Great Texts of the Bible
Sowing in Tears, Reaping in Joy
Though he goeth on his way weeping, bearing forth the seed;
He shall come again with joy, bringing his sheaves with him.—Psalm 126:6This is a song of grateful remembrance celebrating the return of the Jews from exile. But though it begins, as so many of the psalms do, with a local reference, it ends with a general application to universal human life. The end of the Captivity came unexpectedly; the singer declares that it was like a dream to them; they could hardly believe at first that it was true. But when they were sure that they were awake, and that the long exile was really over, that they were going home again to rebuild the Temple, and the city of their pride and love, their mouths were filled with laughter and their voices burst forth into singing. Gratitude towards God swelled their hearts; they gave God all the glory; they bore testimony before the heathen that it was God who had done these great things for them. Studying this signal illustration of the sweetness of victory after defeat, of the blessedness of home after exile, of the glory of the harvest after the long seedtime and waiting, the singer bursts forth into inspired poetry, drawing from this illustration a beautiful truth applicable to human life in general, and of special spiritual significance to those who seek to bless and uplift human hearts. “They that sow in tears,” he sings with confidence, “shall reap in joy. Though he goeth on his way weeping, bearing forth the seed; he shall come again with joy, bringing his sheaves with him.”
Some one has said that the finest example of the use in English literature of a quotation from the Bible is the reference to this text in Thackeray’s Esmond. Entering Winchester Cathedral on his return from the wars, Harry Esmond sees again the widowed Lady Castlewood, who in his youth had been to him more than sister and mother, and whom he now loves as a woman. The period of their separation is ended. “I knew,” she says to him at the close of the service, “that you would come back. And to-day, Henry, in the anthem, when they sang it, ‘When the Lord turned again the captivity of Zion, we were like them that dream,’ I thought, yes, like them that dream—them that dream. And then it went, ‘They that sow in tears shall reap in joy; and he that goeth forth and weepeth, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bring his sheaves with him’; I looked up from the book, and saw you. I was not surprised when I saw you. I knew you would come, my dear, and saw the gold sunshine round your head.… But now—now you are come again, bringing your sheaves with you, my dear.” She burst into a wild flood of weeping as she spoke; she laughed and sobbed on the young man’s heart, crying out wildly, “Bringing your sheaves with you—your sheaves with you!”1 [Note: W. M. Thackeray, The History of Henry Esmond, Bk. ii. chap. vi.]
Sowing in Tears
1. The sower is represented as weeping. The language here is very strong. One commentator puts it in this form “may indeed weep every step that he goes.” It has also been rendered, “takes no step of his way without weeping.” Dr. Thomson, the author of The Land and the Book, in giving an interpretation of the Psalmist’s words, says: “I never saw people sowing in tears exactly, but have often known them to do it in fear and distress sufficient to draw them from any eye. In seasons of great scarcity, the poor peasants part in sorrow with every measure of precious seed cast into the ground. It is like taking bread out of the mouths of their children; and in such times many bitter tears are actually shed over it. The distress is actually so great that; government is obliged to furnish seed, or none would be sown. Ibrahim Pasha did this more than once within my remembrance.”
In all of this there is much to make sowing sad work. Again, the extreme danger to which the sower was exposed made his labour one of sadness. Dr. Thomson tells us that the sower was often obliged to drop the plough and seize the sword. His fields were far from his home, and so near the lawless desert. As in Job’s day, when the oxen were ploughing and the asses feeding beside them, the Sabeans came and took them all away, so often since fierce hordes from the deserts have swept down upon the peaceful husbandman, and robbed him of seed and implements, sparing only his life. In all of this there was much to make the work of sowing also a work of weeping. Again, the frequent fruitlessness of the labour made it sad toil. The land had gone to weeds. The ground was fallow. It was no easy task to break up this stubborn soil. Their once fruitful land was barren, and its cultivation was a work of the utmost toil. Their implements were poor and inefficient, their oxen were small and weak, and their own skill was very unlike that of the farmer of modern days. For these and similar reasons the sowing of the seed might literally be called a work of weeping.
2. It is a law of the spiritual life that through tribulation we enter into the joy of the Kingdom. God means us to reap in joy, but first we must sow in tears. See, for example, how this law meets us at the very threshold of the Christian life. Great though the blessedness to which Christ invites us is, the beginnings of His life in the soul come to us amid tears. Then for the first time we see the mystery of the cross; and what strikes us, in what we see, is the spectacle of a Saviour there for us. We see the wounds in His body, but, behind these, wounds in ourselves, for the healing of which He died. No one ever truly opens his eyes on these facts who does not weep. Sharp and into the very heart goes the pangs; “It is I who have crucified the Lord!”
Contemplation of Christ’s sufferings, combined with prayer, will do more than any other exercise to cause genuine sorrow for having offended the love of God.… In following the scenes of the Passion, contemplate our Lord as the sin-bearer, and think of each insult, or indignity suffered by Him as representing to us the penalties due to our own offences.… Thus we come to feel the stirrings of real sorrow for having rejected God’s love. Moved by that sorrow, we take our place beside Him in His Passion, enduring; our small sufferings cheerfully, uniting our half-hearted penitence with His Divine, all-comprehensive sorrow, whereby it can be deepened, and strengthened, and purified.1 [Note: Bishop Chandler, Ara Coeli.]
3. Then the thought of the shortcomings of our service is enough to moisten the driest eye. That in a sin-stricken world so much needs to be done is bad enough, but that we should so often leave undone the very little we can do, that we should let the ground around us lie fallow or run to weed, that we should permit the forces of sin to do their worst while we are content to do nothing at all, is infinitely worse. We must be stony-hearted indeed if such thoughts as these never cause a pang at our breast or a tear in our eye.
There is nothing more grateful in the service of Christ than spontaneity—nothing more welcome to Himself, nothing more welcome to His servants. To have some services offered, to know of some kind deed done, quite apart from any pressure or appeal or even suggestion—that is so like Jesus that it is a joy to think of it. We are so ready to wait till someone moves, instead of following unbidden the first impulse of our hearts; we are so inclined to act only under the spur or the whip; we are so ready to criticize instead of helping, that willingness is a cardinal virtue indeed.1 [Note: R. W. Barbour, Thoughts, 86.]
4. Lastly, there is the sorrow of disappointment. All earnest labourers are liable to fits of despondency, Christian labourers certainly not less than others. Overwork, perhaps, is followed by reaction, or the too eager hope is disappointed because we do not see any results for all our doing. We think that our fellow-labourers are not as earnest as we, that we alone are bearing the burden and heat of the day. Then there comes up the question, What is the use of all our toil? the murmur, “Verily I have laboured in vain, I have spent my strength for nought, and in vain.” The whole world seems weary; all effort appears but restlessness; there is no profit to all the labour that is done under the sun. One generation passeth away and another cometh; life is ‘too short for hope, too short for any effective effort. “The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down”; “all the rivers run into the sea, yet the sea is not full”; “all things are full of labour; man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing. The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.”
We pass; the path that each man trod
Is dim, or will be dim, with weeds:
What fame is left for human deeds
In endless age?
Therefore we hate life; “because the work that is wrought under the sun is grievous unto” us; “for all is vanity and vexation of spirit.” Yet for all our despondency, the call to labour ceases not. If we would not be faithless to all we have known of duty and of God; if we would not be false to all we have learnt of life, and to every principle by which our souls are moulded, we must do the work that lies ready to our hands. We have taken up the basket, and the furrows are still yawning to receive the seed: we must sow, though we sow in despondency and in tears. God’s great call to us is to labour, and His call to labour continues though there is no joy to us in working. But it is still God’s call, and not our gladness, that is to give character to our lives; the claim of duty ceases not with our impulses of joyful work.
Lessons of persevering toil, of contented doing of preparatory work, of confidence that no such labour can fail to be profitable to the doer and to the world, have been drawn for centuries from the sweet words of this psalm. Who can tell how many hearts they have braced, how much patient toil they have inspired? The Psalmist was sowing seed the fruit of which he little dreamed of when he wrote them, and his sheaves will be an exceeding weight indeed. The text gives assurance fitted to animate to toil in the face of dangers without, and in spite of a heavy heart—namely, that no seed sown and watered with tears is lost; and further, that, though it often seems to be the law for earth that one soweth and another reapeth, in deepest truth “every man shall receive his own reward, according to his own labour,” inasmuch as, hereafter, if not now, whatsoever of faith and toil and holy endeavour a man soweth, trusting to God to bless the springing thereof, that shall he also reap. In the highest sense and in the last result the prophet’s great words are ever true: “They shall not plant, and another eat … for my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.”1 [Note: A. Maclaren, The Book of Psalms, 321.]
I saw in seedtime a husbandman at plough in a very raining day; asking him the reason why he would not rather leave off than labour in such foul weather, his answer was returned to me in their country rhyme:
Sow beans in the mud,
And they’ll come up like a wood.
This could not but mind me of David’s expression, “They that sow in tears shall reap in joy. He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him.” These last five years have been a wet and woful seedtime to me, and many of my afflicted brethren. Little hope have we, as yet, to come again to our own homes, and, in a literal sense, now to bring our sheaves, which we see others daily carry away on their shoulders. But if we shall not share in the former or latter harvest here on earth, the third and last in heaven we hope undoubtedly to receive.1 [Note: Thomas Fuller, Good Thoughts in Worse Times.]
Sow;—while the seeds are lying
In the warm earth’s bosom deep,
And your warm tears fall upon it—
They will stir in their quiet sleep;
And the green blades rise the quicker,
Perchance, for the tears you weep.
Then sow;—for the hours are fleeting,
And the seed must fall to-day;
And care not what hands shall reap it,
Or if you shall have passed away
Before the waving corn-fields
Shall gladden the sunny day.
Sow; and look onward, upward,
Where the starry light appears—
Where in spite of the coward’s doubting,
Or your own heart’s trembling fears,
You shall reap in joy the harvest
You have sown to-day in tears.2 [Note: A. A. Procter, Legends and Lyrics, i. 134.]
Reaping in Joy
Now comes the promise—“He shall come again with joy, bringing his sheaves with him.” We have here in the Hebrew a striking form of expression. It is the combination of the finite tense with the infinitive; it is difficult in our idiom to bring out the exact thought. In some versions it is rendered, “Coming, he shall come.” This, however, conveys neither the peculiar form nor the precise sense of the Hebrew phrase. Luther’s repetition of the finite tense, most scholars are agreed, gives us the best approximation to the force of the original, “He shall come, he shall come.” The certainty of His coming again is the thought; this is what our common version, with its “shall doubtless come again,” clearly teaches.
1. The sower shall shout in the joy of his harvest. He goes forth in the dull winter when leaden clouds hang overhead, and the wild winds moan dismally, and the rain-showers sweep suddenly upon him, and the dead leaves are swept by every gust, and the trees stretch up their bare black arms to heaven. But though it begins thus, it has another ending. There comes the happy time when the row of reapers bend over the falling corn; when they that bind the sheaves are busy, and others pile the shocks; when the laden waggons go homewards with the precious burden, and about the farmsteads are they who build the stacks. Then shall the sower come again. He who went out with handfuls shall come back with armfuls. He who scattered seed shall gather sheaves. He who went out with a basket shall come with a waggon-load.
At Clanwilliam he heard some wonderful and well-authenticated instances of the marvellous fertility of the soil near the Oliphants River, where in good seasons the land yields even two-hundredfold. Mr. Fryer, one of the churchwardens, had himself seen “a stool of wheat which, after successive cuttings, had thrown out 320 stalks”; and knew of a particular crop which was even more wonderful: A farmer sowed 1/4 of a muid, or sack, of corn; the river overflowed and he reaped 57 sacks! He found rather a difficulty in disposing of it all, and next year he did not sow. But grain shed by the harvest of the previous year, and escaping the appetites of the birds, actually produced, after another overflow of the river, a self-sown harvest of 72 sacks; i.e. the farmer, with one sowing and one ploughing, reaped in two years, from 1/4 sack of seed 129 sacks of corn! 516 fold! This is vouched for by several persons.1 [Note: A Father in God: W. W. Jones, Archbishop of Capetown, 93.]
2. The spiritual harvest is assured to us on the same authority as assures the earthly harvest. He who has never broken His first promise, “seedtime and harvest shall not cease,” will never break His second, “they that sow in tears shall reap in joy.” There is no joy like that which comes from successful work for Christ. All the joys of earth are nothing when compared with this. This endures; this allies us to angels and God. This awakens the purest and noblest instincts of the soul. In this joy we feel the throb of Christ’s heart. The promise to Him is that “he shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied.” This joy is mingled even with the gloom of Gethsemane and Calvary. It was for the joy set before Him that He endured the cross and despised the shame.
Most of the thoughts that cluster round the season of autumn are worn and common enough. No new ones can be spoken; we can only vary the key of the old. So when we think of harvest time, and of life’s harvest being similar to it, we think a well-worn thought; but its very worn condition makes it dear, for it has been the constant thought of all our brother men. It is bound up with a thousand lovely poems in which the thoughts of solitary men took form, with a thousand lovely landscapes in which, by vintage and by cornland, human energy and human joy, the long day’s labour and the moonlight dance were wrought together into happiness. Few sights are fairer than that seen autumn after autumn round many an English homestead, when, as evening falls, the wains stand laden among the golden stubble, and the gleaners are scattered over the misty field; when men and women cluster round the gathered sheaves and rejoice in the loving-kindness of the earth; when in the dewy air the shouts of happy people ring, and all over the broad moon shines down to bless with its yellow light the same old recurring scene it has looked on and loved for so many thousand years.1 [Note: Stopford A. Brooke.]
3. “They that sow shall reap.” The seed is God’s, and God’s too is the increase; only let us cast God’s seed into God’s soil, it matters not though we sow in tears, He will bless us with the harvest. God has His purpose in every call of duty; His purpose is to give us the blessedness of what we do. Were the work ours alone, were we left to do it by ourselves, were success dependent on our efforts or skill, then as we think how imperfect we are, and as we contemplate the powerful influences at work to hinder and mar the cause which we have at heart, we might well despair. But the word of the Lord standeth sure; God’s promise cannot fail of fulfilment. The “shall come again” of the Omnipotent absolutely ensures success. Only sow faithfully, and you shall reap abundantly—here, if God sees it wise and well, hereafter, beyond all question. Yes, the harvest will come, must come. There may be cloudy skies, and dark days, and cold winds first—much that makes the sower anxious, and even causes weeping and painful fear; but still, the harvest will come.
Every promise of God hath this tacitly annexed to it—“Is anything too hard for the Lord?”1 [Note: John Owen.]
The Methodist Chapel at Shotley Bridge, of which Mr. M‘Cullagh became minister in 1849, was the only place of worship in this small village. One very interesting member of the congregation, a most godly woman, was the sister of that brilliant man of letters, De Quincey, the English opium-eater. A local preacher of much originality was also a prominent figure in the congregation. Mr. M‘Cullagh in after years wrote of him: “Henderson’s prayers were sometimes remarkable. Once I heard him quote the passage, ‘The promise is unto you and to your children,’ thus, ‘The promise is unto Henderson and his children.’ Some years afterwards I met one of his children in the ranks of the ministry, and I thought of the good man’s faith in wedging his own name and his children’s into the promise. Once when I was preaching on the text, ‘Whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises,’ as I quoted one promise after another, Henderson half-audibly said, ‘That is mine! and that is mine! and that is mine!’ And when I uttered the words, ‘Having nothing, and yet possessing all things,’ he said with added emphasis, ‘and that is mine.’ ”2 [Note: Thomas M‘Cullagh, by his Eldest Son, 62.]
Banks (L. A.), David and His Friends, 224.
Davies (T.), Sermons and Homiletical Expositions, ii. 455.
Devenish (E. I.), Like Apples of Gold, 47.
Hare (J. C.), Parish Sermons, i. 347.
Henderson (A.), Sermons, 190.
MacArthur (R. S.), The Calvary Pulpit, 103.
Mackennal (A.), Christ’s Healing Touch, 30.
Macleod (A.), A Man’s Gift, 117.
Milne (W.), The Precious Things of God, 45.
Skrine (J. H.), The Mountain Mother, 126.
Sowter (G. A.), Sowing and Reaping, 1.
Spurgeon (C. H.), Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, xv. (1869), No. 867.
Taylor (W. M.), The Boy Jesus, 277.
Thomas (J.), Sermons (Myrtle Street Pulpit), ii. 263.
Voysey (C.), Sermons, xxxii. (1909), No. 37.
Christian Treasury, xxx. (1874) 601 (P. Fairbairn).
Christian World Pulpit, vi. 206 (A. C. Price); xix. 186 (A. Scott); lx. 241 (J. Watson).
Sunday Magazine, 1888, pp. 613, 696 (M. G. Pearse).