When the LORD brought back the captivity of Zion,
We were like those who dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
And our tongue with singing.
Then they said among the nations,
“The LORD has done great things for them.”
The LORD has done great things for us,
And we are glad.
Bring back our captivity, O LORD,
As the streams in the South.
Those who sow in tears
Shall reap in joy.
He who continually goes forth weeping,
Bearing seed for sowing,
Shall doubtless come again with rejoicing,
Bringing his sheaves with him. (Ps 126:1–6)
Psalm 126 is one of fifteen psalms known as the “Songs of Ascents,” which were sung by the exiled Jews as they “ascended” from Babylon to their homeland, Jerusalem, during the time of Ezra the Scribe. Seventy years before, God had allowed the Babylonians to capture Judah, as punishment for the latter’s disobedience and idolatrous ways. Yet, during this period of exile, God still kept His covenant with Abraham. At the appointed time, He stirred up the spirit of Cyrus, King of Persia, to allow the exiled Jews to return to the promised land. Later, as part of the Levites’ duties in the holy temple, they would also sing these psalms, accompanied by instruments, as they ascended the stairway to the inner court.
GOD BROUGHT BACK WAVES OF CAPTIVES
In the darkness of their captivity, God’s people yearned for the land they had left, for the God they had forsaken. Indeed, when the returning exiles sang of God’s mercy and deliverance, they were poignantly described as being “like those who dream.” God, in His mercy, had brought them back from the foreign land of Babylon to the promised land. For any lost or wayward child of God, the experience of returning to God’s fold is akin to a dream. Today, we hear of numerous testimonies, going back many generations, of God’s grace and guidance in bringing back those who were once lost.
In the UK, for example, the early believers who emigrated from the island of Ap Chau in Hong Kong underwent such a spiritual journey. In the 1960s, the first batch of Ap Chau youths arrived in the UK. They settled in areas far from the existing fellowship of True Jesus Church members, primarily composed of Malaysian students in and around London. The Ap Chau immigrants lived under the roofs of strangers, in unfamiliar territories, without family or church support. They lived like the people of the world. As a result, their faith spiralled downwards. Scattered throughout the UK, they were like lost sheep without a shepherd (Ezek 34:5–6). Although there were moments of spiritual revival during fellowship gatherings, their faith became stagnant without the guidance of a shepherd.
As they ceased calling on the name of the Lord, these members entered a period of spiritual darkness. Nonetheless, God did not forsake them. He sent His servants to encourage His people—in 1972, the International Assembly started to send workers to shepherd these members and help establish regular services. By 1975, God had brought the majority of the Ap Chau population to the UK, pushing the number of members to seven hundred. And through the continual labor of the workers, several prayer houses were established in the UK during this period. By God’s bountiful grace, in 1976, the first True Jesus Church in the UK was dedicated to the Lord in Newcastle upon Tyne.
When members recall these events, some forty years later, they still clearly remember the abundant grace of God. Such stories of God’s love and compassion toward our forefathers in the midst of despair can seem like a dream, and we can indeed proclaim: “The LORD has done great things for us, and we are glad.”
SOWING IN TEARS FOR THOSE STILL CAPTIVE
Many of us have made this same journey from captivity back to God. In dark moments of our faith, we may have been entrapped by the world, before eventually being brought back by the Lord. Therefore, we can testify to the Lord’s abidance, and rejoice over His abundant mercy. However, we will also find ourselves thinking of our brethren who are still lost in the world.
When the returned Jews sang, “Bring back our captivity, O LORD, as the streams in the South,” many of their fellow countrymen were still in captivity. Likewise, today, we want our loved ones to be set free from the world, to join us as we ascend into the inner court of our King. Some of these brethren may even be our physical family members. Our hearts ache for their return.
For this reason, we “sow in tears” in prayer and continually go “forth weeping” each day, only to end each day still weeping. It seems a strange phenomenon, yet this is the result when you see your own still enslaved, despite repeated efforts to bring them back. At times, it seems as though the more abundantly we love them, the less we are loved (2 Cor 12:15). Often, workers of God experience the most rejection when reaching out to lost sheep. It is deeply painful when you pour your heart out to someone, only to be met with indifference or rejection. This was the pain the Old Testament (OT) prophets experienced as they “went in bitterness” to the captives (Ezek 3:14). Perhaps our early UK workers felt similarly, toiling to re-establish the faith of the members.
The Bible shows us that, throughout the ages, our Lord has patiently waited for His children to return to Him (2 Pet 3:9). Even in the beginning, when Adam and Eve were ensnared by temptation, God called out, “Where are you?” (Gen 3:9). As each generation falls captive to the world, we see the heartache of our God, who is “grieved” and “crushed by their adulterous heart which has departed from [Him]” (Gen 6:6; Ezek 6:9). When Jesus was in the world, He lamented over Jerusalem: “How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you were not willing!” (Lk 19:41; 13:34b).
ONLY GOD CAN DELIVER
From the history of the Jews and of the UK church, we know that only God can deliver His people from captivity. When we dwell upon the past forty-plus years of church development in the UK, it is evident that “the LORD has done great things for us.” Our hope and trust is that He will continue to do the same, today and tomorrow. The love and guidance of our Lord Jesus Christ are constant and, as such, we should rely fully on Him who longs to gather us together.
As we rely on our Savior, we can continue to “sow in tears,” knowing that we will eventually “reap in joy” and “shall doubtless come again with rejoicing”—just like our forefathers. The seeds that we sow are not only words of doctrine and life, but also deeds of love. Seeds of love have the best chance of surviving in the harsh environment of a heart in captivity. It was the love of the OT prophets, our early workers, and ultimately the love of God, which brought back those in captivity. Therefore, we have this assurance, that “God is not unjust to forget your work and labor of love which you have shown toward His name,” and we will no doubt “come again with rejoicing, bringing [our] sheaves with [us]” (Heb 6:10; Ps 126:6).
Though the physical church has been established, we must toil daily in the arduous task of building up the spiritual church. May we continue to strive for this dream through relying on our Lord Jesus, sowing seeds of love as we ascend into the inner courtyard of our Lord and King. Amen.