by Ashtyn Adams
Psalm 126 (NRSV)
A Harvest of Joy
A Song of Ascents.
1 When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like those who dream.
2 Then our mouth was filled with laughter
and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then it was said among the nations,
“The Lord has done great things for them.”
3 The Lord has done great things for us,
and we rejoiced.
4 Restore our fortunes, O Lord,
like the watercourses in the Negeb.
5 May those who sow in tears
reap with shouts of joy.
6 Those who go out weeping,
bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
carrying their sheaves.
There is such a rich spirituality within these six verses. We are brought into the psalm with a heightened immediacy to Israel’s past, “when the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.” Some translations pick up on these “restored fortunes,” with greater specificity: “when the Lord turned again the captivity of Zion,” (KJV) or “when the Lord changed Zion’s circumstances for the better” (CEB). For the Israelites, fortune is freedom and liberation from slavery and Empire, not a greater consumption of material possessions. Indeed, they were like the dreamers, that is the prophets, the messengers of human oracles, the medium through which the deity reveals themselves. Dreams don’t simply give insight into the future, but they set the future in motion. From Joseph in Genesis to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the ones who dream draw people into an awakened world marked by more life. There is a spirit of delight and excitement the Israelites recall during this time that one can only long for as this Christmas season approaches: mouths filled with laughter, tongues shouting with joy, people gathered telling stories about how God has made them new, and, as we will see, a healthy and fruitful Earth at the center of it.
The psalmist pleas for God to restore these fortunes. Yet, this is no fanciful romanticism of the past, no “make Israel great again” message, nor is it a stagnant pessimism that “the best days are behind us.” As my supervisor Derrick Weston has poignantly said, the restoration that’s being dreamt of is going to have a direct representation in creation. The Sitz im Leben is suspected to be the Autumnal Festival or the Feast of Tabernacles as the heart of the psalm, 4b, rests on the description of the Negev. Every summer the Negev region was dried out, but every year, it is transformed into a fruitful grain-yielding area, providing a wondrous environment for life to flourish. The power Yahweh displayed on the national stage, freeing the Israelites from Egyptian slavery, culminates as the same power in the everyday agricultural experiences of the people. V. 5-6 are originally considered folk-wisdom songs about farming life that were attached to the liberation song to center the daily life of the community into the liturgy, to recognize that although the sorrow of slavery was behind them, the cycles of toil and survival were still present, and still ahead. Somehow, the mighty seeds of the past become the very womb of the future. In candor, they name their sorrow, and then they voice to God the concerns of the ordinary workers of the field who see God in creation, and who yearn for a restoration that revives the land and the bodies dependent on it. Our restoration as humans is intimately interwoven with something like a harvest festival, where we see creation has not just been restored, but restored in fullness.
Our restoration as humans is intimately interwoven with something like a harvest festival, where we see creation has not just been restored, but restored in fullness.
The community sings their thanksgiving in the tension of celebrating their liberation from Egypt while yearning for it in full as their agrarian community rebuilds and works out a new relationship with creation in the post-exilic period. It is also the tension present in Advent, as we search in the dark for the coming Messiah in the virgin’s womb, and dare to dream once more about how his arrival might re-make our world, how his saving power in us might bring redemption to creation. The final two stanzas present repetitions of tears and joy, tears and joy, ending with the note of faith that all will carry their sheaves. Perhaps we can learn to speak with the same kind of honest hope, naming the state of things in the Anthropocene, but envisioning how it might be otherwise, and petitioning to the God of the harvest that their liberating acts might be done anew.
Ashtyn Adams is a Seminary Intern at Creation Justice Ministries. Ashtyn earned her B.A. in Religion from Pepperdine University and is currently pursuing a Master’s in Divinity at Duke University.
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This blog shares the activities of Creation Justice Ministries. We educate and equip Christians to protect, restore, and rightly share God's creation.