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Psalm 126

Psalm 126 is a community petition for deliverance based on the remembrance of past deliverance. As one writer puts it, it is about ‘joy remembered, and joy anticipated’ (J.L. Mays).

The psalm breaks into two parts: vv. 1-3 and vv. 4-6. Verses 1-3 speak of a past time of the restoration for Zion. The opening words ‘When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion’ echo the start of Psalm 85, which we read last week, when Yahweh ‘restored the fortunes of Jacob.’ This language of ‘restoring the fortunes’ is also found in the prophets in similar circumstances (e.g. Amos 9:14; Joel 3:1; Jer 29:14; Zeph 2:7). It is the vocabulary of repentance or return with the clear acknowledgment that restoration is always at the initiation of Yahweh. It is his ‘return’ that makes the restoration of his people possible. However, unlike Psalm 85, in Psalm 126 there is no mention of the people’s iniquity or sin, nor is there any mention of Yahweh’s anger. The recollection of restoration leads straight to overwhelming laughter and joy which is infectious. Whereas in Psalm 85 it was the people of Yahweh who rejoiced, those who turn to him in their hearts, those who fear him (vv. 8-9), in Psalm 126 the joy has become infectious and the nations now recognise the great things Yahweh has done (v. 2).

Verses 4-6, the second half of the psalm, speak of the future. They contain the plea to Yahweh for further ‘restoration, repentance or return’ to take place. It sees that future restoration also filled with joy. The repetition of the phrases ‘restoring of fortunes’ and ‘shouts of joy’ from vv. 1-3 ties the Psalm together. It also underlines that joy in the community is seen as the work of the Lord.

The imagery of the latter part of the Psalm is sharp, placing opposites together and linking elements which give a sense of sudden reversal. The poetry develops in such a way that we are lead into the fullness of this restoration. Verse 5 says simply: ‘May those who sow in tears, reap with shouts of joy.’ The agricultural image is maintained and, as is the case with Psalm 85, it may be that this psalm comes from a harvest context. But in v. 6 the thoughts of v. 5 are extended. ‘May those who sow in tears’ is now expanded into ‘Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing’. Sowing is an act of hope and expectation. The sower carries their future in their own hands. And the seed must be cast abroad for anything to come of it. At that point the sower’s hope is taken out of their hands and their future is dependent on the one who grants rain and warmth with which the seed might grow.

But in this psalm the sower sows in weeping. We do not know what the weeping is for here. It could be that the act of sowing offers little prospect for the sower. The ground seems dry and unreceptive. The use of the same language of restoration as in Psalm 85 suggests that the language of weeping may be just as appropriate in the context of past sins and iniquities as in the context of dry, unreceptive ground. In ancient Israel the difference might have been slight. In any case, the psalm suggests that the act of hope is not always one of high or joyous expectation. Nevertheless it also suggests that present distress or seeming hopelessness is not an argument for the denial of Yahweh’s power to effect change.

Whatever the point of the weeping we soon see that deep despair is nevertheless turned into great celebration. ‘Reap with shouts of joy’ in v. 5 becomes ‘shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves’ in v. 6. ‘Going out’ has become ‘coming home’, ‘weeping’ has turned into ‘shouts of joy’ and the seed that was just recently carried out is now replaced by sheaves of wheat or barley. The reversals of the psalm itself foreshadow what it points to in life itself.

In these last verses thoughts of ‘coming home’, of sheer joy, and of abundance fill the mind. They create in us a sense that what is a seemingly hopeless task is indeed a possibility. Moreover, its accomplishment can be sudden. This is the point of the reference to the ‘watercourses of the Negeb’ in v. 4. These dry wadis in a semi-arid region give little hint most of the time to the fact that they can overflow with water immediately after the rain comes. Finally, the seemingly hopeless task becomes one of overwhelming fruitfulness.

Psalm 126 shares a number of features with Psalm 85. The theme of restoration is again prominent with the use of the word shub, ‘return, restore or repent’ standing out. It invites us to play with all those ideas as we hear it. The psalm again seems to have an agricultural context, locating the psalm in the midst of the day to day life of God’s people, at least in Old Testament terms. It thereby fixes their hope in the coming of the Lord in the context of their struggles for security and subsistence. The great things of the Lord, for which the people hope, are not the miraculous events that transport us out of our daily existence into another world. The miraculous we look for is in the transformation of the world we daily inhabit into that which God would have it be, a joyous and abundant place.

As is the case for Psalm 85, Psalm 126 juxtaposes past deliverance and joy with present distress in the hope that there will be future joy. It has again a sense of waiting and hoping for something that has in some way already been experienced.

Finally we should come back to v. 1 with its unusual and arresting expression: ‘When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.’ Commentators on the psalm understand the reference to ‘dreamers’ in different ways. We could think of it in terms of those who are amazed at what has happened or who have not expected what happened. But such understandings depend on a use of the word ‘dream’ at home in our world. When the Old Testament writers speak of ‘dreaming’ in a positive sense as here, they are referring to real sleep-time dreams, not the sort of dreams we dream when awake, our ‘day dreams’. They are speaking of a level of reality, beyond our ordinary conscious experience, which was in their view, revealed by God in dreams. In other words, the psalmist’s past experience and hope for the future are both being shaped by a reality that lies beyond present experience and world. In our Advent hope, as we look toward the birth of Jesus Christ, we acknowledge that in that event another reality, that of God’s world and ways, enters our own existence and changes things in a way that fosters joy in all who see it.

In this Advent season, Psalm 126 leaves us with a call to be like dreamers, those whose lives are shaped not by the limits of our experiences but by the hidden reality of what God has already declared will be. It also leaves us with a tremendous sense of joy in ‘coming home’ as the Lord comes to us in the midst of the tears of this earthly experience.

Suggestions for the use of the psalm in worship:

Verse 3 of the psalm can function as a call to worship:

The LORD has done great things for us, and we rejoice.
Verse 4a: ‘Restore our fortunes, O LORD’, can also be used as a plea during the prayer of confession.

Finally, verses 5-6 can be adapted as a congregational response or as a conclusion to the prayers of intercession:

(Let) those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.
Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing,
    come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.
Old Testament Reading: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

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