Shouts of Joy (Psalm 126)
In 2014, hundreds of undergrad students were ushered into a plain room at the University of Virginia. They were asked to put away their cellphones, books, and pens in order to engage in “thinking periods” lasting between six and fifteen minutes. Some were given prompts while others were told to think about whatever came to mind. It was intended to be a pleasant experience, but 50% of the participants didn’t think so.
They tried “thinking periods” at home and found similar results. Had the study ended there, nobody would have been shocked. I mean that quite literally.
The team decided to take the trial to a whole new level. This time “thinking periods” occurred in a lab where they could push a button that would give them an electrical shock. They all experienced the shock once before the trial began so no one would push the button from simple curiosity.
Students rated how unpleasant the shock was, regarding it somewhere between the prick of a surgical needle and a mild toothache. There was no benefit whatsoever to pressing the button. They only received pain. Still, 67% of the men and 25% of the women chose to press the button at least once. One male student, pressed the button 190 times (1x/6sec.)! These students would rather endure a mild form of torture than 15mins of quiet thinking!
How much would the results differ if the experiment was to see how long Christians could sit in quiet prayer? Is praying unpleasant to you? Maybe you don’t know how. Maybe you struggle with what to say.
G.K. Chesterton said, “If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.” He was referring to the most fundamental and foundational acts of mankind. Don’t leave these things to the experts. Practice them, even poorly.
The challenge of prayer-much like thinking-is only getting harder, but it’s worth developing no matter how poorly you begin. Prick yourself with a needle every six seconds if you have to… Just kidding. If that describes you, please seek medical attention, promptly!
You might find the Psalms to be a perfect guide as you take up the challenge of sitting quietly in prayer. And I’d suggest you begin with Psalm 126.
The return from exile provides a fitting context, but it could equally fit any of God’s miraculous deliverances. Psalms 126-128 form a triad that begins and ends in Zion. While on pilgrimage to the temple, they sing of their spiritual journey. They long for even greater enjoyment of blessing and security.
Read Psalm 126.
The Lord will restore unconstrained joy to his people who dwell in sustained sorrow.
1. Joy Re-lived (1-3)
1 The exiles returning to Zion remember their experience like a vivid dream. They did not think they were dreaming, but they were in a state of such shocking joy that they felt like they were dreaming. Have you ever been filled with so much joy you felt like you were dreaming?
Zion is a metaphorical reference to Jerusalem as God’s dwelling place. Isaiah pictures Zion as the center of a renewed creation under Messiah’s reign (Isa. 11). The restoration of joy is pictured as the gathering of all the Church, together with the angels, on Mount Zion with the Living God (Heb. 12:22-24).
2-3 The people were filled with laughter and joy. Even the nations joined in declaring the Lord’s great deeds for Israel. They recognize how great the Lord has been to them. He has made them glad. The Lord’s care brought them great joy.
I’ll admit that I cried like Keith Urban when I saw Kelly Clarkson sing “Piece By Piece” during the American Idol Finale in March, 2016. We are often moved when we see unconstrained emotion. Psalm 126 pictures unconstrained joy that resolves into shouts. “Shouts of joy” (3x) = unconstrained delight. Unable to control our voice in song it becomes a shout. There is something compelling about raw emotion.
Illustration: The end of It’s A Wonderful Life captures this uncontainable joy. With a second chance at life, George runs home shouting “Merry Christmas”. He’s even excited to see the men standing in his home with a warrant for his arrest. “I’m going to jail. Isn’t it great!” It’s not just George and his family, but the whole city shows up to joyfully help him pay off his debt. One after another, the town folk bring wads of cash that piles up on the table.
Christmas should remind us of what really matters. Enjoy laughter with loved ones and acknowledge the Joy Giver who has done great things for us.
We don’t seek joy, God grants it. It’s often associated with singing and shouting in Scripture. Joy is a central theme of Advent (most prominent in Psalms and Gospels). Christ’s birth was announced as “good news of great joy” (Lk. 2:10). It’s only possible to re-live the joy of Christ’s birth in this world if we have been re-bornin him!
Memory leads to hope as…
2. Joy Reclaimed (4-6)
Although Israel had been restored, more restoration was needed. Redemption has been accomplished, but it’s application is continually needed. Here the psalmist provides two images of renewal, one sudden (rain in the Negeb) the other slow (sowing seed).
Illustration: It’s like two yards (mine and my nextdoor neighbor). Our backyard after it rains is luscious and beautiful. For a week or two it might even look better than our neighbor’s yard. But, because she has seeded and properly watered her’s all year-round, it maintains a good quality. Both are rewarding and display dramatic transformation. Both picture our experience of God’s blessings (justification > sanctification).
4 The Lord restored the people and he alone can do it again. Nothing is too difficult for God. What looks like nothing but dirt and weeds, can become beautiful again.
Our joy is dependent upon the Lord. We go through many trials that bring us low in sorrow. We spend many days weeping. But the Lord can restore our joy and laughter. We can remember his provision in the past and confidently look forward to the future harvest.
The promise of restoration encourages the exiled (Deut. 30:1-3), but it also sustains the suffering. Possibly the most remarkable picture of restoration is Job. He lost his oxen, donkeys, sheep, camels, servants, sons and daughters, and finally his health (Job 1-2). But he is restored double by the end (Job 42:10).
Pray for the restoration of joy beyond your typical expectations. Remember the Lord’s provision that brought you so much laughter and ask for it to come to you again like rain in a dry streambed! Pray for the restoration of joy in others. Those who have lost physical possessions might look more to the spiritual realities. Those going through emotional and relational challenges can dream of a joyful and restored future.
5-6 He may go out with tears, but come home joyfully bearing the bountiful return. The rain will bring a harvest of joy to those who sowed in sorrow (the blood, sweat, and tears that go into maintaining my neighbor’s yard). The promise of weeping returning to joy is Advent language (Jn. 16:20; Isa. 35:10).
Living in a world wrecked by sin inevitably brings sorrow. But Jesus offers hope. He restores our joy. Jesus has done great things for us! He has made us glad!
Our task is to remember the Restorer and pray for his restoring work to be accomplished in our midst. Look for those who are weeping now and seek the Lord’s blessing on their behalf. The Lord can and will restore our joy and laughter. Can you imagine that? Do you believe that future reality?
It is easy to focus on our immediate families during Christmas. We have to make sure we impress our spouse and children more than last year. We spend all month spending money we leave ourselves no time to think of others.
This psalm reminds us of those weeping – even now. It pictures them sowing their seed with tears. But it also pictures them rejoicing in the Lord’s provision.
Let us look for ways to spend ourselves for others. Let’s impress others with our selfless care. Picture the sad filled with laughter and joy because their fortune has been restored.
The Lord will restore unconstrained joy to his people who dwell in sustained sorrow.
It’s easy to allow an experience of discouragement to escalate to the point that it’s all we see. Joy can be elusive and short-lived, but it’s worth fighting for.
Zion’s greatest treasure came down from heaven in the form of an infant. The birth of Jesus brought joy and laughter to many witnesses. They imagined all he would accomplish, yet they had no idea of how much he would suffer for them. They dreamed of a joyful restoration, and it came at the greatest cost.
Can you re-live the joy of your conversion like a dream? Do you experience the sudden and hard-won joys that accompany our growth in Christ?