This Psalm is traditionally ascribed to be one of pilgrims returning to Israel from the Babylonian exile and was a prayer for help and a song of faithful expectancy. God is called by name throughout this Psalm and isn't referred to by the generic term “God”.
Verse 1: When the LORD brought back the captives to Zion, we were like men who dreamed. (NRSV)
- Zion here is used for Jerusalem (Bratcher 1069), and is used to reinforce that this was a return to the promised land, a heavenly event that only God could bring about.
- ”Men who dreamed” is a statement of disbelief and shock that they were returning at all. This was an amazing and unexpected thing, like a dream.
Verse 2: Our mouths were filled with laughter, our tongues with songs of joy. Then it was said among the nations, “The LORD has done great things for them.” (NRSV)
- This is in sharp contrast to what the nations would have been saying about Israel before the return, when it appeared God had delivered them into their enemies.
- Here the enemy is recognizing the supremacy and power of God.
Verse 3: The LORD has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy. (NRSV)
- This is pretty much a repetition of the previous verse, a common Hebrew to add emphasis and show the importance of something.
- The one main difference between this verse and the previous one is that this verse makes explicit what was implied from the last one, that the reason for the joy is what God had done.
Verse 4: Restore our fortunes, O LORD, like streams in the Negev. (NRSV)
- ”Restore our fortunes” can either be about bringing back the rest of the captives and prisoners to the Babylonians, or a more general idea of help (Bratcher 1070).
- Just because they were back in their homeland did not necessarily mean that everything would be alright, so this is a prayer that it would all go ok on top of what God had already provided.
- The Negev here is about the Land of the promise (Keil 290).
- It is an arid land to the south of the Judean hills (Koehler 665).
- Deserts don't have many rivers, but are subject to flash floods when the rains come, so this river is probably not about a normal stream but a sudden rush of water.
Verse 5: Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy. (NRSV)
- The previous verses concentrated on a prayer to God, a hope that these things would happen. This verse transitions to proclamations that what they have prayed for would happen. The fulfillment of these requests is taken on faith.
- This isn't about causing pain (sow in tears), but experiencing it, and specifically is about all the pain that Israel had experienced.
- If this and the following verse are referring to an actual physical sowing while crying and reaping with joy then the reason is unclear.
- It is possible it would be referring to a time of famine where the sowing of seeds could be sued to feed a family and are a real sacrifice to give (Bratcher 1070).
- This could be about tears of repentance leading to joy (Mays 400).
- There is also a symbolic point of planting in the ground being a death that brings life in the end, weeping and joy.
- It could be religious as well, but it appears to be more metaphorical than describing a standard practice of farmers.
Verse 6: He who goes out weeping, carrying seed to sow, will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with him. (NRSV)
- There is an element of promise fulfilled here. The seeds that carry the possibility of food have come through and they return with the promised fulfilled and sheaves of grain in their hands.
- This is a good parallel with Israel, who left to Babylon weeping but with small seeds of hope that they would return. But they returned with songs and hopefully wealth.
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