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Psalm 126 and Partially Answered Prayer

            Psalm 126 helps us to deal with the disappointment of partially answered prayer, a challenge that we rarely discuss but regularly confront.  It does so by combining the seemingly contradictory actions of thanksgiving, lamentation and hope.  This pattern revealed in God’s word makes perfect sense once it is understood that the believer lives in the time between the partial fulfillment of God’s promises and their final completion, a tension that especially comes to the fore in worship.

            Psalm 126 is the seventh of the fifteen “Songs of Ascent” that begin with Psalm 120 and finish with Psalm 134.  There are several competing theories concerning what is meant by a “Song of Ascent,” but the most convincing is the one that claims that these psalms were sung by the people of God as they ascended towards Jerusalem to worship at the temple.

            The first three verses give thanks for and celebrate the Lord’s return of his chosen people from the Babylonian Captivity, which took place in 538 B.C.  It recounts the distinct reactions of the people of God to their deliverance.  Even though the prophets had promised their return (Jeremiah 30:3), the actual event was so overwhelming that it seemed like a dream to them (v. 1).  They were dazed by the wonder of God’s salvation.  The dazed wonder soon passed to laughter and songs of joy.  The combination of amazement and overflowing and exuberant joy aptly describes the kind of worship that should characterize God’s people.  So great was the Lord’s work that the nations joined in the believers’ chorus and sang to God, “The Lord has done great things for them” (v. 2b).  God’s people echoed back the same refrain and were filled with joy (v. 3).

            The remembrance of their deliverance from Babylon called to mind their present state.  God’s people were back in the land, but they were not prospering.  The land was poor, and they faced significant opposition from their neighbors, as the Book of Nehemiah makes clear.  The harsh reality of the existence of God’s people after the exile did not seem to fulfill all the hopes that had been raised by the prophets’ promises; so they prayed to the Lord to restore their fortunes (v. 4). 

            Remembrance of God’s past deliverance and calling upon God to fulfill his word and help them through the challenging present preserved the Israelites from despair and bitterness.  Verses 5 and 6 end in a high note of confidence.  Suffering and sorrow will be turned into joy.

            Just as the psalmist, today’s Christian lives between the time of Jesus coming that initiated the age of salvation (Acts 2:21, 33) and the final consummation when there will be no more tears or sorrows and God will be in our midst (Revelation 21:1-4).  The present is a time in which God’s people do suffer and at times feel disappointed.  It is a time when our songs of praise about God’s love and power seem to be a mockery of what we actually experience.  Our response should be to call upon God in prayer to help us and to allow our faith in God to lead us to hope and continue to labor and serve him.  Then we will be able to sing gratefully, “He that goes forth weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him” (v. 6), or, as our Lord promised, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4).

30 thoughts on “Psalm 126 and Partially Answered Prayer

  1. Fascinating historical context. It really helps deepen my understanding of the psalm.

    I have a question about prayer that has been on my mind lately. If God already has a plan to bring us to him and take away our pain, then what is the point of praying and asking him to help us through challenges? Is it merely a way to focus our lives on God and remind ourselves who is in control, or do requests for things that cannot occur until end times serve some additional purpose? In other words, if God already has a plan for how and when our pain will be alleviated, does praying for pain to go away affect his plans at all?

    1. First of all, I apologize for my inexcusably tardy response to your very good question, Brook. Your final formation of your query places your concerns squarely within the major theological issue of the relationship between God’s sovereign plan and our individual actions.
      In this case, you relate that overarching question to the issue of prayer. Do our prayers affect God’s plans? I think that we have to say that the Bible teaches that God and his plans are affected by our prayers. One clear example is Moses’ prayer that God not destroy Israel after the people had worshipped the golden calf (Exodus 32).
      Does the impact of our prayers on God imply that he is not sovereign? Some have said that, but such an answer goes against much biblical teaching to the contrary. I’m not sure that we time-bound creatures are in a position to answer the question fully, but I do believe that a distinction between God’s ultimate purposes and the means by which he achieves them can help us here. God’s ultimate purposes do not change (Ephesians 1:11), however, the way in which he accomplishes them may change, as in the case of Moses. Our prayers do affect the means by which God accomplishes his unchanging purposes and are, in fact, incorporated into his overall plan.
      Your more specific question about pain is an interesting way of looking at the issue. In the Lord’s Prayer we are told to ask God not to lead us into temptation (“put us to the test”), and yet he does at times test us in order to accomplish the kind of character changes that you mention. Pain would be one kind of those tests.
      You also ask the question from the viewpoint of the end times. This helped me to think of another aspect of the issue. We shall suffer pain until the return of Christ. It seems to me that we may ask for a specific experience of pain to end. We may be bold in this. Jesus even asked God not to have him go to the cross. Nevertheless, we must ask with the same attitude that Jesus did, which was that God’s will would be done, not ours. On the other hand, we should not ask to be removed altogether from pain in this life. God has made it clear that that will not happen and he does know best for us.
      Brook, thank you for an excellent question. It is a pleasure to reflect together on these important issues of the Christian life.

  2. I really like this Psalm. I like the reminder that, even though we are in the midst of sorrow, there’s the promise that soon those sorrows will be replaced with joy.

  3. Although the rememberance of God’s past fullfillment of his word is suppose to be encouraging, sometimes I feel like the time inbetween my prayer and God’s response is a challenge itself in addition to the challenge I am praying about already.

    1. You;re quite right, Joe. It is hard to wait and wait and wait. Trust me I have waited at times for God to answer prayers for over 20-30 years, but he did. Keep on praying until the Lord says to stop.

  4. The “already and not yet” principle seems to be so strong in God’s work. I don’t often think of prayer as being “partially” answered. I don’t really remember that God’s work can take time and that though it may not be immediate or obvious God may be answering my prayers whether I notice or not.I have to remember to be patient and realize that somethings may not come in this time before Jesus’ coming again, but praise God in all circumstanes.

  5. Thankyou for the helpful and practical advice. Often times I think my requests to God be either flat out declined or fully affirmed, not partially answered. Does God ever decline a request without fulfilling it in some way? Also, I appreciate the instruction to continue with strong faith in whatever situation we might be in, and then eventual gratitude will come.

    1. Your thinking of answers to prayers as sort of a total yes or total no is common, which is why I found this Psalm to be so helpful. I think that God’s “no’s” are in reality “yeses” to something else, whether that actually fulfills a request in some way, I can’t say. I do believe that the Spirit takes our requests, transforms them and brings them before God according to his will; so maybe that is fulfilling them.

  6. I think the partially answered prayer is a very important subject for believers to realize and consider in their prayer lives. God hears us but doesn’t always answer how we might like. I also liked how you talked about seeking comfort in God. I have found great comfort in the Lord when I bring my troubles to Him. God has revealed parts of His will to me and helped me with the things that are troubling me through this study of the Psalms. Thank you for helping me to learn more about the Psalms and through them develop a closer relationship to God.

  7. A very interesting read. I was a little struck by the amount of faith that the last few verses held seeing as the people of Israel were struggling at that time. I know that these days many people have lost their faith because of hard times in their lives instead of praying to God. This is unfortunate and I hope that these people will be brought back to the level of hope and faith that the Psalmist had.

    1. This is a good point, Brian, one that I hadn’t noticed. People need to understand that living by faith is a challenge but a rewarding one precisely in those difficult times. Thanks for your comment.

  8. I never liked mournful or sorrowful Psalms, but this new perspective of them has encouraged me to read them more often. Another thing you brought up was that this Psalm is their distinct reaction to God’s deliverance from Babylon and it is always interesting to find ways to relate things to the history of the people.

    1. Thanks, John. I’m glad to hear how you have an increased desire to read the “mournful” Psalms, and it is interesting and profitable to consider their historical context.

  9. I really appreciate how you clearly showed that our prayers won’t always be answered. This month I’ve been dealing a lot with unanswered prayer and this psalm helps calm my frustration. I also appreciated that you mentioned that even though God is always faithful and will always hear our prayers, he won’t always answer them right away.

    1. Thanks, Maddie. Perhaps we all need to take more seriously the old analogy from Jacob of wrestling with God. Prayer, if we take it seriously, can be challenging, but always remember God is faithful.

  10. I found this very helpful. i have had issues with this. i find it hard at times to keep my faith strong when it feels like God isn’t listening or that he just doesn’t care. and generally i blame that on my pride; the i want _____ and i want it now mentality, and breaking that can be a challenge. thanks for the lesson.

    1. Your welcome, Matt. I’m glad to hear that you are taking these posts seriously for your Christian life. The struggle in prayer can be due to pride, as you mention, but it is encouraging to realize that that’s not always the case.

  11. This post was extremely insightful for me. I had never thought about partially answered prayer before. I can imagine that it would be extremely frustrating. Praise God that he has given us an example of his faithfulness so that in times of doubt we can remain assured of his enduring love.

    1. Thanks, Zoey. Partially answered prayer was for me as well an added nuance to the issue of answered or unanswered prayer. Understanding the historical context of Psalm 126 was what led me to think about it.

  12. When I think of waiting, I think of the story you tol about your cousin and how much it meant to you for him to become a Christian. It shows me that sometimes, waiting happens when we are prayin for something really important to happen.

    1. I’m not sure that I see how your question comes from Psalm 126, Michael. Our songs of praise most certainly should be mostly of faith and perseverance. There are passages that speak of God mocking or deriding the rebellious (Psalm 2:4; Proverbs 3:34) and Psalms of victory in which God’s people rejoice over the defeat of God’s enemies (Psalm 57:6), but I’m not sure if this is what you mean.

  13. why would someone be lamenting and happy to ascend to Jerusalem, is
    that a normal thing to do at that time to make a journey to Jerusalem[is it something like islam?]

    1. Yes, people would go to Jerusalem for the Temple worship during the great feasts, just as Jesus and his family did. It’s not really like Islam, in so far as I understand their view of pilgrimages.

  14. Reading this Psalm was helpful and reassuring. So many times has The Lord gone full circle and provided for the Jews as was promised, and I suppose it is the same for the followers of Christ. I saw that there was talk of The Lord not awnsering a prayer at all. It is my belief that God awnsers all prayers, just not always as we had wanted, what are your thoughts on this?

    1. I’m glad that you found this psalm reassuring, Nick. I think that you are right that God always answers our prayers. When people say that he hasn’t, they probably mean that he said no or not now.

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