A Song of Ascents
When the Lord brought back the captive ones of Zion,
We were like those who dream.
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.’
The Lord has done great things for us; we are glad.
Restore our captivity, O Lord, As the streams in the South.
Those who sow in tears shall reap with joyful shouting.
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.
How do you spell ‘Surreal’? According to the Psalmist, his experience of being led out of captivity spelled it – dreamlike, unbelievable, unreal, surreal – beyond reality. Can’t you just see it? A group of people held captive so long, suddenly finding themselves walking dazedly out of what had become a familiar prison, filing past their captors, stupefied, almost unable to process this thing called freedom. It reminds me of stories I’ve heard of freed slaves who refused to believe their deliverers. It was beyond them to think that they could ever be ‘free’ or what being free could even mean. It was all like a dream.
More than any other, this song of ascent makes me wonder. I wonder what captivity the Psalmist is referring to. This song was written long after Israel’s deliverance from Egypt and long before the exile into Babylon. What did this writer know of captivity? Was he entertaining an imagined memory of what it would have felt like to be released from Egypt’s imposed slavery? Or was he a prophet – had God given him an amazing ability to know how it would feel when Israel was finally given back their Land? Better yet, what do we know of captivity? After all, we live in the ‘land of the free.’ Still, the Bible talks about all kinds of slavery, many ways of being held captive, and Jesus Himself said, “the Truth will make you free” implying that we are in some sort of bondage until we perceive Truth. Perhaps there are other forms of captivity besides prison walls or forced slavery.
I think of people who suffer from all kinds of addictions – alcohol, drugs, pornography, entertainment, even food – people held captive by substances they are convinced they cannot live without. I think of women stuck in abusive relationships, stuck because they convince themselves they are dependent upon the abuser for their survival. I think of people enslaved by fear of the future or those immobilized by memories of the past. Each of these circumstances is a kind of prison, a form of captivity.
Recently I heard a story on the news. A logger, 35 miles from civilization, suddenly found himself trapped under an RV. Only is toes were crushed underneath, but that was enough to keep his whole body rooted to that spot. After calling for help for 30 minutes to no avail – he was in the middle of nowhere – he made the decision to cut himself free. Yes, you read right, he took a 3-inch knife and started slicing through layers of skin, then tendon, and finally bone to cut off the part of him that was trapped – his toes, all ten of them. Freedom was more important to this man than keeping his extremities.
Does this remind you of anything? In Matthew Jesus says something quite shocking to his listeners (my paraphrase): If your eye offends you, pluck it out … if your hand offends you, cut it off … for it is better for you to enter life maimed than to enter Gehenna (the burning trash heap) in one piece. Now who walks willingly into a burning heap of trash? No one, of course. Somehow the picture implies compulsion. It tells me that if I don’t seek freedom from the things that enslave me, one day something will work to set me free – and it will hurt like hell. So was Jesus recommending self-mutilation? Seriously? I don’t think so. Instead, I think He was making a point. One we often miss: To get free, to find life, requires extreme measures. Like the man who cut off his own toes so he could climb in his truck and drive himself to a hospital. This man got it, he figured out that his freedom was of utmost importance, and he was willing to do what I think few of us would to get it.
But Psalm 126 isn’t advocating that we fight for our own freedom. The Psalmist doesn’t tell us that he killed his own captors, or cut off his own hand to win freedom. Instead he says the Lord brought him back from captivity. He was led along like a person walking through a dream. Maybe because he had nothing to do with setting himself free, his new-found freedom didn’t seem real. But it was real – so real it brought forth laughter and shouts. That’s what freedom does – it elicits joy that cannot be contained.
The captives who are freed aren’t alone in their experience, either. There were witnesses who saw both their captivity and their release. Even these witnesses – the surrounding pagan nations – recognized that God had done something special for His people. Still, in the midst of their gladness they remembered there were still others still held captive. Notice that they identified these unrestored captives as their own people, perhaps even family. It’s difficult to enjoy one’s own freedom when someone you care about is still held captive.
Next the Psalmist makes an interesting connection. He compares the freeing of the remaining captivity to the end of a drought – ‘like the streams in the south.’ In the Middle East water is clearly an important commodity. Streams even more so as they represent fresh water, water that flows and sometimes overflows. Streams would have meant a guarantee of life to an Israelite. It’s as if the Psalmist is saying that he cannot live content with his freedom while any of his kindred remain captive. Quickly we are taken from laughter and shouting to weeping and … sowing? What a transition! You’ve probably heard this verse many times in many different contexts, but always I have heard it applied to us doing the sowing and reaping. But now I think that is a misapplication of the verse. After all, who is the Husbandman Jesus talks about? God. Who is the one who throws seed along the path in the parable of the sower? God. Instead of a picture of us sowing truth or evangelism or whatever into the world in hopes of seeing a harvest of our own work, I believe this passage is a foreshadowing of the work of Christ on the cross in redeeming the world.
In the Apostles Creed we acknowledge that Jesus descended into Gehenna on our behalf – to ‘lead captivity captive.’ The fiery trash heap was the fallow ground where He planted the seeds of our redemption. In fact, we are the seeds, the very ones He will reap at the great harvest. No one has sown in tears like the Christ, our Messiah. One day we will be reaped by Him in great joy and laughter. What a resurrection is coming!
I also think the one sowing is us. It’s as if the Psalmist is equating sowing seed with living. Many of us are living in bondage of all kinds and these cause us great sorrow. The Psalmist’s promise here is that a life of sorrow (captivity) will result in great joy when we are freed. It’s just like God’s grace to take our seeds of sorrow and turn them into joy! So when I look around at those who I know are held hostage by whatever bondage they are in – whether self-inflicted or no – I have great hope for their future. The earthly lives we sow in sorrow will reap a harvest of joy.
What about you? Are you being held captive? Are there things in your life that have you trapped? Maybe you are caught in an abusive relationship, a job you hate but can’t quit because you weighed down by debt, or maybe you can identify with these lyrics: ‘Inside this shell there’s a prison cell.’ If no outside circumstance has you trapped, perhaps your own desires work against you to keep you from fully enjoying your life. We are held captive in so many ways, inside and out. But the Psalmist wants to speak a word of hope to people just like him. And so he begins with a memory. ‘When the Lord brought back … we were like …’
When’s the last time you experienced that feeling of freedom? I hope you know it – the euphoria that comes when you are finally set free from something you have been struggling with for a long time. The child who one day stands up to the bully, only to find that they are looking at a coward … the addict who finds life beyond the drugs … the person overwhelmed by fears who learns to trust the goodness of God … the person who discovers the Truth that finally sets them free. We have much to hope for. And if you haven’t found your freedom yet, just think what joy awaits!
In the scheme of things, we are traveling up, out of war and wickedness into worship. As we get closer to the presence of God we move into new levels of freedom and joy. May He continue to set you free from every chain that hinders you from continuing your journey.