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Finding True Joy

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A Song of Ascents. 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.

Psalm 126:1-3

Psalm 126 is a Psalm of Ascent sung by the people of God as they made their way to the city of Jerusalem. The Israelites sang the Psalms of Ascent to reorient their minds by reflecting on the past and the future. Psalm 126 can teach us a lot about how to reorient our own minds to experience true joy.

First, we need moments that make us pause and use the word “when” like we see in Psalm 126:1. They are vital to our joy. Think of the moments like a birthday party. They are a time to remind the person how much they are loved and a reminder how much we love them. Good birthday parties increase the joy of the person who’s a year older and increase the joy of people who love the person being celebrated. The celebration creates joy.

Verse 1 looks back at something glorious: “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.” When we read the word “fortune” we likely think of money and wealth. That could be the meaning here, but the Hebrew word can mean something even broader. It can be rendered as “a way of life or the general conditions of life.” Some scholars think this verse is referencing the return of the Babylonian exiles to Jerusalem. If that’s true, then this psalm is pointing back to a particular moment where God uniquely cared for his people and fulfilled his promise to them. Others take this psalm to be a more general statement that looks back to all the times in which the Lord fulfilled his promises to his people.

Regardless of which is right, the point is the same. The psalmist is looking back and rehearsing a time when the blessing of God or the fulfilment of God was so incredible that it felt like a dream. Whatever it was, it seemed too good to be true.

Here are two similar examples from the New Testament where something seemed too good to be true.

  • Acts 12 – Peter was imprisoned by Herod, who had just executed John’s brother James. Herod was trying to please the Jews, so Peter’s imprisonment was going to lead to his execution. While Peter was in the prison, the church prayed fervently. And in the middle of the night, Peter was awakened by an angel who led him out of the prison. Acts 12:9 says this: “And he went out and followed him. He did not know that what was being done by the angel was real, but thought he was seeing a vision.”
  • Ephesians 3:20-21 – “Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.”

In both cases, what’s being described is something that is hard to believe because it’s so wonderful and amazing.

Then, in verse 2, we read about the Israelites’ response—heartfelt expressions of joy:

  • “our mouth was filled with laughter” – They didn’t just laugh! Their mouth was filled with laughter. This isn’t just a chuckle; this is a belly laugh of gratitude and happiness. Can you think of a time when it just felt so good to laugh because of how hard life had been? That’s the idea here.
  • “our tongue with shouts of joy” – This is probably an expression of their singing. The people of God were so marveled with God’s goodness to them that they broke into singing or spontaneous praise. Maybe something like: “Isn’t God good!” “Can you believe it!” “He’s been so faithful!” When was the last time this kind of response characterized you? Sometimes joy happens because we can’t help ourselves. But at other times, joy is a by-product of remembering what we know is true but need to rehearse.
  • “they said among the nations, ‘The Lord has done great things for them’” – The people of Israel were not the only ones testifying of God’s blessing. Other people and nations were as well.

Then the psalmist reaches the conclusion of this section in verse 3: “The Lord has done great things for us; we are glad.” In this verse, joy is the effect of something else. Joy is a response.

What brought the Israelites true joy? The connection, not to circumstances, but to the Lord. Remember verse 1: “The Lord restored the fortunes…” and verse 3 “The Lord has done great things for us.”

Eugene Peterson says:

We cannot make ourselves joyful. Joy cannot be commanded, purchased or arranged . . . . But there is something we can do. We can decide to live in response to the abundance of God and not under the dictatorship of our own poor needs. We can decide to live in the environment of a living God and not our own dying selves. We can decide to center ourselves in the God who generously gives and not in our own egos which greedily grab. One of the certain consequences of such a life is joy.[1]

How do we find joy? We celebrate the right thing. Or better yet, we celebrate the right person. It was the Lord who restored their lives. It was the Lord who did great things. When God’s people celebrated the Lord, it led them to joy. No wonder the apostle Paul said, “Rejoice in the Lord always” (Phil. 4:4).

Take time now to reflect on a circumstance where the Lord blessed you, fulfilled a promise, or did something that seemed too good to be true. Rejoice in that circumstance, praise him for it, and decide to live in the true joy that comes as a result. “The Lord has done great things for us; we are glad.”

Based on the sermon, “Like Those Who Dream” from the 2022 Advent sermon series by Mark Vroegop.

[1] Eugene H. Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society, Commemorative Edition (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books: An Imprint of InterVarsity Press, 2019), 91.

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