Commentary on Psalm 126
The psalm selected for the Twenty First Sunday after Pentecost, for those traditions and congregations that do not observe Reformation Sunday, is Psalm 126.
Psalm 126 is one of a collection of poems (Psalms 120-14) known as the “Songs of Ascents.” These poems most likely did not all originate from a single source or for some unified purpose, but were rather collected together for some common use.
Although interpreters cannot be absolutely certain, the best guess is that the psalms of ascents were collected together sometime after the return from exile, in order for the now dispersed faithful to use when they made pilgrimage to Jerusalem–perhaps to observe one of the three major festivals of the year, especially the fall harvest Festival of Booths. There is a passage in the Mishnah (Sukkoth 5:4) that mentions the singing of the Psalms of Ascents during this festival.
The psalm has two stanzas (verses 1-3; 4-6). Similar to the way in which Psalm 85 begins, the first stanza of Psalm 126 recalls God’s past acts of restoration (verse 1) and the emotions of joy and celebration of laughter that accompanied those saving acts. The temporal clause with which the psalm begins, “When the Lord restores the fortunes of Zion,” most likely has in mind the return of the people to the land following the Babylonian exile.
But within the broader biblical narrative, the phrase calls many divine restorations to mind:
- the restoration of Sarah to Abraham
- the restoration of Joseph to Jacob and his brothers
- the restoration of the people to the land after the Exodus
- the restoration of the ark to the people after the Philistines captured it
- the birth of the Messiah
- the restoration of Jesus to his parents
- the resurrection.
The phrase, “we were like those who dream,” conjures to the imagination both theological and emotional meaning. In terms of theological content, “those who dream” are prophets–those who receive visions from God (see Joel 2:28-29). The meaning, then, is that the divinely wrought restoration includes the re-opening of the lines of communication between God and people. In terms of the emotional content, “those who receive visions” often experience and express ecstatic joy–like David dancing beside ark as it was brought into Jerusalem. The picture, then, is of spontaneous and uncontainable joy: “our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy.”
The first stanza also contains what I consider to be perhaps the surprising testimony concerning God’s gracious deeds in the entire Old Testament. The nations–that is, the very people who worship other gods, who often threatened Israel and who caused Israel to go into exile–praised God. The very people who, during the years in Babylon, looked upon God’s people and “were astonished at him–so marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of mortals–these very nations witnessed the restoration of the people to their land and to their God and they said, “The Lord has done great things for them!”
Thinking ahead to the New Testament, one is reminded of the non-Israelite magi coming to worship the one who was born “King of the Jews,” or the Roman centurion who announced, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”
Even more surprising, the nations’ testimony to God’s deeds inspires Israel to respond with its own testimony, repeating the words of the nations do verbatim: “The Lord has done great things for us” (verse 3). Often in the psalms, the enemies’ words are quoted as reason for God to punish them (see, for example, Psalm 10:12-14 or the ending of Psalm 137).
But here, the words of the nations are quoted approvingly. And then, even more shockingly, the people of God repeat the words of the nations. Why? Because God’s gracious and faithful acts of restoration are so self-evident, that even the blind nations can see them. And because the blind nations see those acts, the often-even-more blind people of God can see them, too.
The second stanza develops the themes introduced in the first stanza and rephrases them in the form of renewed appeals for restoration (this is similar to the structure of Psalm 85, lacking only the set of promises with which Psalm 85 culminates). The people ask God to restore them once again, in order that they may rejoice yet again.
The psalm paints bountiful images. Dry river beds coursing with torrents of water. Farmers weeping as they plant, because they did not expect a harvest. Those same farmers singing joyfully as they harvest, because creation has produced an unlooked-for bounty. Those same farmers bearing heavy sheaves of produce home from the fields.
These images may reflect a prayer for rescue from drought. But the images also may simply be metaphors for a people in need of God’s restoring actions in many different crises–crises of spiritual drought, of national military defeat, of plague, etc.
It should be emphasized that the closing verses of the psalm are an appeal couched in the form of imaginative wishes: “May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy….” Today, the wish is extended for God’s people who still recall God’s restorative acts in the past. They recall the testimony of the nations to God’s deliverance. They recall their own joy. And they know that until the Son of God comes again, we will be in constant and everlasting need of God’s continued restoration.