When I first read Psalm 126 in preparation for this reflection I was reminded of Brahms’ “Requiem” with a beautiful chorus picking up on this psalm.
1When the Lord turned again the fortunes of Zion,
Then we were like those who restored to life.
2Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with singing.
3Then said they among the heathen,
‘The Lord has done great things for them.’
4Truly the Lord has done great things for us,
and therefore we rejoiced.
5Turn again our fortunes, O Lord,
as the streams return to the dry south.
6Those who sow in tears
shall reap with songs of joy.
7Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed,
shall come again in gladness,
bringing their sheaves with them.
Text © A Prayer Book for Australia, alt, used with permission.
There are fifteen “Psalms of Ascent”, of which this is one. The Jewish traditional interpretation is that they represent the fifteen steps on the way up to the temple entrance, but taken on their own they speak of other aspects of our religious upbringing.
At various times in their history the Hebrew/Jewish/Israelite people were forced into exile by some dominating power which overtook their land. Some would even say that the Palestinian occupation of “The Holy Land” and the forcing of Jews into many other countries around the world, was another example of being forced into exile, with the 1948 formation of Israel as an indication of the restoration of the Holy Land to the Jews. Whenever this religious population has been forced out of what the Hebrew Scriptures call the Promised Land there have been attempts to maintain the faith in the face of their exile, waiting for the tribes to be returned. In every case there have been groups of Jews who have settled in the new land and, for one reason or another, have not returned to the Middle East when the opportunity has arisen. Thus we have Jewish communities in most countries. Though these people might have some religious pull back to Israel, for the vast majority their real home is somewhere else.
For those who have formed the initial flow back to Israel after a period of exile there is a sense of homecoming. The call of the land is strong, just as it is for Australian aboriginal people, and when they can return there is an abundance of joy. When people are full of joy they will sing, and the greater the joy the more enthusiastic the singing. Sometimes, of course, the joy is artificial or created by imbibing in too much alcohol, but the music can be uplifting, as with the rousing chorus which ends the first part of Haydn’s “Creation” oratorio: “All Hail to the Wine!”
Psalm 126 tells us that when God determines that it’s time to restore His people to their homes there will be laughter and singing, and the people living in surrounding parts of the world will recognise that God has done something wonderful.
For those of us who like to look at events of the past as just history, this psalm shows us how grateful the people were for their restoration, but if we look at scripture as a spiritual journey, reflecting our own journey, then we might want to take note of verse 5 in the breakdown of the psalm as in APBA. With the decline in the number of people openly claiming some religious association, as shown in the latest Australian census, are we not suffering from an invasion of non-Judeao-Christian thinking? Census reports show strong evidence of other spiritual interests, so are we living in a form of exile where our sacred places are being made less attractive because of worship of other forms of god, such as sport and Sunday trading? “Turn again our fortunes, O Lord” is a rewording of the cry for greater participation in churches. We have long complained about the lack of new people in parishes, the ageing nature of our congregations, and the lack of interest in attending services as little as once a week. Our fortunes need to be turned around. Is God telling us that He wants them turned too, but we are getting in the way? Do we need help putting into practice what God has called us to do, on may occasions?
I thought it appropriate that the second half of verse 5 speaks of streams returning to “the deep south” given that rainfall in the south-west of Western Australia has declined markedly since the early 1970s and many of our streams and rivers struggle to flow at all in the heat of summer. Will we sing for joy if God helps us reignite our passion for the Good News, bringing people back to the fold – and will God then return the streams to the dry south?
Many of us, over many decades, have sown the seeds of our faith with tears because of the frustration we feel as churches lose their way, people turn away from organised religion, and our own faith is challenged in this exile in our own land. There are times when we feel like a gardener, having planted good seed (of faith), seeing the lack of water (flowing from teaching in the churches), having to do more to sustain that new life, and only being able to offer our tears. In God’s own time, however frustrating that is for us, there will be a restoration, and those who have sown the seeds of faith with tears will be able to reap the rewards, singing songs of joy, and bringing home the harvest.
I believe that if we want this exile to end soon, and we want to be singing songs of joy with enthusiasm, passion and vigour, then we must make a greater effort to listen to what scripture calls on us to do. Participants in Education for Ministry groups share personal spiritual journeys, and I’ve often described them as a parallel to the spiritual journey of the Hebrew people of the Old Testament and the Christian people of the New. When we look at our scriptures from that aspect we are called to live in the scriptures, not just read them as history books with no connection to our lives. Can we take on Psalm 126 and live the dream of restoration which God offers us? If we do, then what does our faith challenge us to do to achieve that restoration?