Commentary on Psalm 126
Psalm 126 packs amazing poignancy and power in the space of only six verses. It is the seventh of the Songs of Ascent, all of which are relatively brief and most of which, like Psalm 126, focus attention on Zion (see especially Psalms 122, 125, 128, 129, 132, 133, 134). In all likelihood, the Ascents collection (Psalms 120-134) originated for and was used by pilgrims to Jerusalem (see the CEB’s paraphrastic “A pilgrimage song” instead of “A Song of Ascents”).
While the focus on Zion is clear in verse 1, the psalmist’s perspective on Zion is not. Has the LORD already “restored the fortunes of Zion” (verse 1), as the NRSV and most other translations suggest? Or, perhaps the restoration of Zion remains a future event, as Robert Alter’s translation suggests: “When the LORD restores Zion’s fortunes, we should be like dreamers.”1
There are other questions too. If God has already restored Zion, what actually happened? The most likely answer is that the phrase, “restored the fortunes,” refers to the return of exiled Judeans from Babylon to Jerusalem in the years following 539 BCE (see the NIV, “When the LORD brought back the captives to Zion;” see also the phrase in Deuteronomy 30:3; Jeremiah 30:3, 18; 32:44). I take this perspective to be the most likely. The joyful memory of the return from exile (verses 1-3), followed by the prayer for further restoration (verses 4-6), makes especially good sense in the post exilic era, because the glorious vision of Deutero-Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55; see Isaiah 43:16-21, the Old Testament lesson for the day) eventually gave way to hard historical realities of ongoing difficulties and challenges even after the return to Judah and Jerusalem (see Isaiah 56-66 and the books of Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi).
Memory and hope
The juxtaposition of the joyful celebration of restoration (verses 1-3) and the prayer for further restoration (verses 4-6) not only makes sense in the historical context of the post exilic era (see Psalm 85:1-4 for a similar juxtaposition); but it is also true to life, individually and corporately, then and now. After all, Psalm 126 is not simply a relic of the past; rather, it is a living text, recited regularly by Jews before the prayer after the Sabbath meal and heard by Christians on several occasions, including the Fifth Sunday in Lent. Life, then and now, is inevitably and simultaneously a matter of joy and sorrow, triumph and tragedy, of needs met and new needs that constantly arise. If we are honestly self-aware, we know that never is there a time when we do not need to pray, “Restore our fortunes, O LORD” (verse 4).
In other words, Psalm 126 can be a powerful reminder that the people of God have always lived, and will always live, by both memory and hope. We simultaneously celebrate with joy that “The LORD has done great things for us” (verse 3), and we fervently pray, “Restore our fortunes, O LORD” (verse 4).
Living with joy
We have already noted the repetition of “restored the fortunes”/”Restore our fortunes” that opens the two sections of the psalm; and there is another impressive repetition that connects the two sections—“shouts of joy” (verses 2, 5, 6; see also “rejoiced” in verse 3 that represents a different Hebrew root). As James L. Mays observes, the “dominant emotional tone” of Psalm 126 is joy; and recognizing the connection between memory and hope, Mays concludes, “The song is about joy remembered and joy anticipated. In both cases the joy is the work of the LORD, in the first through the restoration of Zion and in the second through the renewal of those who sing the song.”2
As suggested above, Jews and Christians are still singing this song! And although Mays does not move in this direction, it seems reasonable to conclude that “joy remembered” and “joy anticipated” yields something like “joy in the present.” In short, the very singing or recitation of Psalm 126 becomes a source of joy, or it at least puts us in touch with the source of enduring joy—that is, the God who “has done great things for us” (verse 3) and to whom we look for renewal.
If this be the case, then Psalm 126 can be a reminder that suffering and joy are not mutually exclusive. It is a lesson that resonates throughout the canon. The New Testament lesson for the day is Philippians 3:4b-14; Paul wrote this letter from prison to a congregation that faced imminent suffering. And yet, Paul says repeatedly that he is joyful; and he encourages the Philippians to be joyful as well (see 4:4). Suffering and joy are not mutually exclusive.
In the video version of REM’s “Everybody Hurts,” shortly after a lone voice sings “sometimes everything is wrong,” the following words appear at the bottom of the screen: “Those that sow in tears shall reap in joy.” It’s Psalm 126:5! And the song/video is a helpful presentation of the message of Psalm 126. Yes, “Everybody Hurts,” but the psalm and song affirm that there is a reality, a presence, a power that invites as well the proclamation, in essence, that “everybody hopes.”
Living as dreamers
It is perhaps easy to see how a past restoration led people to be “like those who dream” (verse 1)—that is, to respond with joy and incredulity to something that seemed too good to be true. But I like to think that the tear-stained, poignant, hope-filled prayer for restoration is related to dreaming as well, as in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. In short, hope energizes both resilience in the midst of suffering and resistance to the forces that oppress. In the final analysis, Psalm 126 suggests that tear-stained hope is both poignant and powerful!
- Robert Alter, The Book of Psalms: A Translation and Commentary (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 2007), 447.
- James L. Mays, Psalms (Interpretation; Louisville: John Knox Press, 1994), 399.