Psalm 126 is an important message from God, a message with abiding value, but one worth considering in connection with this month's missions emphasis. Please take a moment to read it with care. Notice that verses 1-3 reflect on the past. Verses 4-6 pray concerning the future.
It may seem obvious, but it's important to remember that Psalm 126 is a psalm. A psalm is a kind of Scripture that God inspired not just to speak to us, but also to speak for us. It gives us words to speak or sing to God. So how does God guide us to think and feel and pray in Psalm 126?
First, reflect on the good work that Christ has already done. Verses 1-3 ponder what God did in the past. Due to their persistent unfaithfulness, God exiled his people from the Promised Land. He sent them into Babylonian captivity. But after seventy years, just as he had promised, they were permitted to return. God brought Israel back from captivity. They rejoiced!
The Bible uses this captivity as a picture of our slavery to sin. And release from captivity pictures salvation from sin through Christ. And so this psalm leads us to reflect also on the good work that Christ has already accomplished in our salvation. Thoughts of those blessings should fill us with gratitude and joy (vss. 1-3). He loved us. He forgave us. He gave us a new heart and new hope. Thank God!
This does raise a searching question. Has Christ begun that good work in you? Must you say with the Gentiles in verse 2, "The Lord has done great things for them"? Or can you say with God's people in verse 3, "The Lord has done great things for me"? Don't rest until you can. Cast yourself upon Jesus Christ in repentance and faith and seek his mercy.
Does it strike you as odd that verse 1 speaks not of the restoration of God's people, but specifically of the restoration of God's placeof Zion? Zion was the holy hill where God's tabernacle and dwelling place were. The most important aspect of the return from Babylon was the reviving of the public ordinances, the means of grace by which God's people could draw near to God. Zion pointed forward to Jesus Christ and his church (Heb. 12:22-24). Thank Jesus that he is building his church, so that the gates of hell will not prevail against her. Keep reflecting on the good work that Christ has begun.
Second, keep seeking Christ. Seek him to carry on and complete the good work he has begun.
When Israel returned to the Promised Land, they discovered that all of God's promises for the future were not being fulfilled in their lives. Even though they could affirm with verse 1, "The Lord restored the fortunes of Zion," they found that they still had to pray verse 4"Restore our fortunes, O Lord."
God's people were still worldly. The other nations were still present, and they still opposed God's purposes and God's people. There was no great king like David or Solomon. This wasn't all that God had promised.
Step by step, our faithful, covenant God was making it clear to his people that they still needed to look beyond the present to the future, to a greater fulfillment, such as God had promised through the prophetswhen he would send the Anointed One (the "Messiah," the "Christ").
And so they cry out in verse 4, "Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like streams in the Negeb!" Now the Negeb (or Negev) is the southern desert of Israel. It's bone-dry, except in the winter. The winter rains actually create streams in the desert. And when water flows through a desert, it literally springs to life.
God answered their prayer. The Anointed One came and accomplished our salvation! Jesus lived for us, died for us, rose for us, ascended to heaven for us, and is ever active for us as our heavenly prophet, priest, and king. He initiated the new covenant. He poured out his Holy Spirit. Like rivers of living water, the Spirit of Christ is going to the ends of the earth, producing life.
And yet, we do not experience all that God has promised, either. We still wait for the completing and perfecting of our salvation. We still long for the consummation, when our Lord Jesus will return in power and glory. "Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him" (Heb. 9:28). In the meantime, we keenly feel the tension.
Did you notice, for example, that when you became a Christian, your troubles didn't end? In a way, that's when they really began! You became a walking civil war. The Holy Spirit started fighting hard to defeat the sin in your life. And the world, the flesh, and the devil began ganging up on you to fight back. You can exult with verse 1 that the Lord has restored your fortunes. But, at the same time, you have to pray with verse 4 that the Lord will restore your fortunes.
And not just your fortunes. Our fortunes! "Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like streams in the Negeb!" (vs. 4). In Psalm 126, our Lord guides us to seek him, so that he will restore his church. Remember God's deep concern for Zion (vs. 1). His grace also gives us a deep concern for Zion, the city of God. Our concern will embrace the whole body of Christ (the church universal). And it will include each of our local churches, as well as our presbyteries and our denomination.
The church is worldly. She is a mixed multitude. The Bride of Christ is fractured and divided. She and her members are full of sin and error and immaturity. And, unhappily, that includes the OPC. It includes your congregation. And it includes you and me! Moreover, some of God's elect have not been brought in yet! Some of Christ's sheep are still lost, outside his fold.
These facts lend a great urgency to our prayers. Christ has begun his good work in us. But how desperately we need him to carry it on and to complete it! May God graciously use our Orthodox Presbyterian ministries of instruction and evangelism and church planting and missionary outreach. These facts give a great urgency to our pursuit of these ministries. If you think of Worldwide Outreach and the Thank Offering that helps support it as some kind of parochial game or a vain custom, then it's better that you forget it! But I implore you rather to think of them as a matter of earnest spiritual warfare touching on issues of life and deatheternal life and eternal death!as we seek to do God's work in God's way.
Is not the ministry of Christian Educationto members, to officers, to ministers and prospective ministersvitally important? Our Lord says, "My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge" (Hos. 4:6). Is not the ministry of Home Missions absolutely essential? Does not our Lord still have compassion, seeing multitudes in North America "harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd" (Matt. 9:36)? Is not the ministry of Foreign Missions utterly necessary? " 'Every one who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.' But how are men to call upon him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without a preacher? And how can men preach unless they are sent?" (Rom. 10:13-15).
Our Lord Jesus Christ is passionately concerned for the full restoration of Zion. The church is his beloved bride, the apple of his eye. Does that not grab your heart? Reflecting on Psalm 126, John Calvin commented, "With a similar joy does it become us at the present day to exult when God gathers together his church. And it is an undoubted evidence that we are steel-hearted, if her miserable dispersion does not produce in our minds grief and lamentation."
We're in the middle of a tug-of-war between what theologians call "the already" and "the not yet." We already possess salvation in Christ. But we do not yet enjoy its perfection and fullness. We experience grace, but we do not yet experience glory (see Shorter Catechism, 102). God's kingdom came when God's king, Jesus Christ, came. But the kingdom of glory (God's kingdom in its consummate fullness) will not come until King Jesus comes back in power and glory.
That means that our whole life is seedtime. Verses 5-6 affirm: "Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy! He that goes out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him." Sowing in tears characterizes our entire life in this age. This life is seedtime, and the second coming of Christ will usher in the harvest. First we sow in tears, and then we will reap with shouts of joy.
But seedtime and harvest are also a recurring pattern throughout this age. There are many little seedtimes. And there are many little harvests. Still, the pattern is: first we sow in tears, and then we reap with shouts of joy.
Why? Because this is the way God ordinarily works. This was true for Israel in captivity. But even before that, we can see this very pattern of "sowing in tears" and "reaping with shouts of joy." Think, for example, of Abraham, of Joseph, of Moses.
We especially see this pattern in our Lord Jesus Christ. Hebrews 12:2 exhorts us to look "to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God." Our Lord Jesus first sowed in tears (his humiliation), and then he reaped in joy (his exaltation).
And one big reason why we see this pattern recurring in ourselves and in the church is that our Lord Jesus has graciously joined us to himself. United to Christ, we follow in his footsteps. And as we follow in his footsteps, he sovereignly conforms us more and more to his image. First we sow in tears; then we reap in joy.
So what should we do? Trust and obey. Keep trusting the Lord and "sow in tears." Keep cultivating your hope that you will "reap with shouts of joy." Keep encouraging each other in this. Notice that this is a song of ascents. Believers would sing the songs of ascents (Psalms 120-134) together as they traveled to Jerusalem for the great worship feasts (like Joseph, Mary, and Jesus going to Jerusalem for the Passover in Luke 2:41-51). God has made us members of one another (Rom. 12:5). How we need fellowship!
The Thank Offering is one more golden opportunity for us to share (to fellowship) together as a church in pursuing the Great Commission, to encourage one another in the sure hope that our sowing in tears will result in reaping with shouts of joy.
We must sow in tears so that we can reap in joy. But knowing this doesn't make it easy. In fact, it's really hard. The flesh rebels against it. We don't naturally want to sow in tears! The flesh will always seek shortcuts or escape.
Isn't this why believers seek a "second blessing," a "baptism with the Holy Spirit," a "higher life," or whatever you want to call it? Don't we all want somehow to rise above the need to sow in tears? Isn't this why we keep thinking that the grass is greener on the other side of the fence? I've lost track of the number of times that I've resigned the ministry and left the OPC (at least in my thoughts). But what good would that do? No matter where we go in this life, we have to sow in tears. Isn't this why we try to pursue the Great Commission through parachurch organizations, rather than through Christ's ordained lampstand, the church? Can't we just do an end run around this "sowing in tears" business? But it is especially when we pursue evangelism, missions, church planting, peacemaking in the body of Christ, nurturing our children in the Lord, building up believers and the church, etc., that our Lord works powerfully by means of our weak sowing in tears.
This is hard! Will we walk by faith in the Son of God? Or will we try to walk by sight and turn away from him? How can we do it? Living by faith, we can give ourselves in full to our God because Jesus has first given himself to us and has won the victory for us. We can do it because Jesus has sent his Holy Spirit and joined us to himself, and by his grace he wins victories in us and through us. We can do it by relying on his grace. "Draw near to God and he will draw near to you" (Jas. 4:8). Remember, our Lord inspired this psalm not just to speak to us, but also to speak for us. Psalm 126 guides our prayers as we draw near to our Lord. We can do it by fixing our eyes on our exalted Savior in heaven, keeping alive our God-given hope that our Lord will send the harvest, and walking by faith and not by sight. Thanks to the living God, we will reap with shouts of joy!
Our Lord graciously sends temporal harvests in this life. What was the Protestant Reformation if it wasn't such a harvest? Our Reformation forefathers exulted, "Post tenebras lux" ("After darkness, light")after sowing in tears, reaping with shouts of joy! And God sends these harvests on all levels.
Cannot the history of the OPC be summarized as sowing in tears and reaping with shouts of joy? Our forefathers in the faith sacrificed dearly to keep the very lamp of the gospel itself alight in desperate times. Sowing in tears! And God raised up a church devoted to the gospel of grace and used her to train pastors and send missionaries and plant churches and bring sinners to salvation and spread biblical teaching. Reaping with shouts of joy! God calls us to persevere in sowing in tears, so that we might reap with shouts of joy.
One congregation labored to restore a member from grave, unrepentant sin. Finally, they excommunicated him. He left in a violent rage. Sowing in tears! About three years later, he called the pastor. He had been "surfing the Web" and had come across the OPC Web site (www.opc.org), a ministry of the Committee on Christian Education. He found the OPC's Book of Discipline there. He thought, "The OPC disciplined me. Maybe I should read this." As he read, the Lord smote his conscience. He couldn't eat or sleep. He was gripped with fear of God, overwhelmed with contrition, and obsessed with a need to get right with the Lord and his church. The pastor counseled him and arranged for him to meet with the session. The session deemed him to be genuinely repentant, and he was publicly restored in a worship service. The congregation had a big dinner, a feast to welcome back this prodigal son. Reaping with shouts of joy!
There was a young man who grew up in the OPC, was drilled on the Shorter Catechism and trained with Great Commission Publications materials, and then turned away from the Lord and his church (see "How Long to Pray," by Paul MacDonald, in New Horizons, May 1999). Sowing in tears! Over thirty years passed. His father died. His mother continued to pray for her prodigal son. By and by, an OP church plant began in the town where the man lived. He visited it, and the Lord converted him and returned him to the church. Reaping with shouts of joy!
In Mount Vernon, Washington, the people of a new OP mission work rejoiced to receive their organizing pastor. But in their earliest days, several households left the work, and by the end of the year, many of the families that had helped begin Grace OPC were gone. Sowing in tears! Pastor David Klein and the people of the congregation persevered in the work of the church. They assembled each Lord's Day to meet with their glorious Redeemer. The pastor preached the Word, administered the sacraments, and instructed the people in the way of the Lord. The people sought the Lord together in prayer. They bore witness to Christ throughout the Skagit Valley. Through the tearful sowing in weakness, the Lord was working in power. By the end of a year that saw heartbreak, church membership had grown from twenty-eight to forty-two. Monthly offerings had grown from $2,351 to $3,640. Reaping with shouts of joy!
During the 1930s, the Rev. Clarence Duff served with the Sudan Interior Mission as a pioneer missionary to Ethiopia. When Italy invaded Ethiopia, the Duffs were forced to return to the United States in 1938. They identified themselves with the fledgling OPC. In 1943, during World War II, Mr. Duff set out to return to Ethiopia, this time as a missionary of the OPC. The government barred him from Ethiopia, so he began pioneer mission work in Eritrea, where, in God's providence, he was "stuck." He served about eighteen months before his family and the Francis Mahaffy family were able to join him. They concentrated their efforts in two areas: the highlands and Ghinda. Out of desperate necessity and Christian mercy, Mrs. Duff (who had no formal medical training) began to provide simple medical treatments for the hundreds who came to their door. Over the years, a clinic was established and the medical work developed into a hospital. But in 1974, Marxist revolutionaries kidnapped two of their nurses. One of them, Anna Strikwerda, was martyred. The missionaries persevered for about eighteen months as war raged and bandits roamed the land. Finally they deemed it necessary to suspend the work in 1976. The gospel had been widely preached, but there was but a handful of believers, with some disunity among them. Sowing in tears! In 1992, OP missionaries were able to return to Eritrea. They discovered that men who had embraced Jesus Christ under the preaching of Clarence Duff and Francis Mahaffynow old menwere bringing their children and saying, "This is the true gospel and you must make this your church." The testimony to our Lord's grace grew. Reaping with shouts of joy!
That's not the end of that storyor of any of these stories. But these temporal harvests do encourage us as we continue to sow in tears, serving our Lord. Our greatest encouragementour blessed hopeis that we will reap the full, perfect harvest when our Lord Jesus comes back in power and glory. Then we'll see that it was worth it all. Meanwhile, all our sowing in tearseven our fervent prayers for Worldwide Outreach, and our sacrificial giving to it through the Thank Offeringcounts toward that great harvest.
Brothers and sisters, the economy is not all that we might wish. Terrorist attacks on New York and Washington have unsettled the nation and the world. We each have our own pressing needs. But in the name of our exalted Savior, I beseech you: persist in walking by faith and not by sight. Persist in sowing in tears. Persist in looking to our Lord to send the harvest. Pleasewith earnest prayer and generous givingsupport the Thank Offering and the Worldwide Outreach ministries that it helps to sustain. This is another golden opportunity for us to sow together in tears, so that we might reap together with shouts of joy!
The author is the general secretary for the Committee on Christian Education. He quotes the ESV for Psalm 126 and the RSV elsewhere. Reprinted from New Horizons, November 2001.