Fifth Sunday in Lent

Psalm 126 is the seventh psalm in the collection of psalms in Book Five of the Psalter designated “Songs of Ascents” (Psalms 120-134).

John 12:3
"The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume." Photo by Christin Hume on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

April 7, 2019

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Commentary on Psalm 126

Psalm 126 is the seventh psalm in the collection of psalms in Book Five of the Psalter designated “Songs of Ascents” (Psalms 120-134).

The frequent references to Jerusalem and Zion in the psalms (see Psalms 122:1, 6; 125:1, 2; 126:1; 128:5; 129:5; 132:13; 133:3; 134:3) may account for their collective identification. The Hebrew root of “ascents” is “go up,” and since Jerusalem sits on a hill, no matter where one comes from, one always “goes up” to Jerusalem. In 1 Kings 12:28, for instance, Jeroboam says to the Israelites, “You have gone up to Jerusalem long enough.” Isaiah 2:3 and Micah 4:2 envision a time when “Many peoples shall come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord.’”

Some scholars suggest that the “ascents” referred to in Psalms 120-134 are the steps of the temple, which Ezekiel calls “ascents” (see Ezekiel 40:6). The Mishnah (a component of the Jewish Talmud) states, “fifteen steps led up within [the Court of the Women] to the Court of the Israelites, corresponding to the fifteen songs of the steps in the Psalms, and upon them the Levites used to sing.” And, “The Levites on harps, and on lyres, and with cymbals, and with trumpets and with other instruments of music without number upon the fifteen steps leading down from the Court of the Israelites to the Women’s Court, corresponding to ‘The Fifteen Songs of Ascent’ in the Psalms; upon them the Levites used to stand with musical instruments and sing hymns.”

Still others maintain that the superscription “Songs of Ascents” is a reflection of the very structure of the collection’s psalms. Within each psalm, and often as an inclusio around the verses of each psalm, the Songs of Ascents contain verbal “step” connections that move the reciter through the cola and strophes of the psalm, fashioned most likely as mnemonic devices.

Psalm 126 It is classified as a community lament, only one of two in the Songs of Ascents. One psalm scholar, James L. Mays, characterizes the psalm as “joy remembered and joy anticipated.” In the psalm, the gathered community of faith calls on God to come to its aid as it struggles through a difficult situation.

The psalm opens with the community remembering a time in its past when God restored them to Zion and did great things among them (verses 1-3) and then petitions God to once again restore the community (verse 4) so that it may in rejoice in God’s good provisions (verses 5-6). The community of faith recalled their restoration to the land after the exile, an event that brought about “laughter” and a “ringing cry of rejoicing” by the community of faith and awe by the “nations” at what God did on their behalf. Now, in some new difficult circumstance, the community once again calls on God to restore them.

The format of Psalm 126 is typical of the community psalms of lament in the Psalter.  The people find themselves in a distressful situation, and so they cry out to God for deliverance. But an essential element of that crying out, that asking for help, is the recollection of what God has done for them in the past — assurance that God is able and willing to come to the aid of God’s people once again. An interesting element of Psalm 126 is that the psalm singers repeat the words of verse one’s memory of past deliverance in verse four’s plea for help in the present circumstance.

Three powerful images bring Psalm 126 to life. First, we find a three-fold repetition of “ringing cry of rejoicing” (verses 2, 5, and 6). The Hebrew word used here suggests a loud and emotive celebration of God’s goodness. And this word is used in the book of Psalms to describe the actions of all of God’s creation, not just humanity. In Psalm 96:12, for example, we read, “then shall all the trees of the forest give a ringing cry of rejoicing,” and in Psalm 98:8, “let the hills give a ringing cry of rejoicing.” Thus, humanity, along with all creation, is encouraged to celebrate God’s care.

Second, water is a powerful imagery in Psalm 126, as it is in many other psalms — see especially Psalm 42. In Psalm 126, the water channels in verse 4, those seasonal wadis that fill with nourishing water in the rainy season in the desert of the Negev give way to the tears of the those sowing the arid fields in hopes of a good crop that will feed their households.

Third, the agricultural imagery that we find in verses 5-6 — that of sowing and reaping — is what those who analyze literary structures call a “merism.” The words “sow” and “reap,” indicating the beginning and the end of the farming process, are meant to be understood as representative of the whole season’s process. The planting, the watchful care, the weeding, and finally the harvest. God’s deliverance, God’s good care, may very well feel like refreshing water of the Negev turned to tears of struggle to plant a good crop. Psalm 126 tells us, though, that those tears will give way to the gift of a good crop to feed, nourish, and restore the people of God, and that, in the end, all creation can and will give a “ringing cry of rejoicing” to this good God.

The sowing and reaping imagery of Psalm 126 is a powerful reminder of the importance of “place,” because without “place,” somewhere to dwell and call home, the concepts of sowing and reaping, in whatever form they might manifest themselves, are simply not possible. Many people in the world today have been “displaced” and struggle to find a place to call their own. In a world thus so increasingly divided between the “haves” and the “have nots,” the “citizens” and the “immigrants,” the “insiders” and the “outsiders,” the words of Psalm 126 are a powerful reminder of the importance of “place.”

Without “place,” how can people grow and reap a good “crop”? Without “place,” how can people “dream and laugh and give a ringing cry of rejoicing”? Without “place,” how can parents provide for their children? The words of Psalm 126 remind us that God’s good provisions extend to and are available to all.