When the Lord brought back the captive ones of Zion,
We were like those who dream.
2 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.”
3 The Lord has done great things for us;
We are glad.
4 Restore our captivity, O Lord,
Like streams in the South.
When God chose Israel to be his people, he made a covenant with them. A covenant is a binding agreement which makes people family. In a sense, God “adopted” Israel and made the people His own “family.” He pledged loyalty to them. He expected loyalty in return.
But instead of loyalty, God only received rebellion. Israel walked away from Him. And so God eventually walked away from the people. He kicked them out of the Promised Land and scattered them among the nations in exile.
But that’s not the end.
God had promised that they would come back to the land after 70 years:
“This whole land will be a desolation and a horror, and these nations will serve the king of Babylon seventy years” (Jeremiah 25:11).
Psalm 126 was written when the 70 years were up. The people are now back in the land. God had brought back the exiles!
Now back in Israel, the people think they are dreaming!
But there’s more context behind this song. Although the psalmist thanks God for bringing the people back from exile, he also prays for a return from exile: “Restore our captivity, O Lord, like streams in the South.”
So what gives?
Why is the psalmist praying for a return from exile when the people are already back?
That’s because there are two kinds of exile in the Bible: physical and spiritual exile.
Yes, the people were kicked out of the land. But more important was why were they kicked out: their hearts were far from God (Isaiah 29:13). That’s spiritual exile.
And the spiritual exile began all the way back at the very beginning when Adam and Eve were kicked out of God’s very presence in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:22-24)
The psalmist knows that a physical return without a spiritual return is pointless. Because it doesn’t really matter if you are near your homeland, if you are far from God.
Which is why Jesus came to die: to end the exile. “But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” (Ephesians 2:13).
All of us enter this world in spiritual exile, separated from God. Our sins have created an insurmountable mountain to get to God. Our sins have created an unbridgeable gap to get to God. We have been far off, and we are dead in our sins (Ephesians 2:1-3). But God has shed the blood of Jesus to bring us near. Through His death on the cross, we are forgiven and made new. And God makes a better covenant with us, a new covenant. A new covenant where God is loyal to us not because of our loyalty to Him but because of Jesus’ obedience on our behalf (Hebrews 7:23-28; 8:6-13)