Psalm 126 is a Communal Hymn with a Petition: it praises God for restoring Israel’s fortunes (v. 1-3), asks God to revive and reinforce his favor (v. 4), and ends with a joyous metaphor about a farmer (vv. 5-6).
It seems to be referencing the early Second Temple period, a time when Judah underwent significant restoration (ca. 540-440 BCE).
V. 4 asks God to “restore our fortunes… like a wadi in the Negev.”
1b-3. Salvation Hymn
5-6. Analogy: a farmer’s harvest
Psalm 126 is the subject of much scholarly debate. The first question is, “Is Psalm 126 a recollection of the past, a prayer for the future, or both?” The question stems from the enigmatic relationship between vv. 1-3 and v. 4: vv. 1-3 begins with an initial temporal clause and then uses perfect verbs to describe the “restoration of fortune,” and v. 4 uses an imperative asking God to “restore fortune.” While Hebrew verbal forms in poetic texts do not necessarily indicate time levels or time sequences, the verbal dissonance seems to indicate two sections: the psalm begins by recollecting the initial stages of salvation and then asks for that process to be completed. Thus, Psalm 126 – in its current form – seems to be both a Hymn and a Petition.
What do the words shuv, shivat zion, shevuteinu (“restoration of fortunes” or “to bring back captives”) in vv. 1,4 refer to? The phrase appears elsewhere in Tanach, sometimes in regards to Zion (cf. Ps 14:7; Isa 52:8) and sometimes not (cf. Job 42:10; Hos 6:11). It most likely refers to the restoration of Judah (cf. Jer 30:18; 31:23; Joel 4:1; Ezek 39:25-27), and might specifically be referring to the return of the exiles (cf. Ezra 1-2), the reconstruction of the temple (cf. Ezra 4-6), or the resettlement of Jerusalem and the rebuilding of its fortifications (cf. Neh. 3-6).
The hymn’s key phrase, “the LORD has done great things for us/them” has only one parallel in Tanach, Joel 2:20-21. This, and other textual similarities to the book of Joel (compare vv. 1,4 to Joel 4:1 and v. 1 to Joel 3:1) also hint of a postexilic date for this psalm.
What does the phrase “we were like dreamers” in v.1 mean? The answer depends on a previous question: is vv. 1-3 a recollection of the past or a prayer for the future? If it is a prayer, then the “dream” is something that did not yet occur, much like Isa. 29:8: “Like one who is hungry and dreams he is eating, but wakes to find himself empty; and like one who is thirsty and dreams he is drinking, but wakes to find himself faint and utterly parched…” Yet, if it is a reference to the past, it most likely means “we were in disbelief, as if in a dream.”
Psalm 126 ends with what might be labeled a “farmer’s song”: “They who sow in tears shall reap with songs of joy. Though he goes along weeping, carrying the seed-bag, he shall come back with songs of joy, carrying his sheaves.” What is this doing here? One possibility is that Psalm 126, which is found in the shir hama’alot section of the Psalter, was said by pilgrims during the festivals, and that is why the psalm ends with an agricultural song. Yet, it is more likely that the song served as a metaphor: it illustrates by analogy “the difficulties and utter relief of exilic existence. This appendix also serves to demonstrate the continuing struggle, in spite of [the Lord’s] saving interventions of the past.” (Gerstenberger)
V. Important verses
v. 4: “Restore our fortunes, O LORD, like watercourses in the Negeb.”