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“The Harvest of Joy”

Psalm 126
Bob DeGray
June 23, 2002

Key Sentence

Joy is the fruit of a heart which sees God through tears.


I. Seeing what God has done (Psalm 126:1-3)
II. Seeing what God has promised (Psalm 126:4-6)


        In a sermon entitled "God's Ways Are Unreasonable," missionary professor Del Tarr uses life in West Africa to illustrate Psalm 126:5_6: "Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy. He who goes out weeping, carrying seed to sow, will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with him."

        He says “I grew up in a preacher's home in the little towns of Minnesota and South Dakota. I spent most of my free time with deacon's kids on John Deere tractors and International Harvesters. I learned how to drill oats, plant corn, and cultivate. And never once did I see a deacon behave like Psalm 126 says. What was there to weep about at sowing time? I was perplexed by this Scripture until I went to the Sahel, that vast stretch of savanna just under the Sahara Desert, with a climate much like the Bible lands.

        In the Sahel, all the moisture comes in a four month period: May, June, July, and August. After that, not a drop of rain falls for eight months. The ground cracks from dryness. The winds off the Sahara pick up the dust and throw it thousands of feet into the air. It then comes slowly drifting across West Africa as a fine grit. The year's food, of course, must all be grown in four months. People grow sorghum or milo. Their only tools are the strength of their backs and a short handled hoe.

        October and November... these are beautiful months. The granaries are full _ the harvest has come. People sing and dance. They eat two meals a day _ one about ten in the morning, after they've been to the field awhile, and the other just after sundown. The sorghum is ground to flour and made into a sticky mush which is eaten hot; they roll it into little balls between their fingers, drip it into a bit of sauce, and then pop it into their mouths. the meal lies heavy on their stomachs so they can sleep.

        December comes, and the grain supplies recede. By January not one family in fifty is still eating two meals a day. Then the evening meal is cut back. People feel the clutch of hunger. Children succumb to sickness. April is the month that haunts my memory. The African dusk is quiet: no jet engines, no traffic noises to break the stillness. April is the month you hear the babies crying in the twilight... from the village over here, from the village over there. Parents go to the bush country where they scrape bark from certain trees. They dig up roots, collect leaves, and grind it all together to make a thin gruel. They may pawn a chair, a cooking pot, or bicycle tires to buy a little more grain from those wealthy enough to have some, but most often they get by with only an evening cup of gruel.

        Then, inevitably, it happens. A six_or seven_year_old boy comes running excitedly to his father. "Daddy! Daddy! We've got grain!" he shouts. "Son, you know we haven't had grain for weeks." "Yes, we have!" the boy insists. "Out in the hut there's a leather sack hanging on the wall _ I put my hand in there _ Daddy, there's grain! Give it to Mommy so she can make flour, and tonight our tummies can sleep!" The father stands motionless. "Son, we can't do that," he softly explains. "That's next year's seed grain. We're waiting for the rains, and then we must use it."

        The rains finally arrive in May, and when they do, the young boy watches as his father takes the sack from the wall... and does the most unreasonable thing imaginable. Instead of feeding his desperate family, he goes to the field and with tears streaming down his face, takes the precious seed and throws it away. He scatters it in the dirt! Why? Because he believes in the harvest. The act of sowing it hurts so much he cries. But as the African pastors say when they preach on Psalm 126, "Brothers and sisters, this is God's law of the harvest. Don't expect to rejoice later on unless you have been willing to sow in tears."

        What do you think? Are the African pastors right? As I’ve studied this Psalm I’ve come to the conclusion that there is an enduring link between tears and joy. It’s a link I’ve observed in the lives of many Christians I’ve known personally and in many whose lives I have read. I think the link goes something like this “Joy is the fruit of a heart which sees God through tears.”

I. Seeing what God has done (Psalm 126:1-3)

        Let’s look at this Psalm together and see whether you agree that there is this link between joy and tears. Psalm 126: When the Lord brought back the captives to Zion, we were like men who dreamed. 2Our mouths were filled with laughter, our tongues with songs of joy. Then it was said among the nations, "The Lord has done great things for them." 3The Lord has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy. 4Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like streams in the Negev. 5Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy. 6He who goes out weeping, carrying seed to sow, will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with him.

The Psalms of Ascent were written over many years and then compiled into one place. Some of them are by David, one by Solomon, but most are anonymous and one or two appear to have been written late in Israel’s history. The setting of Psalm 126 is almost certainly the return from Babylon where the Jews had been exiled seventy years. Most of those who came back had never known anything else except life in captivity. They had never known, or at best could only dimly remember what it was to walk in the regions of Upper Galilee, or the plain of central Palestine, or, more importantly, the hills of Mount Zion. They had only the faintest knowledge of what Jerusalem was like. They knew nothing of the temple and its worship; the sacrifices and feasts that had defined their calendar had been missing during their exile.

        Maybe, just maybe this Psalm was written by the same person who wrote Psalm 137: By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. There on the poplars we hung our harps, for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, "Sing us one of the songs of Zion!" How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill. May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy.”

        Babylon was a place of tears. The people of Judah were scattered. Many had been killed, more separated from their families. All had been torn from their homeland, where they had dwelt for thirty generations. As the book of Esther makes clear, they suffered ongoing persecution - the plots of Haman in that book sound suspiciously like the plots of Hitler and his cronies twenty-five hundred years later. Therefore the release from Babylon, and the return to Jerusalem, was an occasion when God, by his own power turned weeping into joy. According to the psalmist it was the kind of thing you can only dream of. It was, quite literally, a dream come true.

        One of the few things I liked about John Denver was a phrase in one song about “coming home to a place you’d never been before.” That’s what these exiled Jews were doing. They had been homesick for a place they had never lived, just as the last few chapters of Scripture make me homesick for a place I’ve never seen - for that New Jerusalem, that heavenly city, that presence of God. That, for me, will be a dream come true, like my lesser dreams of mountains and cold and snow. You’ve got dreams like that. Maybe you dream of going back to a place you used to live, maybe a place your parents lived, or a place you’ve only seen in pictures.

        For these exiles the place their hearts longed for was the fabled city of Jerusalem, the city where God had put his presence and his promises, the city they had only heard about in the reminisces of the old men. To actually walk in the midst of that long caravan of refugees up into the Judean hills and through that circle of mountains into Zion - it was like a dream come true. So the natural response was to laugh - to rejoice: “Our mouths were filled with laughter, our tongues with songs of joy.”

        One of the common misconceptions of Christian, believers, pilgrims, is that they are by nature and choice dour and glum individuals. Ellen Glasgow, in her autobiography, tells of her father who was a Presbyterian elder, full of rectitude and rigid with duty. “He was entirely unselfish, and in his long life he never committed a pleasure.” But Eugene Peterson counters this image: “‘We laughed, we sang, we couldn’t believe our good fortune.’ That is the authentic Christian note, a sign of those who are on the way of salvation. Joy is characteristic of Christian pilgrimage. Joy is in Paul’s list of the fruits of the Spirit.” Throughout the Bible joy is the consequence of a true relationship with God, and the consequence of seeing him at work as the Psalmist did in the return from Babylon.
        A classic example of this is Isaiah 44:21_23 “O Israel, you will not be forgotten by Me. I have wiped out your transgressions like a thick cloud and your sins like a heavy mist. Return to Me, for I have redeemed you." Shout for joy, O heavens, for the Lord has done it! Shout joyfully, you lower parts of the earth; Break forth into a shout of joy, you mountains, O forest, and every tree in it; For the Lord has redeemed Jacob and in Israel He shows forth His glory.” Like the heavens, the earth, the mountains, we are to shout for joy for what the Lord has done. He has wiped out our transgressions, has redeemed us and in us he shows forth his glory.

        But we also notice elsewhere in Scripture the thing that’s most striking in this Psalm - that joy and tears go together. Joy is often seen as tears are wiped away. Think of Isaiah 61, which Jesus applied to his ministry “The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, 2to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, 3and provide for those who grieve in Zion--to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.”

         Do you believe that? Do you believe that Jesus came to give gladness in the place of mourning? He did, and he will - we can find joy through tears. That’s God’s promise: in Isaiah 65 he says “Behold, I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind. 18But be glad and rejoice forever in what I will create, for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight and its people a joy. 19I will rejoice over Jerusalem and take delight in my people; the sound of weeping and of crying will be heard in it no more.”

        The New Testament agrees with the Old that “though weeping may last for a night, joy comes in the morning.” Jesus said to his disciples following the Last Supper “I tell you the truth, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. 21A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. 22So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy.” That’s the eternal promise of the verses I quote all the time from Revelation 21: “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

        So joy is promised on the far side of tears. For these exiles, Babylon was the place of tears. Jerusalem was the joy on the far side. Remembering that joy, the Psalmist remarks “Then it was said among the nations, "The Lord has done great things for them." 3The Lord has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy.”

        Can you say that? Can you look back and see what God has done in the past and rejoice over it? I’ll bet you can - even if it means looking back through tears. Maybe you rejoice over the time God healed someone in your family from a life-threatening illness. Maybe it’s over the time God provided for you in a special way - a house, a church, a friend, a job, a spouse. Many of us can look back and rejoice over the way God has saved us - what he has saved us from, and what he has saved us to. Truly the Lord has done great things for us - and we should be filled with joy.

        So even if your circumstances right now are discouraging or stressful or just plain tedious, even if your world seems to be falling apart around you, and your eyes are filled with tears, you can look through the tears to remember the joy of what God has done. Scripture captures this in Psalm 42: “As the deer pants for the water brooks, so my soul pants for You, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God; When shall I come and appear before God? My tears have been my food day and night . . . These things I remember and I pour out my soul within me. For I used to go along with the throng and lead them in procession to the house of God, with the voice of joy and thanksgiving, a multitude keeping festival.” He looks through tears at the joy of what God has done in his life. “Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.”

II. Seeing what God has promised (Psalm 126:4-6)

        Joy is the fruit of a heart which sees God through tears. Certainly remembering what God has done is a key part of that. But perhaps more important is seeing what God has promised. Psalm 126:4-6 4Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like streams in the Negev. 5Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy. 6He who goes out weeping, carrying seed to sow,will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with him.

        These verses, Peterson says, are “in the future tense. Joy is nurtured by anticipation. If the joy-producing acts of God are characteristic of our past as God’s people, they will also be characteristic of our future as his people. There is no reason to suppose that God will arbitrarily change his way of working with us. Just as joy builds on the past, it borrows from the future. It expects certain things to happen.”

        Two images describe this hope. The first is “bring rains to our drought stricken lives.” Verse 4 describes it as ‘streams in the desert.’ In a dry climate the most joyous time of year is when the rains come and fill the waterways and make the desert bloom. This image is frequently used by the Biblical writers to portray God’s refreshing provision for his people. Long months or years of barren waiting can suddenly be interrupted by an invasion of God’s grace. Our souls, our lives, our hearts long for his refreshing. When it happens to several of us at once we call it revival, and we long for it in our churches. But notice again, that the rain comes on the desert. Almost never in the Biblical record do we find joy that is not in contrast to pain.

        It is the desert that makes the rain sweet. It is the exile that makes the return precious. It is being lost that makes being found joyful. It is difficulty that makes victory so satisfying. We find joy through tears. That’s the point of the most important image in the Psalm. We sow tears, we reap joy. Peterson says “The hard work of sowing seed in what looks like perfectly empty earth leads, as every farmer knows, to a time of harvest. All suffering, all emptiness, all pain, all delay, all disappointment is seed: sow it in God and he will, finally, bring a crop of joy from it.”

        Peterson goes on to say “It is clear in Psalm 126 that the one who wrote it and those who sang it were no strangers to the dark side of things. They carried the painful memory of exile in their bones and the scars of oppression on their backs. They knew the deserts of the heart and the nights of weeping. They knew what it meant to sow in tears. Christians learn that laughter does not exclude weeping. Christian joy is not an escape from sorrow. Pain and hardship still come, but they are unable to drive out the happiness of the redeemed.” Right now you may be sowing in tears. You have my promise that God has joy in store for you, a harvest of joy. Right now you may go out every day with a heavy heart. God has sheaves of blessing for you.

        This joy, this blessing is one of the great ‘now and not yet’ promises of Scripture. It is now, because our redemption is one of those great works God has already done. It is now because Jesus is with us now, in the midst of sorrow. It is now because God is good despite our hardships. God’s goodness continues, and he still invites us to ‘taste and see that the Lord is good.’ It is now because the Holy Spirit, the comforter is in us and lives with us. In the days of the Depression, Clarence Darrow, the brilliant lawyer, was addressing the members of a black church in Chicago. Most of these people were desperately poor. They didn't have jobs and had little in which to place their hope. Darrow recounted their troubles and then noted how joyfully they had sung. Then he asked this pointed question: "What do you have to sing about?" A lady jumped to her feet and said, "We've got Jesus to sing about!"

        This joy is now, but it is also not yet, because those New Jerusalem verses we read in Isaiah and Revelation are about a joyous harvest time yet to come. Most of us, most of the time are still in the time of tearful planting. We experience joy, but not in full. We have not yet received all that God has planned for us, as C. S. Lewis explains: “the settled happiness and security which we all desire God withholds from us by the very nature of the world; but joy, pleasure and merriment He has scattered broadcast. We are never safe, but we have plenty of fun, and some ecstasy. It is not hard to see why. The security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and pose an obstacle to our return to God: a few moments of happy love, a landscape, a symphony, a merry meeting with our friends, a bath or a football match, have no such tendency. Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.”

        The story is told of a farmer in a Midwestern state who had a strong disdain for "religious" things. As he plowed his field on Sunday morning, he would shake his fist at the church people who passed by on their way to worship. October came and the farmer had his finest crop ever _ the best in the entire county. When the harvest was complete, he placed an advertisement in the local paper which belittled the Christians for their faith. Near the end he wrote, "Faith in God must not mean much if someone like me can prosper." The response from the Christians in the community was quiet and polite. In the next edition of the town paper, a small ad appeared. ... It read simply, "God doesn't always settle His accounts in October."

        God isn’t finished yet. If we find ourselves in a time of weeping, we can be sure that it is leading to a harvest. As Derek Thomas says in his devotional book on the Psalms of Ascent, “Painful sowing leads to fruitful reaping. It is the rule of the kingdom of God. Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, Jesus said, there would be no harvest. There must be a dying before life can emerge.”

        Thomas goes on to say “You may not be able to put the pieces together, the work appears incomplete, half done, but the grace of God assures us and the finished work of Christ assures us and the continual intercession of Christ still further assures us that he will complete what he has started. There will be a day of harvest. Right now you may be called upon to suffer; now tears are more in abundance than anything else. But be patient, for the Master hasn’t finished his work. This is but the workshop that you see now; the showroom is upstairs.”

        The last page of the last chapter of the last volume of the Lord of the Rings gives a brief word picture of entering into that joy. “Then Frodo went aboard; and the sails were drawn up, and the wind blew, and slowly the ship slipped away down the long grey firth; and the light of the glass of Galadriel that Frodo bore glimmered and was lost. And the ship went out onto the High Sea and passed on into the West, until at last on a night of rain Frodo smelled a sweet fragrance on the air and heard the sound of singing that came over the water. And then it seemed to him as in a dream that the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise.”

        When the Lord brought back the captives to Zion, we were like men who dreamed. 2Our mouths were filled with laughter, our tongues with songs of joy. Then it was said among the nations, "The Lord has done great things for them." 3The Lord has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy” - a joy our hearts see through tears, through that grey curtain of rain. But one day it will be turn to silver, and then we will behold that far green country in the light of a new sunrise.