• Thayer Thursday – How background helps understand a Psalm

Thayer Thursday – How background helps understand a Psalm

Chris Thayer is the Director of Discipleship at Good Shepherd Church in Charlotte, NC where he oversees adult life groups and Biblical education. On Thursdays I share his weekly “Thayer’s Thoughts” for small group leaders, which are based on the previous Sunday’s sermon. Click HERE to watch or listen to the accompanying sermon.

Last week we learned how important the city of Jerusalem was to the people of Israel. It was their capital city. More than that, it was the location of Yahweh’s Temple: the place where the Glory of God resided, where every year the entire nation made multiple pilgrimages to partake in feasts and festivals, where sacrifices were offered. It was the hub around which the entire nation revolved. The Temple, and by extension Jerusalem, was the single most important place in all of Ancient Israel. In order for us to understand this week’s Psalm of Ascent, Psalm 126, we need to dig a bit into the background of Israel and what is arguably the second most formative event in the life of the nation (second only to the Exodus from Egypt and the Covenant at Mt. Sinai).

When we read the Old Testament (and most of the new), we’re reading from the perspective of people who were Israelites. The author largely conveys their perspective: what happened to, and in Israel. This is perfectly understandable and to be expected. However, we must remember that what’s happening outside of Israel (assumed to be known by the reader) is integral to what is happening inside. Without this context we will be lost as we try to understand the writings of the Bible. So, to grasp what the Psalm writer means by God restoring the fortunes of Zion (another name for Jerusalem), we need to take a look at the broader geo-political milieu in which it takes place.

Most of us are fairly familiar with Rome as a powerful empire. Rome controlled a large territory and had extreme military might. Rome was in power during the time of Jesus and the early church. However, Rome was not the first empire in existence. In the Ancient Near East, there were several super-powers that came before. There are four that are largely neglected as we seek to understand the Old Testament: Assyria, Babylon, Persia, and Greece. Pertinent to today’s discussion are the first three.

After King Solomon’s death, the nation split into two: the north and the south. The north’s capital was Samaria. The South’s was Jerusalem. The Northern Kingdom overwhelmingly disobeyed God’s commands. Due to their rebellion, the Northern Kingdom was destroyed in 722 BC by the Assyrian Empire. The Southern Kingdom faired marginally better. Sometimes they obeyed God, other times they disobeyed. However, they too eventually fell into complete rebellion and God brought judgment. By this time, Assyria had been replaced by the Babylonian Empire as the reigning super-power. In 586 BC Babylon overran Jerusalem. The temple—the locus of life and identity for Israel—was destroyed. However, God did not leave it there. He soon brought restoration.

As empires always do, Babylon eventually fell out of power and Persia became the reigning empire of the day. The Persian King Cyrus, sent the Israelites back to Jerusalem to rebuild their city, and most notably: the temple to Yahweh. So when you read Psalm 126 proclaiming God restored the fortunes of Zion, this is what they are referring to. In His grace and forgiveness: He restored the people of Israel to the place of Jerusalem to rebuild the Temple for the presence of Yahweh.

Chris Thayer

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