Psalm 126:1

PSALM 126 OVERVIEW.

Title. -- A Song of Degrees. This is the seventh Step, and we may therefore expect to meet with some special perfection of joy in it; nor shall we look in vain. We see here not only that Zion abides, but that her joy returns after sorrow. Abiding is not enough, fruitfulness is added. The pilgrims went from blessing to blessing in their psalmody as they proceeded on their holy way. Happy people to whom ever ascent was a song, every halt a hymn. Here the trustor becomes a sower: faith works by love, obtains a present bliss, and secures a harvest of delight.

There is nothing in this psalm by which we can decide its date, further than this, -- that it is a song after a great deliverance from oppression. "Turning captivity" by no means requires an actual removal into banishment to fill out the idea; rescue from any dire affliction or crushing tyranny would be fitly described as "captivity turned." Indeed, the passage is not applicable to captives in Babylon, for it is Zion itself which is in captivity and not a part of her citizens: the holy city was in sorrow and distress; though it could not be removed, the prosperity could be diminished. Some dark cloud lowered over the beloved capital, and its citizens prayed "Turn again our captivity. O Lord."

This psalm is in its right place and most fittingly follows its predecessor, for as in Ps 125:1-5, we read that the rod of the wicked shall not rest upon the lot of the righteous, we here see it removed from them to their great joy. The word "turn" would seem to be the keynote of the song: it is a Psalm of conversion -- conversion from captivity; and it may well be used to set forth the rapture of a pardoned soul when the anger of the Lord is turned away from it. We will call it, "Leading captivity captive."

The Psalm divides itself into a narrative ( Psalms 126:1-2 ), a song ( Psalms 126:3 ), a prayer (Ps 126:4), and a promise ( Psalms 126:5-6 ).

EXPOSITION

Verse 1. When the Lord turned again the captivity of Zion, we were like them that dream. Being in trouble, the gracious pilgrims remember for their comfort times of national woe which were succeeded by remarkable deliverances. Then sorrow was gone like a dream, and the joy which followed was so great that it seemed too good to be true, and they feared that it must be the vision of an idle brain. So sudden and so overwhelming was their joy that they felt like men out of themselves, ecstatic, or in a trance. The captivity had been great, and great was the deliverance; for the great God himself had wrought it: it seemed too good o be actually true: each man said to himself, --

"Is this a dream? O if it be a dream,
Let me sleep on, and do not wake me yet."

It was not the freedom of an individual which the Lord in mercy had wrought, but of all Zion, of the whole nation; and this was reason enough for overflowing gladness. We need not instance the histories which illustrate this verse in connection with literal Israel; but it is well to remember how often it has been true to ourselves. Let us look to the prison houses from which we have been set free. Ah, me, what captives we have been! At our first conversion what a turning again of captivity we experienced. Never shall that hour be forgotten. Joy! Joy! Joy! Since then, from multiplied troubles, from depression of spirit, from miserable backsliding, from grievous doubt, we have been emancipated, and we are not able to describe the bliss which followed each emancipation.

"When God reveal'd his gracious name
And changed our mournful state,
Our rapture seem'd, a pleasing dream,
The grace appeared so great."

This verse will have a higher fulfilment in the day of the final overthrow of the powers of darkness when the Lord shall come forth for the salvation and glorification of his redeemed. Then in a fuller sense than even at Pentecost our old men shall see visions, and our young men shall dream dreams: yea, all things shall be so wonderful, so far beyond all expectation, that those who behold them shall ask themselves whether it be not all a dream. The past is ever a sure prognostic of the future; the thing which has been is the thing that shall be: we shall again and again find ourselves amazed at the wonderful goodness of the Lord. Let our hearts gratefully remember the former loving kindnesses of the Lord: we were sadly low, sorely distressed, and completely past hope, but when Jehovah appeared he did not merely lift us out of despondency, he raised us into wondering happiness. The Lord who alone turns our captivity does nothing by halves: those whom he saves from hell he brings to heaven. He turns exile into ecstasy, and banishment into bliss.

EXPLANATORY NOTES AND QUAINT SAYINGS.

Title. Augustine interprets the title, "A Song of Degrees, i.e. a Song of drawing upwards", of the drawing (going) up to the heavenly Jerusalem. This is right, inasmuch as the deliverance from the captivity of sin and death should in an increased measure excite those feelings of gratitude which Israel must have felt on being delivered from their corporeal captivity; in this respect again is the history of the outward theocracy a type of the history of the church. --Augustus F. Tholuck, 1856.

Whole Psalm. In its Christian aspect the psalm represents the seventh of the "degrees" in our ascent to the Jerusalem that is above. The Christian's exultation at his deliverance from the spiritual captivity of sin. --H. T. Armfield.

Whole Psalm. In mine opinion they go near to the sense and true meaning of the Psalm who do refer it to that great and general captivity of mankind under sin, death and the devil, and to the redemption purchased by the death and blood shedding of Christ, and published in the Gospel. For this kind of speech which the Prophet useth here is of greater importance than that it may be applied only to Jewish particular captivities. For what great matter was it for these people of the Jews, being, as it were, a little handful, to be delivered out of temporal captivity, in comparison of the exceeding and incomparable deliverance whereby mankind was set at liberty from the power of their enemies, not temporal, but eternal, even from death, Satan and hell itself? Wherefore we take this Psalm to be a prophecy of the redemption that should come by Jesus Christ, and the publishing of the gospel, whereby the kingdom of Christ is advanced, and death and the devil with all the powers of darkness are vanquished. --Thomos Stint, in An Exposition on Psalms 124-126, 1621.

Whole Psalm. I believe this psalm is yet once more to be sung in still more joyous strain; once more will the glad tidings of Israel's restoration break upon her scattered tribes, like the unreal shadow of a dream; once more will the inhabitants of the various lands from among whom they come forth exclaim in adoring wonder, "The Lord hath done great things for them", when they see Israelite after Israelite and Jew after Jew, as on that wondrous night of Egypt, with their loins girded, their shoes on their feet, and their staff in their hand, hasting to obey the summons that recalls them to their own loved land! -- Barton Bouchier (1794-1865), in "Manna in the Heart."

Whole Psalm

When, her sons from bonds redeeming,
God to Zion led the way,
We were like to people dreaming
Thoughts of bliss too bright to stay.
Fill'd with laughter, stood we gazing,
Loud our tongues in rapture sang;
Quickly with the news amazing
All the startled nations rang.
"See Jehovah's works of glory!
Mark what love for them he had!"
"Yes, FOR US! Go tell the story.
This was done, and we are glad."
Lord! thy work of grace completing
All our exiled hosts restore,
As in thirsty channels meeting
Southern streams refreshing pour.
They that now in sorrow weeping
Tears and seed commingled sow,
Soon, the fruitful harvest reaping,
Shall with joyful bosoms glow.
Tho' the sower's heart is breaking,
Bearing forth the seed to shed,
He shall come, the echoes waking,
Laden with his sheaves instead.

--William Digby Seymour, in "The Hebrew Psalter. A New Metrical Translation", 1882.

Verse 1. When the Lord turned again the captivity. As by the Lord's permission they were led into captivity, so only by his power they were set at liberty. When the Israelites had served in a strange land four hundred years, it was not Moses, but Jehovah, that brought them out of the land of Egypt, and out of the house of bondage. In like manner it was he and not Deborah that freed them for Jabin after they had been vexed twenty years under the Canaanites. It was he and not Gideon that brought them out of the hands of the Midianites, after seven years' servitude. It was he and not Jephthah that delivered them from the Philistines and Amorites after eighteen years' oppression. Although in all these he did employ Moses and Deborah, Gideon and Jephthah, as instruments for their deliverance; and so it was not Cyrus's valour, but the Lord's power; not his policy, but God's wisdom, that, overthrowing the enemies, gave to Cyrus the victory, and put it into his heart to set his people at liberty; for he upheld his hands to subdue nations. He did weaken the loins of kings, and did open the doors before him, he did go before him, and made the crooked places straight; and he did break the brazen doors, and burst the iron bars. Isaiah 45:1-2 . --John Hume, in "The Jewes Deliverance", 1628.

Verse 1. In Jehovah's turning (to) the turning of Zion. Meaning to return to the, or meet those returning, as it were, half way. The Hebrew noun denotes conversion, in its spiritual sense, and the verb God's gracious condescension in accepting or responding to it. --Joseph Addison Alexander.

Verse 1. The captivity of Zion. I ask, first, Why of Zion? why not the captivity of Jerusalem, Judah, Israel? Jerusalem, Judah, Israel, were led away captives, no less than Zion. They, the greater and more general; why not the captivity of them, but of Zion? It should seem there is more in Zion's captivity than in the rest, that choice is made of it before the rest. Why? what was Zion? We know it was but a hill in Jerusalem, on the north side. Why is that hill so honoured? No reason in the world but this, -- that upon it the Temple was built; and so, that Zion is much spoken of, and much made of, it is only for the Temple's sake. For whose sake it is (even for his church), that "the Lord loveth the gates of Zion more than all the dwellings of Jacob" ( Psalms 87:2 ); loveth her more, and so her captivity goeth nearer him, and her deliverance better pleaseth him, than all Jacob besides. This maketh Zion's captivity to be mentioned chiefly, as chiefly regarded by God, and to be regarded by his people. As we see it was: when they sat by the waters of Babylon, that which made them weep was, "When we remembered thee, O Zion"; that was their greatest grief. That their greatest grief, and this their greatest joy; Loetati sumus, when news came (not, saith the Psalm, in domos nostras, We shall go everyone to his own house, but) in domun Domini ibimus, "We shall go to the house of the Lord, we shall appear before the God of gods in Zion." --Lancelot Andrews, 1555-1626.

Verse 1. We were like them that dream. That is, they thought it was but mere fantasy and imagination. --Sydraeh Simpson, 1658.

Verse 1. We were like them that dream. Here you may observe that God doth often send succour and deliverance to the godly in the time of their affliction, distress, and adversity; that many times they themselves do doubt of the truth thereof, and think that in very deed they are not delivered, but rather that they have dreamed. Peter, being imprisoned by Herod, when he was delivered by an angel, for all the light that did shine in the prison; though the angel did smite him on the side and raised him up; though he caused the chains to fall off his hands; though he spake to him three several times, Surge, einge, circunda; "Arise quickly, gird thyself, and cast thy garment about thee"; though he conducted him safely by the watches; and though he caused the iron gates to open willingly; yet for all this he was like unto them that dream. "For he wist not that it was true which was done by the angel; but thought he saw a vision": Acts 11:9 . When old Jacob was told by his sons that his son Joseph was alive, his heart failed, and he believed them not; but when he had heard all that Joseph had said, and when he saw the chariots that Joseph had sent, then, as it were, raised from a sleep, and awakened from a dream, his spirit revived, and, rejoicing, he cried out, "I have enough; Joseph my son is yet alive."

Lorinus seems to excuse this their distrust, because they were so over ravished with joy, that they misdoubted the true cause of their joy: like the Apostles, who having Christ after his resurrection standing before them, they were so exceedingly joyed, that rejoicing they wondered and doubted; and like the two Marys, when the angel told them of our Saviour Christ's resurrection, they returned from the sepulchre rejoicing, and yet withal fearing. It may be they feared the truth of so glad news, and doubted lest they were deceived by some apparition. --John Hume

Verse 1. We were like them that dream. We thought that we were dreaming; we could hardly believe our eyes, when at the command of Cyrus, king of the Persians, we had returned to our own land. The same thing happened to the Greeks, when they heard that their country, being conquered by the Romans, had been made free by the Roman consul, P. Quinctius Flaminius. Livy says that when the herald had finished there was more good news than the people could receive all at once. They could scarcely believe that they had heard aright. They were looking on each other wonderingly, like sleepers on an empty dream. --John Le Clerc Clericus, 1657-1736.

Verse 1. We were like them that dream, etc. In the lapse of seventy years the hope of restoration to their land, so long deferred, had mostly gone out in despair, save as it rested (in some minds) on their faith in God's promise. The policy of those great powers in the East had long been settled, viz., to break up the old tribes and kingdoms of Western Asia; take the people into far eastern countries, and never let them return. No nation known to history, except the Jews, ever did return to rebuild their ancient cities and homes. Hence this joyous surprise. --Henry Cowles, in "The Psalms; with Notes", 1872.

Verse 1. Like them that dream. It was no dream; it was Jacob's dream become a reality. It was the promise, "I will bring thee back into this land" ( Genesis 28:15 ), fulfilled beyond all their hope. --William Kay, in "The Psalms, with Notes, chiefly exegetical", 1871.

Verse 1. We were like them that dream. The words should rather be translated, "We are like unto those that are restored to health." The Hebrew word signifies to recover, or, to be restored to health. And so the same word is translated in Isaiah 38:1-22 , when Hezekiah recovered, he made a psalm of praise, and said, "O Lord, by these things men live, and in all these things is the life of my spirit: so wilt thou recover me, and make me to live." It is the same word that is used here. Thus Cajetan, Shindior, and others would have it translated here; and it suits best with the following words, "Then were our mouths filled with laughter, and our tongues with praise." When a man is in a good dream, his mouth is not filled with laughter, nor his tongue with praise: if a man be in a bad dream, his mouth is not filled with laughter, nor his tongue with praise; but when a man is restored to health after a great sickness, it is so. --William Bridge, 1600-1670.

HINTS FOR PASTORS AND LAYPERSONS

Verse 1.

  1. Sunny memories of what the Lord did, "he turned again the captivity", etc.
  2. Singular impressions, -- we could not believe it to be true.
  3. Special discoveries -- it was true, abiding, etc.

Verse 1. A comparison and a contrast.

  1. The saved like them that dream.
    1. In the strangeness of their experience.
    2. In the ecstasy of their joy.
  2. The saved unlike them that dream.
    1. In the reality of their experience. Dreams are unsubstantial things, but "the Lord turned" -- an actual fact.
    2. In their freedom from disappointment. No awakening to find it "but a dream": see Isaiah 29:8 .
  3. In the endurance of their joy. The joy of dreams is soon forgotten, but this is "everlasting joy." --W. H. J. P.