Psalm 126

A song of accent

When the Lord returned Zion’s captives[i],

it was like a dream[ii].

At that moment our mouths were filled with laughter

and our tongues with shouts of joy.

Then the nations said “The Lord has done great things for these people”

The Lord has done great things for us, we were happy.

Lord return our fortunes

as streams flowing in the desert[iii].

The ones sowing seed with tears

Will gather the harvest with shouts of joy.

They went away in tears, carrying bags of seed.

They will return, with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.

[i] This psalm has traditionally been understood as a celebration of the people of Israel who were returning from captivity. Some translators have suggested amending the text from שיבת (captive/sojourner) to שבות (captivity, captive, adversity, fortune) with an understanding of God returning the fortunes to the people (NIV 2011, ESV, TNK, NRSV); however, there is little textual support for such an emendation. Both the Aramaic targums and the LXX suggest that the understanding of “captives/captivity” is original. Some have suggested this should be understood as “a turning” as it is used in Aramaic. In this translation I have followed the traditional understanding (KJV, NIV 1984, JPS, NKJV, NASB)

[ii] Lit. “we were as ones dreaming”

[iii] The challenges to understanding this verse are similar to verse 1 except that written form here is שבות (captivity/captives/adversity/fortune); however, there is a marginal note in the MT that amends this to  שבית (captives/captivity). The Aramaic Targums and the LXX support a reading of captives/captivity aligning with the marginal notes of the MT. Some versions translate this very literally i.e. “restore our captivity” (NASB) but the meaning of this phrase (even in English) is unclear and does not seem to fit the context. The key to understanding this verse is likely in its comparison to “the streams in the Negev” but unfortunately the significance of this imagery is itself unclear. What is well understood is that the Negev is a very dry and arid place that receives very little rain. Most water comes from rain that comes to the higher mountain regions and flows in torrents into the lower desert regions of the Negev; the force of these torrents is frequently so powerful that it reshapes the landscape (even today it is not uncommon for these torrents to wash away modern roads in the Negev). In ancient times, survival in the Negev required one to store these waters in cisterns during these infrequent torrential flows, so that there would be water when the streams were dry. If the author of this psalm is alluding to the restoration of Israel’s wealth, the imagery could invoke the life sustaining blessing of these streams of water, a blessing that was needed for their very survival. The author could also be alluding to either the returning of Israel’s captives or its wealth with the imagery being seen as the captives (or wealth) of Israel to returning like the flood waters return to the Negev each year.


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