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Bible Commentaries

Hengstenberg on John, Revelation, Ecclesiastes, Ezekiel & Psalms

Psalms 126

Psalms 126

The congregation of the Lord acknowledges with thanksgiving the great things which he has already done to her, how he has, by her deliverance, filled her with triumphant joy, Psalms 126:1-3. She entreats him that he would not allow his work so gloriously begun to be interrupted, and also further that he would have pity upon her misery, and expresses the firm hope that her pain shall be turned into joy, Psalms 126:4-6.

The Psalm exactly suits the situation which lies at the bottom of all the Pilgrim Songs which have no name:—comp. the introduction to Psalms 125 in regard to its relation to that Psalm. The great deliverance which the church has recently experienced, according to Psalms 126:1-3, can scarcely be sought in any thing else than in the restoration from captivity, even although the definite reference to it, which many expositors find in Psalms 126:1, rests upon a manifestly false exposition, and although it is only by a similar exposition that Psalms 126:4 contains a prayer for the completion of the restoration. Psalms 126:4-6 refer to the mournful circumstances which existed in the new colony before the completion of the building of the temple. The special references are, as is usual, only slightly indicated. The sacred Psalmists were deeply impressed with the conviction that they sang for the church of all ages. The Psalm always finds a new application, in those circumstances of the church in which joyful hopes, awakened by a previous deliverance, are in danger of being frustrated; it was also composed for the sake of expressing the feelings of the individual believer, in whom sin threatens, after his first love, to become again powerful. It guides us to prepare, out of the lively realization of the grace already received, a sure foundation for prayer and hope in reference to grace yet to be bestowed.

Verses 1-3

A Song of the Pilgrimages.Ver. 1-3.

Ver. 1. When the Lord turned himself to the turning of Sion we were like men in a dream. Ver. 2. Then was our mouth full of laughter, and our tongue full of joy; then they said among the heathen: the Lord has done great things for them. Ver. 3. The Lord has done great things for us; we were glad.

After the example of Abenesra and Kimchi, Luther refers the whole strophe to the future deliverance: “if the Lord . . . shall deliver, we shall be.” But as the futures in Psalms 126:2 are surrounded by preterites at the beginning and end, we must explain them by the presentiating of the past (i.e., the poet in his lively fancy pictures the past as present, and speaks of it as such). On שוב with the accus., to turn back, comp. at Psalms 14:7, Psalms 85:4, Isaiah 52:8, “They see eye to eye, as the Lord turneth back to Sion.” The שיבה which only occurs in the passage before us (comp. in reference to the form Ew. § 146 c.) is the same in point of import with שוּ בָ ה , Isaiah 30:15, “By returning and rest ye shall be established,” returning in a spiritual sense, conversion. Allusion is made in a marked manner to the phrase, which frequently occurs, and which is used immediately after in Psalms 126:4, שב שבות , which, as was shown at Psalms 14:7, never means anything else than to turn back to the captivity or to the misery of his people. The expression is intended to intimate that the Lord returns to his people then, when they return to him. He returns as it were to the return of his people, as we read in the fundamental passage, Deuteronomy 30:2-3, “When thou returnest to the Lord thy God, . . . the Lord thy God returns to thy captivity, and turns thee back, and assembles thee out of all the nations whither the Lord thy God has scattered thee,” and in Deuteronomy 30:9-10, “For the Lord shall return to thee to rejoice over thee, . . . when thou shalt return to the Lord thy God with thy whole soul.” Prominence is also given frequently in other passages to the intimate connection between the return to the Lord and his favour, comp. Deuteronomy 4:30, Isaiah 10:21-22, Isaiah 59:20, Nehemiah 1:8. There is, therefore, no reason to maintain with several expositors that שיבה is of the same import as שבות (the circumstance that the two roots, שבה and שוב are never interchanged is decisive against this) still less to change the שיבה into שבות . In the שיבת there was contained, at the same time, the theological view as to the former suffering. “We were like men in a dream” is commonly explained: the happiness experienced by us was so great that we, not trusting our own eyes, regarded the reality as a dream. But the expression is not we “ believed that we dreamed,” but “we were like men in a dream,” and thus the words can only refer to the excess of joy in which the delivered captives were out of themselves, out of their senses, and like men intoxicated or dreaming. This view also suits the connection better. The whole of the first strophe is occupied with the representation of the former joy. The pain at present endured forms the counterpart to this joy in the second strophe, the removal of which is entreated from God and hoped for. [Note: Lampe: “The pious have assuredly great cause for joy when they are delivered from a captivity which oppressed not their bodies only, but also their souls.”]

The use of the future in Psalms 126:2 cannot lead us to refer what is there said to a future time, as a special reason for that use occurs in the allusion to the passage, Job 8:21, “He shall yet fill thy mouth with laughter and thy lips with joy,”—an allusion which is all the more obvious, as Job is manifestly not only the representative of individual suffering righteous men, but at the same also the type of the church, so that the promise imparted to him was very appropriately fulfilled in her. The second half of the verse, as well as the first, has an old basis to rest on. The peculiar expression, לעשות הגדיל יהוה , is literally from Joel 2:21. It points to the promise of deliverance from trouble which had been given long before to the people when the trouble approached. This reference to an important fundamental passage, explains the repetition of the words. The enemies appear in this under the image of swarms of grasshoppers. The Psalmist sees through this transparent covering.

Verses 4-6

In the second strophe, ver. 4-6, we have first the prayer in ver. 4, and after that the hope in ver. 5 and 6.

Ver. 4. Turn back, O Lord, to our captivity, as the streams in the south. Ver. 5. Those who sow in tears shall reap in joy. Ver. 6. They go and go in weeping, bearing the seed-draught, they come and come in joy, bearing their sheaves.

The explanation of the phrase שב שבות , Psalms 126:4, which alone is the correct one, not “to turn back the captives or the captivity,” but “to return to the captivity, the miserable condition” (comp. at Psalms 126:1), procures immediately for the second clause the proper explanation: as streams (return) in the south. נגב is the dry south division of Canaan, without any fountains, Joshua 15:19, and thus all the more dependant upon the rain-streams, the disappearance of which filled every place with sadness; comp., in reference to these rain-streams, Job 6:15 ss. The point of comparison, according to Psalms 126:1-2, and according to Psalms 126:6, is the joy over the reappearance of what had been so painfully amissing. A similar figure occurs in Psalms 68:9. The Masorites, instead of שבות read שבית , which is only another form. In other passages they reverse the matter. The sowing and the reaping, in Psalms 126:5, is a figurative expression for undertakings and their results. This expression was occasioned by the comparison in the second half of the preceding verse. What not unfrequently happens in the dry south, that those who, in a season of drought, in consequence of the disappearance of the rain-streams, sow in grief and anxiety, reap in joy, inasmuch as the rain-streams return, cause the crop to spring up and to grow, always happens in the kingdom of God: undertakings begun in a time of grief are brought by the return of the Lord to a joyful issue. Although the natural circumstances lie at the bottom, we cannot maintain that the words, in the first instance, were used in reference to these, and only admit of being applied to something higher: for the unlimited generality of the affirmation here made does not suit the natural circumstances. The language used is from the first used of spiritual sowing. Besides, we cannot overlook the fact that the expression, “those who sow,” is limited, from the context, in which only the people of the Lord had been spoken of: those who sow among the people of God, or we who sow. In the world there is much sowing in tears without any reaping in joy; and the verse before us; falsely applied, instead of the call “Repent,” assumes, in the case of the world, the character of false comfort. Paul Gerhardt’s hymn shows that he understood the sense correctly: “God’s children sow very mournfully and in tears, but at last the year brings that for which they longed for; harvest comes when they make sheaves, then all their bitter sorrow becomes loud joy and laughter.” Ezra 6:16 shows how the words were fulfilled in those to whom they were in the first instance addressed, how the general truth, so consolatory for the church of God, was in their case realized: “And the children of Israel . . . kept the dedication of the house with joy, Ezra 6:22; and they kept the feast of unleavened bread seven days with joy; for the Lord had made them joyful, and turned the heart of the King of Assyria to them, so that they were strengthened in the work on the house of the Lord.” Compare, in reference to the dedication of the wall of the city, Nehemiah 12, especially Nehemiah 12:43: “and great sacrifices were offered that day, and they were joyful, for God had made to them great joy, so that both women and children rejoiced, and the joy of Jerusalem was heard afar of.”

The subject in ver. 6 is the sower. The infin. absol. in both verbs denotes the continued existence of the pain and also of the joy, comp. Ew. § 280. b. [Note: Luther correctly: “The prophet intends to announce a perpetual truth by the repetition of a little word, when he says they go, they go! For there is no end of the weeping until we are laid in the grave, although a little while is given to rest.”] משך הזרע is properly the draught of seed which the sower takes with his hand out of the seed box. In Amos 9:13, משך הזרע is the sower, properly he who draws the seed, draws it out of the seed box. The משך occurs in the sense of drawing also, in Job 28:18, “wisdom draws stronger (in the scales) than pearls,” is heavier than they.

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Hengstenberg, Ernst. "Commentary on Psalms 126". Hengstenberg on John, Revelation, Ecclesiastes, Ezekiel & Psalms.