Psalm 126: Sow tears, reap joy

‘Those who sowed with tears will reap with songs of joy.’ (5)

Sower with setting sun, Van Gogh 1888. Rijksmuseum, Netherlands. wikiart.org
Sower with setting sun (detail), Van Gogh 1888. Rijksmuseum, Netherlands. wikiart.org

Psalm 126, a song of ascent, contains one of the great scriptural narratives. The sower goes out with seed, responding to the ever-changing seasons, renewing a livelihood. It’s not easy. Drought comes — or floods, birds and animals. Weeds grow to choke the good seed. However:

May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy. Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves. (vv 5, 6)

Jesus memorably used this in one of his powerful parables (Mark 4). In a wider sense it is a metaphor for the renewal of a decidedly mixed human existence where yin and yang are evident at every turn, tears and joy never far away.

Both enter the poem from the outset, recalling the sorrows of a people in exile and their relieved delight at being restored to the freedom and familiarity of home. Essentially, it’s a song of hope. (See an earlier post for some other angles.)

Sowing can be back-breaking work. If you are down in the dumps at the time, burdened by worries, tough conditions and long days, ‘sowing in tears’, the harvest seems a doubtful and distant prospect. Captivity of some sort still surrounds our lives — poverty, injustice, habits, attackers or oppression. It could just be that things are off the rails within the family. The answer always seems to be: ‘Keep investing’. Sometimes it’s all you can do, and the promise in this psalm reminds us that ‘his yolk is easy and his burden is light’. (Matt.11:30)

Music

The default choice for South Woden, partly because it’s sitting waiting there in the files, is our (somewhat liberal) arrangement of an Orthodox chant borrowed from the Slavonian liturgy as interpreted by the monks of Chevetogne.

However there are good songs in PFAS and other sources. Some interesting settings hide in IMSLP such as the Jean-Philippe Rameau motet shown here, as well as pieces by more obscure composers rejoicing under names like Asola, Converse and Matho.

In the year 1800, one Oliver Holden (1765-1844) wrote a tune for Psalm 126, a respectable little hymn, but not antiphonal so not high on our list. It is mentioned here to record the author’s name as one of the more prolific composers of psalms in the United States. He is credited with publishing around 70 psalm tunes in that one year alone, and many more.