“They that sow in tears shall reap in joy” (Psalm 126:5)
HOW much easier it is to reap than to sow! The singers of Psalm 126 who so enthusiastically celebrated the miraculous release from captivity of God’s people did well to wonder at the Lord’s grace and to be glad about the great things that He had done for them. It was a reaping time. Even the onlookers from the nations could appreciate with what rejoicing God’s people sang of His delivering power. The psalm, however, reminds us that such reaping was only possible because there had been a sowing, and a very costly sowing at that. So the song ends on a note of realism. In the midst of their effervescent excitement at the great deeds of God, they needed to be reminded of the travail which had made it all possible. To use the words of the Lord Jesus: “Others have laboured, and ye are entered into their labours”.
SOME SOW AND OTHERS REAP
Who was it that foretold this release from captivity? Who was the man whose glowing words told how the ransomed of the Lord should return and come with singing to Zion, how a way should be made in the wilderness, and how the Lord would shepherd His captive people back to the land, carrying the infants in His arms and tenderly watching over the expectant mothers as He did so? Who was it that called the Lord’s remembrancers to take no rest and give Him no rest till He established Jerusalem and made it again a praise in the earth?
It was Isaiah, the prophet who had first had the bitter experience of informing Hezekiah that everything would be carried captive to Babylon and nothing left. So far as we know, the latter part of Isaiah’s life was lived under the shadow of Manasseh’s cruel persecution and quite possibly he was the man “sawn asunder” for his faith (Hebrews 11:37). His was the painful task of sowing, a task which was later taken up by Jeremiah, the man whose soul travail was fully rewarded by Cyrus’s release of the captives. He was certainly a man who “sowed in tears” and moreover who sowed in faith without ever knowing the joys of harvest.
Contemporary with Jeremiah there was Ezekiel, another of the suffering servants of God, who sowed for a day yet to come, a day which he did not himself witness. His beloved wife, the “desire of his eyes”, was taken away with a stroke as part of his ministry to rebellious Israel, and he was not even allowed to weep but made to bear his sorrow without even the relief of tears. Among the captives, too, there was Daniel. Daniel of the lions’ den! Daniel, who mourned for three whole weeks, and whose fasting, confession and agonising in prayer brought the promise of the re-building of Jerusalem. He was surely a man who sowed in faith. It is true that he did live to see the day of the return to the land, but he had no personal share in that return of the captivity which left the Israelites with their mouth filled with laughter and their tongue with singing. The day came when the Lord did great things for His people and made them very glad; but their harvest joys were the direct result of the costly and painful work of sowing which had been done by others.
It is always like this. So it was that the Lord Jesus called His disciples to the world harvest with a reminder that they were about to reap where they had not sown. “Others have laboured,” He affirmed. One wonders just whom He had in mind. Perhaps He was expressing some appreciation of the spade-work for the gospel which had been done by John the Baptist. John was to go out in total eclipse. He was to be left to languish in prison and then, apparently, to be abandoned to the headman’s axe without any token of divine concern. No harvest joys for John: only the painfulness of sowing. Yet the very first labours of the disciples brought an immediate harvest, and they came back to Jesus jubilant at the sensational results of their service (Luke 10:17). The cause was not far to seek. They were only harvesting what others had sown. For this reason they needed not to modify their [1/2] joy, but to adjust their minds in humility about the success.
This seems to be one of the immediate applications of Christ’s use of the true saying: “One soweth and another reapeth” (John 4:37). We are so apt to become conceited if God uses us, as though some credit were due to us for what has happened. In actual fact, though, it is usually true that we are only reaping where others have sown, that this is by far the easier part of the whole operation and that in any case — as Paul reminds us — it is God who gives the increase.
Another implication of Christ’s use of the old adage is to inspire us to fresh endeavour. The very fact that others have sown should get us busy in the work of reaping. The Lord Jesus admitted of no delay, but rather urged His disciples to get on with their part in the great scheme of harvesting (John 4:35). It would be a poor state of affairs if no one had been ready to pay the price of sowing, but what shall we say of the sad possibility that when others had so sown, the reapers should be tardy in getting to their appointed task?
Pentecost was a great reaping time. The early Church resounded with the joy of the harvest. But now we must ask: If they reaped with joy, who was it who sowed with tears? The answer is clear enough. Go to the garden of Gethsemane and see the Saviour weeping tears and dropping sweat as it were of blood. Go to the cross of Calvary and hear His heart-rending cry of abandonment by His God. And as we do this, we realise that it was He Himself who was the precious Seed of this sowing. He had already explained to His disciples that it would be like this, telling them that He would be the ‘grain of wheat’, falling into the ground and so bearing much fruit (John 12:24). So it was that although at Calvary He went on His way weeping to sow the precious seed, He came again rejoicing at Pentecost, bringing His sheaves with Him.
SOME BOTH SOW AND REAP
This brings us to the realisation that men may both sow and reap. The apostle to the Gentiles had to do this, for he was a true pioneer. “I planted,” he reminded the Corinthians; but he could also claim that he had also reaped: “Are ye not my work in the Lord?” (1 Corinthians 9:1). This, however, does not minimise the need for travail, but rather confirms it, for Paul literally wept many tears over the Corinthian believers. At one stage of his labours in that city, he seems to have become so disheartened that he was ready to go away and leave most of the harvest still not gathered in. At least this is the obvious explanation of the night vision when the Lord appeared to him, saying: “Be not afraid, but speak, and hold not thy peace, for I am with thee …: for I have much people in this city” (Acts 18:9). It may be that this reference to the as-yet hidden ‘much people’ can be attributed to that mysterious truth of predestination. Even if that is true, it still emphasises the Lord’s call for Paul to keep on with the work of reaping.
May it be, though, that what the Lord Jesus meant was that Paul’s sowing there had not been in vain? He saw the seed working in men’s hearts; He knew that patient persistence would ensure a harvest, and sought to encourage the man who had sowed in tears not to give up prematurely before the full harvest had been gathered in. Luke informs us that as a result of this divine vision Paul stayed on in Corinth for a further year and six months — which was quite a long time for Paul. It is most important that we should not lose heart because of the costliness of the work of sowing, for perhaps we are also appointed of God to be the ones who gather in the harvest. Our great weakness is that we always want quick results. This experience of Paul’s not only enabled him to see the work through at Corinth but gave him authority in his ministry of exhortation, for it was out of personal proving of God’s faithfulness that he was able to write: “for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not” (Galatians 6:9). Perhaps the ‘weeping’ is not only the costliness of sowing but the painfulness of waiting. Whatever it be, the divine assurance is that those concerned will doubtless come again with joy, bringing their sheaves with them.
Such sowing is not always deliberate. When Paul went to Lystra to preach the gospel he was nearly murdered by the infuriated Jews who stoned him and left him for dead. When he returned there a few years later he found a promising young convert, named Timothy, who was part of the fruit of that first visit when the apostle sowed in tears. Timothy had been fully aware not only of Paul’s teaching at Lystra but also of the sufferings which befell him there (2 Timothy 3:10-11); it seems, therefore, that he was part of the promised harvest. Paul certainly [2/3] reaped him with joy and found much pleasure in his loyal helpfulness right through to the end. Who knows but what Timothy might never have been such a harvest to Paul if the apostle had not first sown himself in suffering for Christ’s sake in Lystra. So we do not always know what we are sowing, and perhaps we even reap with joy unaware that we ourselves sowed the seed in the first place. One thing is certain, and that is that there must be a sowing if there is to be the joy of harvest.
SOWING IN FAITH
One aspect of the costliness of sowing is that it has to be done in faith. The one concerned has to do clearing and ploughing, as well as the actual insertion of the seed, and this involves disciplined perseverance, with nothing to show for one’s labours. It is true that the Lord began by promising His disciples that they should reap where others had previously done the sowing, but it is also true that He led them on to a more mature attitude towards service for God, which demanded readiness to sow at great personal cost in sheer faith of a future harvest.
As always, He offered Himself as the great example. The occasion was one of great superficial enthusiasm when the crowds accompanied Him up to Jerusalem. It offered a cheap and easy harvest, this action of the excited crowds as they hailed Him as God’s chosen, casting their garments before Him and waving palm leaves in loud acclamation. The world was ready to welcome Jesus. His bitterest enemies could not deny this fact; indeed it was they who dejectedly remarked to one another: “Behold how ye prevail nothing; lo, the world is gone after him” (John 12:19). So, friend and foe alike perceived that Jesus could reap a universal popularity if He so wished. Just at that very moment certain Greeks searched out Philip and made to him the sincere and earnest request: “Sir, we would see Jesus”. So, Jew and Gentile were united in wishing to pay homage to our Lord. It was a moment of infinite significance. In words uttered very soon afterwards, the Lord Jesus spoke pointedly about “the prince of this world”, a phrase which suggests to us that He was aware of the immense spiritual pressure being put upon Him, as though once again Satan was repeating the wilderness temptation to receive all the kingdoms of the world and their glory without going the way of the cross.
So, with powers seen and unseen urging Him to by-pass the suffering, He turned His back on them all, proclaiming that the Son of man’s way of glory was to be the self-sowing of the cross: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a grain of wheat fall into the earth and die, it abideth by itself alone; but if it die, it beareth much fruit” (John 12:24). His repeated ‘Verily’, which was really a double Amen, expressed His determination to surprise (and even delight) His enemies, to sacrifice His popularity with the masses, and even to disappoint those Greek admirers, by going right on to the death. Christ was the Sower of the Word of God but, more than that, He was the Sower of His own self, ready to accept great personal suffering and await an eternally fruitful harvest by resurrection.
All of us will have agreed with this choice of His, for we glory in the sacrifice of His cross; but we must continue to listen to Him as now, without a moment’s pause, He confronts His disciples with the same choice. “If any man serve me,” He added, “let him follow me.” How can we follow Him? Clearly by acting on this same principle of the sown seed, being ready to “fall into the earth and die” in pursuit of fruitfulness. Men must take up their cross daily if they are to follow Him. There is a sense in which we can opt for a cheap and quick harvest. Indeed, it is one of the commonest frailties of all of us that we crave for quick results in God’s service. Our carnal hearts find it so difficult to sow in faith, to sow in tears, and to be ready to leave the matter of the ensuing harvest to God. Jesus insisted, however, that this principle of the cross must operate in all genuine service for Him, adding an allusion to the harvest joys by assuring us that the Father will be sure to honour those who so follow and serve.
Once again we need to remind ourselves that whether our activities consist in sowing the word or in sowing by prayer, they inevitably call for a self-sowing which entails fellowship with Christ in His cross. If we consider Him we can see in His case that ‘sowing’ meant always taking the lower place. He described it as “falling into the earth”, as though to emphasise the constant need for coming lower and being willing to accept the humbling experiences which will come to all of us if we are truly consecrated to God.
All our [3/4] instincts are for self-preservation; we want to hold on to our rights, to better our position, to increase our possessions, to reap all the advantages that we possibly can. This is natural to us but it can only make for the solitary spiritual barrenness implied by Christ’s expression: “it abideth by itself alone”. If our lives are to be spiritually fruitful — and the expression which He used was ‘much fruit’ — it can only be by forsaking our natural selfish instincts and accepting circumstances and experiences which empty us even as He emptied Himself. This is not a matter of mystic dreaming but of very practical behaviour in daily living.
When we look at a grain of wheat we note that it has already been reduced from its natural conditions. It has lost its leaves and its protective husk and is exposed as a bare grain. But this is not enough. Death has to work more thoroughly and painfully upon it, so that even its wholesome state suffers further disintegration. Its burial in the earth means the stripping from it of all covering and comfort until nothing but the essential life remains. Perhaps some readers will recognise that this is precisely what has been happening to us under the hand of God. In consecration to Christ we were willing to accept the need for being reduced to a bare grain, to being stripped of the perishable dross of comfortable life, but now we are discovering that the call to follow Christ goes even deeper than that. It means accepting the loss of what may be most dear for His sake. All this is the price of sowing. It involves burying our spiritual pride, sacrificing our ease, accepting joyfully the hurts and disappointments which naturally we would be quick to resent; it obliges us to forsake natural ambitions in a willingness to be humbled or set aside, to let go of strongly-held opinions if by doing so we may let the Lord have more glory.
THE CERTAINTY OF HARVEST
The passage in John shows that this matter of the costliness of self-sowing precipitated in the soul of Jesus a question as to whether or not He should ask the Father to excuse Him from such supreme sacrifice. ‘What shall I pray?’ He enquired, and then answered His own question by praying that the Father would glorify His own name. There was an immediate response from heaven, given not because Jesus needed it but for our sakes (John 12:30). There is always a response from heaven to such a prayer. To take this road of seeking only the glory of God may mean, as it did in Christ’s case, apparent capitulation to our enemies and deep disappointment to our friends, but one thing is certain, and that is that it will bring pleasure to the heart of our heavenly Father. “Him will the Father honour,” Jesus declared, confident that those who share His cross will also share His glory.
In the Authorised Version we have a word which is not so much a translation as an implication. It is the word, ‘doubtless’. There may be much in this life which is open to doubt, even in this realm of a visible harvest, but when we consider the matter in the light of eternity, then there can be no uncertainty. The harvest is quite sure. We need to remember this because even when we have seen much of God’s present working, there are always new needs which call for fresh sowing. These Israelites who were so deliriously happy at their release from captivity were soon reminded that much more needed to be done, so that they had to pray that once again God would turn their captivity (verse 4).
It was in the light of the future as well as of the past that their attention was drawn to the divine principle of seedtime and harvest, of sowing in tears in order to reap in joy. However much we can praise we must still go on praying. God’s people are always ready to join in harvest joys. Confront them with some new movement of blessing, with some obviously fruitful ministry, and they will flock to it enthusiastically to share in the joys of harvest. Issue, however, a call to prayer. In the Lord’s name call them to take the lonelier path of the drudgery of apparently unrewarded service. Invite them to be ready to fall into the earth and die. Alas, such a prospect does not appeal to our carnal hearts.
This, however, is our calling. This is the Christlike travail which in eternity will be rewarded with divine glory. We know that our blessed Lord who went forth weeping, bearing His precious seed for sowing, will most certainly come again with rejoicing, bringing His sheaves with Him, but what about us? We must reap what He has sown. Perhaps we may reap what others have sown. We may sow and reap or perhaps we may sow for others to reap. In any case Christ’s promise must surely encourage us: “that he that soweth and he that reapeth may rejoice together” (John 4:36). [4/5]