7. Psalm 126. Reaping with Shouts of Joy

Audio (12:28)

Vincent Van Gogh, 'Harvest in Provence' (1888), oil on canvas, 20 x 24 in, The Israel Museum, Jerusalem.
Vincent Van Gogh, 'Harvest in Provence' (1888), oil on canvas, 20 x 24 in, The Israel Museum, Jerusalem.

If you've ever experienced great loss, you know the enduring sorrow and emptiness that follows. But there are times, too, when God surprises you with unexpected blessings after bleak spells.

Psalm 126 draws from these emotions. It begins as a psalm of thanksgiving, but later you realize that it is kind of hopeful lament..

It is a psalm about thanking God for past miracles, and calling upon him with hope to meet desperate needs today.

"A Song of Ascents.

1  When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, 
we were like those who dream. 
2  Then our mouth was filled with laughter, 
and our tongue with shouts of joy; 
then they said among the nations, 
'The LORD has done great things for them.' 
3  The LORD has done great things for us; we are glad. 
4  Restore our fortunes, O LORD,
like streams in the Negeb! 
5  Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy! 
6  He who goes out weeping, 
bearing the seed for sowing, 
shall come home with shouts of joy, 
bringing his sheaves with him." (Psalm 126:1-6, ESV)

Restoring the Fortunes of Zion (Psalm 126:1)

It's always nice when you can determine the context or historical setting of a psalm, though many psalms are greatly beloved because their truths transcend the initial setting and appeal to God's people universally. Our psalm begins:

"When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, 
we were like those who dream." (Psalm 126:1, ESV)

The ESV and NRSV translate the first line, "When Yahweh restored the fortunes of Zion." Other versions use the word "captives,"86 explicitly suggesting the Exile. I think that "restored the fortunes" is probably the better translation.87 But no matter which way you translate it, the context of verses 1-3 may well be the return from exile in Babylon in 537 BC.

The Miraculous Return from Exile in 538 BC (Psalms 126:1-3)

You're probably familiar with the story. Because of persistent sin, citizens of the kingdom of Judah are deported to Babylon in three distinct exiles, the last of which follows the utter destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BC. It is a national catastrophe, attended by widespread death and destruction, as well as great pain and hardship.

But God doesn't leave his people in Babylon without hope. The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah tell the amazing story of return. In 537 BC, Cyrus King of Persia, who has just defeated the Babylonian Empire, decrees that the exiled peoples can return to their lands, and even gives them money to rebuild their temples (so they can offer prayers for him and his family). And so some of the exiles of Judah begin the long journey back to Jerusalem. Under Zerubbabel the prince and Jeshua the high priest, the temple is completed, and under Ezra and Nehemiah the wall is rebuilt and proper worship restored. It is an amazing story that you can delve into deeper in my study Rebuild and Renew (www.jesuswalk.com/rebuild/).

Victory Dance (Psalm 126:1-2)

I see the return from exile as the probable context for Psalm 126.

"1  When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, 
we were like those who dream.
2  Then our mouth was filled with laughter, 
and our tongue with shouts of joy;88 
then they said among the nations, 
'The LORD has done great things for them.'" (Psalm 126:1-2)

Have you ever had a wonderful windfall, an amazing answer to prayer where you laugh and shout -- and maybe do a little victory dance? That's what it was like for these returnees to Zion.

The nations around them aren't too happy to lose the territory they had grabbed when the Jews were exiled. But they can see that God is with them in this extraordinary restoration of the fortunes of Zion: "The LORD has done great things for them."

The psalmist repeats this phrase:

"The LORD has done great things for us; 
we are glad."89 (Psalm 126:3)

 Yes. Hallelujah! We are glad!

The return from exile is an example of God's miraculous intervention in the life of Israel at critical times. Perhaps the psalmist is thinking of another occasion, but, as Kidner says, "from famine or siege, captivity or plague,"90 God's miracles are widely acknowledged in Israel and by their neighbors. God comes through "big time" again and again.

Bring a Flash Flood of Blessings, O Lord! (Psalm 126:4)

We remember the great, stupendous victories. But that was then and this is now. And now things aren't nearly so good. If you remember the history of rebuilding the wall in Nehemiah, you know the struggles and the backsliding, the desperate need for a fresh spiritual revival. So the psalmist pleads with God.

"Restore our fortunes, O LORD, 
like streams in the Negeb!" (Psalm 126:4)

You restored Zion's fortunes once, O Lord. Now we ask you to do the same for us again. We are in trouble.

He asks for restoration "like streams in the Negeb." Let me explain. The Negeb is the desert at the south of Judah -- some of it rugged hills, some flatter, but all of it dry. The land is scarred by many dry gullies.911 The Arabs call such a gully a wadi. Out in the American southwest we call this kind of dry gully, an arroyo. In arid lands they are bone dry nearly all year except when the rains come, and then without warning -- in moments -- a flash flood can turn the dry creek bed into a such torrent of water that nothing can stand in its path.

The psalmist's prayer is bold:

"Restore our fortunes, O LORD, 
like streams in the Negeb!"(Psalm 126:4)

We're dry now, but like the instant flash floods in the dry water courses of the desert, suddenly intervene and reverse our situation with your blessing! It is a powerful prayer!

Sow in Tears, Reap in Joy (Psalm 126:5-6)

The next two verses, however, signal a change in perspective. Whereas verse 1 to 4 focus on God's mighty intervention to bring a miraculous national restoration of fortunes from pain to joy, verses 5 to 6 focus on the more normal working of God in our lives to bring incremental growth, the cycles of planting and harvest that take place year after year.

"5  Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy
6  He who goes out weeping, 
bearing the seed for sowing,92 
shall come home with shouts of joy
bringing his sheaves with him." (Psalm 126:5-6)

Even in good times we experience great obstacles. We run out of food before the harvest comes in and have to eat less and see our children get thinner. We face illness, death of loved ones, trouble in our marriages. But we don't quit. We keep on doing what we must do, all the while trusting God. The farmer must plant, even though he may weep as he plants the seeds, such difficult, day-by-day labor is necessary for a harvest. In due time that harvest will come -- if he doesn't quit. Two passages from the Apostle Paul come to mind:

"Let us not become weary in doing good, 
for at the proper time we will reap a harvest 
if we do not give up." (Galatians 6:9)

"Therefore, my beloved brethren, 
be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, 
knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain." (1 Corinthians 15:58, RSV)

Joy Comes in the Morning

The theme of this psalm is simple: God doesn't leave you in pain forever, but will restore your fortunes. Trust him. You may be weeping now, but there will be a time when God will usher you into a renewed time of joy. Through it all, you trust in him. As David puts it:

"Weeping may tarry for the night, 
but joy comes with the morning." (Psalm 30:5)

And when that morning comes, we will sing songs of praise at the top of our lungs. These "shouts of joy" (rinnâ) occur three times in our short psalm:

"Our tongue [was filled] with shouts of joy." (verse 2)

"Reap with shouts of joy!" (verse 5)

"Come home with shouts of joy." (verse 6)

Yes, Lord, you will change our sorrow into joy, and until that happens we will continue to trust you. But when that day comes there will be rejoicing. David writes:

"You have turned for me my mourning into dancing; 
you have loosed my sackcloth and clothed me with gladness, 
that my glory may sing your praise and not be silent. 
O LORD my God, I will give thanks to you forever!" (Psalm 30:11-12)

Psalm 126 gives two answers to the dilemma of struggle. First, a prayer that God will suddenly deliver as he has done in the past, and second, that if we continue our labor in faith, he will bring the inevitable harvest, and with it deliverance and joy. Come, Lord Jesus!


Songs of Ascent (Psalms 120-134), by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Available in paperback, PDF, and Kindle formats.

Lord, we have seen your glorious and amazing salvation. But times of trouble are now upon us. Work a miracle in our midst, we pray. And help us, day by day to patiently follow you as you work it out in our lives. In Jesus' name, we pray. Amen.


Day 7 Meditation (Psalm 126). Why doesn't God always do the stupendous miracles of which he is capable? Why is patient obedience over the long haul necessary to both the success of our labors and our own spiritual maturity? Can we shout for joy now, even before we receive the answers to our prayers? What might prompt that in us? https://www.joyfulheart.com/forums/topic/1906-7-reaping/


Abbreviations and References

[86] "Brought back the captives" (NIV), "turned again the captivity" (KJV), "brought back Zion's captives" (NJB), "brought back the captive ones of Zion" (NASB).

[87] At question in verse 1 are two Hebrew words: the verb shûb, "(re)turn" and the noun shîbâ, "restoration," derived from this very same verb -- a common kind of Hebrew play on words. What complicates it is that verse 4 uses almost the same words, but the noun (shebût) -- some believe -- derives from a different verb, shābâ, "to take captive" (Gary G. Cohen, TWOT #2311d). However, many scholars take shebût in verse 4 as formed from shûb (along with Dahood; Longman, Psalms, p. 424; Kidner, Psalms 73-150, p. 439; Victor P. Hamilton, shûb, TWOT #2340b); against Claissé-Walford (Psalms NICOT, p . 914); BDB (p. 986); etc. What convinces me that restored/restoration is the proper translation is a parallel usage in Job 42:10 ("The LORD restored the fortunes of Job, when he had prayed for his friends"), where captivity isn't the issue at all.

[88] "Shouts of joy" (ESV, NRSV), "songs of joy" (NIV), "singing" (KJV) is rinnâ, "ringing cry of joy or sorrow" (William White, TWOT #2179c). "Loud, inarticulate cry, yell." Here, "shout of joy" (Holladay, p. 341, 1).

[89] "Are glad" (ESV, KJV), "rejoiced" (NRSV), "filled with joy" (NIV) is two words, the verb "to be" and the adjective śāmēaḥ, "joyful, merry." The root ś-m-ḥ denotes being glad or joyful with the whole disposition as indicated by its association with the heart, the soul, and with the lighting up of the eyes. (Bruce K. Waltke, TWOT #2268a).

[90] Kidner, Psalms, p. 439.

[91] "Streams" (ESV, NIV, KJV), "watercourses" (NRSV) is ʾāpîq, "channel (for water); stream-bed, ravine, wady" (TWOT #149; BDB 67).

[92] "Seed for sowing" is probably literally "pouch for seed." It consists of two words, zeraʿ, "seed," and māshak, "(leather) pouch, bag" for seed (as here) or a bag for pearls (Job 28:18; Holladay, p. 219). Meshek, "a drawing, bag, pouch, price" (from māshak, "draw, drag," perhaps suggests the motion of the hand strewing seed, see Amos 9:13). In some languages the word mshk means "skin, leather," perhaps the substance from which such a seed pouch would be made (Victor P. Hamilton, TWOT #157a). The KJV version's "beareth precious seed" is probably better translated, "carrying a bag of seed."

Copyright © 2024, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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