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Bible Commentaries

The Expositor's Bible Commentary

Psalms 126

Verses 1-6

Psalms 126:1-6

As in Psalms 85:1-13, the poet’s point of view here is in the midst of a partial restoration of Israel. In Psalms 126:1-3 he rejoices over its happy beginning, while in Psalms 126:4-6 he prays for and confidently expects its triumphant completion. Manifestly the circumstances fit the period to which most of these pilgrim psalms are to be referred-namely, the dawn of the restoration from Babylon. Here the pressure of the difficulties and hostility which the returning exiles met is but slightly expressed. The throb of wondering gratitude is still felt; and though tears mingle with laughter, and hard work which bears no immediate result has to be done, the singer’s confidence is unfaltering. His words set a noble example of the spirit in which inchoate deliverances should be welcomed, and toil for their completion encountered with the lightheartedness which is folly if it springs from self-trust, but wisdom and strength if its ground is the great things which Jehovah has begun to do.

The word in Psalms 126:1 rendered captives is capable of other meanings. It is an unusual form, and is probably an error for the more common word which occurs in Psalms 126:4. It is most probable that the expressions should be identical in both instances, though small changes in a refrain are not infrequent. But if this correction is adopted, there is room for difference of opinion as to the meaning of the phrase. Cheyne, with the support of several other commentators, takes the phrase to mean "turn the fortunes" (lit., a turning), but allows that the "debate is not absolutely closed." {Critical Note Psalms 14:7} The ordinary rendering is, however, more natural "captivity" being the mass of captives. Others would regard the two words in Psalms 126:1 and Psalms 126:4 as different, and render the former "those who return" (Delitzsch) or "the returned" (Perowne).

Sudden and great revolutions for the better have for their first effect bewilderment and a sense of unreality. Most men have some supreme moment of blessedness in their memories with which they were stunned; but, alas! it is oftener the rush of unexpected miseries that makes them wonder whether they are awake or dreaming. It is not lack of faith, but slowness in accommodating oneself to surprising new conditions, which makes these seem unreal at first. "The sober certainty of waking bliss" is sweeter than the first raptures. It is good to have had such experience of walking, as it were, on air: but it is better to plant firm feet on firm ground.

The mood of the first part of this little psalm is momentary; but the steadfast toil amid discouragements, not uncheered by happy confidence, which is pictured in the second part, should be the permanent temper of those who have once tasted the brief emotion. The jubilant laughter and ringing cries with which the exiles streamed forth from bondage, and made the desert echo as they marched, witnessed to the nations that Jehovah had magnified His dealings with them. Their extorted acknowledgment is caught up triumphantly by the singer. He, as it were, thanks the Gentiles for teaching him that word. There is a world of restrained feeling, all the more impressive for the simplicity of the expression, in that quiet "We became glad." When the heathen attested the reality of the deliverance, Israel became calmly conscious of it. These exclamations of envious onlookers sufficed to convince the returning exiles that it was no dream befooling them. Tumultuous feeling steadied itself into conscious joy. There is no need to say more. The night of weeping was past, and Joy was their companion in the fresh morning light.

But the work was but partly done. Difficulties and hardships were not abolished from the world, as Israel had half expected in the first flush of joy. We all are apt to think so, when some long wished and faintly hoped for good is ours at last. But not such is the Divine purpose for any life here. He gives moments of untroubled joy, when no cloud stains the blue and all the winds are still, in order to prepare us for toil amid tempests and gloomy skies. So the second half of the psalm breathes petitions for the completion of the Restoration, and animates the returned exiles with assurances that, whatever may be their toils, and however rough the weather in which they have to sow the seed, and however heavy the hearts with which they do it, "the slow result of winter showers" is sure. Lessons of persevering toil, of contented doing of preparatory work, of confidence that no such labour can fail to be profitable to the doer and to the world, have been drawn for centuries from the sweet words of this psalm. Who can tell how many hearts they have braced, how much patient toil they have inspired? The psalmist was sowing seed, the fruit of which he little dreamed of, when he wrote them, and his sheaves will be an exceeding weight indeed.

The metaphor in Psalms 126:4 brings before the imagination the dried torrent beds in the arid Negeb, or Southland, which runs out into the Arabian desert. Dreary and desolate as these dried wadies lie bleaching in the sunshine, so disconsolate and lonely had the land been without inhabitants. The psalmist would fain see, not the thin trickle of a streamlet, to which the returned captives might be compared, but a full, great rush of rejoicing fellow countrymen coming back, like the torrents that fill the silent watercourses with flashing life.

He prays, and he also prophesies "They who sow with tears" are the pioneers of the return, to whom he belonged. Psalms 126:6-6 merely expand the figure of Psalms 126:5 with the substitution of the image of a single husbandman for the less vivid, clear cut plural. The expression rendered "handful of seed" means literally a "draught of seed"-i.e., the quantity taken out of the basket or cloth at one grasp, in order to be sown. It is difficult to convey the force of the infinitives in combination with participles and the finite verb in Psalms 126:6. But the first half of the verse seems to express repeated actions on the part of the husbandman, who often goes forth to sow, and weeps as he goes; while the second half expresses the certainty of his glad coming in with his arms full of sheaves. The meaning of the figure needs no illustration. It gives assurances fitted to animate to toil in the face of dangers without, and in spite of a heavy heart-namely, that no seed sown and watered with tears is lost; and further, that, though it often seems to be the law for earth that one soweth and another reapeth, in deepest truth "every man shall receive his own reward, according to his own labour," inasmuch as, hereafter, if not now, whatsoever of faith and toil and holy endeavour a man soweth, trusting to God to bless the springing thereof, that shall he also reap, In the highest sense and in the last result the prophet’s great words are ever true: "They shall not plant, and another eat, for My chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands". {Isaiah 65:22}

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Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Psalms 126". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary".