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Psalm 126

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dreamed. Our 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.” 

The Lord has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy.

Restore our fortunes, Lord, like the streams in the Negev. Those who sow with tears will reap songs of joy. Those who go out weeping, carrying seed to sow, will return with songs of joy,  carrying sheaves with them.

It was nearing 40°C and the sun was bearing down on us. We had been hiking in the wilderness around the Dead Sea in Israel for a few consecutive days. A large part of our tour group was back at the resort hotel recovering from heat stroke; and so, naturally, those of us not sick of the sun, went for another hike. That day we hiked Wadi Zin. Wadi is the Arabic word for a dry riverbed, the Hebrew word for the same is nahal; Wadi Zin is located in the Negev (vs. 4).

While on that hike our tour guide said something that has stayed with me since that time: “The number one cause of death in the desert today is drowning.” (!)

You see, these dried riverbeds and crevice bottoms can flood incredibly fast and with a torrent of water. Because of the super hard ground and because wadis are always the low points in the topography of the region, any water that falls, almost anywhere, floods down. And so, the sky may be blue over head and not a cloud visible, but a sudden rainstorm kilometers away can wash out roads and bridges as debris is collected and surges downward. The danger is especially prevalent during the end of the rainy season, when people just want to get out and hike the regions again and the weather looks amiable to such desires. In fact, just two weeks after we returned from our trip, I heard a news report out of Israel that two local backpackers where killed in Wadi Zin because of one of these flash floods.

The Negev region of Israel is a dry desert, not quite a wasteland, but not really arable land either. And so, the Psalmist’s hope in Psalm 126 of fortunes being restored “like streams in the Negev” (vs. 4) is an image that would have powerful resonance with the people of Israel as they recited this Psalm ascending the temple mount on the way to celebrate a festival to the Lord. Looking back on the history of their own people they would remember all the ways God has overcome obstacles for their assurance and protection: from the exodus out of Egypt and crossing the Sea of Reeds; to God’s provision of good leaders, judges and kings, to call them back to faithfulness; eventually even being carried away to exile and returning 70 years later as promised by God. Whether manna from heaven, water from a rock, or prophets to call people to faithful service and care of widow and orphan, God has provided for his people. The anthem of praise rings true as the people recall their history: “The Lord has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy.” (vs. 3)

That God’s goodness to his people and his provision for them is compelling to the world around them is also part of God’s purpose in choosing Israel (vs. 2; and Gen. 12:2-3; Is. 55:5; Zech.2:11). Even through seasons of “sowing with tears… [and] going out in weeping” (vs. 5,6) there is a promised reality of restoration and goodness for Zion (vs. 1).

And while it is clear that Israel’s hopes are linked closely to the land and the restoration of the kingdom of Israel (Acts 1:6) – both historically and in the present day; we also know that as spiritual descendants of Abraham (cf. Rom. 9:8; Eph. 3:6) and “heirs according to the promise" (Gal. 3:29) our ultimate hope is actually in a “new Zion” – the new Jerusalem, the Holy City descended from heaven, in the union of heaven and earth when all is renewed (Rev. 3:12; all of chapter 21). God’s promise is less about a particular land and more about his particular presence with his people: first in Jesus, then by the Holy Spirit in all who believe, and finally as face to face when all is restored (cf. 1 Cor. 13:12; Rev. 21: 3, 22-23).

And so, while it is often tempting (and, to be honest, easy) to think of God’s provision and blessing and promised restoration as being about earthly realities – and to be clear: it is, in part (every good gift is from the hand of God, he is the overflowing source of all good things, he has promised to give us what we need for life and faith in him) – the temptation is to define God’s promised prosperity in today’s economic, materialist, and consumer terms; the good life we long for isn’t the promise of a new creation to the glory of God, it is too often the next new thing to the glory of me – the pursuit of my own happiness, my own glory, my own status, or pride, or power; or peace, security, and comfort.

To be abundantly clear: these are the insidious idols in our lives and their ubiquity in 21st century North American western culture makes them almost invisible to our eyes. Further, because of the gospel of prosperity in this life, because of the “Canadian [or American] Dream” – and because of the relative ease that most of us live out of – most of us hold (probably tacitly) the belief that we can do it, we can accomplish it, we don’t really believe that we need God. A while ago, author and pastor Craig Groeschel called this phenomena “the Christian atheist” – the idea being, though we say we believe in God, most of us live (and do ministry) as if he doesn’t exist. Michael Horton, a reformed theologian in the presbyterian tradition, has similarly called this “Christless Christianity” – the core idea here being that we don’t need a savior, and God is here for our material prosperity; instead of us being here for God’s glory.

Sometimes I wonder if our prosperity and relative ease of life and faith has made the “streams of the Negev” more dangerous to us than a blessing. What once was seen as God sending the wind and the rain to water the earth and bring crops has become to us a source of spiritual death as we cling to the “stuff” of life and live as though we don’t really need God. If the number one cause of death in the desert is drowning, maybe the spiritual apathy of our age and “Christian” communities is caused by our prosperity? Instead of pursuing the glory of God and being witnesses to the ends of the earth, we pursue our own glories and lesser lights. 

I am concerned that unless we recognize this is our hearts and lives, our tears and weeping will last longer than the night and we will miss the joy that comes with the morning – either in this life, or – and definitely – in the next.

Lord Jesus, open the eyes of my heart to see the truth of my affections: for you, and for those things that distract from you. Help me to genuinely live my faith in the promise of your ultimate and eternal restoration. Grant me life as you have defined it, and Lord, since you are strong enough, remove from me those things of life as I have defined it that distract. In Jesus’ name, Amen!