The Fortunes of Zion

Text: Psalm 126

I love the opening words of Psalm 126, “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.”[1] The psalmist recounts the astounding grace of the Lord God who abundantly cared for His people, and in the time of the psalmist, returned the people from their captivity in Babylon. His favor was so great, that His people lived like those in a dream. In the movie, A Christmas Story, Ralphie Parker dreams about one thing: A Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle. This BB gun is the one thing that he wanted for Christmas. Throughout the movie, this is the focus of his thoughts and dreams. Even at the end, the adult Ralphie reflects back on his receiving the gun as the best present ever. When he got it, it was like he was dreaming.

Throughout the Old Testament God worked in and around His people for their benefit. When they rebelled against Him, He disciplined them. He continually blessed and watched over them. Even in their exile, He did not abandon them, but instead restored their fortune by returning them to the Promised Land. His action was such that the surrounding nations took notice that the Lord had done great things for His people. As this was the case for the Israelites returning from exile, so the Lord has restored our fortunes as well. We, who once were dead in our sins and captive to the powers of the devil, have been restored by Jesus Christ. By His death on the cross He has restored our fortunes, and He will restore them again.

I.

The text begins, “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.”[2] Here the psalm writer recounts the great deeds of God on behalf of the children of Israel. Most commentaries say that the specific application of this psalm is in response to the return from Babylon. The nation of Israel had a long and sordid history in regards to their relationship with God; it often was an unfaithful relationship on their part. This lead to the destruction of part of the Northern Kingdom by the Assyrians and the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 587 B.C.

The return may have been the freshest work of God in mind, but it was by no means the only work. Israel entered the Promised Land in 1406 B.C., but even 700 years before that God had promised the Messiah to Abraham, saying nothing of God’s grace and forgiveness shown to Noah, Adam, and others. Instead, though God’s people were always in a state of flux, God’s love remained constant.

There’s a situation that comes to mind as an example. For a long time after Israel entered the Promised Land they were ruled by the Judges. They did not have a king. Then, in 1 Samuel 8, that changed. Seeing that the prophet Samuel was growing old, Israel demanded a king so that they could be like the other nations. God tells Samuel that, from the day He brought them out of Egypt, His people have done nothing but forsake Him and serve other gods; and now, even more, they are rejecting Him again. It’s sort of like how Ralphie got his Red Ryder BB gun. Israel got their gun, but then they actually did shoot their eye out. Because of this, God’s people were carried into exile. Jerusalem was destroyed. But that didn’t last forever. God soon acted through Cyrus, king of Persia (538 B.C.), to return His people to the land and restore their fortune.

As God restored the fortunes of Israel when He returned them from exile, His Holy Israel – us – has been restored from our captivity to sin. This has been accomplished completely through the work of Jesus Christ, without anything on our part. Like Israel in captivity and powerless against Babylon, we were once all enslaved and in the chains of sin, death, and the devil. Some professors say that once the people were in exile, Babylon was relatively unconcerned with them. But our captivity to sin was much different. St. Peter said that the Devil prowls around like roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.[3] He will never be satisfied until he has murdered and led away from Christ every single person on earth. His roaring and battle against us is such, that as St. Paul said, “I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.”[4] Even greater than the return of the people to Israel, is the truth that, by His death and resurrection, Jesus has rescued us from the guilt of our sin, from the eternal death that we deserve.

II.

Psalm 126 continues, “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.”[5] The psalm shifts gears from recounting God’s grace that has made His people dreamers and how His work has been made known among the nations, to a prayer and an assurance of things to come.

The joyous return from captivity, both for the children of Israel and for us, is short lived. We’ve heard the last couple weeks about how mankind is like grass that blows away. The return to the Promised Land soon turned from joy to weeping. When Israel was carried away, different people then filled the land. And when they returned, they were met with contempt. That was the time of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther. They met opposition not only in trying to rebuild the Temple and Jerusalem’s walls, but people tried to wipe them out entirely.

Though we have been rescued from our enslavement to sin through the work of Jesus Christ, which we receive through the gift of faith, we are also faced with the harsh realities of life. We all know that outside these walls, and sometimes within, life is not easy. The psalm talks about sowing in tears. It’s like when a farmer sows his seed and for a while is in the lurch about what’s going to happen: whether it’s going to be a good crop, whether prices will hold, whether his family’s going to hold. That can lead to much distress. Even in our personal lives it seems that we often sow in tears. Even in the church. It feels like we work and work, and we toil and labor, and it looks like nothing is coming up.

Therefore we pray that the Lord would restore us like streams in the Negeb. The Negeb is an arid region in the southern part of Israel that gets less than 8 inches of rain a year, almost none from April to October. Then the winter comes and it brings with it what seems to be a torrent of rain and the parched soil just can’t hold it. Water pours out everywhere, becoming a life-giving flood in the wilderness.

In Christ, our fortunes have been restored. We have been saved through the life-giving flood of Holy Baptism, having received the gift of faith through the washing of the water and the Word. In verse 4, the psalmist prayed that the Lord would restore His people’s fortunes, yet again, through His overflowing love. The psalmist knows that God is true to His character – He is steadfast in love and abounding in mercy. Therefore, the text continues in confidence: “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.”[6]

As Jesus was in the upper room with His disciples on the night He was betrayed, He taught them: “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice. You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy…you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.”[7] How well we know that to be true. Jesus promised that the world will hate us, and that we will weep and lament. It so often seems that life is just a pointless endeavor, it’s nothing but stress and turmoil. But, Jesus says, though you have sorrow now, you will see Him again. When you see Him again, your heart will rejoice, and nothing can take that from you.

Though Israel continually rejected God, still He persisted in love towards them. He rescued His faithful children and restored their fortunes by returning them from captivity. Though we once were in slavery to sin, and though we are beset by it on all sides, Jesus Christ has restored us. Through His death, He has cancelled the hold that sin had over you. In this life, even though we are made new in Christ, we will have sorrow. But the truth is: Christ has not abandoned us. He is with you always and in every situation. He has promised that He will return, and all sorrow will be no more. For at His coming we will rejoice and no one can take that away from us.


[1] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Ps. 126:1.

[2] Ps. 126:1–3.

[3] 1 Peter 5:8.

[4] Rom. 7:23.

[5] Ps. 126:4–6.

[6] Ps. 126:5-6.

[7] Jn. 16:20, 22.

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