Keith Ruckhaus (c)2013

When the Lord brought back those who returned to Zion. Ps 126:1

Several psalms share strikingly similar sentiments as Psalm 126 in this regard. 

In Psalm 14, shivat is synonymous with a salvation that primarily is expressed by economic equity.   The “fool” who says there “is no God” is an economic atheist (Ps 14:1).  He is one who says that God is not involved in business.  This kind of atheist is “corrupt” “vile” and “bad.”  His conniving ways are contagious, sorely tempting the righteous (Ps 14:2).

The portrayal of aneconomic atheist in Psalm 14 leaves little doubt that the corrupt, evil, vile, hater of good atheist is primarily one who disregards economic justice.

            Will evildoers never learn,
                        those who devour my people as men eat bread.
            And who do not call on the Lord? ...
            You evildoers frustrate the plans of the poor,
                        but the Lord is their refuge
           Oh that salvation for Israel would come out of Zion,
                        when the Lord restores the fortunes (shivat) of his people
            Let Jacob rejoice and Israel be glad! (Ps 14:6-8)

These same words are found in Psalm 53, but this psalm adds a line in verse five specifically setting God’s vehement opposition to the “evildoers.”

God scattered the bones of those who attacked you; you put them to shame for God despised them. (Ps 53:5)

In Psalm 85, shibat connects the very land to the Lord’s favor and liberation.  In a real sense then, shibat refers to captives and that which was captured.  This is what makes the economic injustice so grievious.  Those returning are still “captives” by economic hardship.

In another sense, the land itself was captured.  The archeological evidence points to a great destruction of the land and its resources in the aftermath of both the northern Assyrian and the southern Babylonian conquest.  The prophets speak of the land laying fallow, hence having a Sabbath rest.

Psalm 85 connects the captivity more directly with the sin of the people.  Because of the general language of the Psalms, it is easy to read this in that kind of personalized Christian way.  The sins of the people were more of a personal moral nature.  But if read more from the perspective of Psalm 14 and the prophets like Amos and Hosea, we know exactly what kind of “sins” are being addressed.   It is precisely because the people of God did not take responsibility for each and every covenant member that God gave up his protecting presence and the land was captured.

This psalm makes clear that goodness—reflected in a bounty of the land—is largely dependent on qualities of the covenant people:

Love and faithfulness meet together;
            righteousness and peace kiss each other.
Faithfulness springs forth from the earth,
            and righteousness looks down from heaven.
            The Lord will indeed give what is good,
                        and our land will yield its harvest.
            Righteousness goes before him,
                        and prepares the way for his steps. (Ps 85:10-13)

The fortunes of Zion are really a unified people of God entered into a celebration of the covenant.  If this is truthful, authentic worship, then what will come forth from Zion is a righteousness that permeates all of life, particularly a life that produces blessing for everyone.

Thus, the fortune of Zion is when everyone shares in the blessing and prosperity of the land.  This profound truth or vision is what so tormented the prophets of Israel.  In a plethora of ways, sometimes shocking and offensive, they tried to shake Israel out of its own twisted sense of righteousness—You cannot smugly pronounce God’s blessing on yourself all the while your neighbor stands there with nothing!  One cannot advocate freedom while enslaving others.

At the beginning of Psalm 126, there is truly acknowledgement, thankfulness, and joy being expressed because the congregation has experienced a salvation from God in the very fact that God has returned his people to Zion.  If we place this Psalm in the time of Nehemiah, we then are reminded that this restoration has been on-going for over 50 years. 

And it is still occurring.  But as the expedition continues to ascend to the Holy Mountain, we are reminded that the return and the restoration have only just begun.  This song expresses the deep interplay we all struggle with, between what is fulfilled and what is yet to be fulfilled, between our own encounter with God and the stark reality of a violent and extremely unjust world we still live in and to which our own sin still contributes to. 

We were like those who dream.

It is this tension between what is and what we know should be (especially we who are informed by God’s revelation of Himself in Jesus) that leads the singer to the next line: we were like those who dream.  The active participle gives the sense here of something ongoing.  It is being caught up in a dream.  It is the moment when one has dreamed of being somewhere all of one’s life and then she actually finds herself there. It is that adrenaline moment when something so deeply longed for finds human expression.   

The dream of course, was the restoration of Zion.   It was a dream that captivated every faithful Israelite even in the darkest of times.  Americans also speak of a dream.   It is a picture of how society should be.   These kinds of dreams drive the corporate psyche of a people or nation.  Dreams like these paint an ideal, which can turn into a nightmare or a lie. 

The title of a humorous book aptly describe the danger of dreams that take hold of a people – America, Again: Rebecoming the Greatness We Never Weren’t.[1]  Simply put, dreams are prone to distortion and exploitation.  We dream romanticized visions of our “beginnings” or of some Camelot period.   Dreams like these serve as guides for returning to “the way things were.”  They tend to erase complication and place things in stark contrasts, especially between the bad guys and the good guys.   The Tea Party movement in America over the past few years is a shining example of how a particular version of a people’s past has much more to do with the current conflict over a nation’s future.  It is more a reaction to the current political situation than a genuine or accurate remembrance of the past.

Since my earliest experiences as a Christian, I have been filled with visions of how to live my life as a Christian or what church life should be like.  There have been times when I have been with a group of Christians and have experienced “mouths filled with laughter” and sang songs “full of joy.”  I have lived and still experience on occasion Christian community where the fellowship and love is genuine and daring. 

But I’ve experienced in those very same communities bitter breakdowns in relationship and disastrous dissolution of communal bond.  I have seen people lose faith completely because of it.  I would dare say that many Christians have experienced something similar.  It is especially the case for those who dare to take Jesus more serious than occasionally going to a church service and putting some money in the basket.  Inevitably in the midst of communal crisis, there are some whose call for a return to some pristine simplicity around the “fundamentals” or “origins” becomes a suffocating slave master, shutting off any avenue for true renewal and a way forward.  Their picture of the past is more dictated by a desire to control the present.

Dreams are dangerous if they become dictatorial ideologies, if they are really the product of our own imagination.  Dreams lean more toward false images of ourselves and drive toward self-serving ambition.  Following one’s dream often leads to the negation of another’s hope.  It often tends to think that natural and human resources ought to be at the service of the dream, leaving a trash heap of resources and ruined lives.

Dreams of restoration became a major source of contention between the prophet Jeremiah and the prophets employed by the Temple.  This conflict is especially pertinent to our psalm here because that conflict had to do with competing “dreams” of Zion.  The court prophets saw dreams in which God would always defend Zion regardless of how God’s people were behaving toward one another.  To the contrary, Jeremiah insisted that there would be no peace for Jerusalem if they did not repent.  Jeremiah’s call to repentance was crucial precisely because he was led by a counter-vision, a vision that is at the heart of Israel and its relationship with God.  It is not a vision born of kings in palaces, but of stormy threatening sky over the turbulent waters of the Reed Sea.  It emerged from the mud clogged wheels of chariots mired in their own relentless pursuit of power, spinning wheels bogged down in their own impotence at the flight of terrified slaves.  

The song of victory at the Reed Sea is the original song of Israel (Ex 15:1-18).  All other dreams are smoke and deception if they don’t align with that song.  These Psalms beckon us in our time of repentance to continually ascend to the open heaven.  Part of repentance is allowing God’s dream for humanity to overtake our own dreams.

[1] By Stephen Colbert, 2012

Psalm 126