Saturday, September 21, 2013

Psalm 126

I have three items for my blog post today on Psalm 126.

1.  The King James Version for v 1 states: "A Song of degrees.  When the LORD turned again the captivity of Zion, we were like them that dream."  What does dreaming have to do with the reversal of Zion's predicament?  Different explanations have been offered.  The Jewish exegete Radak said that, when the Jews will return to Zion, the oppression that they experienced in exile will seem to them as merely a bad dream.  John MacArthur states that "The actual experience of liberation, so unexpected, seemed more like a dream than reality."

Both of these interpretations seem to presume that dreams are somehow less real than the world that we experience when we are awake.  But E. Gerstenberger challenges holding this sort of assumption when interpreting Psalm 126:1, for dreams in the ancient world were believed to be a component of reality.  Gerstenberger states that "dreams in the ancient Near East do not so much stress the anticipatory quality but the unexpected stunning grace of God's new reality (cf. Gen 28:10-15; 37:5-10; 40:5-19; 41:1-32)."  I don't entirely understand Gerstenberger's interpretation here, but I think that he does well to interpret Psalm 126:1 in light of the view of dreams in the ancient world, and elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible.  Gerstenberger's point may be that Psalm 126:1's message is that God is doing something new, something with which dreams often coincided.

The root ch-l-m can mean to dream, or to be healthy or strong (Job 39:4; Isaiah 38:16, where the hiphil is used).  Consequently, the Targum has "we were like the sick who were healed" (Edward Cook's translation).  And the Septuagint relates the verb to being comforted.

2.  V 3 states: "Turn again our captivity, O LORD, as the streams in the south."  John MacArthur comments: "The arid region S of Beersheba (called the Negev) which is utterly dry in the summer, but whose streams quickly fill and flood with the rains of spring. In this manner, the psalmist prays that Israel’s fortunes will rapidly change from nothing to everything."  MacArthur is probably not a fan of the prosperity Gospel, but his comment there reminds me of things that Joel Osteen has said: that our breakthrough can come suddenly, when we're not expecting it.  We can get that raise or that good job, or we can meet the love of our life.  I don't know if I can apply the lesson of Psalm 126:3 to my own life, when it is about the nation of Israel.  But the chance that things can suddenly get better is a motivation for me to get out of bed in the morning, and to keep on working and struggling.  As the Tom Hanks-character said in the movie, Castaway, you never know what the shore may bring!

I should comment on the setting for this Psalm.  Has Israel already been restored, as vv 1-3 seem to suggest?  Or are the Jews still hoping for restoration, as vv 4-6 appear to be saying?  Perhaps it's both, for, even after Israel's return from exile, things were not entirely rosy.  In Ezra 9:8-9, after all, Ezra likens post-exilic Israel's condition to slavery.

3.  Vv 5-6 state: "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."  MacArthur comments: "By sowing tears of repentance over sin, the nation reaped the harvest of a joyful return to the land of Israel."  Citing Samson Raphael Hirsch, the Orthodox Jewish Artscroll commentary says: "The seeds of Israel's spiritual mission may become drenched in tears of unbearable suffering, but the crop, the eventual harvest of homage to righteousness and truth, will be reaped in joy..."

I like these interpretations because they teach me that the spiritual things that I do will not be wasted, for they can bear fruit.  I believe that God sees and acknowledges, and maybe even honors, the spiritual things that we do.  Does that mean that God rewards devotions with material prosperity?  I don't exclude that, but I'm not dogmatic about it, either.  According to the New Testament, some of the rewards that we will receive will be in the afterlife, and there are righteous people who may die in this life without seeing any material prosperity.  But perhaps God also honors our devotions as we harvest righteousness and truth, spiritual riches, which edify us and help us to make a positive difference in this world.

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