The Church Captive (16)
When the LORD brought back the captivity of Zion,
We were like those who dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
And our tongue with singing.
Then they said among the nations,
“The LORD has done great things for them.”
The LORD has done great things for us,
Andwe are glad. Psalm 126.1-3
“Our life is, in other parts of Scripture, compared to the seed-time, and as it will often happen that we must sow in tears, it becomes us, lest sorrow should weaken or slacken our diligence, to raise our minds to the hope of the harvest.”
- John Calvin, Commentary on Psalm 126
Like a dream come true
The historical reference in this psalm is probably to the return of the captives from Babylon, following seventy years of separation from the promised land. God “brought back” their captivity; literally, He restored their restoration – He renewed them in His covenant promises and blessings after a dismal season of captivity to a foreign people and their culture.
While the people were in captivity, they were subject to foreign powers. They had to adapt to pagan customs and ways, even learning the language of their unbelieving neighbors, and operating according to their schedules and priorities. But though they were in captivity, they were instructed to keep the faith, hold fast to the promises, and live toward the day when they would be restored to the land once again. Here’s how Jeremiah put these instructions to the captives in Babylon (Jer. 29.5-9):
Build houses and dwell in them; plant gardens and eat their fruit. Take wives and beget sons and daughters; and take wives for your sons and give your daughters to husbands, so that they may bear sons and daughters—that you may be increased there, and not diminished. And seek the peace of the city where I have caused you to be carried away captive, and pray to the LORD for it; for in its peace you will have peace. For thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let your prophets and your diviners who are in your midst deceive you, nor listen to your dreams which you cause to be dreamed. For they prophesy falsely to you in My name; I have not sent them, says the LORD.
Captivity was no excuse for complacency. God expected His people to strive toward the vision of promises and blessings He had spoken to them in His covenant and Law. They were not to accept captivity as the new normal. They were not to draw back from increasing. They were to get busy and seek the reign of peace, even on behalf of their captors, until such time as God would be pleased to return them to their land.
And they were to hold in place a vision – a dream – of that return, to work for it, long for it, pray for it, encourage one another with it, and be ever ready once God began to bring it to pass. It would be like a dream come true, and they would laugh with tears of joy, so obviously moved by God, that even the unbelieving nations would take note (Ps. 126.1-3).
Captivity, in other words, must never – never – be accepted as the new normal. We must envision our deliverance by returning to God’s promises and Law, and we must work toward restoration every day, believing that God will do what He has promised in bringing His people to revival and renewal, and His world to awakening once again.
Time for tears
Captivity is a time for tears, for weeping and lamenting our mistakes and failures, repenting of our sins, setting aside our doubts, and acquiring a new vision and seeking new power from the Lord. We wrongly don’t want people in our churches today to be sad or sorry for anything. If they must have tears, let them be tears of joy only. Sadness, regret, lamenting, repenting, pleading with God for revival – we do not consider such actions to be necessary in our churches today.
Which is a sure sign that we have fallen into a mode of spiritual complacency, the result of our becoming captivity to the narcissistic, therapeutic, and materialistic culture of our day.
Where are the pastors who will call their congregations to prayer, to weeping and repenting of sin, seeking the Lord to fulfill the promises of revival such as we see in Psalms 80 and 85? Where are the pastors who will cast the vision of a revived church and an awakened world, a vision so vivid and compelling that it will seem like a dream, even though it will only be a description of what God has promised? Where are the pastors who will hold that dream out to their people, and call them to work for it, pray for it, get ready for it by every means, and resist the temptation to settle for some new normal which is contrary to everything God has promised in His Word?
Where are such pastors?
Time for sowing
We are a generation of believers who have embraced the captivity of pop culture, self-interest, expediency, material comfort, and toleration. We’ve lost the will to work for a revived and renewed church, and we have left off the Spirit-powered witness than can lead to awakening in our communities, nation, and world.
It’s a time for weeping. But it’s also a time for sowing. For sowing a new vision of the Church revived. For sowing prayers of repentance, longing, and hope before the throne of grace. For sowing exhortations to one another – as this psalm of ascent was intended – to keep moving toward freedom and restoration. For readying ourselves and our churches for a great work of deliverance that God is even now preparing for His people.
We can only expect to know the fruit of revival, the dream-come-true from captivity, and the Lord’s field flourishing in new Gospel life, if we will sow through our weeping toward the vision and promises God holds out for us in His Word. This is what the people of Israel did in Babylon. It’s what faithful generations of revival-seekers have done throughout the course of Church history. And it’s what we must begin doing and persisting in today, if we are to break out of our cultural captivity and re-enter the dream of Kingdom-and-glory living for Jesus Christ.
Where are the pastors who will dream like this, and lead us to dream, weep, and work until God delivers us from captivity and restores our restoration once again?
“With God’s help let us endeavor to continually plant in the field of our heart by reading, praying and performing good works, those deeds whereof we may reap a harvest of justice and mercy on the future day of retribution. Then will be fulfilled in us what is written: ‘Going, they went and wept, casting their seeds. But coming, they shall come with joyfulness, carrying their sheaves.’ To this happiness may the good Lord lead you, who, together with the Father and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns world without end.”
- Caesarius of Arles, Sermon 8.5
The Church Captive
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Scripture taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Unless otherwise indicated, quotes from Church fathers are from The Ancient Christian Commentary Series (InterVarsity Press).