January 20, 2019

When in His Might the Lord Arose

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.
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.”
The Lord
has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.
Ps. 126:1-3 

Though fortunes might be figurative here, I feel the NRSV's translation of  בְּשׁוּב יְהוָה, אֶת-שִׁיבַת צִיּוֹן seems too material. There's no mention of fortunes in the Hebrew, but rather of captivity, and using a figure of speech to translate שִׁיבַת just sugarcoats something I need to read about. The best translation would be:
When the Lord returned Zion from captivity, we became like dreamers.
In idiomatic English, we might say, When God freed us from prison, we had to pinch ourselves to see if we were dreaming. Thus Israel's plight is brought very near to me at this point. I've never been a prisoner—the closest to being a refugee I ever was was after 911 when I was forced to spend nearly a week on a schoolroom floor in Newfoundland. But since the Newfoundlanders treated us "refugees" very well and we were being kept safe from terror, my brief exile was actually more good than bad.

And so to appreciate this psalm, we need to put ourselves in the shoes of exiles and refugees who, after many years, get not only to go home, but to return to a place where justice reigns.

In my own theology, I interpret this psalm as one of resurrection. I like singing its metric version on Easter. Here are the first two stanzas, corresponding with vv 1-3 above (use the tune at the bottom*):
When in his might the Lord arose to set us free,
and Zion was restored from her captivity,
in transports then of joy and mirth
we praised the Lord of all the earth.

The nations saw with fear the might of God displayed
when he at last drew near to give his people aid.
Great things for us the Lord has wrought
and gladness to our hearts has brought.
Because we are obsessed with positive thinking, we in our culture can no longer fully appreciate the meaning of exile or the gloom of the grave. To be delivered, then, is something we take for granted and accept as our due. We no longer need to ask whether we're dreaming, or if God's promise of life is a dream-come-true. And so I like to picture Christ's resurrection as my release from a labor camp or my return to my home after many years of forced exile. If the Lord delivered me from such a fate, I would indeed have to pinch myself to see if I was dreaming.

Be with me in my exile, my captivity, my distress, my illness, O God. Help me to know that, no matter where I am or what my circumstances are, you do not change and your love does not lessen. Should I in this life experience healing and freedom, may I give you the glory. But through it all, keep me mindful of the promise of deliverance from the gloom of the eternal grave through the suffering, death, and resurrection of my Lord Jesus Christ, who taught me to pray...


*The tune usually suggested for this version of Psalm 126 is Arthur's Seat, but I don't think it suits the psalm nearly as well as Darwall's 148.

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