A friend of mine has graciously allowed me to borrow his tiller each year to get our garden ready for planting. It is a monster of a tiller. You have to grip that thing with all your might, lower your center of gravity, and hold on for dear life. I am not kidding. It is a workout. Then if you hit a patch of hard ground, where the tiller blades might not be able to dig deep, the blades bounce off the ground, and the tiller lunges forward dragging you along, like the guy in the photo above. It is a scene. But as you muscle the machine back around for another pass, and another pass, that hard ground eventually gets broken up into smaller and smaller pieces. Until finally, the tiller runs through earth smoothly, the dirt ready to be planted. And I’m sore for a few days.
Gardening and farming, done well, usually involves hard work, doesn’t it?
In my previous post, I talked about how our next Advent psalm of lament is a psalm of ascent. It includes uplifting songs of joy, but it also talks about the hard work of growing produce.
We can see both of those emphases in the two sections of the psalm:
- Verses 1-3 Joyful Memory
- Verses 4-6 Tearful Lament
There is a phrase at the beginning of each section that serves as a marker, helping us know that there are in fact two sections. That marker is the similar statement “brought back captives” or “restored our fortunes”. In the original Hebrew these are nearly identical.
So let’s look at each section.
Section 1, verses 1-3 – Joyful Memory
The word “captives” in verse 1 reminds us that the psalmist is referring to the Babylonian exile. The powerful Babylonians had attacked and defeated Israel, and carted them off. They lived in Babylon for 70 years. Then the Persians attacked and defeated the Babylonians, and Cyrus king of Persia allowed some Jews to return to Palestine.
My seminary prof, Dave Dorsey, taught that likely only 5% of the captives returned to Israel, 95% remained in Babylon.
But those 5% who returned, the psalmist tells us in verses 1-3, were like men who dreamed. One alternate translation I read says that this could be saying “Men returned to health, given new life.”
Imagine the wonder of that moment. For 70 years they were in captivity. You are taken into captivity. If you were about 30 years old when you are taken into captivity, you probably have a young family in captivity. Think about what happens in 70 years? Likely you pass away, and it is maybe your kids, or even more likely, your grandkids, who return.
We talked about this last week. The kids and grandkids have been hearing stories of the glory of Jerusalem and the temple and how wonderful the Promised Land was. And now they get to return.
And they are laughing and singing. They are praising the Lord!
You can see why this would be a great Pilgrimage song. Just as the original exiles returned excitedly to Palestine and Jerusalem, singing songs of joy, each year as people all over Israel journeyed to Jerusalem for the various feasts, they would re-enact the original pilgrimage of those first captives who returned from exile.
So the psalmist is excited. But his joy turns to lament.
Section 2, verses 4-6 – Tearful Lament
He laments because there is much yet to be sorrowful about, much restoration yet to take place. In this lament, he uses the image of farming, talking about how sorrow leads to joy.
Planting is hard work, which is why he calls it tears of sorrow.
We have a garden in our back yard, and we like to plant some vegetables each year. When gardening, the first thing you have to do might be clearing away old growth and weeds. And then there might be the tilling, as I described in my experience with my friend’s monster of a tiller.
But tilling is only the beginning. Next you do the work of planting, and then you do the work of protecting your plants, putting up fences to keep out the rabbits and groundhogs. Then there is weeding, and then regular watering, and more weeding. Day after day after day. Week after week.
To be fair, we are spoiled here in Lancaster. Our soil is astoundingly rich. And we get regular rain.
In a dry climate like some parts of Israel, farming can be extremely difficult, and could even appear to be pointless. How do you know if rains will come? Will this be a waste?
That is possibly what is going on in the minds of the exiles. They will not only be doing physical, real farming. They will also be tending the figurative land, seeking to rebuild the city, the temple, and in a more important way, seeking to rebuild their nation and their relationship with God. For the psalmist, the idea of planting tears, with the hope of reaping a harvest of joy, has deep, deep meaning.
That’s where we can take a look and examine our own lives.
What is the hard work of planting tears that you are doing in your life? What ground are you tilling?
It could be parenting. Grand-parenting. Reaching out to neighbors and friends. You are investing time and energy in people, especially in your family and friends.
It could be a ministry in church, serving, teaching, using your gifts.
What other kinds of planting are you doing in your life? What is hard?
Think about what you are praying for.
Is it a broken relationship, healing from physical pain and illness, financial hardship?
When you are praying, and when you are waiting, you are planting seeds of sorrow. That is lament. Lament is prayer in which you are planting seeds of sorrow. You are crying out to God, saying “Lord, this is hard work! I need you to intervene.”
Israel was crying out to God for salvation, to send a savior. The land was in bad shape. They wanted God to come and save them.
That is what Advent is all about. Advent means “the coming”. In the season of Advent we remember the first coming of the savior, the Messiah, Jesus. And we examine our lives and seek to make our lives ready for his second coming. He came once and he said he is coming again.
In the midst of the difficulty, the darkness, in the midst of the hard work of planting tears, God entered the world. Do you need God to enter your world? Perhaps you’ll consider lament.