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Psalm 126 Biblical Commentary:
This psalm is composed of two sections:
Verses 1-3 speak of a wondrous, joyful time “when Yahweh brought back those who returned to Zion.” This almost certainly refers to the miraculous return of Jewish exiles from Babylonia, which took place when Cyrus, king of Persia, defeated Babylonia and in 538 B.C. set the exiles free to return to Jerusalem.
But, while the return was cause for celebration, it introduced a new set of difficulties that are the reason for verses 4-6:
- Only a remnant had returned; others remained in Babylon.
- The returning Jews found Jerusalem in total ruins.
- They had to rebuild the city from scratch, beginning with the walls to protect them from hostile neighbors.
- While they eventually succeeded in rebuilding the temple, their temple was a pale substitute for the grand Solomon’s Temple.
- Their vineyards and farmlands had been left largely untended for fifty years, so it took massive effort and a long time to restore them.
PSALM 126:1-3. WHEN YAHWEH BROUGHT BACK THOSE WHO RETURNED
A Song of Ascents.
1 When Yahweh brought back those who returned to Zion,
we were like those who dream.
2 Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with singing.
Then they said among the nations,
“Yahweh has done great things for them.”
3 Yahweh has done great things for us,
and we are glad.
A Song of Ascents.
This is one of 15 psalms (120-134) that begin with this superscription. These psalms may have been sung by pilgrims ascending the road to Jerusalem (which was on a mountain) for the three great festivals: Passover, the Feast of Weeks (which we know as Pentecost), and the Feast of Tabernacles.
Or Levites may have sung them as they ascended the fifteen steps to the temple.
“When Yahweh brought back those who returned to Zion” (v. 1a). See The Context (above).
Jerusalem is on Mount Zion, so this verse speaks of the return of the exiles to Jerusalem. However, the word Zion also came to represent the nation of Israel and the people of God.
“we were like those who dream” (v. 1b). The exiles had dreamed of Jerusalem for fifty years. They remembered how wonderful it was and how free they had been there. They remembered the grandeur of Solomon’s temple and their worship there. They dreamed of returning one day–– although they could hardly imagine how that might be possible.
When Yahweh elevated Cyrus to the throne of Persia and caused him to allow the exiles to return to Jerusalem, their dream had come true. When they set out on the road, they could hardly believe that they were free––and were actually moving toward the realization of their dream. When they finally got to Jerusalem, even though it was in ruins, they could imagine restoring it to its former glory. It seemed too good to be true. Were they still dreaming? Would they awaken to find themselves still under the Babylonian thumb?
“Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with singing” (Hebrew: renanah) (v. 2a). These two lines repeat the same thought in different words, as do many psalm verses. This is known as parallelism, and is the most common form of Hebrew poetry.
Laughter and singing are expressions of joy. Both are filled with positive energy. Both well up from deep within our persona.
This word renanah means a joyful shout or singing. It is sometimes used for the joyful shouts of a victory celebration. The psalmist is describing singing powered by exuberance and energy and enthusiasm.
“Then they said among the nations, (Hebrew: goyim)
‘Yahweh has done great things for them'” (v. 2b). While the word goyim can mean nations in general, it was often use to mean Gentile nations––heathen.
The psalmist is saying that the goyim (the nations, the Gentiles, those not in a covenant relationship with God) have noticed the great thing that Yahweh has done for Israel––and have responded by affirming Yahweh’s actions in behalf of Israel.
This brings credit to God among the ungodly. It also inspires respect for Israel, who obviously enjoys God’s protection.
“Yahweh has done great things (Hebrew: gadal) for us” (v. 3a). The goyim (nations) have affirmed Yahweh’s actions in behalf of Israel, and Israel has also acknowledged them.
The word gadal (great things) has several meanings. In this context, it means that Yahweh has done great things––magnificent things––for Israel.
“and we are glad” (Hebrew: sameah) (v. 3b). The word sameah means to be filled with joy––to be exuberantly joyful. That would certainly be Israel’s natural response to Yahweh’s bringing their fifty year exile to a close. To be free again after all those years would be wonderfully liberating. To be home again would put Israel on familiar ground and give them a sense of belonging that they had lost when Babylonia took them into exile fifty years earlier.
PSALM 126:4-6. RESTORE OUR FORTUNES AGAIN, YAHWEH
4 Restore our fortunes again, Yahweh,
like the streams in the Negev.
5 Those who sow in tears will reap in joy.
6 He who goes out weeping, carrying seed for sowing,
will certainly come again with joy, carrying his sheaves.
“Restore (Hebrew: sub) our fortunes (Hebrew: sebut) again, Yahweh” (v. 4a). The word sub has a number of meanings: Turn, return, and restore being three of the more prominent ones. Return and restore are related, because both speak of going back to a previous place or condition. That is what happened when Yahweh inspired Cyrus to allow the exiles to return to Jerusalem.
Interestingly enough, the word sebut means captivity rather than fortunes. Ross says that this is a prayer that Yahweh would return the remaining captives to Jerusalem (Ross, 669). These were apparently people who voluntarily remained in Babylonia rather than facing the rigors of a journey back to Jerusalem, which they knew to be a ruined city.
But it is also possible that it is a prayer that Yahweh would restore Israel to its former prosperity.
“like the streams in the Negev” (also spelled Negeb) (v. 4b). The Negev (which means dry) is the far south region of Israel, a desert-like region that gets only eight inches (200 mm) or less of rain a year––barely enough to sustain subsistence agriculture.
I lived for a short time in El Paso, which gets ten inches of rain a year. El Paso has huge concrete-lined culverts, capable of handling a river of water. Why would it have such large culverts when it gets only ten inches of rain a year? Natives told me that, although they got little rain, the rain that fell often did so torrentially. It was known to wash cars down the street. They needed a large drainage system––the largest I have ever seen.
The Negev experienced something of that sort. Their wadis and river beds were normally dry, but rain could quickly restore them to life-giving streams. To sustain agriculture, residents had to channel that rainfall to make it usable.
So the psalmist is praying that God will restore Israel to vitality, just as he restores the streams of the Negev when it rains.
“Those who sow in tears will reap in joy” (v. 5). As noted in The Context (above), the returned exiles faced many hardships. It would take their best efforts to make the land productive again. They would sow in tears.
But the psalmist had faith that Yahweh, who had made possible their return, would also restore their earlier prosperity. Thus they would reap in joy.
But Ross, because of the proximity of this verse to verse 4, says “the psalmist’s concern was not with a harvest of wheat, but people” (Ross, 670). He believes that the psalmist is praying for the return of the rest of the exiles.
“He who goes out weeping, carrying seed for sowing,
will certainly come again with joy, carrying his sheaves” (v. 6). This verse repeats the thoughts of verse 5 with a bit of added detail.
Sheaves are bundles of stalks tied together after reaping. The person who carries his sheaves is “bringing home the bacon”––bringing in the harvest––reaping the reward for long months of toil.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Anderson, A.A., The New Century Bible Commentary: Psalms 73-150 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972)
Broyles, Craig C., New International Biblical Commentary: Psalms (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999
Brueggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms A Theological Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg Press, 1984)
Clifford, Richard J., Abingdon Old Testament Commentaries: Psalms 73-150 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003)
DeClaisse-Walford, Nancy; Jacobson, Rolf A.; Tanner, Beth Laneel, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Psalms (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2014)
Gower, Ralph, The New Manners and Customs of Bible Times (Chicago: Moody Press, 1987)
Kidner, Derek, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Psalms 73-150, Vol. 14b (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973)
Limburg, James, Westminster Bible Companion: Psalms (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000
Mays, James Luther, Interpretation: Psalms (Louisville: John Knox, 1994)
McCann, J. Clinton, Jr., The New Interpreter’s Bible: The Book of Psalms, Vol. 4 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996)
Ross, Allen P., A Commentary on the Psalms, 90-150, Vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2016)
Tate, Marvin E., Word Biblical Commentary: Psalms 51-100 (Dallas: Word Books, 1990)
Waltner, James H., Believers Church Bible Commentary: Psalms (Scottdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 2006)
DICTIONARIES, ENCYCLOPEDIAS & LEXICONS:
Baker, Warren (ed.), The Complete WordStudy Old Testament (Chattanooga; AMG Publishers, 1994)
Baker, Warren and Carpenter, Eugene, The Complete WordStudy Dictionary: Old Testament (Chattanooga: AMG Publishers, 2003)
Bromiley, Geoffrey (General Editor), The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Revised, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1979-1988)
Brown, Francis; Driver, S.R.; and Briggs, Charles A., The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1906, 2004)
Doniach, N.S. and Kahane, Ahuvia, The Oxford English-Hebrew Dictionary (Oxford University Press, 1998)
Fohrer, Georg, Hebrew & Aramaic Dictionary of the Old Testament (SCM Press, 2012)
Freedman, David Noel (ed.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, 6 vol. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007)
Freedman, David Noel (Ed.), Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000)
Mounce, William D., (ed.), Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006)
Renn, Stephen D., Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words: Word Studies for Key English Bible Words Based on the Hebrew and Greek Texts (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2005)
Richards, Lawrence O., Encyclopedia of Bible Words (Zondervan, 1985, 1991)
Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob (ed.), The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, 5 vol. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2006-2009)
VanGemeren, Willem A. (General Editor), New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis, 5 vol., (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997)
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Copyright 2017, Richard Niell Donovan