This psalm is titled A Song of Ascents. It is the seventh in the series of 15 songs for pilgrims coming to Jerusalem. This song likely was composed after the exile, in wondrous gratitude for God’s restoration, and in prayer for a furtherance of that work.
A. Joy beyond expression at the return from exile.
1. (1) The fulfillment of the joyful dream.
When the LORD brought back the captivity of Zion,
We were like those who dream.
a. When the LORD brought back the captivity of Zion: The psalmist sang of a time when God set His people free from their captivity, and they were restored to Jerusalem (Zion). Most associate this with the return from exile under Ezra and Nehemiah, but it is also possible that it describes David’s return from his brief exile from Jerusalem in Absalom’s coup (2 Samuel 15-19).
i. As one of the Songs of Ascents, we imagine these words in the mouths of pilgrims on the way to or having arrived at Jerusalem. Perhaps they considered their seasons away from Jerusalem as a symbolic captivity, and they celebrated the larger return from exile and their current, personal experience of such.
b. We were like those who dream: With power and beauty, the poet described the sense of happy, grateful astonishment at the power and goodness of God in bringing back His people from the captivity of Zion. It seemed too good, too great to be true, but it was true.
i. “We could not believe our own eyes and ears, but thought it to be but a dream or delusion of our own fancies; as is usual in matters of great joy, as Genesis 45:26, Luke 24:11, Acts 12:9.” (Poole)
ii. “The people knew about the promises of restoration; but when the actual moment of restoration came, it was an overwhelming experience. They were like those ‘who dreamed.’ It all happened too quickly and seemed like a mirage.” (VanGemeren)
iii. “It remained a vivid national memory (cf. the lively paraphrase in Today’s English Version: ‘it was like a dream! How we laughed, how we sang for joy…how happy we were’), as inspiring as the outbreaks of revival in the Christian church.” (Kidner)
iv. At times Christian revival has been described in these terms. J. Edwin Orr’s book All Your Need records the description of J. Oswald Sanders of the 1936 revival at Ngaruawahia, New Zealand: “For some time before Easter, a spirit of unusual expectancy had been kindled in our hearts by the Holy Spirit, but the reality far exceeded the expectation. Those of us who were responsible for the conduct of the camp had the great joy of sitting back and seeing God work in a sovereign way. We were as men that dreamed.”
2. (2-3) Laughing, singing, proclaiming.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
And our tongue with singing.
Then they said among the nations,
“The LORD has done great things for them.”
The LORD has done great things for us,
And we are glad.
a. Then our mouth was filled with laughter: They celebrated God’s amazing work with laughter and singing. There was so much laughing that their mouth was filled with it.
i. “The mercy was so unexpected, so amazing, so singular that they could not do less than laugh; and they laughed much, so that their mouths were full of it, and that because their hearts were full too.” (Spurgeon)
ii. “We must raise up ourselves with this consideration – that the gospel is nothing else but laughter and joy. This joy properly pertaineth to captives, that is, to those that feel the captivity of sin and death…. These are the disciples in whose hearts should be planted laughter and joy, and that by the authority of the Holy Ghost, which this verse setteth forth.” (Luther, cited in Spurgeon)
b. The LORD has done great things for them: The sense of joyful amazement was not confined to the people of God. Onlooking nations had to proclaim that the work belonged to Yahweh, and that the work was truly great.
i. “The liberty now granted was brought about in so extraordinary a way, that the very heathens saw that the hand of the great Jehovah must have been in it.” (Clarke)
ii. “These foreigners were no dreamers; though they were only lookers-on, and not partakers in the surprising mercy, they plainly saw what had been done, and rightly ascribed it to the great Giver of all good.” (Spurgeon)
c. The LORD has done great things for us: The singer heard what the nations said, agreed with it, emphasized it with repetition, and personalized it. It became the declaration of what God had done for us.
i. “Their [reluctant] acknowledgment is caught up triumphantly by the singer. He, as it were, thanks the Gentiles for teaching him that word.” (Maclaren)
ii. Boice suggested four occasions where many experience great joy and the sense that God has done great things in their Christian life:
· The joy of salvation.
· The joy of spiritual victory.
· The joy of Christian fellowship.
· The joy of a new work for God.
d. And we are glad: There is a joyful peace in the declaration. This is not a worked-up, hyped-up enthusiasm. This was the confident joy in what God had done, simply to declare we are glad.
i. “This is a mere burst of ecstatic joy. O how happy are we!” (Clarke)
ii. “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.” (Maclaren)
B. The prayer and wise understanding.
1. (4) A prayer for continued deliverance.
Bring back our captivity, O LORD,
As the streams in the South.
a. Bring back our captivity, O LORD: The second half of this psalm does not deny the amazed joy of the first half, but it recognizes that there is still work yet to be done. The returning exiles (under Ezra or David) realized there was much work yet to do, and the restoration had only yet begun.
i. “So the song is a cry for more complete restoration.” (Morgan)
ii. We may imagine the sense of one whose life is profoundly changed by Jesus Christ. They are grateful and amazed at what He has done, yet can in the next moment consider how much more needs to be done.
iii. “For the psalmist, as for us, memory of the past could have become mere nostalgia. Those were the days! we say; wonderful, but gone forever. In Psalm 126, the memory of those singing, laughter-filled days of the past becomes, not nostalgia, but the ground of a strong hope for even better days to come.” (Boice)
b. As the streams in the South: The streams in the South flowed when the rain fell in faraway mountains. Those streams could appear suddenly and rush with a mighty flow, sometimes known as flash floods. The psalmist prayed for a mighty, sudden work of God to further the work of restoration among His people.
i. “To the south of favoured Judea stretched the dry and barren district, where in summer-time all the streams ceased to flow. That, to the singer, was the condition of the people. But in the autumn, the rains fill up the stony channels, a very river of life.” (Morgan)
ii. “[There are] few transformations more dramatic than that of a dry gully into a torrent. Such can be the effect of a downpour, which can also turn the surrounding desert into a place of grass and flowers overnight.” (Kidner)
iii. “They desired that their return might be as rapid and as abundant as the waters of those rivers.” (Clarke)
iv. “However arid the land, He can send the revivifying streams.” (Morgan)
2. (5-6) The cycle of sadness and joy.
Those who sow in tears
Shall reap in joy.
He who continually goes forth weeping,
Bearing seed for sowing,
Shall doubtless come again with rejoicing,
Bringing his sheaves with him.
a. Those who sow in tears shall reap in joy: The gladness of the first half of this psalm was real, but only part of the picture. With wisdom the psalmist reminded himself and all of us that great joy is often preceded by a season of tears, as if they are seeds we sow that will bring a crop of joy to be later reaped.
i. “In the first image (the sudden filling of the desert streams, Psalm 126:4), the results are sudden and unearned. In the second image (the harvest after the difficult work of plowing and sowing seed, Psalm 126:5-6) the results come only after a long period of hard work and waiting.” (Boice)
ii. “The two images of renewal (Psalm 126:4b, 5-6) are not only striking: they are complementary. The first of them is all suddenness, a sheer gift from heaven; the second is slow and arduous, with man allotted a crucial part to play in it.” (Kidner)
iii. This illustration puts a connection between the tears and the joy. We want to reap the joy without ever having sown the tears.
iv. F.B. Meyer noted that some farmers soak (steep) their seeds before sowing them, and then applied the idea: “It is well when Christian workers steep their lessons and addresses with their prayers and tears. It is not enough to sow; we may do that lavishly and constantly, but we must add passion, emotion, tender pity, strong cryings and tears.”
v. “He drops a seed and a tear, a seed and a tear, and so goes on his way. In his basket he has seed which is precious to him, for he has little of it, and it is his hope for the next year. Each grain leaves his hand with anxious prayer that it may not be lost: he thinks little of himself, but much of his seed, and he eagerly asks, ‘Will it prosper? shall I receive a reward for my labour?’ Yes…doubtless you will gather sheaves from your sowing.” (Spurgeon)
b. He who continually goes forth weeping, bearing seed for sowing: The idea is repeated and enlarged. Those who have endured much weeping, if they truly carry it as seed for sowing – holding and casting it with faith in God and in His promise – those may be assured of reaping a good harvest.
i. “The people were not to sit by idly, waiting for God to come through. They had to go out and sow, praying that the Lord would be true. The phrase ‘seed to sow’ (Psalm 126:6) is reminiscent of Haggai’s encouragement to the people to sow whatever little they had left, because the Lord will bless them.” (VanGemeren)
ii. “Both the going forth and the coming home are stressed by a doubling of the verb, and might be translated, ‘He that surely goes forth weeping…will surely come home with shouts of joy.’” (Kidner)
c. Shall doubtless come again with rejoicing: Tears truly sown in faith will bring in time a true harvest of rejoicing, as if the reapers held heavy sheaves of grain. This is a powerful and great promise that our tears and sorrows need not be wasted, but can be sown for a joyful harvest received in a better season.
i. “Because the Lord has written doubtless, take heed that you do not doubt. No reason for doubt can remain after the Lord has spoken.” (Spurgeon)
ii. In the joy of the present pilgrim gathering, we sense the singers enjoying that harvest, yet wisely understanding that there will be future tears to sow in faith.
iii. “O disciple of Jesus, behold an emblem of thy present labour, and thy future reward. Thou ‘sowest,’ perhaps, ‘in tears;’ thou doest thy duty amidst persecution and affliction, sickness, pain, and sorrow; thou laborest in the church, and no account is made of thy labours; no profit seems to arise from them…. Yet the day is coming when thou shalt ‘reap in joy;’ and plentiful shall be thy harvest.” (Horne)
iv. “He guards the buried seed, and stands sponsor for the harvest. No sigh, no tear, no prayer, inspired by the Spirit of God can positively be lost or unproductive. Like your Lord, you shall yet see of the travail of your soul, and be satisfied.” (Meyer)
v. Alexander Maclaren wondered how much encouragement and strength “…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.”
vi. “For thus thy blessed Master ‘went forth weeping, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief, bearing precious seed,’ and sowing it around him, till at length his own body was buried, like a grain of wheat, in the furrow of the grave. But he arose, and is now in heaven; from whence he ‘shall doubtless come again with rejoicing,’ with the voice of the archangel and the trump of God, ‘bringing his sheaves with him.’” (Horne)
(c) 2020 The Enduring Word Bible Commentary by David Guzik – email@example.com