Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
The two stanzas, marked so plainly by the changes of tense and tone, of this exquisite little poem, though telling with the distinctness of actual description the nature of the circumstances amid which it was written, give no indication of an exact date. All we can see with certainty is that the psalm is post-exile. The recollection of the exuberant burst of joy at the first news of the return from the Captivity, enables the psalmist to anticipate a similar change from gloom to gladness now. The words of the song are too deeply enshrined in the heart of the whole world to make us very anxious to recover the precise time which gave expression to the nameless poet’s feelings. The rhythm is fine and varied.
A Song of degrees. When the LORD turned again the captivity of Zion, we were like them that dream.(1) When the Lord . . .—Literally, In turning by Jehovah the turning of Zion. The phrase is not precisely the same as that in Psalm 126:4, which is usual, and offers no difficulty. Here the form of the noun “turning” presents some difficulty; but, after the analogy of a few other words, it can bear the concrete meaning “returned:” when Jehovah brought back the returned of Zion.
Like them that dream.—The LXX. and Vulg. have “as if consoled.” The Hebrew word primarily means “to be fat,” or “fleshy,” and in Isaiah 38:16 is rendered “recover”—a meaning that would give a good sense here, and which is adopted by the Chaldean paraphrases: “We were like unto such men who have recovered.” On the other hand, the usual rendering suggests that the news of the restoration appeared too good to be true. “Surely you are dreaming” is a common saying. An illustration has been aptly produced in Livy’s description of the feelings of the Greeks when they heard at the Isthmian games (B.C. 196), after the defeat of the Macedonians by T. Flaminius, the proclamation of the herald that they should, by the free gift of the Roman people, retain their liberty. “The joy was too great for men to take it all in. None could well believe that he had heard aright, and they looked on one another in wonder, like the empty show of a dream” (Livy, xxxiii. 32).
Then was our mouth filled with laughter, and our tongue with singing: then said they among the heathen, The LORD hath done great things for them.(2) Singing.—As frequently of the restoration in Isaiah—42:11, 44:23, 54:1, &c.
Hath done.—See margin, and comp. Joel 2:21.
Turn again our captivity, O LORD, as the streams in the south.(4) Captivity.—Here there is a change. The joy of the great Return was too great not to last on through many vicissitudes. But the poet now thinks of the many exiles still dispersed among the nations, and prays for another manifestation of Divine favour and power.
The streams in the south.—Rather, the channels in the south. The allusion is to the sudden filling of the dry torrent-beds of the southern district of Palestine in the rainy season. So the poet prays that torrents of the returned may pour into the desolate and deserted country. (Comp. Isaiah 49:18 for the same feeling, but under a different figure.) The LXX. have “in the south wind,” evidently thinking of the melting of a frozen stream, instead of the filling of a dry river-bed.
They that sow in tears shall reap in joy.(5) Joy.—Rather, singing, as in Psalm 126:2. The harvest-home songs are contrasted with the anxiety of the seed-time. Probably the poet found the proverbial saying already current, but he has touched it with the consecrating hand till it has become only less precious than the saying of Divine lips, “Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him.(6) The original is very expressive, by the idiom of infinitive combined with finite verb.
“He shall walk, and walk and weep,
Bearing the handful of seed:
He shall come, and come with singing,
Bearing his sheaves,”
where we must certainly see an extension and not a mere repetition of the former figure, for the very form of the expression suggests the long patient labour of the sower, and the reward which patience and perseverance always bring—a harvest in proportion to the toil and trouble of seed-time. The words of the prophet Haggai (Haggai 1:10-11; Haggai 2:19), contemporary with the Return, should be compared. The word rendered “precious” in the Authorised Version may be correctly represented by “handful.” Its meaning is “drawing;” and from Amos 9:13 (see margin) we see that the sower was called “the drawer of seed,” no doubt from the hand being repeatedly drawn out for the cast from the bag or basket containing the seed. Others render “seed-basket” here. The contrast so beautifully painted in this verse was certainly realised when “the priests and Levites, and the rest of the children of the captivity, kept the dedication of the house of God with joy” (Ezra 6:16; comp. Ezra 6:22; Nehemiah 12:42).