A Song of Ascents. When the LORD brought back the captive ones of Zion, we were like those who dream. 2 Then our mouth was filled with laughter and our tongue with joyful shouting; then they said among the nations, “The LORD has done great things for them.” 3 The LORD has done great things for us; we are glad. 4 Restore our captivity, O LORD, as the streams in the South. 5 Those who sow in tears shall reap with joyful shouting. 6 He who goes to and fro weeping, carrying his bag of seed, shall indeed come again with a shout of joy, bringing his sheaves with him. (Psa 126:1-6 NASB)
This psalm of ascent is a praise, a prayer, and an expectation of restored blessing. It praises God for the return of His people back to the land; presumably from Babylonian captivity (vss. 1-3). It also requests the Lord restore even more captives (vs 4). Finally, those who struggled to cultivate the land were encouraged to be persistent, knowing they would eventually experience the joy of harvest (vss. 5-6).
The psalm opens with a temporal clause that sets the mind on “When the LORD brought back the captive ones of Zion” (Psa 126:1a). Babylonian captivity is likely in view. Those who came back to Judah and Jerusalem were among the exiles who had experienced captivity and suffering, and having returned to the land, they had difficulty believing it was true and “were like those who dream” (Psa 126:1b). The result was, “Then our mouth was filled with laughter and our tongue with joyful shouting” (Psa 126:2a). Even the Gentile nations recognized something miraculous had happened, and they declared, “The LORD has done great things for them” (Psa 126:2b). The returned Israelites agreed, saying, “The LORD has done great things for us; we are glad” (Psa 126:3).
The Lord has intervened to restore Israel from its exile to its land (cf. Ezra 1:1–4), but more significantly the return from captivity signaled a restoration from divine judgment to blessing. This unexpected change for the captives totally amazed them so that the people of Israel felt as though they must be dreaming, as did Peter when he was delivered from prison in Acts 12:9. They had experienced the surprising grace of the Lord, who exceeded their greatest hopes, as only he could (cf. Eph 3:20).
The Psalm then shifts from praise to prayer as they ask, “Restore our captivity, O LORD, as the streams in the South” (Psa 126:4). Other translations read, “Restore our fortunes, LORD, like watercourses in the Negev” (Psa 126:4 CSB), and “O LORD, restore our well-being, just as the streams in the arid south are replenished” (Psa 126:4 NET). The NASB translates the Hebrew noun שְׁבוּת shebuth as captivity, whereas the CSB and NET translate it fortunes and well-being. This is likely a request for more Israelites to return from Babylonian captivity to help with the restoration. For just as dry rivers beds could suddenly be filled with water when the rain comes, “as the streams in the South” (Psa 126:4b), so the psalmist prays the empty highways from Babylon to Judah would flow with returning Israelites.
The streams in the South of Israel, the Negev, dry up in the parched summer months but become raging torrents during the rainy season. The psalmist used these streams as a figure of what the highways from Babylon could become with God’s further blessing. They could become flooded with travelers moving back into the land God wanted His chosen people to occupy.
The joy the Israelites knew when they’d returned from captivity did not last long, for they faced the daunting task of restoring a nation and society rooted in the Mosaic Law, with its rebuilt temple and festivals (read Ezra 3:1-13). In addition, they faced opposition and discouragement along the way (Ezra 4:1-4, 24), which delayed the temple reconstruction for sixteen years, until 520 B.C., when God raised up the prophets Haggai and Zechariah to encourage the Israelites to finish the work (Hag 1:1, 14-15; Zec 1:1, 7). Part of the struggle the Israelites faced included cultivating the hard land which had not been tilled for decades. It is in this context the psalmist seeks to encourage his readers, saying, “Those who sow in tears shall reap with joyful shouting. He who goes to and fro weeping, carrying his bag of seed, shall indeed come again with a shout of joy, bringing his sheaves with him” (Psa 126:5-6). The challenge for them was to remain faithful in the routine and not let impatience or discouragement get them down. Perseverance would eventually bring reward, for the seed would sprout, the harvest would come, and the tears would be replaced with celebration.
God’s people were amazed and filled with laughter when He restored them from captivity to the land of Judah and the city of Jerusalem (Psa 126:1-3), and they prayed the Lord would restore even more (vs 4). But the joy was dampened by the hard work of cultivating the land which had laid dormant for decades; however, they were encouraged to be persistent, knowing their labor would result in a harvest.
Dr. Steven R. Cook
- A Song of Ascent – Psalm 123
- The Lord is My Shepherd – Psalm 23
- Choosing the Faithful Way – Psalm 119: 25-32
- God’s Word Sustains Us – Psalm 119:89-96
- Establish Our Footsteps – Psalm 119:129-136
- Seek Your Servant – Psalm 119:169-176
 Daniel J. Estes, Psalms 73–150, ed. E. Ray. Clendenen, vol. 13, New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2019), 475.
 Tom Constable, Tom Constable’s Expository Notes on the Bible (Galaxie Software, 2003), Ps 126:4.