Psalm 126

Tears sown by the righteous in the wilderness will reap bountiful fruit.

Such is the message of Psalm 126. Before diving into the message in detail, I wanted to make sure that this truth rings clear.

Just as Psalm 125 began with a reference to Mount Zion, so Psalm 126 refers to Zion. As such, these two psalms bring to the forefront the importance of Zion to the theology of the Songs of Ascents.

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Once again, the poet has wielded great skill in composing his song. The message of the psalm is carried along on parallelism between successive lines as well as larger structure of the whole. These comments will begin with the larger structure before moving to an explanation of the meaning and contribution of the individual lines. Consider first the following presentation of the first 4 verses, where the lines have been numbered to make discussion more clear [note that the numbers are not verses]:

1   When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion,

2   we were like those who dream

3   Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy;

4   then they said among the nations,

5   “The LORD has done great things for them.”

6   The LORD has done great things for us;

7   we are glad.

8   Restore our fortunes, O LORD,

9    like streams in the Negeb!

Several observations are pertinent.

First, in lines 1 and 8, the author has turned a recollection about Yhwh restoring the fortunes of Zion into a plea for Yhwh to do the same thing again. Using the same vocabulary enhances this connection.

Second, line 2, which describes the state of those to whom fortune had been returned, is complemented by line 7, which describes the state of the people for whom Yhwh has done great things. The same verb form is used “we were”;[1] plural descriptions (specifically participles) are used (“dreamers” and “rejoicers”[2]). Structurally, the verses seem to work from the outside in, like a chiasm, in that lines 1 and 8 are complements like lines 2 and 7.

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Between these sets of “bookends” are four other lines of poetry (lines 3 to 6). So, third, lines 3 and 4 both begin the same way with “then” followed by the same tense verb. The restoration of Zion’s fortunes had two responses. One by the people of God, whose tongues shouted for joy at what Yhwh had done. The other by the nations, who responded with recognition of what Yhwh had done for Israel.

Fourth, the announcement by the nation in line 5 is immediately echoed by the psalmist in line 6, the only change being “them” for “us.” The poet personalizes the statement for the congregation.

Yet, what is interesting about the author’s use of structure here is this. After returning in v. 4a to the vocabulary of v. 1a (i.e., restore, Yhwh, fortune), the plea to Yhwh, “Restore our fortunes,” is set in parallel with the line, “like streams in the Negeb,” in v. 4b. This phrase also makes a connection to “like those who dream” in v. 1b. Thus, the conclusion can be drawn that v. 4a, which along with v. 1 and 3b encloses statements in vv. 2 and 3, also functions to begin a new section that is initially carried on by v. 4b. In other words, v. 4a strategically closes the first half of the psalm while beginning the second. What could easily be missed here is the enclosing aspect of this structure. It is quite simple to see that the author makes the statement of v. 1 personal to the congregation by shifting to the imperative.[3]

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By linking the second half of the psalm so tightly to the first, it invites the reader to understand the second half in relationship to the first. In this light, then, the second half of the verse is an extended analogy of the expectation of the psalmist that is less about literal sowing and reaping and more about Yhwh’s accomplishing a work among his people that correlates to the work in bringing them back to Zion (v. 1).

But the next two verses break from this design and contain their own forms of parallelism and imagery. As such, v. 5 could be structured this way:[4]

Those who sow

in tears

with[5] shouts of joy

shall reap!

As has been seen other places in the Songs of Ascents, this chiasm highlights the sharp contrast between “tears” and “shouts of joy.” Moreover, it highlights the importance for the psalm as a whole for the term “shout of joy,” which also appears in v. 2 in reference to their tongue and in v. 6 about those returning from the harvest.

The psalmist also leverages poetic parallelism but in a way that differs from v. 5 Note the repetition:

He who goes out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing [lit. bearing] his sheaves with him.

Although not as apparent in translation, the grammatical form for the first part of both lines is the same in Hebrew. Thus, the author does not repeat vocabulary; rather, the author repeats grammar. This is quite typical in Hebrew poetry.

Taken together, then, the author uses various poetic parallelism in vv. 5 and 6 to highlight different things. V. 5 focuses the reader on the tears and shouts of joy. V. 6 seems to bring focus primarily on the individual, who first sows with weeping and then reaps with shouts of joy. Moreover, the author also highlights the positive return by contrasting what is borne (or lifted up). The weeper goes out bearing seed; the rejoicer returns bearing sheaves.

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The theological richness of this Song of Ascents avails itself to the one who reaches beyond this psalm and the Songs of Ascents to the larger hope of the Psalter. For there, the author of the book of Psalms has left the reader with the hope initially framed in Psalms 1 and 2. In those psalms, the gateway to the Psalter was framed by a wise, victorious king through whom refuge was promised to those who would worship him. As such, the hope the Psalter is not a hope in a return from Babylonian exile (see those psalms that imply that return was in the past) but rather in an eschatological return in which the kingdom of this king would be established. Yet, as is common in the OT, hope for such a return is patterned from past acts of Yhwh. Thus, those who long in tears for their redemption can place their faith in the one who has already demonstrated his power to do great things for them. The psalmist has penned a lasting paradigm: Sowing in tears means reaping with a ringing cry.[6]

While we wait for the figurative “streams in the Negeb,” a potent image of hope for our redemption and satisfaction, we should remember that our tears sown even while in the wilderness will reap bountiful fruit. And we will return from that wilderness carrying our harvest of sheaves.

Notes

[1] This is not clear in the ESV, since it translate the same form as “we were” in v. 1 and “we are” in v. 3.

[2] Again, this is not clear in the English. Perhaps a more literal translation would be “we were rejoicers.”

[3] What makes this argument compelling is that vv. 5 and 6 contain their own poetic structures. That is, the overwhelming structure of the first half is abandoned for different types of parallelism in the final two verses.

[4] Note that this does not maintain the order of the ESV.

[5] The same preposition is used before “tears” and “shouts of joy.”

[6] I found the following summary helpful: “The song poignantly expresses the mourning of God’s people and their subsequent return to the land as a fulfillment of their hope in Yahweh’s deliverance and the tangible realization of their return as a manifestation of their special relationship to God as his covenant people.” (Klouda, 939)

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