The Babylonian captivity shook the confidence of the Jews to the very bone—intentionally so. Their previous arrogance had built up a spiritual barrier so large that they failed to see how far from the LORD they had fallen. Therefore, despite warnings dating back to Moses, despite the wave after wave of foreign invaders taking away evidence of past glory, and despite the reform efforts made in the waning hours of the kingdom, they held out hope for deliverance even when the LORD told them He would not save them from Nebuchadnezzar. Therefore, from the original invasion to the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem to the ultimate defeat of Babylon at the hand of the Medo-Persian Empire seventy years later, the Jews had generations as captives to adapt to circumstances far different from their previous comfort and hubris.
As a result, “When the LORD brought back the captivity of Zion,” the author of Psalm 126 says, “We were like those who dream” (Psa. 126:1). Having spent so many years in oppression, their deliverance seemed too good to be true. Thus, the aged, who had been taken captive as children, the young, who had known nothing but captivity, and everyone in between laughed from joy and lifted their voices in song with rejoicing so great that others noticed (Psa. 126:2). A people who had neglected all the blessings provided by God in the land flowing with milk and honey finally had come to their senses and proclaimed, “The LORD has done great things for us, And we are glad” (Psa. 127:3). Their release and opportunity to return home came to them as suddenly as a far off rainstorm can flood the land upstream and turn a dry riverbed into a life-giving stream (Psa. 126:4). And yet their return had not come in a moment, as some had originally hoped. It had taken decades of humbling sorrow and spiritual renewal to produce the joy of the moment (Psa. 126:5). And this was the most important lesson to learn. The best, most important lessons often are the most difficult on us—painful in the moment, and yet rewarding in the end. That is why, like a farmer sowing seed and waiting on harvest, it is to our benefit to develop patience and endure chastening and discipline in order to reap the harvest of growth and self-discipline and all their attendant blessings in the end (Psa. 126:6). As some translations indicate, these lessons transcend the captivity and have far broader implications. However, as a Song Of Ascent reminding future generations of Jews of a difficult lesson learned the hard way and not to be repeated, the context of captivity offers a depth rooted in Israel’s history that a mere psalm about the benefits of hard work could hardly capture.
Christians should certainly not wish for the harsh conditions of captivity endured by the Jews in Babylon. However, to the extent that we recognize some of the challenges of living in a vulgar and immoral age, of feeling like outcasts in the land of our birth, and of experiencing a constant sense of rejection and humiliation from a secular society, we should come to appreciate the lessons of patience and humility, of compassion and care, and of virtue and value. For only by responding to the challenges of our day—whatever they might be—with a heart for God will we gain a true sense of appreciation for His blessings. We take so much for granted today. The Jews did in their day too. And that is why we need to learn from them.