WHEN THE LORD RESTORED THE FORTUNES OF ZION (RSV)
For the title here we have selected the opening line of the RSV. There is nothing in the psalm that can be applied exclusively to the return of Israel from the captivity; but, at the same time, there is nothing to exclude that example of God's restoring the fortunes of Israel.
Delitzsch declared that, "Any other rendering than that of the LXX in these opening lines is impossible."F1 That rendition is, "When the Lord turned the captivity of Sion, we became as comforted ones."F2 Nevertheless, we accept the RSV rendition here as correct, because Christ himself used the expression, "release of the captives" as an idiom for saving people from sin (Luke 4:18). The captives in that passage were primarily those whom the Devil had made "captive" to do his will. (2 Timothy 2:26).
Also, there is a key verse in the understanding of this idiom in Job 42:10 which reveals that, "God turned the captivity of Job when he prayed for his friends; and God gave Job twice as much as he had before." In this passage, the turning of Job's "captivity," simply meant the restoration of his good fortunes and not his release from imprisonment or captivity.
It is impossible, of course, to determine the exact date of this psalm. Briggs placed it in the "Greek period, when the people longed for a return of prosperity."F3 There are also a number of other scholarly "guesses"; but none of them carries any particular authority.
The paragraphing of the composition was understood by Spurgeon as: "(1) a narrative (Psalms 126:1-2); (2) a song (Psalms 126:3); (3) a prayer (Psalms 126:4); and (4) a promise (Psalms 126:5-6)."F4
The occasion for the psalm is likewise impossible to identify with any certainty. Allen believed that, "The turning point to which the people looked back in this psalm was probably the reestablishment of the worship of the religious community in Jerusalem after the Babylonian exile."F5 However, there are several other occasions in the history of Israel which are just as likely to have occasioned this psalm.
McCaw attempted to express the meaning of the whole psalm with the following adequate analysis.
"The gladness of this psalm is unmistakable, and yet there is a sense of tearfulness, as if the expected blessings (Psalms 126:1) ought not to have turned into depression in Ps. 126:5,
"The message of the psalm is that there is no simple solution on earth for the problems of the people of God, no single act of God that could bring them into unbroken joy, rid them of trials and temptations, or establish them in perfection this side of heaven!"F6
When Jehovah brought back those that returned to Zion,
We were like unto them that dream.
Then was our mouth filled with laughter,
And our tongue with singing:
Then said they among the nations,
Jehovah hath done great things for them."
It is obvious here that the ASV, which we are following, renders these opening lines as a reference to the return of the Babylonian exiles; and, as we noted above, there is nothing in the psalm that denies this possibility.
Verses 1, 2
When Jehovah brought back those that returned to Zion, We were like unto them that dream. Then was our mouth filled with laughter, And our tongue with singing: Then said they among the nations, Jehovah hath done great things for them.
(Psalms 126:1). This must indeed have been an understatement. After two or three generations (some 70 years) of captivity in Babylon, they are suddenly on the way back to Jerusalem, just as God had promised. Not only are they on the .way back home, but the all-powerful Medo-Persian monarch Cyrus is financing their return, sponsoring and encouraging it in every way possible. No wonder they laughed and sang for joy. Never before, in the whole history of the human race, had there ever been anything like this; and, we might add, there's never been anything like it since then! Surely the hand of Almighty God is visible in those events.
Then said they. Jehovah hath done great things for them
(Psalms 126:2). This refers to the testimony of the Gentile nations to the effect that they recognized the hand of God in what happened in Israel's resettlement in Canaan. But, why did they not give the honor to Cyrus? Was he not the one who really engineered the whole business? Cyrus himself led the way in proclaiming, not himself, but God as the author of Israel's return to Jerusalem. Josephus gives this account of the edict of Cyrus.
"Thus said Cyrus the King: Since God Almighty hath appointed me to be the king of the habitable earth, I believe that he is the God which the nation of the Israelites worship; for indeed he foretold my name by the prophets, and that I should build him a house at Jerusalem, in the country of Judea."F7
Some question Josephus' writings; but the pertinent question is, "If Cyrus did not indeed give God the honor of ordering the return of Israel, how can we account for the fact that the Gentile nations of the world of that period ascribed the honor to God instead of to Cyrus?
Jehovah hath done great things for us,
Whereof we are glad."
These words have been made the basis for, "Interpreting the psalm as a sort of Lenten liturgy, preparatory to the New Year."F8 However, we are delighted that the same author candidly admitted that such an interpretation requires, "Reading into the text more than is warranted."F9
What is stated in Ps. 126:3 is that Israel itself joined the chorus of the Gentile nations in praising God for the mighty things done upon behalf of the Chosen People.
Turn again our captivity, O Jehovah,
As the streams in the South (the Negeb)."
This cannot mean, "Bring us back from Babylon again"! Therefore, the RSV would appear to be correct in reading the expression, "Restore our fortunes, O Lord." Some scholars would apply it to the captives who yet remained in Babylon, preferring to live there, because they were "Unwilling to leave their possessions," as Josephus said.F10 However, we cannot accept such a view as a legitimate meaning of what is written here.
This is a prayer for a refreshing season of God's blessings, as Briggs thought, "Probably a desire for good crops."F11 If the occasion was what it here seems to be, Malachi has the explanation of why the people might have been praying for prosperity. "They were robbing God"! (Malachi 3:8-10).
This passage is an appeal to the evidence of God's power in nature. The water courses in the Negeb (desert) all dry up during the dry season, but spring to life when the rains come. Israel is here praying that a similar refreshing may come to them. The Christian Hymn entitled "There shall be Showers of Blessing"F12 is based upon these precious words.
They that sow in tears shall reap in joy.
For he that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing seed for sowing,
Shall doubtless come home again with joy, bringing his sheaves with him."
Verses 5, 6
They that sow in tears shall reap in joy. He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing seed for sowing, Shall doubtless come again with joy, bringing his sheaves [with him].
(Psalms 126:5). Isaiah wrote that, As soon as Zion travailed, she brought forth her children (Isaiah 66:8). This simply means, No tears; no converts to Christ. This sentiment, Coincides with the Preacher on the Mount, `Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted' (Matthew 5:4).F13
"When a man's heart is so stirred that he weeps over the sins of others, he is elect to usefulness. Winners for souls are first weepers for souls. As there is no birth without travail, so is there no spiritual harvest without pain and tears. When our hearts are broken with grief at man's transgressions, we shall break other men's hearts. Tears of earnestness beget tears of repentance: `Deep calleth unto deep.'"F14
Right here is the secret of the ineffectiveness of many Christian people's influence over others. There is simply no tearful earnestness in their desire for their salvation.
We reject as ridiculous the notion that back of this verse is, "The ancient myth of the death of the god of fertility,"F15 and that the wailing when the sower sowed the seed made it fertile! No! There is a genuine spiritual truth in this passage which was immortalized by the great Christian Church preacher, Knowles Shaw, in his hymn, "Bringing in the Sheaves."F16
Go then even weeping, Sowing for the Master,
Tho' the loss sustained our spirit often grieves.
When our weeping's over, He will bid us welcome.
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.
-- the 3rd verse of Shaw's hymn.
As Delitzsch noted, the primary reference here is to the tearful hardships endured by the returnees from Babylon. "The tearful sowing is only an emblem of the new foundation-laying which really took place, not without many tears (Ezra 3:12), amid sorrowful and depressed circumstances."F17
Thus, as Kidner noted, "The psalm, speaking first to its own times, speaks still."F18 And what does it say to us? God's former blessings are a pledge of others yet to come. Every dry stream should be looked upon as a potential river. Diligent work, the good seed which is the Word of God, and tearful earnestness on the part of the sower are the certain pledges of a bountiful harvest, when "We shall come rejoicing, Bringing in the Sheaves."
Footnotes for Psalms 126
1: F. Delitzsch, Vol. V-C, p. 288.
2: LXX, p. 777.
3: International Critical Commentary, Vol. II, p. 456.
4: Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Vol. II, p. 234.
5: Leslie C. Allen, Vol. II, p. 174.
6: The New Bible Commentary, Revised, p. 531.
7: Flavius Josephus, Antiquities, p. 321.
8: B, Vol. IV, p. 665.
10: Flavius Josephus, Antiquities, p. 322.
11: International Critical Commentary, op. cit., p. 456.
12: Great Songs of the Church, Hymn No. 258.
13: F. Delitzsch, Vol. V-C, p. 290.
14: Charles Haddon Spurgeon, op. cit., p. 236.
15: The Interpreter's Bible, op. cit., p. 666.
16: Great Songs of the Church, Hymn No. 215.
17: F. Delitzsch, op. cit., p. 290.
18: Derek Kidner, op. cit., p. 440.