In understanding Psalm 126, it is important to understand a bit about its context and placement within the Bible. This anonymous psalm, and a short one at only 6 verses, is one of the psalms in the Songs of Ascents, which are from Psalm 120 to 134, and which were traditionally sung in Second Temple Judaism as a body of songs to the three missionary feasts of Passover, Pentecost, and the Feast of Tabernacles . This provides a sense of context and background to the song that adds some layers of meaning that make it deeper and richer than it would appear on the surface. In discussing this psalm, hopefully these deeper meanings and layers will be more plain, so that this simple and lovely song can be appreciated for its sensitivity to the state of people who happen to attend the Feast of Tabernacles.
Not all experiences at the Feast of Tabernacles, after all, are good ones. As I have often witnessed, it is traditional for many people to say that every trip of theirs to the Feast is the best one ever. Being a person who for better or worse has a particularly strong memory and eye for history, there are clearly some years where a Feast is not the best one ever. Speaking personally, I remember the recent Feast that was so stressful, so full of awkward and uncomfortable moments that I spent the entire drive back entirely strung out with overstressed nerves and fasted the next day out of a sense of profound failure to enjoy the feast. There was the feast where I caught the bird flu in South America and was stranded in Chile for an extra day trying to get home. There was a feast in my early teenage years where the ministers were more interested in self-congratulatory chumminess than spiritual depth that I spent half of the feast throwing up chicken noodle soup into a basin. None of those feasts could be considered among the best over. There have been plenty of feasts, far too many of them, filled with sowing in tears and going forth in weeping, and plenty more filled with intense anxiety and unease, a part of life that I must admit even if I do not always relish. This sort of personal relevance, which no doubt can be shared by other people as well in their own stories, gives a depth to this psalm that may not always be understood upon first reading.
Psalm 126 only contains six short verses, which can be quoted in their entirety very easily and which present no difficulty in terms of their terminology or language, at least as translated into English: “When the Eternal brought back the captivity of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with singing. Then they said among the nations, “The Eternal has done great things for them.” The Eternal has done great things for us, and we are glad. Bring back our captivity, O Eternal, as the streams in the South. Those who sow in tears shall reap in joy. He who continually goes forth weeping, bearing seed for sowing, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him.”
This song is simple enough that its depth can be neglected. Let us therefore look at the song’s structure and content and point out the depth that can be seen in it. For one, the psalm has a bifid structure, in that verses one and four, two and five, and three and six mirror each other. Verse one speaks, for example, speaks of God having brought back the captivity, but verse four looks forward to a greater and more ultimate fulfillment of this. The second verse talks about how the returnees were laughing and singing, while the fifth verse points to sowing in sorrow and reaping in joy. The third verse talks about the great things that the Eternal has done for us, using the covenantal name Yahweh consistently throughout the psalm, while the final verse of the psalm discusses the agricultural blessings that would be particularly celebrated, like those discussed at the end of the book of Amos . What we have is therefore a song that, however brief, is structured to make the same points twice, the first time dealing with the return of Jews from exile during the Persian Empire, and the second time looking forward to a millennial return that will be even greater and filled with even more blessings.
There is much about this psalm that is unknown. Its author is unknown even if it is clearly a postexilic Second Temple work likely written in the time between Zerubbabel and Ezra, possibly during one of the periods of revival during the early Persian period. Even so, this is a psalm that recognizes that often in this life we sow tears but that believers will, eventually and decisively, reap in joy and in bountiful productivity. This is a psalm that looks at the experiences of life—including painful exile from the places we were born, but that can look forward in joy, and that can recognize that God’s blessings are known by the Gentiles, the “nations,” whose praise of God the psalmist echoes in a call and response format. Looking backward at the blessings that God had provided in history and looking forward to prophetic actions from God, this psalm is one that places the pilgrim to the Feasts in a perspective of viewing the sadness of life through a perspective that uses history and prophecy to encourage believers, to allow them to sing and to praise God even when things are not going all that well. Whether we want to admit it or not, we all need that sort of song at the Feasts sometimes, because not all of them are enjoyable in the present, even if, in context, they will make a lot more sense and be something to look back on with appreciation and praise for what they wrought in us.
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