Tears of sorrow into shouts of joy, parched seed into fruitful sheaves, and captivity turned into liberation – these are the transformations of psalm 126. There are two stanzas, the first looking back to a historical liberation (perhaps the defeat of Sennacherib?) to provide the ground for faith and a memory of just what deliverance feels like and what its consequences are. The second stanza is the real impetus for the psalm: an appeal that God would again overturn the people’s captivity in a new predicament that has now arisen.
Three images are used to capture the implications of what such a turnaround would mean: a barren land made fruitful again by the spring streams, weeping turned into joy, and the agricultural picture of dormant seed turned into abundant crops.
- [A Song of degrees.]
When the LORD turned again the captivity of Zion,
We were like them that dream.
- Then was our mouth filled with laughter,
And our tongue with singing:
Then said they among the heathen,
The LORD hath done great things for them.
- The LORD hath done great things for us;
Whereof we are glad.
- Turn again our captivity, O LORD,
As the streams in the south.
- 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 first stanza ably captures what it feels like when a mindset adopted to handle one set of negative conditions is suddenly turned on its head by a dramatic reversal. It is like a dream, too good to be true – an outcome beyond anything we dared hope for, our world transformed as external constraints are cast off and fresh possibilities long since relegated suddenly present themselves once more. People clasp and hug one another, urgently embracing to assure themselves that it is real, to render the experience tangible and share the joy. There is laughter, music, and a lightness of being as though everyone had been cooped up interminably in darkness and now, suddenly, we are in the open air, blinking in sunlight streaming down on our faces, scarcely able to believe that the light and the warmth we are re-experiencing is real. As we stand, wondering if we are awake or if this is just a dream, a song starts to swell among us, gaining in force as more voices join the harmony. Now we are singing too, and we realise that it is true – that this is really happening; this is what deliverance feels like:
The Lord hath done great things for us,
Whereof we are glad.
If the deliverance from Sennacherib’s ‘caging’ of Jerusalem in indeed the historical background here then it is certainly true that the nations sat up and took notice of such a surprising liberation. Even the Babylonians sent ambassadors to Zion, and correspondingly in the psalm it is the nations rather than the Jews themselves who actually being the singing (‘Then they said among the nations, “The Lord hath done great things for them.”‘). It takes time for the reality of salvation to sink in when you yourself are the one who has been imprisoned. But the dispassionate outsiders can see what has happened, and they are in under no illusion. It was exactly the same when Israel came out of Egypt – and perhaps there are echoes of that deliverance as well.
Back to reality
The second stanza jolts us back to a present reality. Although the deliverances of the past were real enough, right now we are in a new situation of captivity and our need is as great as it had ever been. Perhaps this is the captivity of the Exile that is spoken of; perhaps the psalm is written in Hezekiah’s day in readiness for future calamities that would certainly befall God’s people; or perhaps it can speak metaphorically of the wider captivity of humanity’s enslavement to sin and death. Whichever of these it is (and it could be more than one), it is at this point that the single imperative and fulcrum of the psalm is found:
Turn again our captivity, O Lord!
The first analogy is to the streams of the south: ‘Turn again our captivity O Lord, as the streams of the south’. These are the wadis of the desert, dry for much of the time, but when the rains come on mount Hermon in the north and the Jordan is full and floods its banks then all the little streams and rivulets are full of water and the whole land is watered as new life springs out of the barren ground. It is like the flooding of the Nile delta bringing up those natural fertilising silts, the life-blood of the land of Egypt. Who could have believed only weeks before that the arid land would become lush and green so soon? And yet here it is.
Don’t forget the precious seed…
The next images continue the agricultural theme: those who sow in tears will reap in joy. The tears continue the water motif of the streams but in an inversion (first wet tears, then a dry and joyful face; this is opposite of a dry land being wet by overflowing streams). While the act of sowing would be unlikely of itself to bring someone to tears, there are all kinds of metaphorical ways in which initiatives sometimes have to be undertaken in sadness and uncertainty. We find ourselves in situations that we don’t want to be in – we may hate our lot and wish things were different – but we either ossify and do nothing, transfixed by circumstance, or we put one in front of the other and go out to sow, weeping as we go.
The final four lines amplify this illustration:
He that goeth forth
bearing precious seed,
Shall doubtless come again
bringing his sheaves with him.
Every element of the first three lines is inverted in the last three (abc-abc): he goes, but he comes back; he weeps, but then he rejoices; he bears precious seed, but then he comes back arms laden with sheaves! It is the way of things; we must make it count and engage ourselves in activity when we can least find the will to do so. We may go out in exile and captivity, lamenting as we go – but when such circumstances arise in life we must follow the example here: we must go bearing precious seed! Seed speaks of potential and possibility. From the hard, dry and dusty husk new life can spring forth if only the conditions are right; the precious seed represents the promise of fruitfulness and plenty in the future. To travel carrying seed with you means to travel with fledgling hope, with openness to what might be and a sense of future possibility. It means refusing to be completely consumed by the sorrows of the present but to look instead for a future return on the painful investment of today. And of course seed is a symbol for the word of God and the potential of fruitfulness and life with Him which it is able to unlock.
Wherever we go, then, with whatever dilemma – even if it is into captivity in Babylon itself – we must go bearing precious seed. Just as a seed when planted will surely grow, so we will ‘doubtless’ come again. But we shall not come as we went, shoulders bent, cowering, with hearts heavy and minds consumed by bleak thoughts; we shall come bearing sheaves to feed both ourselves and others, we shall come our hearts rejoicing together before our God.