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|Fruit of the Spirit: Joy (Psalm 126)|
In our study of the ‘fruit of the Spirit’ (Gal. 5:22-23) we have reached the topic of ‘joy’.
What texts come to your mind when one thinks of ‘joy’? I’m reminded first of all, of some texts from Acts describing the church in its earliest years:
Acts 2:46-47: ‘Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.’
Acts 3:8: ‘Jumping up, he stood and began to walk, and he entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God.’
Perhaps most challengingly of all, Acts 5:40-42: ‘...when they had called in the apostles, they had them flogged. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. As they left the council, they rejoiced that they were considered worthy to suffer dishonour for the sake of the name. And every day in the temple and at home they did not cease to teach and proclaim Jesus as the Messiah.’
Joy in these texts is a kind of natural by product of the excitement of the early years of the church, years of considerable growth, and years of increasing persecution as well.
Somewhat similar in character are the opening verses of Romans 5. This text does not use the word ‘joy’, but clearly the experience which Paul describes includes that:
A sense of peace with God; a knowledge that grace is, as it were the ground on which we stand before God; the hope of sharing God’s glory; a sense of God’s love imparted to us through the Holy Spirit. And all of this enables us to endure the sufferings that come to us as we bear witness to the gospel: we endure because of what we have experienced of God’s goodness, and because of our hope for the future, when we shall be made fit to stand in God’s presence and share in his glory.
Paul doesn’t use the word ‘joy’ here, but it seems clear that the whole attitude which he is describing here – an attitude which he clearly thinks should be part of normal Christian experience – is one marked by joy: a deep-seated joy which will not be destroyed by suffering (opposition, persecution, other misfortunes).
What is the root of this joy? A sense of what God has done; a sense of what God has promised for the future. Clearly we should be thinking often on these things: the death and resurrection of the Son of God; the hope of salvation; the hope of a new heavens and a new earth. Joy in the NT is not an empty-headed glee, but an attitude based on solid historical facts and God’s equally solid promises for the future.
Another text along the same lines is Philippians 4:2-9. ‘Rejoice in the Lord always,’ Paul says in this text: ‘again I will say, Rejoice’. This is a most emphatic statement: Paul does not normally repeat himself in so blunt and obvious a way.
How do you do that? How do jack up your feelings in that way? Can you change your mood by an effort of will? Change your feelings from sadness to happiness just like that? I take it that this is not what Paul means exactly. The word translated ‘rejoice’ can also mean ‘celebrate’: which means, among other things, publicly declaring certain facts about what God has done and has promised to do; declaring these facts to the watching world, yes; but also reminding ourselves of the facts of our salvation, reminding ourselves of the solid reasons we have to be joyful.
That is one of the main points of our worship. That is why Christians have always met together to praise God.‘Celebrating Jesus as Lord encourages and strengthens loyalty and obedience to him’ (N.T. Wright, Paul for Everyone: Philippians)
Though I note that the next thing Paul says, having told the Philippians to rejoice is: ‘Let your gentleness be known to everyone’ (v. 5). I like Tom Wright’s comments on this verse (ibid.): ‘At the same time, it’s interesting that he at once says that the public image of the Christian Church should be of a gentle, gracious community. Exuberance must not turn into mere extrovert enthusiasm which squashes sensitive souls and offends those who are by nature quiet and reserved.’
More generally, you must take the context of these verses into account: joy, rejoicing, has its natural place in a Christian community where people are trying to live together as brothers and sisters in Christ, dealing with issues like the personality clash between Euodia and Syntyche which Paul mentions in v. 2.
Joy occurs where Christians are growing in virtue together; putting off the old habits, putting on the new. It occurs where Christians are frequently turning to God in prayer, thanking God for what he has done, bringing matters of concern before God and finding the peace which comes from doing so.
In such a context, in the context, that is, of a flourishing, functioning church, it makes sense to tell Christians to rejoice. Joy, like all the nine parts of the fruit of the Spirit, belongs in a Christian community, and builds community. It is no good expecting to find much joy in a church or a Christian community where there is significant disunity.
These are some NT texts which may come to our mind when we hear the word ‘joy’. But I want now to focus on an OT text which presents a different perspective on this topic, Psalm 126. In his commentary John Goldingay gives Psalm 126 the title ‘Weeping and Laughter’. The Psalm has a clear two-part structure: vv. 1-3 look back; vv. 4-6 look to the future.
In v. 1 the writer reflects on the Israelites’ feelings when they returned from exile in Babylon. (The Songs of Ascents, to which Ps. 126 belongs, are a post-exilic collection.) The return seemed like a dream, but was reality.
There is a contrast here with the false prophets before the exile whom Jeremiah attacks (Jer. 23; 29): they promised that God would not send his people into exile, but they were just dreaming, fantasising; they had no idea of the reality of the situation, of the seriousness of the people’s sin.
That was a dream that never became reality; the people went into exile. But when the people returned from exile, it was a reality that seemed like a dream. Many had, perhaps, given up hope; many could not see how the power of Babylon would be broken; and yet Babylon was conquered, and many of the exiles were able to return to Judah.
Jeremiah had spoken of the time when God brought his people back from exile as a time of great rejoicing: ‘I am going to restore the fortunes of the tents of Jacob, and have compassion on his dwellings; the city shall be rebuilt upon its mound, and the citadel set on its rightful site. Out of them shall come thanksgiving, and the sound of merrymakers.’ (30:18-19).
That came true, the Psalmist says (v. 2): ‘Our mouth was filled with laughter.’ Further, the nations took note of what God had done for his people: “The LORD has done great things for them.”
We read in Ezra 3 that when the temple was rebuilt in Jerusalem, ‘the people shouted so loudly that the sound was heard far away.’ That is followed in Ezra 4 by the comment that ‘when the adversaries of Judah and Benjamin heard that the returned exiles were building a temple to the LORD... they approached [them] and said, “Let us build with you...” So, yes: the surrounding nations did take note of what God had done for his people.
So the Psalmist repeats the points, this time in his own voice: ‘The LORD has done [or: did] great things for us, and we rejoiced.’ As much as to say: Yes, the nations were right; God truly was with us; his hand truly was upon us; we were right to rejoice, we had good reason to do so, when we returned from exile.
The return from exile was a sign of new life and new hope: it showed that Israel’s relationship with God was restored, that Israel had, as it were, been put back on track and enabled once more to live out their calling of bringing blessing to the nations (see Gen. 12:1-3).
But it was not all plain sailing after the return from exile. We read in Ezra and Nehemiah about the opposition that the returned exiles faced when back in the land, and about the discouragement that this caused; we read, too, about the people’s continued sinfulness (Ezra 10; Nehemiah 13).
That’s why the second half of the Psalm begins with the plea which repeats the key phrase in v. 1, but now as a prayer for the future: ‘Restore our fortunes, O LORD...’ (v. 4). In other words: what you did back then was great, LORD; now can we have more of the same?
Some of the energy of the return from exile has been lost. The returned community cannot live in the past: they need to see God’s hand at work in the present. ‘Restoring of fortunes’ is something that needs to happen often in the history of God’s people; new life must always be springing forth, and we need to keep praying that God’s hand will be at work.
Notice the image the Psalmist uses: watercourses in the Negev. These are wadis, stream beds that for much of the year are simply dry, but which flood with water when the rains come. The image is one of sudden transformation: the rains come, and suddenly there is new life where there were no signs of life before; suddenly plants whose roots or seeds have lain dormant in the dry ground put forth new growth.
In v. 5 the psalmist uses another image, which is similar in character, but which focuses more on the human element: ‘May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.’
In agricultural Israel harvest (sowing and then reaping) was an obvious metaphor for God’s blessing. ‘Sowing in tears’ is a metaphor for persevering under unpromising circumstances: we may be sad and discouraged in the present, but we press on in hope, in hope that God will bless our efforts, in hope that there will be joy in the future, as our labours in the present bear fruit.
Verse 6 essentially repeats the point of v. 5, but in more detail, and focussing on an individual Israelite: the verse sets before us a man who when he sows his seed, carries his seed-bag out to the field with tears in his eyes, so unpromising does the situation seem, so uncertain is he that there will be a harvest. And then in the second half of the verse we see the same man at harvest time, returning from the field, carrying armfuls of sheaves of ripe grain.
This man is a symbol of the fact that God will hear the prayers of those who trust in him, will restore his people’s fortunes again and again, a symbol of the fact that there will be cause for rejoicing in future.
What does Psalm 126 tell us, then?
We learn that joy and weeping are both part of our experience as members of God’s people: the fact that on one occasion we rejoice greatly does not guarantee that there will be no tears in future.
The image of the grain harvest in the second half of the psalm is a metaphor for all kinds of things that we hope to see come about in the future, but have to work for in the present (maybe under unpromising circumstances).
But we can persevere in hope; we can expect to experience joy. We look back, as well, to occasions in the past when God has blessed us, and in the light of that we can look forward to future blessing.
And there may be occasions for joy in the present: why not, now and then? Psalm 126 tells us that this can happen.
Finally, every joy we experience in this life points forward to the joy we shall enjoy in the new heaven and the new earth.
Dr Philip Satterthwaite
We learn that joy and weeping are both part
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