This song of ascents shows how the Lord oversaw His people’s return to Zion despite their troubled history. Israel and the nations both marvelled and continue to marvel in how the Lord has done great things. The immediate context is the return from Babylonian exile although there are further blessings in view, some of which are partially fulfilled and some still future. An author or date is not provided though Gill states that this psalm is generally believed to have been written by Ezra or a good man returning from Babylonian captivity.[i] The JPS Jewish Study Bible adds that this psalm is recited before grace and after meals on festivals.[ii]
The return to Zion foretold and fulfilled
Since the Lord brought back the captivity of Zion, this event was orchestrated from beginning to end through Divine enablement (cf. Psalm 85:1; Jeremiah 29:14; Hosea 6:11). Although seventy years of exile was a difficult time in Israel’s history, Jeremiah wrote a letter to the captives explaining that the Lord had caused them to be carried away into Babylon and He would return them. The duration of their exile was foretold and they were even to seek the peace of Babylon and pray to the Lord for it, for in its peace they would have peace (Jeremiah 29:1-14).
Isaiah had described in detail and over one hundred years previously, how Cyrus II would used be used as His shepherd and give the command for Jerusalem to be rebuilt and the temple foundation to be laid (Isaiah 44:28). Cyrus recognised that the Lord God of heaven had given him all the kingdoms of the earth and made the proclamation for the people to go up and build a temple at Jerusalem (2 Chronicles 36:22-23; cf. Ezra 1:1-4). To this day, the Cyrus cylinder located in the centre of room 52 in the British Museum bears witness to Cyrus’ decree to allow various peoples to return to their homelands.
The Jewish people returning to Jerusalem are described as ‘like those who dream’. Radak commented that “When the long-awaited return finally comes to pass, the recollection of the past oppression of the exile will swiftly fade away and seem like a bad dream.”[iii]A Targum reference states, “we were like the sick that are recovered.”[iv] Although the Exodus was an indelible event in their history, some would have wondered whether they would ever return, hence it seemed like a dream. But this also demonstrated the Lord’s providential hand and His faithfulness in keeping His promises according to His covenants and people.
This was a joyful return to Jerusalem depicted graphically with a mouth full of laughter and tongue with singing. When compared with Psalm 137 there is a reversal of their situation. Instead of longing for Zion in a foreign land, the Lord had returned them. Those who held them captive and plundered them requested mirth and a song from Zion. How could they sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? Their sorrow had turned to joy and they would sing those same songs on approach to Jerusalem whilst making Aliyah (going up) and they would be able to enjoy the festivals. Their tongues were described as formerly clinging to the roofs of their mouths, though now they had a mouth full or laughter-the opposite of weeping and a tongue that was singing!
The surrounding nations recognised that the Lord had done great things for them, they acknowledged the same and they were rejoicing. It is remarkable when one considers the preservation of the Jewish people and their deliverance from Egypt and Babylon, the feasts of the Lord that are still retained and that they have again been rooted in Israel.
Verse 4 connects the opening and closing verses of this succinct psalm with “Bring back our captivity O Lord, as the streams in the south”. Not all of those who returned came at once, hence the prayer for repeated favours.[v] While many Jews returned during the reign of Cyrus (Ezra 1-3), others followed during the respective reigns of Darius (Ezra 6) and Artaxerxes (Ezra 7-8).[vi]
We must bear in mind that not all of the Jewish people who were in Babylon returned, since some assimilated. The remnant that returned does not exhaust the scope of this psalm since it also looks forward to their national restoration and Messiah’s return.[vii]Unger thought that there is a clear allusion to Babylon but also a prophetic eschatological regathering of kingdom blessing (Isaiah 35:10; 65:19).[viii]The references he cites from Isaiah foretell an everlasting joy of those who have returned to Zion, with joy and gladness and sorrow and sighing shall flee away (35:10) and “I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and joy in My people; the voice of weeping shall no longer be heard in her, nor the voice of crying (Isaiah 65:19).”Therefore, to remain hermeneutically consistent there is still future fulfilment in view.
Reference is made to ‘the streams in the south’. This again helps to connect the former and latter parts of this psalm with the return of the Jewish people to Jerusalem with the idea of sowing in tears and reaping in joy. Walvoord & Zuck note that the psalmist compares the returning exiles with streams in the Negev, which in the dry season has little or no water, though in the rainy season overflow their banks.[ix] Similarly Macdonald adds, Negev was the desert in the south and was ordinarily dry and barren, though following heavy rain, the dry waterbeds became torrential streams enabling the wilderness to blossom.[x] Wiersbe observes, “If the Lord did not keep His covenant and send the early and latter rains (Leviticus 26:4; Deuteronomy 11:10-12; 28:12), there would be no crops and their labour would be in vain. Each raindrop was a tiny thing, but when dropped on the earth, it was the promise of life.”[xi]
Those who sow in tears shall reap in joy
It is helpful to consider the farmer scattering seed who has recently returned to Zion and the spiritual application that is ongoing. After the land had been left and unworked for so long, extra effort would be required in gaining its benefits. The farmer sows seed and has to wait patiently waiting for the first crop to yield a harvest and trusts the Lord with the outcome. Undoubtedly he hopes and prays that he will be able to provide for his family, labouring with sweat and tears. But there will be joy in the reaping. Many may labour in the gospel and expend their efforts to speak of Messiah with seemingly little fruit, yet there is joy for both the worker and also joy in heaven when someone comes to faith and trusts in the Lord. Believers are reminded, “And let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart (Galatians 6:9).”
Although there is seemingly no end of weeping in bearing seed for sowing, there is no end of rejoicing thereafter. Agricultural imagery is entwined and representative of the restoration of the Jewish people to their land (Amos 9:11-15).[xii]Those verses from the closing passage of Amos show that the Lord would return the captives, a tremendous agriculture yield would follow and not only would the Lord plant them in their land; they would never be uprooted. When Mark Twain visited, the landscape was barren, dry and desolate. Now Isaiah’s prophecy, “Those who come He shall cause to take root in Jacob; Israel shall blossom and bud, and fill the face of the earth with fruit (Isaiah 27:6)”, has already become a reality. In the desert, ingenious irrigation systems enable the precious water to enable the crops to grow yielding terrific produce, despite the climate. “The wilderness and the wasteland shall be glad for them, and the desert shall rejoice and blossom as the rose (Isaiah 35:1).”
Finally let us never lose sight of the Man of sorrows who was frequently acquainted with grief (Isaiah 53:3). What He sowed in tears, He would reap in joy with a harvest of talmidim-followers who believed in Him. The Man from Galilee gave His life as a ransom for many. He made atonement for sin through His sacrifice. He kept the feasts and would have sang these songs and at Passover, He explained that the hour had come when the Son of Man should be glorified.
“Most assuredly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much ]grain.He who loves his life will lose it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. If anyone serves Me, let him follow Me; and where I am, there My servant will be also. If anyone serves Me, him My Father will honor (John 12:24-26).”
[ii] Jewish Publication Society The Jewish Study Bible Tanakh Translation ( Oxford University Press, 2004; Oxford), p1428
[iii] Radak, cited in The Stone Edition Tanakh (Mesorah Publications, Ltd., 2000; Brooklyn), p1550
[iv] The Targum, cited in John Gill, https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/geb/psalms-126.html
[v] Jamieson, Fausset & Brown, Jamieson, Fausset & Brown’s Commentary on the whole Bible Jamieson, (Zondervan, 1962; Grand Rapids), p454
[vi] Warren W. Wiersbe The Wiersbe Bible Commentary The Complete Old Testament in one volume (David C. Cook, 2007; Colorado Springs), p1027
[vii] J. Vernon McGee Psalms Chapters 90-150 Thru the Bible Commentary Series (Thomas Nelson, 1991; Nashville), p120
[viii] Merrill F. Unger Unger’s Commentary on the Old Testament (AMG, 2002; Chattanooga), p948
[ix] John F. Walvoord & Roy B. Zuck The Bible Knowledge Commentary An Exposition of the Scriptures by Dallas Theological Seminary Old Testament (Victor, 1989; USA), p884-885
[x] William MacDonald The Believer’s Bible Commentary (Thomas Nelson, 1995; Nashville), p754
[xi] Wiersbe, p1027
[xii] Jewish Publication Society, p1428