left some of the poorest of the land to be vinedressers and plowmen." If you mark the starting point with that first deportation in 597, the Jews were held captive for 59—almost 60—years. That was literally an entire lifetime. By then, very few of the surviving Jews in Babylon had ever even seen Zion.

      The captivity was sheer misery for the Jewish people, and yet more than any other event in the Old Testament it solidified Judaism as a religion and instilled within the Jewish nation an utter contempt for pagan religion and heathen culture. Here's what one historian says about it: "The captivity of Judah is one of the greatest events in the history of religion.... With the captivity the history of Israel ends, and the history of the Jews commences." [F. J. Foakes-Jackson, Biblical History of the Hebrews, 316]. And the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia adds this:

Placed in the midst of heathen and idolatrous surroundings the [Jews] recoiled from the abominations of their neighbors and clung to the faith of their fathers in the God of Abraham. Exposed to the taunts and the scorn of nations that despised them, they formed an inner circle of their own, and cultivated that exclusiveness which has marked them ever since. Being without a country, without a ritual system, without any material basis for their life as a people, they learned as never before to prize those spiritual possessions which had come down to them from the past. They built up their nationality in their new surroundings upon the foundation of their religion.

So great spiritual good came out of the captivity, though you wouldn't necessarily have seen it at the time. in fact, those benefits were not recognized or appreciated by the Jews themselves during the exile, but the point is that God was working in their midst and using their suffering for their good—even though during the calamity, God's care and His deliverance were invisible to them. They felt abandoned, cut off, hopelessly God-forsaken.

      And then the Persians conquered the Babylonians. The captors were vanquished by an even more powerful empire—and you might think that would only deepen the disaster for the Jews. But before the dust had settled from the fall of Babylon, King Cyrus of Persia issued a decree releasing the Jews from captivity. The decree expressly freed them to return to Jerusalem and rebuild Zion—including (and especially) the Temple.

      Scripture records the decree of Cyrus in two places—2 Chronicles 36 and the first four verses of Ezra. Here's 2 Chronicles 36:23: "Thus says Cyrus king of Persia, 'The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all his people, may the LORD his God be with him. Let him go up.'" Ezra records those same words, and more. According to Ezra, Cyrus also commanded that the Israelites be furnished with gold and silver and goods and beasts for the rebuilding of the temple. He even took up a freewill offering to help fund the project.

      Still, it was another 23 years or so before the Temple was actually rebuilt used for worship again. The total time from the destruction of the Temple to its rebuilding was 70 years—and according to 2 Chronicles 36:21, that was by God's own design—"to fulfill the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land had enjoyed its Sabbaths. All the days that it lay desolate it kept Sabbath, to fulfill seventy years." In other words, the 70 years were a sign of judgment for the sin of ignoring the Sabbath laws.

      But the Jews' release from captivity came without any prelude or harbinger. It was out of the blue and totally unexpected. Just like Joseph's exaltation. From abject captivity to a position of glorious privilege without warning or fanfare, literally overnight.

      Our psalm seems to have been written in the euphoria of that deliverance. It is a celebration of the sudden reversal of fortune that accompanies God's redeeming grace in circumstances like that.

      Now that's a very long introduction (and I apologize for that), but I wanted to read Psalm 126 to you with the context in mind. Here's our psalm:

A Song of Ascents. 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 they said among the nations, "The LORD has done great things for them."

3 The LORD has done great things for us; we are glad.

4 Restore our fortunes, O LORD, like streams in the Negeb!

5 Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy!

6 He who goes out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him.

There are three uneven parts to that psalm. The first three verses are a word of praise, giving thanks to God for this unexpected deliverance. Verse 4 is a word of prayer, asking God to continue and complete this amazing reversal of fortune. And verses 5-6 are a word of promise, recognizing this pattern in the way God brings deliverance. Again in the words of Psalm 30:5 "Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning."

      So we'll let that threefold division be our outline as we work through this psalm: A word of praise (vv. 1-3); a word of prayer (v. 4); and a word of promise (vv. 5-6). Starting, then, with verses 1-3:


1. A word of praise (vv. 1-3)

      Here we have this classic expression of wonder and gratitude for the way the Lord delivers His people. It's too good to be true. It's like a dream, but not.

      There's a play on words in the Hebrew text of verse 1. I'm reading from the ESV, which says, "When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion," and that is exactly what the expression means. But the Hebrew text uses two simultaneous words that speak of turning around. Literally, you could translate it this way: "When the LORD returned the returning of Zion." The Hebrew even sounds poetic. It's shoob shebooth—"returned the returning." The Lord instantly and unexpectedly reversed the fortunes of Zion.

      And that, the psalmist says, left our heads spinning. It left us in a stupor. We didn't know if we were sleepwalking. "We were like those who dream." It's like a dream, but not.

      Like Joseph, awakening from captivity in an Egyptian dungeon, or the disciples, waking up to the reality that Christ has risen indeed.

      It also reminds me of that incident in Acts 12, where Herod put Peter in prison. Keep a finger in Psalm 126, and turn to Acts 12 for a minute with me. This chapter starts with the martyrdom of James (v. 2). Verse 3 says that when Herod saw that it pleased the Jewish leaders, he arrested Peter, too, during the biggest feast of the year, and put him in prison. Verse 6 says "Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains." And what looks like doom for Peter turns into one of the funniest, most delightful scenes the whole New Testament.

      All of a sudden, verse 7 says, "an angel of the Lord stood next to him, and a light shone in the cell. [The angel] struck Peter on the side and woke him, saying, 'Get up quickly.' And the chains fell off his hands. And the angel said to him, 'Dress yourself and put on your sandals.' And he did so. And he said to him, 'Wrap your cloak around you and follow me.' And he went out and followed him. [But listen to this:] [Peter] did not know that what was being done by the angel was real, but thought he was seeing a vision." It was like a dream, but not.

      Now look at verse 10: "When they had passed the first and the second guard, they came to the iron gate leading into the city. It opened for them of its own accord, and they went out and went along one street, and immediately the angel left him." So this is completely miraculous, and Peter is still so amazed that he is in a dreamlike, trancelike a state. He's just walked through the prison, through the city, and outside the city gate. But he still thinks it's a vision or a dream. And the angel just dumps him outside the city gate and goes his way.

      It's not until then that Peter realizes this is real. Verse 11: "When Peter came to himself, he said, 'Now I am sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hand of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting.'" That makes me laugh. He's standing there talking to himself, and (v. 12), "When he realized this, he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose other name was Mark, where many were gathered together and were praying."

      So he goes to John-Mark's mom's house, where select members of the early church are holding prayer meeting. And what are they praying for? I'm sure the top prayer request that night was for Peter's release. Verse 13:

And when he knocked at the door of the gateway, a servant girl named Rhoda came to answer.

14 Recognizing Peter's voice, in her joy she did not open the gate but ran in and reported that Peter was standing at the gate.

15 They said to her, "You are out of your mind." But she kept insisting that it was so, and they kept saying, "It is his angel!" [It was just too good to be true.]

16 But Peter continued knocking, and when they opened, they saw him and were amazed.

Like a dream, but not.

      If your conversion experience was anything at all like mine, you know exactly what that experience is like. Even if your conversion was not particularly dramatic, if you have ever truly and carefully pondered the significance of sin and forgiveness, guilt versus redemption, the hell we deserve versus the eternal reward believers are promised—if you truly see a glimpse of the grace that makes our redemption possible, it will leave you in a kind of spiritual stupor—that sort of speechless, hazy, dreamlike realization that our captivity has been broken. The reversal of fortune God has granted us almost seems too good to be true. If liberty from the bondage of guilt and sin were merely a dream, we would never want to wake up from it. it's not a dream at all. Redemption. Elevation from a state of spiritual death to everlasting life. Nothing in the entire universe—nothing in all time or eternity—is a greater source of joy.

      How amazing is the reality that God redeems sinners? According to Luke 15:10, all heaven celebrates over it. "There is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents." In other words, redemption is such a breathtaking miracle that there is a new celebration in heaven every time just one sinner repents. And if you do the math on it, that means the joy around God's throne never subsides. Heaven's joy over our redemption is something, frankly, that you and I cannot possibly comprehend, but it surpasses any other joy we have ever known or imagined. And eternity for the redeemed will be filled with precisely that kind of joy. That's why we are supposed to rejoice all the time, even here—and if you are a redeemed person whose affections are set on heaven, you ought to have some sense of what this joy tastes like, no matter what this earthly life has put you through.

      No one who experiences the joy of deliverance can possibly keep calm and carry on, much less stay quiet about it. Verse 2: "Our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy." That describes an involuntary outburst of praise. Once we realize we're not dreaming, passion overtakes us—and it is a delirious, unsuppressible, yet inexpressible outpouring of joy.

      There are no words to convey such joy; only laughter can do it. Those who were once laughed to scorn by their captors now laugh with a laughter of heavenly delight and shouts of pure joy. In the words of Psalm 40:3, "He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God." I absolutely love even the thought of such profound jubilation. And to know that heaven is full of that exact emotion, undiluted by any earthly care, it fills me with such hope and expectation and desire that frankly I wish we could stop right here and camp on this point for the rest of the hour. (It's a perfect theme for Easter morning.)

      But there's more to this psalm, and I want to cover all of it. So let's go back to the historical context again. The writer of this psalm was most likely someone who had lived his whole life in exile, under oppression, knowing that the hardships of his life were a righteous divine judgment for the sins of his nation, going back for generations. He knows he himself shares the guilt. He has not suffered unjustly. But he has been living all his life as an outcast, in a culture that was totally foreign to his people—and all of them were in a state of utter, hopeless slavery.

      But then suddenly, out of nowhere the entire Jewish nation has been set free and endowed with special privileges in the sight of the whole world—and everybody's talking about it. Literally all of humanity takes notice. Redemption, as always, redounds to the glory of God. Look at the end of v. 2: "They said among the nations, 'The LORD has done great things for them.'"

      And the redeemed people add their own emphatic testimony (v. 3): "The LORD has done great things for us; we are glad." Spurgeon put the emphasis in that verse on the words "for us." We who deserved His wrath and labored under condemnation for so long; we who dishonored his name, defiled the land He gave us, and desecrated the privileges He bestowed on us; we who least deserve His mercy—WE have been redeemed and exalted to a position of honor in the sight of all the world. He has "prepare[d] a table before [us] in the presence of [our] enemies; [He] anoint[ed our] head with oil."

      This is not a truth that should make us proud; rather, it should cause us to be deeply humble. And yet we cannot help celebrating it. "We are glad," the psalmist says. Clearly that's an understatement.

      So that's the first stanza of this psalm. A word of praise. Then, with verse 4, it shifts into another mood—a mood of reverence and supplication—and we have


2. A word of prayer (v. 4)

      The psalmist recognizes that there is yet work to do. The decree of Cyrus unleashed euphoria among the Jews. It guaranteed the liberation of the Jewish nation. It made way for their return to the land. And it provided for the rebuilding of the Temple.

      But there was a lot or work to be done to see this process to completion. And if you have ever studied the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, you know that this was a long process beset with lots of opposition. The jews returning to their land faced relentless hardships. They had to contend with all the cold, hard realities of a sin-cursed world. Rebuilding Jerusalem would require many years of blood, sweat, toil, and tears. And the process nearly stalled more than once.

      The psalmist seems to recognize the potential of such difficulties, and He prays that God, who has already reversed the captivity of Zion, will restore the fortunes of the people as well. Actually the Hebrew phrase in verse 4 is identical to verse 1: shoob shebooth—"return the return." In other words, "bring our return to completion; totally restore the peace and prosperity of Your people.

      It's a recognition that although deliverance has already been accomplished in the big-picture sense, in the real-world sense it is a continuing process. You sometimes hear theologians refer to this as the "already/not yet" dilemma. It's a kind of paradox that we see in many Bible doctrines. The kingdom of Christ is already here but not yet in its fulness. Believers are already sanctified but we have not yet arrived at the level of holiness that will belong to us when we are finally glorified. We are already delivered from sin's total dominion, but we're not yet completely freed from sin's grip. We who believe have already been redeemed and adopted into the family of God, and our ultimate salvation is guaranteed by the finished work of Christ. But our redemption is not yet fully realized the way it will be in heaven. According to Romans 8:23, we are still "wait[ing] eagerly for adoption as sons, [to wit,] the redemption of our bodies."

      So although the Jewish nation had already been delivered from Babylon, and the whole world recognized that, while the Jews deliriously celebrated it, and the psalmist himself says, "we are glad"—still he prays for full deliverance.

      Verse 4: "Restore our fortunes, O LORD, like streams in the Negeb!" The Negev, of course, is that large region in the south of Israel that consists entirely of desert and semidesert terrain—like Palmdale and Lancaster. The "streams in the Negeb" are like the Santa Clarita River, where Darlene and I like to go walking every morning. It's called a "river," but it's always bone dry, except for a few hours after every rainfall. In the rain, it can fill up suddenly, and with the heavy rains in the rainy season it can become a raging torrent. You can't build there, because even though it looks dry, it's a true river in the rain. So that's why there is a wide swath of rocks and weeds that runs through the heart of Santa Clarita. That's the so-called river. We don't have rivers like that in Oklahoma, where I grew up. But that's how the streams of the Negev are.

      So the psalmist is recognizing again that God's blessings come when and where they seem least likely—just like when the floor of a desert turns into a raging river. "Make our blessings flow like that," is the prayer here.

      Now notice this: In section one of this psalm, the image of deliverance is an emancipated exile. Deliverance takes him instantly from captive to free.

      In stanza two, the image of God's deliverance is a saturated stream, and deliverance changes it instantly from parched to well-watered.

      Stanza three gives us a third figure, that of the rejoicing reaper, whose deliverance transforms his tears into joy.

      So follow the flow of logic in this psalm. Stanza one is the song of the emancipated exile, and it's a word of praise. Stanza two is not really a full stanza but more like a musical bridge consisting of verse 4 alone. It's the song of the saturated stream, and it's a word of prayer. Stanza three (vv. 5-6) is the song of the rejoicing reaper, and it's—


3. A word of promise (vv. 5-6).

      This, I would guess, is a familiar passage for lots of you. I used to hear sermons on it all the time, and the principle was usually applied to evangelism. I even memorized it in the King James Version: "They that sow in tears shall reap in joy. He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him."

      Now, the principle certainly applies to evangelism, but it's actually a much bigger principle than that. It's the principle of sowing and reaping, with a tincture of grace added to it. You're familiar with the principle of sowing, because it's one of the major themes of God's law. The principle is summarized in Galatians 6:7: "Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap." In the context of the law alone, that's a frightening principle. Galatians 6:8: "the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption." Hosea prophesied this regarding Israel specifically: "You have plowed iniquity; you have reaped injustice; you have eaten the fruit of lies. Because you have trusted in your own way and in the multitude of your warriors, therefore the tumult of war shall arise among your people, and all your fortresses shall be destroyed."  Add grace to the equation, and the harvest is different. Galatians 6:8 again: "The one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life."

      That's not talking about doing good works to merit eternal life. The one who sows to the Spirit is the one who lives by faith—and even if he sows in sorrow and tears, he will reap a joyful harvest. And this is the real point the psalmist is making: It is God who gives the harvest. We sow precious seed and water it with tears, "but [it is] God who gives the increase." This entire psalm is all about God and His goodness. The point the psalmist is making here at the end is not about the skill or the good works or the sacrifice of the farmer. It's about the grace of God who gives the joyful harvest.


      Now I want to go back and take a birds-eye view of this whole psalm with you. And notice: All three stanzas of this psalm answer the question, "Why does God seem to delay His deliverance?"

      We all ask that question, especially when we are in the crucible of suffering. This inspired psalm is God's own threefold answer to that question.

      Answer number one is the answer of the emancipated exile. Here's an answer that is found in the testimony of our own praise—the testimony of every true believer. It is an affirmation that God is faithful and He has delivered us and He does deliver us. His timing may seem slow. In fact, He sometimes delays until we are right on the verge of losing hope. Then He steps into our suffering, and interrupts our anguish with an outpouring of grace that totally overwhelms us. We are dumbstruck with "the breadth and length and height and depth [of His love, which] surpasses knowledge." It's like a dream, but not. And in retrospect, we realize it was all worth the wait. If you are a believer who has never felt that way before, just wait. That is exactly what you'll feel when you first see heaven, and that feeling will last forever.

      Answer number two to the question ("Why does God seem to delay His deliverance?") is the answer of the saturated stream. This answer is found in our own prayers, and it's a simple answer: When God finally looses the bonds of suffering, He will "do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us." That's Ephesians 3:20, of course. When God pours out His grace, it's like the rainfall that turns a strip of desert into a roiling stream. Again, it's more than worth the wait.

      Answer number three is the answer of the rejoicing reaper. "Why does God seem to delay His deliverance?" And it's not really a direct answer, but an acknowledgement that this is a profound mystery. I don't know the reasons for God's delays, and I don't need to know. It's enough to be certain that joy does come in the morning. Isaiah 12:2-4: "'Behold, God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid; for the LORD GOD is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation.' With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. And you will say in that day: 'Give thanks to the LORD, call upon his name, make known his deeds among the peoples, proclaim that his name is exalted.'"

      Here's another way of looking at it: Stanza one answers the question by reminding us how much sweeter the joy of deliverance tastes at the end of a trial—or after we have finally learned something God has had to teach us with the rod of discipline. Hebrews 12:11: "For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it." James 1:2-4: "Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing."

      Stanza 2 answers the question ("Why does God delay His deliverance?") with an image that reminds us of the overflowing superabundance of mercy we always receive when we wait for God to answer in His own time.

      And stanza 3 reminds us that the question we always ask ("Why does God delay His deliverance?") is the wrong question. The important thing is to know that God will deliver His people. He is faithful, even when we are not. And the deliverance will come, without a doubt. Our duty is to hold fast our confidence till the end. "He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him." The verb is emphatic. It's a promise—and all the promises of God are yea and amen. He cannot deny Himself.

      Besides (Romans 8:18): "The sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us." The sufferings are temporal; the glory will be eternal.

      So rather than wondering about the duration of whatever trial or hardship or persecution or discipline we are suffering, we ought to "hold fast to the hope set before us." [That's Heb 6:18. The next two verses say,] "We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf."


      "Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy!" "Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning." Nowhere is that more vividly illustrated for us than in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The resurrection is the guarantee of the promise in those final two verses of this psalm. It is the ultimate answer to the prayer in verse 4. And it is the supreme emblem and eternal seal of the deliverance that is the subject of praise in those first three verses.

      The resurrection is the living proof that Christ has led captivity captive, and all the redeemed of all time follow in His train. So if you are a genuine believer in Christ, you have an eternal share in the joy that this psalm sings about.

      If you are not a believer, or if you are uncertain of your salvation, you need to turn from sin, and turn from whatever else you may be trusting to redeem you. Every kind of hope outside of Christ is misplaced hope. You will never be able to redeem yourself. You will never be able to conquer those sins that weigh you down with guilt. You will never be able to free yourself from whatever bondage is causing you despair.

      God is the only true deliverer and the only true source of Joy. He has made salvation possible by sending His Son, the Lord Jesus, to die for our sins—to bear the wrath and misery we actually deserve. And in exchange, Christ gives us His perfect righteousness, everlasting life, and an eternity of blessings.

      That may sound like a dream, but it's not. It is the supreme promise of the gospel, the central message of Scripture, and the one truth you most need to believe.