Commentary on Psalm 126
Psalm 126 has a rich lectionary tradition, used for worship during Lent, after Pentecost, and here on the third Sunday of Advent.
Given these multiple contexts, one will find many helpful commentaries at Working Preacher, each making distinctive contributions to our understanding of its message. To mention only a few of these: Mark Throntveit addresses matters of literary structure (5th Sunday in Lent, 2013); Rolf Jacobsen focuses on the theme of restoration and the surprising testimony of the nations (3rd Sunday of Advent, 2008); and James Howell explores ways that churches in an American context may appropriate its message (3rd Sunday of Advent, 2014).
As I consider this psalm as an Advent text, I am particularly struck by a sense of dissonance as we compare its tone and content to typical American understandings of the “Christmas season.” Our consumer-driven holiday has little space for “sowing in tears” or “going out weeping,” though it may delight when people “come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves” (or presents and packages, as the case may be). Still, if the church reclaims the Advent season in terms of waiting and hope, then the psalm’s distinctive combination of joy and sorrow goes a long way toward helping a congregation sort through the cultural trappings of Christmas. Here are two ways I believe Psalm 126 can speak to worshipers in these last couple of weeks prior to Christmas.
First, our difficulty in precisely identifying the literary form of Psalm 126 can work to our advantage when applying it to Advent. Scholars typically have categorized the psalm as a community lament, probably owing to the implied background of a famine;1 but others point out that “there is no actual lament to be found in the psalm.”2 Calling Psalm 126 “a prayer for help” avoids the confusion over the word “lament” and emphasizes the two petitions: “restore our fortunes” (verse 4) and “may those who sow in tears, reap with shouts of joy” (verse 5).3 But there are other features of the psalm that support Throntveit’s categorization of it as a “community psalm of trust or confidence.”4
The advantage of these varied descriptions is that they call attention to the psalm’s capacity to address the broad spectrum of material, psychological, and spiritual situations experienced by our hearers. Think of all the times we have heard someone say — or we ourselves have said — “I don’t know how I should feel during the holidays.” The mix of conflicting emotions and the memory of past blessings obscured by current crises can leave us feeling disconnected from our moorings. Psalm 126 speaks a word to parishioners, assuring them that someone understands how they feel and, more importantly, can offer them hope.
Second, the repeated emphasis on “restored fortunes” (verses 1, 4) also works to our advantage by calling attention to the wider biblical background of the image. Far from being a promise of material wealth that is unrelated to God’s purposes and claims, the concept in Psalm 126 actually challenges all unjust materialism. A brief explanation of the translational issues helps us get there.
The Hebrew terms behind this phrase (šûb šîbat sîyôn) were rendered by the King James Version as “turned again the captivity of Zion,” and similarly by the New International Version (1978) as “brought back the captives to Zion.” Understanding šîbat as deriving from the verb having to do with captivity (šbh), the emphasis of the KJV and NIV was on the people who returned to Jerusalem following the Babylonian captivity. Most English versions today (New Revised Standard Version, English Standard Version, and even the Today’s New International Version) follow a slight emendation of the Hebrew text that sees šîbat as deriving from šûb, hence something that is restored.
Here the focus is indeed on the material world and, in at least one context, the “restored fortune” may imply great wealth: “And the Lord restored the fortunes of Job” (Job 42:10). The ensuing description certainly includes possessions — “twice as much as he had before” — but even in Job’s case we cannot forget the devastation and loss that preceded this restoration. The relationship between suffering and restoration is actually the operative theme of this biblical phrase, not wealth for its own sake.
When we consider its other occurrences in the Old Testament, it becomes clear that “restored fortunes” is typically an image for what is restored to Israel after the exile. Deuteronomy 30:3, the first biblical use of this phrase, anchors this concept in relation to the exile: “Then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you, gathering you again from all the peoples among whom the Lord your God has scattered you.” Three other psalms (14:7; 53:6; 85:1) and numerous prophetic texts, especially Jeremiah (30:3, 18; 31:23; 32:44; 33:7), share in this common hope.
“Restored fortunes” means that material needs are met in a way consistent with God’s covenant expectations. Keeping this fact in mind, preachers on this Sunday may wish to explore the intertextuality between Psalm 126 and the Old Testament lectionary passage, Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11. This post-exilic oracle asks that God would “come down” (verse 1) to address both the threats from “adversaries” (verse 2) and the devastating conditions of Jerusalem (verse 10). The intervening verses not included in the selection (verses 5-7) places the blame on the fact that “There is no one who calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you” (verse 7).
Whereas Psalm 126 skirts around an admission of responsibility, Isaiah 61 incorporates that into the prayer for help. Together these texts maintain the indissoluble connection between justice and blessing. In these days of tweets punctuated by #blessed, our Advent worship is an occasion to remember the God who indeed restores us, but does so within a covenantal context where the “blessed” are motivated to share God’s gifts with those who are still waiting to receive them.
1. William Bellinger , Psalms: Reading and Studying the Book of Praises (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1990), 51.
2. LeAnn Snow Flesher, “Psalm 126” Interpretation 60 (2006):435.
3. Rolf Jacobson and Karl Jacobson, Invitation to the Psalms (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013), 40.