The Secret of Joy: Psalm 126
Spurgeon was once criticized for putting too much laughter into his sermons. Frivolous. Lacking gravity. His reply to the woman who had button-holed him was classic: “My good lady, if you only knew how much I restrain myself.” This psalm shows us not only that “laughter” (Psalms 126:2) and God go together but also God and “joy” (Psalms 126:2-6). This psalm is written to help you discover the secret of joy.
Mistaken Notions of Joy
When the psalm refers to joy, it does not mean the tendency that some people have, because of their temperament, to be happier than other people. For one reason or another there appear to be people who are more naturally wired to smile, who can wake up in the morning singing a cheery song, and who look at their breakfast cereal and simply clap their hands with delight. You may feel sympathy with the Snoopy T-Shirt that was popular when Charlie Brown was all the rage—“I hate people who sing in the morning”—but then others get up early because they like it. Some people are morning people, some people are evening people, and some people seem to feel happier than others. They are wired that way. However, the joy here is not this matter of temperament.
Nor is this joy about faking it, the sort of pretend joy that plasters a smile on your face while inside you growl. Nor is it imposing joy on others by going up to someone who that moment discovered his best friend had a car accident and telling him to “rejoice in the Lord always,” to which the understandable reply might be, “Let me punch you in the nose and see how much rejoicing you’re doing then.” Nor is it the deep Christian joy that is so deep—soooo deep—that to find it you practically have to set up an oil well. Drilling, drilling, deeper, deeper, deeper. Ah, we have struck oil; there is a smile down there; it was deep Christian joy.
Living the Dream
No, this joy is not a matter of temperament (your natural predisposition), an experience that must be manufactured for yourself and other people (faking it), or something so deep that it is not really happy (where the smile goes down rather than up). Instead, this joy is a result of being “restored” by God (Psalms 126:1)—not happy because of your genetics but happy because of what God has done for you. This joy is based upon an objective, real, God-given restoration. And those who have this joy are “like those who dream” (Psalms 126:1). The ancient world, when it referred to dreams, did not, first of all, mean a daydream. They meant an actual dream, the sort of dream you have when you are asleep. So when the psalmist says this was like dreaming, he is comparing joy to a very good actual dream. He is saying that this joy is like that. This joy is so good that when you experience it you think, “I am living the dream.” Such is the joy that this psalm is talking about.
So throw away all ideas that joy is found in things apart from God, or that God is the serious, gloomy, despondent, negative, critical sort of religious freak who will smack you over the wrists with a wooden ruler as soon as you step out of line. This psalm, first, describes the dream and then, second, tells you how that dream comes true.
First, the dream:
When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like those who dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then they said among the nations,
“The Lord has done great things for them.”
The Lord has done great things for us;
we are glad. (Psalms 126:1-3)
Zion, as the last chapter explained, stands for the whole story of the people of God that finishes in the heavenly Jerusalem—“When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,” that is, when God brought back God’s people to where they should have been all along. Notice there is a parallel between Psalms 126:1 and Psalms 126:4. Psalms 126:1 says, “When the Lord restored” or “When God restored.” Verse 4 prays, “Restore our fortunes, O Lord” or “Please God restore.” So the first part of the psalm is the dream, what happened when God restored. The second part of the psalm is how to live the dream, asking God to restore your fortunes.
“Fortune” here doesn’t mean luck or chance. It is not saying, “I’ve been playing the gaming tables and finally I got lucky.” It is not saying, “I’ve been down on my luck and finally I got my lucky break.” The word “fortune” here mirrors the word “restore,” so “When the Lord restored our fortunes” (Psalms 126:1) means something like “When God restored us to a restored situation.” We find the same in Psalms 126:4, which is parallel: “Restore our fortunes, O Lord,” meaning, “Restore us to this restored situation, O Lord.” This matters because people think they are “living the dream” when they have bought a new vacation home or a whole new wardrobe from Savile Row. Truly such people are missing real joy. Joy is not financially living well or looking good. Joy is about being restored, that is, brought back to who you were designed to be.
If joy is being restored, what is being restored like? “We were like those who dream.” What sort of dream? Now the dream is described: “Then our mouth was filled with laughter” (Psalms 126:2). See the laughter clearly in your mind. This laughter is not a little tweak of the lips. This is not a polite living-room chortle. This is not a snigger behind your hand. This is not a mild happy laugh. This is a slap-your-thigh burst-out in laughter, LOL, giggle fit. “Our mouth was filled with laughter”—wide open, yawning chasm, filled with laughter.
Wide-mouthed laughter is how the psalm describes the dream. This is not one of those church-bulletin blooper jokes you can find online. You know, “The epistles are wives of the apostles,” “The fifth commandment is humor thy father and mother,” “Lot’s wife was a pillar of salt by day but a ball of fire by night,” “Noah’s wife was Joan of Ark,” and the rest. This is tears rolling down your face, laughing out loud, together—not just “my own” but God’s people together—engaged in wide-open-mouthed laughter. This joy makes you laugh so hard that there is no room for anything else in your mouth!
“And our tongue [was filled] with shouts of joy” (Psalms 126:2). Other versions translate this “songs” (not shouts) of joy, but if it is singing, it is the volume you hear that lifts the roof at a sports stadium. This is the fist-pump shout when you score a touchdown, or hit a home run, or score straight A’s on your tests.
There is still more to this description of the dream: “Then they said among the nations ‘the Lord has done great things for them’” (Psalms 126:2). When they started laughing out loud, really loud, and shouting songs of joy, then everyone around looked at them and thought, “Whoa something good’s going on there. I want to be a part of that God thing.” The people of God agreed with this verdict: “The Lord has done great things for us; we are glad” (Psalms 126:3).
I do not think there is anyone who, if they truly understand this psalm, would not want the dream it describes. Whatever your temperament (morning person or not), whatever your situation (tough or easy), do you not desire to have a constant joy that is so amazing and so obvious that people all around you say, “I want some of that joy juice he’s on”? The dream is described as God’s restoring his people, which causes laughter, joy, and witness.
The Dream Come True
Second, the dream come true:
Restore our fortunes, O Lord,
like streams in the Negeb!
Those who sow in tears
shall reap with shouts of joy!
He who goes out weeping,
bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
bringing his sheaves with him. (Psalms 126:4-6)
Psalms 126:4-6 develop a model of praying for the dream to come true and a contrast of what it is like when that dream does come true. To begin with, “Restore our fortunes, O Lord” (Psalms 126:4) mirrors the description that runs from Psalms 126:1-3 of fortunes restored. Having described that dream in the first half of the psalm, now in the second half the psalm begins to model the surprising contrast of being restored.
Being restored is a contrast “like streams in the Negeb” (Psalms 126:4). Negeb means “parched” or “dry,” as in the southern part of the country. So “like streams in the Negeb” contrasts water with a desert. We find another contrast: “Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy! He who goes out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him” (Psalms 126:5-6). So tears contrasts with shouts of joy. Psalms 126:4-6, then, models asking God to restore his people. They tell us that God’s restoration contrasts water flowing in a desert and shouting with joy after crying. Let me explain this model and contrast of joy with the mnemonic H-A-P-P-Y.
H — Humility. Joy begins with humility. To say, “Restore, O Lord,” requires the humility to admit that you need restoring. Jesus said “Blessed [or happy] are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (Matthew 5:3-6). This psalm is saying that restoration begins with having the humility to ask for it.
A – Advice. Notice it is “our” (Psalms 126:4), not “my,” fortunes. The psalmist is doing this in community. Let me make a pastoral sidebar here. In my view there is a medical condition called “clinical depression.” I have known people, very godly, holy people, who are clinically depressed. This is not because they are sinning. It is not because they are not praying enough or trying hard enough. It is because there is a medical condition called “clinical depression.” If you have felt sad for a long time, and you talk to someone who cares about you and knows you well and they say, “Well maybe you should go and see someone,” then just do it. You have nothing to lose other than your pride. That is different from being temperamentally slightly melancholic or Eeyore-like. That’s a personality type, a glass-half-empty kind of person. Fine. But if it’s more than that, get some advice.
P – Perspective. There is a perspective going on in this contrast. Negeb, streams flowing in the desert. Tears, leading to joy. So far in these Psalms of Ascent we have been through the dark side of the emotions, asking for help, now we are coming to the bright side of the emotions: joy, happiness, in God. The perspective here is the story line of the Bible. What we are really talking about is the gospel. So this is not merely a contrast of a cathartic effect—weeping then rejoicing. This is saying, “Because of who God is, because of what the gospel is, if you turn to God he will restore you.”
The story of the gospel is that God has come to rescue us in Christ. Part of experiencing true joy is keeping that perspective your perspective. It’s working hard at whatever is noble and true and thinking about such things (see Philippians 4:8). The point of Paul’s words there in Philippians is not just looking at a flower rather than at a depressing piece of news, though that can be wise at times. It is looking at the flower and asking, “What does that tell me about who God is as the creator?” It is asking, when you hear that bit of bad news, “What does that tell me about the fallen world, and how glad does that make me that God is going to make a new heaven and a new earth, and he is redeeming his people through the gospel?” Perspective, perspective. Martyn Lloyd-Jones in his book Spiritual Depression says, “The trouble with Christians is they listen to themselves when they should talk to themselves.”1 Talk to yourself, that is, in the sense of adopting a gospel perspective of what is happening.
P – Prayer. This is a prayer: “Restore our fortunes, O Lord.” Some of us need to slow down to make room for prayer. Let me ask you a direct question: are you having a regular, daily quiet time? I don’t mean with four other people in the room in a Bible study, good as that is; or with your family in devotions, excellent as that is. I mean you on your knees or in your favorite chair, with the Bible open, quiet around, and connecting with God in prayer and saying, “Lord, would you restore me to joy?”
Y – You. I wrote a book called The God Centered Life, so why am I now talking about you?2 I am, because to be truly joyful, you (or “our,” as in the psalm; it is “you” in the plural) need to be restored to who you were designed to be. It is restoration, coming back to the way you were meant to be as designed by God. It is a God-centered you. The gospel enables you to become you as you were meant to be, the new creation. It is to be reconciled to God, to be in Christ and Christ in you, to have your sins removed and his righteousness yours as you are in Christ. This restoration happens as you become a Christian; it happens more and more as you follow Christ.
Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson were out camping. Holmes woke up Watson in the middle of the night and pointed up at the stars. Watson blinked the sleep out of his eyes as Holmes asked what he deduced. Watson said, “Well, astronomically, I deduce there are millions of galaxies and potentially billions of planets. Astrologically, I deduce that Saturn is in Leo. Horologically, I deduce that the time is approximately a quarter past three. Meteorologically, I deduce that we will have a beautiful day tomorrow. What about you, Holmes,” he said, “what do you deduce?” “Watson” said Holmes slowly, “I deduce that someone has stolen our tent.”
Joy is both very complex and very simple. I studied the Puritans at Cambridge University. My teacher was a senior, eminent professor toward the end of his career, a brilliant man. I remember talking to him once about the caricature of Puritans as a dour and despondent lot, the puritanical myth. He said to me, “Whenever you meet a Puritan [he used the present tense meet, for he knew that there are still Puritans today, even if they wear jeans and have tattoos instead of wide brimmed hats and buckled shoes], you meet a happy person.”
We tend to think that being happy is being trite, and the more miserable we are, the more profound we must be. Nothing could be further from the truth. God’s ultimate destiny for us who will believe is not miserable profundity but joyful severity, a thrill that reverberates with the truth that “God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:3-4). For those who will put their trust in God that is their destiny, and it is one filled with joy.
1. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Spiritual Depression: Its Causes and Cure (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmanns, 1965).
2. Josh Moody, The God-Centered Life: Insights from Jonathan Edwards for Today (Vancouver: Regent, 2007).
Photo credit: Pexels/Reafon Gates
“True happiness comes from within.” At least that’s what our culture tells us while beating the drum of self-esteem as the route to real joy.But what if this is wrong? What if true joy comes not from within, but from without? What if it comes from God himself? Embedded in the Bible is a little-known guidebook to the lasting joy we long for. The Psalms of Ascent—a set of 15 psalms that share honestly about the heights and the depths of life while celebrating the faithfulness of God.