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A Song of degrees. “1 When the LORD turned again the captivity of Zion, we were like them that dream. 2 Then was our mouth filled with laughter, and our tongue with singing: then said they among the heathen, The LORD hath done great things for them. 3 The LORD hath done great things for us; whereof we are glad. 4 Turn again our captivity, O LORD, as the streams in the south. 5 They that sow in tears shall reap in joy. 6 He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him” (Psalm 126: 1-6).

Psalm 126 is one of fifteen psalms (Psalm 120 – 134) with the prefix, “A Song of Degrees”. What is the significance of this special title? Most commentators are of the view that these psalms were sung by bands of pilgrims as they ascended the hill to the city of Jerusalem where they celebrated their yearly feasts. This ascent toward the holy city accounts for the prefix, “A Song of Degrees”.

 

o A song of deliverance

The above psalm was a song sung by the returning captives from Babylonian exile. It expresses the exuberance of the Israelites as they made their way home to Jerusalem.

This song of joy was probably written around the time of their return, or a short period later to commemorate this historic event in their nation’s calendar. It is likely that the author was a returnee himself as he spoke as a participant in Israel’s joyous deliverance: “When the LORD turned again the captivity of Zion, we were like them that dream” (v 1).

Some seventy years had passed since the Israelites were carried away into captivity. For almost two generations, they had lived under their Babylonian masters.

How did these Israelites first become a captive people? A quick look at their history reveals that Israel had provoked Jehovah to anger by their idolatrous and sinful practices. They had forsaken the law of the Lord, set up altars in high places and offered sacrifices to other gods. Time and again, the Lord had sent His prophets to warn them of impending judgment. But God’s people ignored His gracious call to repentance and continued in their wilful ways. In 586BC, the Lord brought judgment upon His people by sending the Babylonians army to destroy their temple and take them away captive to Babylon. Thus, because of their sin, “God sent them into captivity, not as dross is put into the fire to be consumed, but as gold to be refined” (Matthew Henry).

o Ecstasy and Exuberance (vv 1-2a)

But God, in His mercy, had moved the heart of Cyrus, the Persian king, to allow them to return home to rebuild their city, particularly the temple. This was in fulfilment of God’s Word as prophesied by Jeremiah, the prophet: “Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the LORD spoken by the mouth of Jeremiah might be accomplished, the LORD stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom, and put it also in writing, saying, 23 Thus saith Cyrus king of Persia, All the kingdoms of the earth hath the LORD God of heaven given me; and he hath charged me to build him an house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Who is there among you of all his people? The LORD his God be with him, and let him go up” (II Chron. 36: 22-23).

When the Jewish captives heard of Cyrus’ decree, they were euphoric. Exiled for seventy years in a strange land, the Jews had held little hope of returning to their own home. When the deliverance came so suddenly and unexpectedly, they could scarcely believe that it was real – “we were like them that dream” (v 1b). A long-cherished dream had come true. At last, their ardent prayers had been miraculously answered. The jubilant Jews acknowledged that it was the Lord Who had “turned again the captivity of Zion” (v 1a). Though the edict came from King Cyrus, it was the sovereign God Who had delivered them.

Truly, the Lord reigns supreme over all the earth. He directs the hearts of kings: “By me kings reign, and princes decree justice. By me princes rule, and nobles, even all the judges of the earth” (Prov. 8: 15-16). Even the powerful heathen king of Persia was commanded to “perform all my pleasure” (Isa. 44: 28).

Amazed and confused, the Jewish captives did not know what to make of their sudden liberty. The unexpected deliverance put them into such ecstasy that they could scarcely contain themselves: “Then was our mouth filled with laughter, and our tongue with singing” (v 2a).

“The mercy was so unexpected, so amazing, so singular that they could not do less than laugh; and they laughed much, so that their mouths were full of it, and that because their hearts were full too. When at last the tongue could move articulately, it could not be content simply to talk, but it must needs sing; and sing heartily too, for it was full of singing. Doubtless the former pain added to the zest of the pleasure; the captivity threw a brighter colour into the emancipation. The people remembered this joy flood for years after, and here is the record of it turned into a song” (The Treasury of David).

In contrast, some of the older surviving Jews could recount their tears and their inability to sing because of their sorrow: “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. 2 We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. 3 For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion. 4 How shall we sing the LORD'S song in a strange land?” (Ps. 137: 1-4).

But when the Lord “turned again the captivity of Zion”, He turned their sorrow into joy. When He mercifully delivered them in such an amazing way, their hearts were filled with gratitude, and their mouths with laughter and singing. They could now “sing the LORD’s song in a strange land” (Ps. 137: 4).

We thank God that He is ever gracious to His people. We, too, have experienced His lovingkindness in many wonderful ways. One of the Lord’s greatest mercies was to set us free from the bondage of sin and to grant us liberty in Christ (Gal. 5: 1). Like the Israelites, let us rejoice in His many blessings. Let us respond with gratitude for His kind and gracious dealings upon us. (… to be continued)

- Pastor