Psalm 126 was written after the return from exile in Babylon probably around 516 BC. It refers to the first return of the captives from Babylon in 537 BC. This event was hugely significant for the people and a time of great joy, so much so that it seemed that they were dreaming at the time. Never had there been an instance like this where it could be said that the God of a nation had restored a people after their deportation. Exile was usually so effective in wiping out a people group that it was irreversible. And so when Yahweh bought them home to Jerusalem they had inexpressible joy. But in this psalm that joy is already in the past and the fortunes of Jerusalem are looking very poor. In fact the joy of the deliverance accentuates the tragedy of the situation that remains. Many of the people had decided to stay in Babylon. They had lost the resolve of psalm 137 to never be content and have joy while in a foreign land. They had gradually become comfortable and at home in Babylon and so they never came home. Here is a powerful message to God’s people in every age. Peter speaks of Christians as being ‘aliens and strangers in the world.’ This is the language of exile. The New Testament in various places exhorts us to never become content with, and at home in, the world. We must not love the world but rather we must have within us the very same frustration with the present imperfections and the longing for the future redemption of the world that creation itself has (Rom. 8:18ff). If we become to comfortable here and begin to ‘love the world’ we will become like the exiles in Babylon who never saw Jerusalem (and in our case the heavenly Jerusalem of Rev. 21).
And so the natural progression of the psalm here is from a note of rejoicing in the restoration of a few to a note of lamentation over the remaining absence of the many. The psalmist prays that God would restore their fortunes and that the restoration would be as marvellous as streams flowing out of the Negev desert that neighboured Judah (vs. 4). ‘Fortunes’ is to be understood here in terms of the city’s population primarily but there is also a strong desire to see Zion restored to her past glory and indeed to that which was prophesied by Ezekiel (chap. 40ff).
The principle stated in verses 5 & 6 is a simple but profound piece of wisdom and a key insight into what it is that constitutes the spirituality of the psalms. If we want to climb to the heights of joy we will find the first rung of the ladder down in the depths of lament. Those who sow in tears are those who lament over the things that rightly warrant lament. If we fail to lament over our sins how can we then truly rejoice in our salvation? If we fail to lament the present destitution of the world how can we truly rejoice in the glories to come. If we fail to lament the things that grieve God how can we rejoice in the things that God himself rejoices in. Lamentation yields a harvest of joy. This is the principle that Jeremiah drew from when he called on rebellious Judah in exile to ‘let your tears flow like a river’ (Lam. 2:18) so that God may bring his salvation to them. If we are to reap the joyful harvest from God’s mercy we must sow in penitence and contrition. This is the only way that we can reap any kind of spiritual harvest.