Notes on the Bible, by Albert Barnes, , at sacred-texts.com
This psalm is entitled simply "A Song of Degrees." See the Introduction to Psa 120:1-7. There can be no reasonable doubt as to the occasion on which it was composed, for it bears internal evidence of having been composed with reference to the return from Babylon. It may have been designed to be sung as the returning captives went up to Jerusalem, but was more probably composed subsequently to that event, as designed to keep it in remembrance. It was evidently, however, written not long after the return, and by someone who had been personally interested in it, for the author manifestly, in describing the feelings of the people Psa 126:1-2, speaks of himself as one of them, or as participating in those feelings which they had when the exile was closed, and when they returned to their own land. Who the author was, it is in vain now to conjecture.
It is evident from the psalm Psa 126:5, that, when it was composed, there was still some trouble - something that might be called a "captivity," from which the psalmist prays that they might be delivered; and the object of the psalm would seem to be in part, in that trial to find encouragement from the former interposition of God in their case. As he had "turned the captivity of Zion," as he had filled their "mouth with laughter," so the psalmist prays that he would again interpose in similar circumstances, and renew his goodness. It is, of course, now impossible to determine precisely to what this refers. It may be, as Rosenmuller supposes, to a portion of the people who remained in exile; or it may be to some other captivity or danger to which they were exposed after their return. The psalmist, however, expresses entire confidence that there would be such interposition, and that, though then in trouble, they would have joy, such as the farmer has who goes forth sowing his seed with weeping, and who comes with joy in the harvest, bearing his sheaves with him, Psa 126:5-6.
When the Lord turned again the captivity of Zion - Margin, as in Hebrew, "returned the returning of Zion." The Hebrew word which is rendered in the text captivity means properly return; and then, those returning. The ancient versions render it captivity. The reference clearly is to those who were returning to Zion, and the psalmist fixes his eye on them as returning, and immediately says that it was the Lord who had thus restored them. The whole was to be traced to God.
We were like them that dream - The Latin Vulgate and the Septuagint render this, "we were comforted." The meaning is, "It seemed like a dream; we could hardly realize that it was so; it was so marvelous, so good, so full of joy, that we could scarcely believe it was real." This state of mind is not uncommon, when, in sudden and overpowering joy, we ask whether it can be real; whether it is not all a dream. We fear that it is; we apprehend that it will all vanish away like a dream.
Then was our mouth filled with laughter - Then were we happy; completely happy. See Job 8:21.
And our tongue with singing - We expressed our joy in songs - the natural expression of joy. Young converts - those "turned" from sin to God - sing. Their feelings find expression in the songs of Zion. This is natural; this is proper; this will occur when sinners are converted. An assemblage of young converts is always a happy assemblage; a place where there is a "revival" of religion is always a happy place - full of songs and singing.
Then said they among the heathen - The nations; the people among whom they dwelt.
The Lord hath done great things for them - In causing their return to their own land; in ordering the arrangements for it; in bringing their captivity to an end; in securing such interposition from the civil rulers as to facilitate their return. This would indicate that the surrounding people had not an unfriendly feeling toward them, but that they pitied them in exile, and were disposed to acknowledge the hand of God in what was done. Their deliverance, in the circumstances, was such as evidently to have been the work of God. This will agree well with the account of the return of the exiles from Babylon, and with all that had been done for them by Cyrus. Compare Ezr 1:1-4.
The Lord hath done great things for us - All that the people around us say is true. We see it; we feel it; we acknowledge it. Those to whom this pertained would see it more clearly than those who had merely observed it. A surrounding world may see in the conversion of a man, in his being turned from sin, in the influence of religion upon him, in his comfort, calmness, and peace, that "the Lord has done great things" for him; but he himself, while he responds most fully to what they say, will see this more clearly than they do. There is more in his redemption, his conversion, his peace and joy, than they do or can perceive, and with emphasis he himself will say, "The Lord has done great things for me."
Whereof we are glad - It fills our souls with joy. If this is understood of the returning Hebrews - coming back from the captivity in Babylon - all must see how appropriate is the language; if it be applied to a sinner returning to God, it is no less suitable, for there is nothing that so fills the mind with joy as a true conversion to God.
Turn again our captivity, O Lord - literally, "Turn our captivity." The word "again" is inserted by the translators, and conveys an idea which is not necessarily in the original. It is simply a prayer that God would "turn" their captivity; that is, looking upon the captivity as not wholly ended, or as, in some sense, still continuing, that it might please him wholly to turn it, or to end it. The language would be applicable, if there was a new "captivity" similar to the one from which they had been delivered, or if the one mainly referred to was not complete; that is, if a part of the people still remained in bondage. The latter is probably the idea, that while a considerable part of the nation had been restored, and while an order had been issued for the restoration of all the captives to their native land, it was still true that a portion of them remained in exile; and the prayer is, that God would interfere in their behalf, and complete the work. A portion of the exiles, in fact, returned under Cyrus; a part under Darius; a part under Xerxes and his successors. The return was by no means accomplished at once, but occupied a succession of years.
As the streams in the south - In the southern parts of Palestine, or in the regions bordering it on the south - Idumea and Arabia. That is, As those streams when dried up by the summer heat are swelled by autumnal and winter rains, so let the streams of the returning people, which seem now to be diminished, be swelled by augmenting numbers coming again to their own land. Let the companies of returning emigrants be kept full, like swollen streams, until all shall have been brought back.
They that sow in tears shall reap in joy - Though the sowing of seed is a work of labor and sorrow - often a work so burdening the farmer that he weeps - yet the return - the harvest - is accompanied with rejoicing. The truth is expressed in a general form, as illustrating the idea that enterprises which are begun under many difficulties, and which require much labor, will be crowned with success, and that the joy is more than an equivalent for all the weariness and sorrow. Thus it is in respect to the toil of the farmer; the cares and anxieties of the student; the work of conversion and repentance; the labors of the Christian pastor; the efforts of the Sabbath-school teacher; the faithfulness of the Christian parent; the endeavors of a church for a revival of religion; the zeal and sacrifice of the Christian missionary. The particular, allusion here is to the exiles, in their long and weary march to their native land. It was a work of toil and tears, but there would be joy, like that of the harvest, when, their long journey over they should again come to their native land. Compare Isa 9:3.
He that goeth forth and weepeth - He that goes forth weeping - still an allusion to the farmer. He is seen moving slowly and sadly over the plowed ground, burdened with his task, an in tears.
Bearing precious seed - Margin, "seed-basket." Literally, "bearing the drawing out of seed;" perhaps the seed as drawn out of his bag; or, as scattered or sown regularly in furrows, so that it seems to be drawn out in regular lines over the fields.
Shall doubtless come again - Shall come to this sown field again in the time of harvest. He will visit it with other feelings than those which he now has.
With rejoicing ... - Then his tears will be turned to joy. Then the rich harvest will wave before him. Then he will thrust in his sickle and reap. Then he will gather the golden grain, and the wain will groan under the burden, and the sheaves will be carried forth with songs of joy. He will be abundantly rewarded for all his toil; he will see the fruit of his labors; he will be filled with joy. The design of this illustration was, undoubtedly, to cheer the hearts of the exiles in their long and dangerous journey to their native land; it has, however, a wider and more universal application, as being suited to encourage all in their endeavors to secure their own salvation, and to do good in the world - for the effort is often attended with sacrifice, toil, and tears. The joy of heaven will be more than a compensation for all this. The following remarks by Dr. Thomson (Land and the Book, vol. i., pp. 118, 119) will furnish an illustration of the meaning of this passage: "I never saw people sowing in tears exactly, but have often known them to do it in fear and distress sufficient to draw them from any eye. In seasons of great scarcity, the poor peasants part in sorrow with every measure of precious seed cast into the ground. It is like taking bread out of the mouths of their children; and in such times many bitter tears are actually shed over it. The distress is frequently so great that government is obliged to furnish seed, or none would be sown. Ibrahim Pasha did this more than once within my remembrance, copying the example, perhaps, of his great predecessor in Egypt when the seven years' famine was ended. The thoughts of this psalm may likewise have been suggested by the extreme danger which frequently attends the farmer in his plowing and sowing.
The calamity which fell upon the farmers of Job when the oxen were plowing, and the donkeys feeding beside them, and the Sabeans fell upon them and took them away, and slew the servants with the edge of the sword Job 1:14-15, is often repeated in our day. To understand this, you must remember what I just told you about the situation of the arable lands in the open country; and here again we meet that verbal accuracy: the sower goes forth - that is, from the village. The people of Ibel and Khiem, in Merj ‛Aiyun, for example, have their best grain-growing fields down in the ‛Ard Huleh, six or eight miles from their homes, and just that much nearer the lawless border of the desert. When the country is disturbed, or the government weak, they cannot sow these lands except at the risk of their lives. Indeed, they always go forth in large companies, and completely armed, ready to drop the plow and seize the musket at a moment's warning; and yet, with all this care, many sad and fatal calamities overtake the people who must thus sow in tears.
And still another origin may be found for the thoughts of the psalm in the extreme difficulty of the work itself in many places. The soil is rocky, impracticable, overgrown with sharp thorns; and it costs much painful toil to break up and gather out the rocks, cut and burn the briers, and to subdue the stubborn soil, especially with their feeble oxen and insignificant plows. Join all these together, and the sentiment is very forcibly brought out, that he who labors hard, in cold and in rain, in fear and danger, in poverty and in want, casting his precious seed in the ground, will surely come again, at harvest-time, with rejoicing, and bearing his sheaves with him."