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.”
- 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.
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