1 When the Lord brought back the captive ones of Zion,
We were like those who dream.
2 Then our mouth was filled with laughter
And our tongue with joyful shouting;
Then they said among the nations,
“The Lord has done great things for them.”
3 The Lord has done great things for us;
We are glad.
4Restore our captivity, O Lord,
As the streams in the South.
5 Those who sow in tears shall reap with joyful shouting.
6 He who goes to and fro weeping, carrying his bag of seed,
Shall indeed come again with a shout of joy, bringing his sheaves with him.
As the subtitle reminds us, this is one of the fifteen psalms of ascent (or degrees, psalms 120 to 134). Many have speculated about what that means, but no one has proven their hypothesis. The belief that has garnered the most support is that this group of psalms was especially sung by pilgrims on their way up to the temple during the various annual pilgrimages. Thus, the psalms of ascent begin with the woeful but grateful confession, “In my trouble I cried out to the Lord, And He answered me” (Psa 120.1), builds with, “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord” (Psa 122.1), and culminates with, “Lift up your hands to the sanctuary And bless the Lord” (Psa 134.2).
Here, midway in the group of the psalms of ascent, is a wonderful prayer for restoration of the believing community. The opening reference to the Lordbringing back the captive ones of Zion alludes to the earlier return of the Jewish exiles from Babylon and Persia in the time of Ezra and Nehemiah. However, verse 4 makes it clear that there was a present application for those who sung this psalm, “Restore ourcaptivity, O Lord!” “Bring us back to life like You, after a rain, bring new streams of water to the parched wadis in the Negev!” The restoration of “the streams of the South,” is a beautiful allusion to the living water of the Holy Spirit, apart from whom no city, no congregation, no city is truly restored.
However, spiritual restoration is not an event in which God’s people are passive. The Holy Spirit calls us into action, and into emotional investment. Those who sow the seed of God’s word (compare Luke 8.11) “in tears,” “he who goes to and fro weeping,” will joyfully return with a harvest. Yes, spiritual restoration involves prayer and thanksgiving, but also planting and harvesting. How can we tell when a people is truly restored from their captivity to the world? It’s not when they are rejoicing in their own prosperity, but when the fruit of the Spirit is evident in their lives, and they are building up their community with a fresh harvest of disciples.