In the Israeli desert there are scrubby bushes that thrust their way up through the desert floor. They tenaciously hang on to life in the sun-beaten wilderness, like the Jewish people have done throughout history. Psalm 126 is birthed out of the heart of the Negev desert. The psalm draws spiritual and prophetic inspiration from the wastelands south of Beersheva. and breathes life into promises which seem shriveled up. Our gaze is lifted to the amazing day when hope will become sight for the Jewish people – indeed, for the whole planet as well (see Romans 11:15).
We’re dancing up to Zion
“A psalm of ascents” (Psalm 126:1a). This declaration was sung three times a year during the pilgrim feasts, as the sons of Israel made their way from every point in the Promised Land up to the Holy City of Jerusalem: “Three times in a year all your males shall appear before YHVH your God in the place which He chooses – at the Feast of Unleavened Bread and at the Feast of Weeks and at the Feast of Booths. And they shall not appear before YHVH empty-handed” (Deuteronomy 16:16).
The national Jewish songbook had a special folder of tunes called ‘the Psalms of Ascent’ (Psalms 120-134). These were chanted with joy and dancing as the Hebrew pilgrims wended their way up to Zion. “You will have songs as in the night when you keep the festival, and gladness of heart as when one marches to the sound of the flute, to go to the mountain of YHVH, to the Rock of Israel” (Isaiah 30:29).
Who would have thunk it?
“When YHVH brought back the captivity of Zion, we were like dreamers” (Psalm 126:1b). The Jewish exiles in Babylon were dumbfounded when King Cyrus decreed that they could return from the lands of their captivity (see Ezra 1:1-4). They pinched themselves in unbelief, and those who did return to Zion and rebuilt the House of YHVH shouted for joy at this amazing prophesied turn of events.
- “Now when the builders had laid the foundation of the Temple of YHVH, the priests stood in their apparel with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals, to praise YHVH according to the directions of King David of Israel. They sang, praising and giving thanks to YHVH, saying, ‘For He is good, for His lovingkindness is upon Israel forever.’ And all the people shouted with a great shout when they praised YHVH because the foundation of the House of YHVH was laid. Yet many of the priests and Levites and heads of fathers’ households, the old men who had seen the first House, wept with a loud voice when the foundation of this House was laid before their eyes, while many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the shout of joy from the sound of the weeping of the people, for the people shouted with a loud shout, and the sound was heard far away” (Ezra 3:10-13)
“Then our mouth was filled with laughter and our tongue with joyful shouting” (verse 2). There was intense national celebration, perhaps similar to the Victory Parades in Moscow (1945), London and New York (1946) after the defeat of Nazi Germany and Japan. The Hebrew word ‘rina’ is used here, describing the full-throated battle cry common in Middle Eastern culture (see 1 Samuel 18:6-7).
“Then they said among the nations, ‘YHVH has done great things for them’” (verse 2). God’s amazingly gracious and redemptive dealings with Israel caused the nations who got word of this to praise the name of YHVH of Israel. Certainly King Cyrus was one of those who made such a declaration (2 Chronicles 35:22-23). This spiritual principle lies at the heart of Psalm 117, where the nations are called to praise YHVH because of His covenant faithfulness to the Jewish people. This is a key to God’s dealings with the nations – for then. for now, and for days yet to come.
“YHVH has done great things for us, and we’ve become joyful” (verse 3). YHVH’s name is a covenant name, and every Jewish person calling on His name remembered the covenants He had made with Israel. “O give thanks to YHVH, for He is good, for His covenant faithfulness is everlasting” (1 Chronicles 16:34). The entire Jewish nation was filled with thanksgiving for the incredible Restoration to Zion that they were witnessing.
Hebrew word plays – ‘captivity’ and ‘return’
All Hebrew words are built on root stems. Sometimes one can find two different words/meanings which have similar roots. This allows for beautiful word plays in the Hebrew Scriptures. Psalm 126:3 uses the word ‘shuv’ – it can have two different meanings, depending on context and form. Here is how it looks in Hebrew: “Restore (SHUVa) our captivity (SH’Vitenu), YHVH!” In 2 Chronicles 30:9 the prophet uses these two ‘shuv’ homonyms a total of four times, intertwining shades of meanings involving captivity, repenting, and returning from exile/captivity.
The psalmist is penning the 126th psalm in the Land of Israel. He has seen firsthand the amazing First Return from Babylon under Ezra and Nehemiah. The event was actually happening as he wrote the psalm. But now in verse 4 he is calling on YHVH the covenant God to complete His redemptive work and fully restore the Jewish people from their world-wide Exile (see Deuteronomy 30:1-7).
“Restore our captivity, YHVH, as the streams in the South” (verse 4). What has been done through Ezra and Nehemiah is amazing – so amazing that we have difficulty believing it on some days, says the psalmist! But now, bring us ALL back home: “Save us, YHVH our God, and gather us from among the nations, to give thanks to Your holy name and to glory in Your praise” (Psalm 106:47).
Gently down the stream
The Hebrew wording unpacks the phrase “streams in the South.” ‘Ka’afiqim baNegev’ is the exact phrase. The Negev is a semi-arid desert area south of Beersheva. For the most part one cannot live there. There are two reasons for this – little rain, and a soil that immediately ‘soaks up’ (that’s the Hebrew meaning of Negev) what little rain there is.
When it rains in the Negev, the silty loess soil (Löß; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Loess) causes the water to skate across its surface and build up into wild channels of rushing water. These ‘afiqim’ (flash floods) cascade down (either to the Dead Sea or to the Mediterranean) as a wall of water moving at great speed (40 miles/60 km. per hour) and sometimes attaining a height of 30 feet/9 meters (see www.timesofisrael.com/desert-highways-flood-as-rains-lash-israel/ for a recent example).
- The psalmist is asking the God of Israel to stretch out His mighty arm and restore the Jewish people from Exile with the speed and force of a wall of water sweeping away everything in its path! This should also be our prayer for the restoration of the Jewish people to their land and to their God today.
Irrigation through tears
Crops can grow in the northern Negev when there is rain. Ancient farmers knew that the season of sowing would only bring a harvest if sufficient rains came at the right time. The psalmist hands over to us a prophetic vision: when there is no rain, let our intercessory tears for Israel’s restoration be the water that does the trick!
As we put our hand to the plough of Jewish restoration – whether in intercession, in supporting the Messianic remnant, in helping Jewish people to return home, in sharing the precious gospel seed with Jewish people (see Romans 1:16’s Jewish priority!) – as we labor with tears, there is a promise of reaping a real and significant harvest.
“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!” (verses 5-6).
- The psalmist assures us of two things: there will be a harvest, and it will be accompanied by joyful shouting – just as it was in the days when Ezra and Nehemiah rebuilt the walls and rededicated the House of YHVH in Jerusalem!
God’s word of promise – that Israel will return to her homeland, will embrace her Messiah, and will bring life from the dead to the nations of this world (our national calling in Isaiah 49:5-6; Romans 11:12, 15) – is rock-solid prophecy based on the unchanging nature of our covenant-keeping God.
How should we then pray?
- Pray for two-fold revelation to come to the Jewish people – to return to Messiah Yeshua and to return to their Promised Land
- Pray for believers across the globe to receive pro-active revelation about Isaiah 52:7-8 and Isaiah 62:1,6-7
- Pray for the raising up of Ezekiel’s prophetic Jewish army
Your prayers and support hold up our arms and are the very practical enablement of God to us in the work He has called us to do.
In Messiah Yeshua,
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