Arnold Answers

Is Psalm 126:2-3 actually speaking of Israel’s final restoration rather than return from the Captivity?

[Here is the full text of the QUESTIONfrom the reader:]
I am struggling with the correct interpretation of Psalm 126. Almost all English translations show verses 2-3 as past tense and many commentaries attribute these verses to the return of the Jewish people from the Babylonian Captivity. However, in the Hebrew, these verses seem to be in the future tense, and they seem to be speaking of Israel’s final restoration. Any reason we should take these verses as past tense?

For example, verse 4 says, As the streams in the South. Some commentators interpret this as referring to the millennial river flowing from Jerusalem to the South (Ez. 47:1-12). Others explain the phrase as a torrent erupting over wadi. Which interpretation is correct? Furthermore, verse 5 speaks of tears. Some commentators interpret this word as Israel’s mourning in the last days (Zech. 12:10). Is this a correct interpretation, or should we simply take the word “tears” as a reference to Israel’s general suffering?

Here is Arnold’s ANSWER:
Classical Hebrew, the Hebrew of the Bible, does not have tenses such as past, present, or future tense. It has only two tenses, called “perfect tense” and “imperfect tense.”

The perfect tense visualizes action as complete, and so in English, verbs in this tense are normally rendered into the past tense. However, there is another form called “the prophetic perfect” where the perfect is used, but the action has not happened yet. Because it is still future, the translators of the English Bibles usually render such verbs in the future tense.

The imperfect tense sees action as incomplete. Hence, verbs in this tense are normally rendered in the future.

Psalm 126 does not pertain to the return from Babylonian captivity, because in verse 4, the psalmist is praying for God to turn again our captivity. This shows that the psalm should be interpreted as dealing with the Messianic kingdom. Verses 1-3 are dealing with thanksgiving that will erupt when the Jews are praising God for bringing them back into the land. The Hebrew term for “streams” in verse 4 is not used of a river, but rather of a wadi. There are many such wadies in Israel where water runs only during the rainy season, from October to May. The word “South” refers to the Negev, which has many such wadies. So, the streams in the South would not be a reference of the millennial river of Ezekiel 47:1-12, but simply a promise that the wadies will continue to provide enough water to irrigate the dry land of the Negev.

Verses 5-6 simply provide a general principle: Those willing to sow the seed will be the ones receiving the benefits of the seed in a literal sense. The land will always be productive in a spiritual sense, and those who sow the message that people must believe for salvation will see people receiving that message and coming to faith.


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