Ps. 126: Entering the Text

Psalm 126 begins with an intriguing grammatical ambiguity: Is the verb in the opening line in the present/future tense (“restores”) or the past tense (“restored”)? Both are possible, but the evidence favors the former. Without getting into the nitty-gritty of Hebrew grammar, the verb in question is an infinitive without a tense of its own; it takes on the tense of its surrounding verbs.  In the first part of the psalm, however, we find a mix of perfect and imperfect verbs. So we may ask whether the speaker is rejoicing for the restoration YHWH has already achieved, or for a restoration yet to come.

When we consider the postexilic setting of Psalm 126, however, it is clear that this question is a false choice. The backdrop of the psalm is the return to Jerusalem from Babylon, where Judah had been exiled for almost fifty years (586-539 BCE). Although Judahite exiles were allowed to return home in 539, many did not leave right away—or ever. The return took place in small waves, but many Judahites stayed in Babylon, which over the centuries became an important center of Jewish life and culture in the diaspora. 

With this historical setting in mind, we can see that the ambiguous tense of “restore” in verse 1 captures both the “already” and the “not yet” of a dream not fully realized. The restoration has indeed begun with the first returnees to Jerusalem, and their homecoming has occasioned shouts of joy.  The return is not complete, however, as we learn in verse 4 when the poet turns the verb “restore” into a petition of YHWH. 

This backdrop also helps explain two images in Psalm 126. The first is watercourses in the Negev (verse 4). These desert wadis are bone-dry, except during rainstorms when their narrow passage creates a flash flood. The poet holds a similar hope for the returning exiles; the return may only be a trickle now or nothing at all, but YHWH can turn it into a torrent in a flash. The second image is the seed and the harvest (verses 5-6).  According to this metaphor, the yield of returnees may be small now, but these first fruits will give way to a future bounty.

In terms of style, the psalm features the same “step parallelism” we find in other Songs of Ascent, such as Psalm 121 a few weeks ago. This poetic technique involves the repetition of words in successive verses that lead us through the psalm. In Psalm 126 we find “restore the fortunes” (verses 1, 4), “then” (twice in verse 2), “YHWH has done great things” (verses 2b, 3a), “songs of joy” (verses 2, 5), and “carrying” (twice in verse 6). Some scholars think that this ascending step style is part of why these psalms are called the “Psalms of Ascent.” 

Key Term:

  • The phrase “restore our fortunes” (verses 1, 4) has one more notable feature, namely, the verb and the object come from the same Hebrew root šûb “to return.” The technical name for this phenomenon is a cognate accusative (cf. English “to dream a dream”). A wooden (and clumsy) translation of the phrase would be “restore our restoration” or “return our return.”  Along with the step parallelism, the cognate accusative is another feature of the psalm that gives it an alliterative, sing-song quality.

Questions for Reflection:

  • Which words or images in Psalm 126 are most striking to you?
  • Which tense of “restore” do you prefer in verse 1 and why?
  • What resources in your tradition help you live with hope and joy even when divine promises are only partially fulfilled—or not (yet) at all?


Texts and Translations Psalm 126


שִׁ֗יר הַֽמַּ֫עֲל֥וֹת בְּשׁ֣וּב יְ֭הוָה אֶת־שִׁיבַ֣ת צִיּ֑וֹן הָ֝יִ֗ינוּ כְּחֹלְמִֽים׃

אָ֤ז יִמָּלֵ֪א שְׂח֡וֹק פִּינוּ֮ וּלְשׁוֹנֵ֪נוּ רִ֫נָּ֥ה אָ֭ז יֹאמְר֣וּ בַגּוֹיִ֑ם הִגְדִּ֥יל יְ֝הוָ֗ה לַעֲשׂ֥וֹת עִם־אֵֽלֶּה׃

הִגְדִּ֣יל יְ֭הוָה לַעֲשׂ֥וֹת עִמָּ֗נוּ הָיִ֥ינוּ שְׂמֵחִֽים׃

שׁוּבָ֣ה יְ֭הוָה אֶת־שבותנו [שְׁבִיתֵ֑נוּ] כַּאֲפִיקִ֥ים בַּנֶּֽגֶב׃

הַזֹּרְעִ֥ים בְּדִמְעָ֗ה בְּרִנָּ֥ה יִקְצֹֽרוּ׃

הָ֘ל֤וֹךְ יֵלֵ֨ךְ ׀ וּבָכֹה֮ נֹשֵׂ֪א מֶֽשֶׁךְ־הַ֫זָּ֥רַע בֹּֽ֬א־יָב֥וֹא בְרִנָּ֑ה נֹ֝שֵׂ֗א אֲלֻמֹּתָֽיו׃


Psalm 126 New Jewish Publication Society Translation (NJPS)

1 A song of ascents. When the LORD restores the fortunes of Zion —we see it as in a dream—

2 our mouths shall be filled with laughter, our tongues, with songs of joy. Then shall they say among the nations, “The LORD has done great things for them!”

3 The LORD will do great things for us and we shall rejoice.

4 Restore our fortunes, O LORD, like watercourses in the Negeb.

5 They who sow in tears shall reap with songs of joy.

6 Though he goes along weeping, carrying the seed-bag, he shall come back with songs of joy, carrying his sheaves.



Psalm 126 New International Reader's Version (NIRV)

A song for those who go up to Jerusalem to worship the Lord.

1 Our enemies took us away from Zion.

    But when the Lord brought us home,

    it seemed like a dream to us.

2 Our mouths were filled with laughter.

    Our tongues sang with joy.

Then the people of other nations said,

    “The Lord has done great things for them.”

3 The Lord has done great things for us.

    And we are filled with joy.

4 Lord, bless us with great success again,

    as rain makes streams flow in the Negev Desert.

5 Those who cry as they plant their crops

    will sing with joy when they gather them in.

6 Those who go out weeping

    as they carry seeds to plant

will come back singing with joy.

    They will bring the new crop back with them.


Read more about the PsalmSeason here & subscribe for email updates.

If you are looking for a way to become an interfaith leader, work for racial equity and build bridges, please check out our free curriculum "We Are Each Other's" and start your interfaith leadership today

more from IFYC

A new book, “Praying to the West: How Muslims Shaped the Americas,” by Omar Mouallem, may meet the needs of a new generation of Muslims.
For Christians, Advent is a period of preparation for Christmas and beyond. The Rev. Thomas J. Reese writes that perhaps fasting during Advent can be the Christian response to the consumerism of the season.
Interfaith holiday events can be a great way to show respect for others and make everyone feel included. Need some tips? Our IFYC colleagues have you covered.
Studies show that American religious diversity will only continue to grow and that Thanksgiving dinners of the future will continue to reflect this “potluck nation.” We all bring something special to the table.
IFYC staff members share what they're listening to, watching and reading that inspires an attitude for gratitude this season.
How can you support Native Americans and understand important issues and terminology? This Baylor University sophomore is here to help.
Aided by an international team of artists, author Salma Hasan Ali turned her viral blog about Ramadan into a new handmade book.
A symposium hosted by the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago focused on the intersection of Indian boarding schools and theological education as well as efforts to uncover truth and bring healing.
This week's top 10 includes stories on faith and meatpacking in the Midwest, religion in the metaverse and an interfaith call for peace in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
The two lawmakers appeared at "Race, Religion and the Assault on Voting Rights," the inaugural event at Georgetown University's Center on Faith and Justice.
Religion & Politics journal interviews the author of a new book on the impact of growing religious diversity in the American Midwest.
Five interfaith leaders share readings and resources that inspire them, give them hope and offer solace in turbulent times.
“There is a huge gap between the religiosity of clinicians and the religiosity of the clients,” mental health counselor Shivam Gosai says. “This gap has always been there. Mental health professionals are not always reflective of the people we are serving.”
Part of what I found so beautiful about our conversation is that we both agree that American pluralism is not simply a pragmatic solution to the challenge of a diverse democracy, it is also a kind of sacred trust that God intends us to steward.
The author, a Hindu and a Sikh, notes that faith plays a subtle yet powerful role in the show -- and creates space for more dialogue.
Haaland, a member of the Pueblo of Laguna, is the first Native American to serve as a U.S. Cabinet secretary.
The average congregation these days is small — about 70 people — but the majority of churchgoers are worshipping in a congregation of about 400 people.
The metaverse has dramatic implications that should make all of us sit up, lean in, and claim our role in shaping the worlds within the world that is being created.  
Decades of silence, stigma, and structural barriers to treatment and testing have allowed the epidemic to spread, claiming the lives of far too many of our Black friends and families.   
Mawiyah Bomani, a Tarot reader in Louisiana, used to make her own Tarot cards until she found a deck celebrating spiritual practices throughout the African Diaspora. "I hoped and wished to find a deck with me in it," she says.
In this week's round up, a Buddha gets a paint job, a Black interfaith social media account goes viral, and Indigenous activists speak out.

The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.