Commentary on Psalm 126
The first three verses of this psalm can be interpreted in at least two ways. The psalmist may be 1) remembering with joy what God has done for God’s people in the past or 2) anticipating with joy what God will do to restore God’s people in the (hopefully near) future. Both interpretations reveal the psalmist’s faith in the power of God to radically change people’s circumstances and the goodness of God to do so in a life-giving way. The preacher might practice both possibilities in the sermon, remembering with thanksgiving those seasons in the congregation’s past that were “filled with laughter” (verse 2) and looking forward to the uncontainable “shouts of joy” God will bring in the future (verses 2, 5, and 6).
While reading the psalm as anticipating the future, the preacher can invite the congregation to be “like those who dream” (verse 1) about their own context. This may be helpful for a congregation in the midst of imagining a new future for themselves or their larger neighborhood, town, etc. What could it look like for God to fill their mouths with laughter? What if this is not a metaphor for something less intense, which is often an assumption in 21st-century United States, thinking-over-feeling contexts, but something that God really does? This language does not suggest a few stifled giggles in an otherwise serious gathering but uncontrolled, tear-inducing, knee-slapping, belly-aching guffaws spreading through the crowd! What kind of events might bring this about?
Similarly, what could it look like for God to fill their tongues with “shouts of joy” (verses 2, 5, and 6)? Again, what if this is not a metaphor but something that God really does? This language does not suggest a calmly spoken “Thanks be to God” but a Psalm 150–level eruption, a mouth-hurts-from-smiling, arms-in-the-air, call-everyone-you-know kind of exhilaration that can’t not be shared with “everything that breathes” (Psalm 150:6). What would it take for this to happen? Why would this be good news?
Children tend to laugh much more than adults. In Advent, many children are in a particularly high state of anticipation, laughing and shouting with joy as they dream dreams of wish lists fulfilled, Christmas break from school, extra snow days off, etc. If your congregation has children, this may be a good sermon to employ their help in getting the grown-ups to brainstorm with abandon about God’s good future for them. If there are no children at church, talking to children in your life or remembering the noisy “shouts of joy” at recess, field trips, and birthday parties as a child may be helpful in your sermon preparation. What if this psalm was an opportunity to follow Jesus’ call to “change and become like children” (Matthew 18:3)?
Lest this much laughing and shouting seem inconceivable to your congregation, note the passive tense here: “Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue [was filled] with shouts of joy” (verse 2). The psalmist’s community certainly were active participants in their own lives (as indicated by verses 5–6 about sowing the seed), but they did not fill their own mouths with laughter and their own tongues with “shouts of joy.” God did that. God restored their fortunes then, and God can do so now. God’s action is what gives your congregation permission to dream beyond what they are able to do on their own. It allows congregations who have been living a cold, dormant winter to envision a warm spring full of new life sprouting up and shouting, “Glory to God!”
Verse 2b offers another lens through which to dream. Under what circumstances might the neighbors surrounding your congregation say, “The LORD has done great things for them” (verse 2b)? Not only does this suggest that any fruitfulness and abundant life is visible (or perhaps audible!) outside the doors of the church, but that it is universal enough to be recognized as such by nonmembers and non-Christians. Is this what happens when a community experiences the love of God deeply enough that they cannot help but share it so that their neighbors become partakers in it? Is this what happens when our neighbors “know we are Christians by our love”?1
The second half of this short psalm contains water imagery in each verse. The first may resonate strongly with those who live in dry climates. The Negeb is a desert that does not have any streams that run year-round. Instead, it experiences infrequent and sudden crashing, coursing water after rain. The psalmist asks that God would restore God’s community like that. He asks not for a little drop or trickle but for “watercourses in the Negeb” (verse 4), for a torrent of water to come flooding through his parched community. It is so dry that those who have never seen watercourses before may not believe it is possible for the community to be saturated with new life, especially not suddenly. But the psalmist knows what God is capable of.
The water images in the final two verses are “tears” and “weeping” (verses 5, 6). The community cries as they carry seeds out to be planted and as they plant them. While both verses conclude with “shouts of joy” at the later harvest, the tears acknowledge the vulnerability of the present moment. The psalmist’s community is planting seeds in a drought. Their own tears are the only signs of water, of life. There is no promise of return; in fact, there is every reason to suspect that there won’t be any. Still, they sow in tears and look to the heavens with hope.
I wonder whether Mary wept, unable to fathom how the “Son of the Most High” could possibly come from her own womb (Luke 1:32). I wonder whether, in the next breath, she laughed and shouted with joy at what God was about to do through Jesus. I wonder whether preachers can invite their congregations to do the same.
- “They’ll Know We Are Christians,” Hymnary.org, accessed August 22, 2023, https://hymnary.org/text/we_are_one_in_the_spirit.