Psalm 127

Psalm 127 is the only Song of Ascents attributed to Solomon. As such, it invites the reader to interpret the psalm in relationship to Solomon, the son of David, the one with whom Yhwh has made a covenant. As Psalm 132 makes clear, the Songs of Ascents are concerned with the welfare of the land, people, nation within the context of the promises made to David, and in the context of the Psalter (e.g. Psalm 72) and the Old Testament (e.g. 1 Kings). Here, Solomon complements David in portraying the messianic hope of the writers of the Hebrew Bible. As such, when Solomon speaks of the house, city, and sons, the Solomonic context is important.

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Like other Songs of Ascents that have been discussed, the author of Psalm 127 uses varying degrees of repetition and parallelism to highlight the theme of his song. Consider the repetition of the first two lines:

Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.
Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain.

Verse 1 demonstrates not only repetition of vocabulary (“if Yhwh does not” and “in vain”) but also repetition of grammatical structures. Even though he shifts from “builds the house” to “watches over the city,” the poet still uses the same verbal forms complemented with a direct object. Similarly in the second half of both lines, the term for “in vain”—which is placed first in the Hebrew text—is followed by the same verbal tense and a participle. As such, v. 1 serves as a great example of the way the psalmists employ different types of poetic parallelism. But the important interpretive question is why the parallelism is used.

On the one hand, the repetition of vocabulary highlights an important element, which is the vanity of being part of a house or city that Yhwh has not had a part in building. Interpreted in light of the author, Solomon, the theological importance of this strategy comes clearly to bear, namely that the building of David’s house by any other means than with Yhwh’s help is useless.

On the other hand, the author also focuses on the one who builds and watches in vain. Even well-meaning efforts to build a house and watch a city are done in vain if done without the presence and power of the Lord. Yet, by bringing attention to those who build and watch, even though with vanity, the author prepares the reader for the next verses, which begin by returning to the same term “in vain.” As such, v. 2 demonstrates clearly what it means to live in this house in vain.

It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest,
eating the bread of anxious toil;
for he gives to his beloved sleep.

Without the security of a house that Yhwh builds and a city that he oversees, Yhwh’s beloved is left with nothing but anxiety. But in contrast to the anxious toil of the one who has no recourse to Yhwh, Yhwh’s “beloved” sleeps well and with purpose. Yet, the hope of the beloved one is provided by Yhwh, the one who builds and protects the house. This is similar to the hope that David expresses in Psalms 3 and 4. Moreover, it is also similar to the hope of the Priestly Blessing that is echoed in v. 1 with the phrase “watch over” (literally, “keep,” as in “Yhwh bless you and keep you”). So again, Numbers 6 is being expounded upon within the context of the Davidic household. Recognizing the significance of Solomonic authorship and its impact on the theological interpretation of the psalm makes the difficult task of reconciling the rest of the psalm with its first two verses slightly easier.

The psalms transitions in v. 3 with “behold,” which is used several other times in the Songs of Ascents (121:4; 123:2; 128:4; 132:6). In each case, this small element intends to draw the attention of the reader. In this case, it also functions as a transitioning element to a new topic, namely the sons that populate the household. The importance and blessing of sons will be painted in several images.

Beginning in v. 3, leveraging poetic parallelism, the writer turns to the description of “sons” or in parallel “fruit of the womb” as “a heritage from the Lord” and “a reward.” The first image is that of an inheritance (or heritage), which is used often in the OT to describe the land that Yhwh gives to Israel. As such, children are something that are deeded over to the parents by Yhwh himself.

But at the same time, they are described as a “reward,” which is used of Abraham (Gn 15:1) and in the explanation by Leah of the name for Issachar (Gn 30:18). On the one hand, the term can refer to a payment or wage that is earned as a servant (Gn 30:28) or soldier (Ezek 29:18); on the other hand, the term insinuates more of a reward for faithfulness. Placed in parallel to heritage, the implication is that sons are a gift from Yhwh but at the same time are a reward for faithfulness. Thus, the inheritance imagery fits, for the land of Canaan was given over to the people as a gift by Yhwh while at the same time there was a level of faithfulness that was expected.

In relationship to the household of Solomon, this psalm implies that the children of the Davidic household are gifts from Yhwh within the context of a faithful household (as in the story of Ruth).

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Employing another analogy, the author describes in v. 4 the usefulness of these sons when they are described as “arrows in the hand of a warrior.” The sons of one’s youth are like implements of war that are wielded in battle. With such usefulness, the psalmist encourages the reader with the note that blessing is found when the quiver is filled with these arrows. A household of children brings blessing and a good reputation. Granted, the psalmist does not address the complexities of raising children. As was apparent even within the household of David, sons sin, rebel, and cause great commotion at times within even the kings household. Yet, Solomon is convinced that children are a source of great blessing and reputation.

As earlier, the psalm continues the connections to the Priestly Blessing by interpreting blessing (“Yhwh bless you and keep you”) within the context of the household, particularly within the auspices of the house of David/Solomon. Psalm 128 continues this pattern.

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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)

Songs for the Journey Home: The Purpose of the Songs of Ascents

Psalms is a book. As such, it demands to be read like others, especially taking into account context and structure. Although this is often difficult, collections within the larger Psalter demonstrate the benefit and justify the methodology. I say this, because I would like to share a few thoughts regarding the collection of Songs of Ascents (Psalms 120-134), beginning with the larger picture and then perhaps providing some further reflections on individual psalms in later days. So … today you get my purpose statement (albeit with little explanation).

The collection of Songs of Ascents is an eschatological interpretation/application of the Priestly Blessing based upon the psalmists’ hope in Yahweh’s faithfulness to fulfill the Davidic Covenant at Zion.

Put another way: Through the lens of the Priestly Blessing (Num 6:24-26), the Songs of Ascents encourage the faithful to look forward to the fulfillment of Yahweh’s promises to David at Zion. They fill out what it means for the Lord to bless, to keep, to be gracious to, and to give peace to His people. They do this by interpreting their past, present, and future in light of God’s intention to bless them through the Son of David at Zion.

The eschatological fulfillment of the Davidic Covenant provides the basis for understanding the journey to Zion that is painted in these psalms not as a simple, historical pilgrimage theme but as a journey toward an idealized/new Zion in the eschaton.