George Booker
Psalms Studies - Book 5

Psalm 126

1. The book of the family in Israel

In a time of famine the righteous go forth with the precious seed, sowing in tears (126:5,6). The seed is sown and, even as he sleeps (127:2), the man of faith receives blessings from the Lord. Chief among these blessings is the “harvest” of children (127:3), who gather round his table (128:3). So the Lord builds up the “house” of the man who fears Him, and he will live to see peace upon Israel (128:6).

The original historical reference is to the miraculous prolonging of Hezekiah’s days, that he might beget seed to continue the Messianic line. This domestic drama is set against the background of a fierce threat to the life of the nation by Sennacherib. In his confrontation with disease and devastation Hezekiah is a beautiful type of Christ (see Psa. 80, Par. 4), who was to surmount suffering, enemies, and death itself to see at last his “seed”, the “travail of his soul” (Isa. 53:10,11).

Everywhere we look in this section, we see Christ: the sower in tears who becomes a joyful reaper (126:5), the builder of God’s house (127:1), and the mighty hero with arrows in hand (127:4), who at last rests with his “family” around his table in the kingdom (128:3,5).

2. A psalm of Hezekiah

The threatened invasion from Assyria has come; in rapid succession forty-six fortified cities crumble before the enemy (2 Kings 18:13). All homes and lands are pitilessly plundered as the advancing army pursues a stream of refugees to Jerusalem. Now the Holy City is reached and surrounded, while within are crowds of homeless and weary country-folk. But the prayer of the remnant is heard; as though it were a dream (v. 1) the threatening host finally lies in shattered pieces — victims of the Angel of Death.

“When they arose early in the morning, behold they were all dead corpses” (2 Kings 19:35; Isa. 37:36).

When safety is assured, the gates of the city swing open to allow farmers to return to their homes and start again to rebuild their shattered prosperity.

Still the divine blessing is needed (v. 4), for now the enemy is famine. For some time the distressed nation has survived on stored food, and now a goodly portion of the little grain that remains must be committed to the soil, in faith and in hope of a rich harvest.

When the Lord turned again the captivity of Zion . In the RSV this is, “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion”. Though the AV implies a return from captivity (and of course there was such a return), the Hebrew seems to allow for a more spiritual application. The same phrase has the general sense of restoring of fortunes (and/or healing of diseases) in Job 42:10, where the blessings include, incidentally, long life and many children (cp. Psa. 127:3; 128:3,6)!

We were like them that dream means either: ‘We just couldn’t believe it’, or, ‘It was like coming out of a nightmare’.
Then was our mouth filled with laughter, and our tongue with singing. The word rinnah signifies “songs of joy” and appears also in vv. 5,6. The joyous songs employed on this occasion are undoubtedly before us in Isa. 38:10-20 and Psalms 120-134, to mention but a few. And even among the Gentiles are the mighty deeds of Yahweh magnified and glorified (see 2 Chron. 32:23). It is conceivable, to go a step further, that the returning captives of Assyria (Psa. 120:5) bring with them a “mixed multitude”: “We will go with you,” they seem to say, “for we perceive that God is with you [Immanuel!]” (Zech. 8:23; cp. Psa. 122:1,2).
The Lord hath done great things for them. The Lord hath done great things for us; whereof we are glad. What an effective repetition here, and made all the more effective when the italicized whereof is omitted.
Turn again our captivity, O Lord, as the streams in the south.

“Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses (aphikim: channels or gorges) in the Negeb” (RSV). Job compared his three companions to such deceitful brooks of the south country, which in the spring are filled with water, but in the heat of summer are dried up to the dismay of thirsty travelers (6:15-20). This annual phenomenon eloquently describes the vacillating fortunes of Israel throughout her history.

Perhaps more to the point, this vivid figure of speech may refer to the 200,000 returning captives: Picture a wadi in the Negeb without a sign of moisture in it (not a difficult task in Texas! or Australia? but in England?!). Then, as a result of a thunderstorm in the hills, there comes a mighty rush of floodwaters. So also with the road back to Zion — first it is empty of travelers, and then suddenly it is inundated with an eager continuous stream of rejoicing former captives intent on getting back home as fast as their legs can carry them!
They that sow in tears shall reap in joy. He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him. The literal reference is surely to the amazing prosperity which the God-blessed Year of Jubilee brought after the preceding year of devastating invasion (2 Kings 19:29; Isa. 37:30; v. 31 there describes the return of the captives, according to Lev. 25:10). But the anticipation of such extraordinary fertility would require the faith of the farmer, to sacrifice perhaps his last stores of seed in hope of the wonderful harvest. Compare also the “kingdom” picture of Amos 9:13,14:

“Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that the plowman shall overtake the reaper, and the treader of grapes him that soweth seed; and the mountains shall drop sweet wine, and all the hills shall melt. And I will bring again the captivity of my people of Israel, and they shall build the waste cities, and inhabit them [Psa. 127:1]; and they shall plant vineyards, and drink the wine thereof [128:3]; they shall also make gardens, and eat the fruit of them.”

4. The Resurrection of Christ

“Blessed are they that mourn (now), for they shall be comforted” (Matt. 5:4). No one but the Master can so touch the heart and spirit of man, and convince us that our consolation shall be infinitely sweeter than any bitter affliction. Our thoughts are transported from the days of the Assyrian threat to those of the Roman occupation, when God’s people wept in the long night of Zion’s captivity. In their bondage they cried to God for a deliverer, and He heard them. But God’s timetable again called for a sowing in tears before there could be a reaping in joy:

“Except a grain of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit” (John 12:24).

From the hill of death, as the shadows lengthened, a little group trudged their forlorn way to a new tomb carved out of a hillside. There they deposited their precious burden; the hungry earth reclaimed its own. The “seed” was planted and watered with their tears, and they returned in sorrow to their homes. Daylight came, and night, and day again, and behold... a stirring! The annual miracle of sowing and reaping found its counterpart in a “harvest” of the highest order. God gave the increase, the “seed” sprouted and grew, though man knew not how.

“A woman when she is in travail hath sorrow, because her hour is come: but as soon as she is delivered of the child, she remembereth no more the anguish, for joy (s.w. “laughter” in Psa. 126:2!) that a man is born into the world. Ye now therefore have sorrow,” he had told them. “But I will see you again, and your heart shall rejoice, and your joy no man taketh from you” (John 16:21,22). Into the city they ran, with a song of joy on their lips and in their hearts. It is a “harvest song” of thanks-giving which has never ceased from that day to this, no, nor ever shall. It is a song passed from one to another, sung by each new generation with a wonder that is always fresh. It is a song of joy to gladden the heart of the weariest disciple with the prospect of a day when all tears shall cease (Rev. 21:4), and the sorrowful sowing of the “night” will be only a memory.

There is a remarkable fitness about this psalm with reference not only to the resurrection but also to the ensuing Pentecost experience of the disciples:

We were like them that dream. The word is often associated with a new revelation (Acts 2:17).
Then was our mouth filled with laughter. The language in Jer. 33:11 is very close: “The voice of joy, and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom, and the voice of the bride, the voice of them that shall say, ‘Praise the Lord of hosts: for the Lord is good; for his mercy endureth for ever’: and of them that shall bring the sacrifice of praise into the house of the Lord. For I will cause to return the captivity of the land, as at the first, saith the Lord.”

And our tongue with singing. Joel 2:21; Acts 2:11 (s.w.) might also imply singing, as here.
Bringing his sheaves with him. See Lev. 23:11, and the symbolism of the “wave sheaf”.

5. Preaching the word

The Apostle Paul was no stranger to the sacrifice of present comfort:

“He that soweth to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting. Let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not” (Gal. 6:8,9).

The preacher of the gospel, like the husbandman, soon learns the value of diligence. He that looks about himself and waits for “more favorable circumstances” will never sow, and hence will never reap (Eccl. 11:4,6). The gratification of the present — “the folding of the hands to sleep” (Prov. 6:10) — will inevitably bring spiritual famine and eventual death:

“The sluggard will not plow by reason of the cold; therefore shall he beg in harvest, and have nothing” (20:4).

The preacher and the farmer both learn the value of patience also: the seed planted does not spring into fruit overnight. The faithful servant must establish his heart in the sureness of the divine promise, though it be a thousand years in its realization (James 5:7,8).

He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing precious seed (‘the seed for sowing’: RSV), shall doubtless come again with rejoicing (‘songs of joy’ — cp. vv. 2,3), bringing his sheaves with him (v. 6). The repetition and progression of these lines are best seen in the poetic format:        

“He shall walk, and walk with weeping,
Bearing his handful of seed;
He shall come, and come with singing,
Bearing his sheaves.”

Even the “going forth” may be fraught with danger; in an unsettled time and place, to venture forth from the protection of a walled city or village into the open fields was an invitation to disaster at the hands of thieves or marauders.

The word translated “precious” in the AV (meshek) appears only twice altogether in the Old Testament. The derivation is from a root word signifying “to draw out” — as from a bag or other container. This may be seen by its use in Amos 9:13: “him that soweth (mg.: ‘draweth forth’) seed”. The second actual occurrence of meshek is in Job 28:18, where “the price” gives the sense of “that which is drawn out”, in this case from a purse. Thus the RSV ‘seed for sowing’ would appear to be accurate, although the idea of preciousness is certainly appropriate to the context.

The idea of the proclamation of the gospel under the figure of sowing seed is a common one is Scripture and scarcely needs further comment. But one reference is unusually striking:

“And he said, So is the kingdom of God, as if a man should cast seed into the ground: and should sleep and rise night and day, and the seed should sprout and grow, he knoweth not how” (Mark 4:26,27).

The work of the husbandman is the planting of the seed. This requires diligence and faith, and the waiting requires patience and prayer. Finally, mysteriously, “God giveth the increase” (1 Cor. 3:6,7): man knows not how. Even today, modern man, though the beneficiary of some stupendous scientific advances, cannot fathom but must simply accept the fact of the germination of the seed. As the poet said, “Only God can make a tree” — or a flower, or a stalk of ripe grain. And, though man allies himself with the work, only God can bring fruit to His glory from the sterile soil of human nature.

But we must proceed beyond this familiar figure if we hope to approach the depths of meaning in this passage. We proclaim truth by more than the setting forth of “first principles” to “interested friends”. We should proclaim truth in every deed of every day of an honest and faithful life. We send forth the fragile vessel of faith upon the stormy waters of life’s sea: through tear-dimmed eyes we longingly search for the haven of rest. “Cast thy bread upon the waters: for thou shalt find it after many days” (Eccl. 11:1). Sowing the “seed” of a faithful life is like trusting one’s substance to a ship which only after a long and perilous voyage will return to port with a profitable cargo.

Then sow; — for the hours are fleeting,
And the seed must fall today;
And care not what hands shall reap it...
Sow; and look onward, upward,
Where the starry light appears —
Where, in spite of the coward’s doubting,
Or your own heart’s trembling fears,
You shall reap in joy the harvest
You have sown today in tears.

Adelaide Proctor

Break up, break up your fallow ground;
        Pluck out the noxious weed;
Nor heed the cold and piercing blast;
        Cast in the precious seed.
The time of harvest surely comes
        Whether we work or sleep —
But harvest sheaves will be for those
        Who work, although they weep.

Beside all waters sow the seed;
        The increase is of God.
We know not how the seed doth grow
        Beneath the mouldering clod;
But if the sower stay his hand,
        What shall the harvest be?
Then work, while it is called “Today”,
        That sheaves be brought by thee.

Ernest Pitt

6. The last days

There are clear signs in the prophets that in the Last Days there will be another desperate experience of captivity, when Israel is overrun by Arab enemies, and when inhuman attempts are made to get rid of the entire Jewish population (cp. Joel 3:4-7,19; Zech. 14:1; Deut. 28:68; Isa. 19:18-20; 49:16-26). The return of these shattered captives to their state of Israel, now new-born (like themselves) through their newly-manifested Messiah, will be a sensation surpassing every excitement the modern world has known.
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