Posts Tagged ‘Psalm 126’

Psalm 126: Captivity and Restoration

Dear Reader,

Background:

God’s Word is living and it is deep. We can come to it again and again and find new meaning. I do not claim that my way of approaching the Psalms is the only way or the best way. My aim is merely to give a perspective that I think is often missing when we read the Psalms in translation. My contention throughout this series has been that the form of the Psalms conveys meaning. Though our English translations often obscure this deeper level of meaning and beauty, we do not all need to learn Hebrew to begin to see and appreciate the Psalms on a deeper level. What we need are, first, good translations that take into account the structure of the Hebrew and its word choice, and, second, a few detection skills which can easily be learned. You can find all my posts on the Psalms as well as some explanations of how and why we study them here.

Some times a Psalm is so familiar that it is hard to translate. I can’t read Psalm 126 without hearing the metrical version in my head. It doesn’t help that this Psalm has at least one big issue which needs to be decided from the outset. More on that in a moment. For now, read through the Psalm. Print it out and get out those colored pencils and see what you can notice about it. Look for parallel structures, repeated words, and major divisions within the Psalm. Think about the context a little too. What kind of situation do you think the psalmist was in as he wrote this? When in Israel’s history might it be set?

Translation of Psalm 126  [1]

A Song of Ascents 

  1. When the LORD restores the captive-band [1] of Zion —
  2. We were like dreamers — 
  3. Then will be filled with laughter       our face 
  4. And                       our tongue [with] a shout. 
  5. Then they will say among the nations: 
  6. “Great things the LORD did for these.”
  7. Great things the LORD did for us;
  8. We were rejoicing. 
  9. Restore, LORD, our captive-band
  10. Like streams in the desert.
  11. Those who sow     with tears
  12. With a shout          will reap.
  13. He indeed [2] goes weeping,             bearing a trail of seed;
  14. He will indeed come with a shout, bearing his sheaves. 

Notes:

Numbers are provided for the sake of discussion and do not correspond to verse numbers. 

[1] The word for “captive-band” is slightly problematic. If it is not from the same root as “restore,” they do at least sound as if they are. It seems to be a collective noun thus my choice of “captive-band.”

[2] The construction in lines 13 and 14 is idiomatic. In Hebrew it reads something like “going he goes” and “coming he comes.”

Verb Tenses Make Me Tense

The big issue in Psalm 126 has to do with the verb tenses. Hebrew is a little fuzzy in tenses (from our perspective as English speakers). First off, there are really only two finite verb forms, one which roughly corresponds to the past and one to the future. Though it would be better to think of them as completed and non-completed actions. There is none of this “would have been” business and other such complexities. That’s the simple version of the story. To make it more complex, I could add that sometimes one verb form looks like the other and vice-versa.

It is clear in verse 4 (line 9 in my translation above) that the psalmist is asking for the Lord’s deliverance. The verb here is an imperative –“Restore!” — and in what follows we see his hope for the future. The problem is with the first half of the Psalm — is it a recounting of a past deliverance or a request for deliverance? The Hebrew actually has a mix of verb forms so that neither answer is completely satisfying. The first verb, “restores” in line 1, is not a finite verb. In Hebrew it would literally be “In the Lord’s restoring of the captive-band of Zion.” “We were like dreamers” and “we were rejoicing” in liens 2 and 8 respectively are past tense verbs. And I should add that Hebrew doesn’t often need or use “to be” verbs so perhaps it is significant that we see them here. But in lines 3 and 5 we have the future form  — will be filled, will shout. [2]

I went back and forth and back and forth on how to translate these verbs. How we take them depends on the context in which we think the Psalm is set. Are these completed past events or is the psalmist looking to a future deliverance? In the end, for the purposes of translation, I decided to leave the Psalm ambiguous as it is in the original.

However, taking the easy way out on the translation does not mean that we can leave the issue there. We still need to decide how to understand Psalm 126. Lines 9 through 14 are about the future. If we take the first half of the Psalm as being about a past event, then this Psalm is speaking fo two separate acts of deliverance, one completed and one looked for. If we take the first half as future, then there is one act under consideration and only one time frame to identify.

The biggest captivity in Israelite history is the Babylonian captivity which began around 586 BC. If there is one event being considered in this Psalm, then that is the natural one to look to and we would have to say that the psalmist is still in the midst of that period. Deliverance has not yet come. If, on the other hand, there are two captivities and two deliverances being contemplated, then either the psalmist is in the midst of the Babylonian captivity and is looking back to past deliverance as a source of hope for the future or he is living after the Babylonian captivity and the return from exile and is looking back on them as a source of hope as he looks for release from another kind of captivity, perhaps an eschatological one.

To sum up thus far:

Option 1:                                                                    Option 2:

Lines 1-8 are past tense                                             Lines 1-8 are future tense

Two captivities ate being considered                                   One Captivity is being considered

May be set during the Babylonian captivity                                             Most likely set during

OR may look back to the Babylonian captivity            the Babylonian captivity (586-530 BC)

Analysis

We’ll circle back around the to issue of the tenses and setting of the Psalm. Now let’s look at some of the other structural elements of Psalm 126. Here is how I marked up this Psalm:

IMG_2958

As we noted earlier, the imperative in line 9 — “restore!” — marks the beginning of a new section. Each half of the Psalm begins with the combination of related words, “restore” and “captive-band” (lines 1 & 9). Within the first section lines 2 and 8, both of which have “we were . . . “, form a kind of bookends. In the middle, lines 3 through 5 hang together and introduce lines 6 and 7 which also hang together. Notice the chiasm in lines 3 and 4. “Laughter” parallels “shout” and “face” parallels “tongue,” but the order is reversed so that when we draw lines between the parallel elements, we make an X (the Greek letter chi hence the name of this feature). Lines 3 and 5 are also connected by their first word: “then.” Lines 6 and 7 are nearly identical. In 6, it is the peoples speaking and in line 7 the sentiment is repeated by God’s people.

The second half of the Psalm, lines 9 through 14, contains 2 images. In line 10, the picture is of the dry river beds of Palestine. These dry beds, or wadis, are empty most of the year, but when the rains come they are all of a sudden full of the life-giving water that the land and people so desperately need. Lines 11 through 14 have one image, that of the farmer sowing his seed. He weeps to scatter the precious seed but will rejoice at harvest time. Though I have not divided it up this way, because line 10 contains a different image and is not directly connected to what follows, it is probably better to think of it with line 9, as one thought which introduces the second half of the Psalm.

Other than “LORD” which occurs four times in this Psalm, there is one word which is repeated in both halves of the Psalm. Did you notice what it is? It is “shout” in lines 4, 12, and 14.  The shout in this case is a good thing — it is the exultant cry of victory which comes when the people return from captivity (line 4) and when the farmer celebrates his harvest (lines 12 and 14).

Conclusions

The big question for Psalm 126 is the setting. When is the psalmist living and what is the restoration that he looks for? In the first half of the Psalm, lines 1 through 8, we get a few clues which point is to a historical setting. There is the mention of Zion (line 1) which ties us specifically to the nation of Israel. And there are the nations in line 5 who witness the restoration and see the doings of the Lord (line 6).

In the second half of the Psalm, there is surprisingly little that points to a specific historical crisis. The talk is of fairly ordinary events — the yearly rains and the agricultural cycle of sowing and reaping. Now I don’t want to diminish the importance  of these things and the anxiety they produce for an agricultural society dependent on the yearly harvest, but there is no big, unique situation that is called to mind.

Psalm 126, in the Hebrew and in my translation, has some ambiguity as to the verb tenses and the time frames. My suggestion is that the psalmist is looking back on a specific historical act of deliverance in which the Lord saved His people, most likely the Babylonian captivity, and that he is using this as an inspiration and source of hope for God’s continued provision and deliverance, even in relatively ordinary times. If there is one emotion or theme which dominates Psalm 126 I think it is found in that exultant cry which is repeated in both halves of the Psalm. Though it looks back to some very hard times, this is not a sad Psalm. It is a cry of victory because the Lord has granted, and will again grant, deliverance.

Nebby

[1] You can also find a Google docs version of this translation here. If you use it outside your home, please give me credit.

[2] If you are interested in exploring this issue further, here is a small selection of online articles I found on the verb tenses in Psalm 126:

Howell, James. “Commentary on Psalm 126,” from Working Preacher.org.

“Psalm 126: We Were Like Dreamers,” from Rav Kook Torah 

Samet, Rav Elchanan. “Shiur 36: When the Lord Brought Back the Return of Zion: Psalm 126,” from Etzion.org.