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Psalm 126 - The LORD Sets Captives Free

INTRODUCTION: Though there is no way to determine the time period for the writing of Psalm 126, the content would have been very meaningful when captives were returning from Babylon to Jerusalem, even if it had been written earlier. The LORD changed Jacob's name to Israel, and set apart his descendents to be a special people of blessing. But before Jacob's death they all went down into Egypt where they eventually became slaves for several centuries. The LORD used Moses to call his people out of captivity in Egypt, to lead them into a land prepared for them. During the several hundred years under various judges, they experienced repeated domination with subsequent release only as they called out to the LORD. When David became the second anointed king, he took the stronghold of Zion from the Jebusites, which had been referred to as Jerusalem in the book of Joshua. This was the first use of the name Zion, and it was also designated as the city of David at that time.

Zion appears in Psalms and in the writings of the prophets, especially Isaiah and Jeremiah, 148 of the 154 times that it is used in the Old Testament. Zion seems to be a reference used to evoke deeper emotions for the children of Israel than using the name Jerusalem, which appears over 600 times throughout the Old Testament. After the reign of David, and then his son Solomon, Israel was a divided kingdom with various conflicts over the centuries. The northern kingdom fell to dispersion and foreign domination first, with the southern kingdom and Jerusalem falling to the Babylonians about a century later. There are some general principals within the text of Psalm 126 that are applicable in any age, regarding those whose souls are captive to their own sin, and who sincerely seek restoration with the LORD. Before looking directly at the verses of this psalm, it is helpful to consider what God through scripture had told His people they could expect as a result if they allowed their hearts to wander from the LORD.

NOTE: Bible text is taken from the American King James Version [AKJV].


Deuteronomy 30 "1 And it shall come to pass, when all these things are come on you, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before you, and you shall call them to mind among all the nations, where the LORD your God has driven you, 2 And shall return to the LORD your God, and shall obey his voice according to all that I command you this day, you and your children, with all your heart, and with all your soul; 3 That then the LORD your God will turn your captivity, and have compassion on you, and will return and gather you from all the nations, where the LORD your God has scattered you."

COMMENTS: The LORD knew the heart of man, and through the books of the law given by Moses, He forecast more than once, how they would stray from His path and bear the consequence of their actions. The LORD also instructed as to how they could again receive His compassion by once again observing His commands with their whole heart and soul. This continued as an unchangeable message from the time Israel was called out of captivity in Egypt.


1 Kings 8 "27 But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, the heaven and heaven of heavens cannot contain you; how much less this house that I have built? 28 Yet have you respect to the prayer of your servant, and to his supplication, O LORD my God, to listen to the cry and to the prayer, which your servant prays before you to day: 29 That your eyes may be open toward this house night and day, even toward the place of which you have said, My name shall be there: that you may listen to the prayer which your servant shall make toward this place. 30 And listen you to the supplication of your servant, and of your people Israel, when they shall pray toward this place: and hear you in heaven your dwelling place: and when you hear, forgive."

1 Kings 8 "46 If they sin against you, (for there is no man that sins not,) and you be angry with them, and deliver them to the enemy, so that they carry them away captives to the land of the enemy, far or near; 47 Yet if they shall bethink themselves in the land where they were carried captives, and repent, and make supplication to you in the land of them that carried them captives, saying, We have sinned, and have done perversely, we have committed wickedness; 48 And so return to you with all their heart, and with all their soul, in the land of their enemies, which led them away captive, and pray to you toward their land, which you gave to their fathers, the city which you have chosen, and the house which I have built for your name: 49 Then hear you their prayer and their supplication in heaven your dwelling place, and maintain their cause, 50 And forgive your people that have sinned against you, and all their transgressions wherein they have transgressed against you, and give them compassion before them who carried them captive, that they may have compassion on them:"

COMMENTS: When the LORD allowed a temple to be built at Jerusalem, Solomon structured his prayer of dedication around the requirements and promises that the LORD had given in the book of the law. He also included a statement that the LORD would hear those prayers from His dwelling place in heaven since there is no building that could contain the LORD. But the LORD had promised that His name would be in Jerusalem. Solomon made it clear that every person is a sinner who needs to turn to the LORD for forgiveness and mercy. There can be no restoration without a genuine commitment of heart and soul to the LORD.


Jeremiah 29 "10 For thus said the LORD, That after seventy years be accomplished at Babylon I will visit you, and perform my good word toward you, in causing you to return to this place. 11 For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, said the LORD, thoughts of peace, and not of evil, to give you an expected end. 12 Then shall you call on me, and you shall go and pray to me, and I will listen to you. 13 And you shall seek me, and find me, when you shall search for me with all your heart. 14 And I will be found of you, said the LORD: and I will turn away your captivity, and I will gather you from all the nations, and from all the places where I have driven you, said the LORD; and I will bring you again into the place from where I caused you to be carried away captive."

Jeremiah 35 "17 Therefore thus said the LORD God of hosts, the God of Israel; Behold, I will bring on Judah and on all the inhabitants of Jerusalem all the evil that I have pronounced against them: because I have spoken to them, but they have not heard; and I have called to them, but they have not answered."

COMMENTS: When Babylon overran Jerusalem, broke down the walls and destroyed the temple, Zion lost the special blessing of the place where the LORD had put His name. Over the several years leading up to this destruction, Jeremiah had prophesied that captivity would last seventy years. The LORD promised to return the captives to the place they lost after they turned back to Him.


Psalm 126 "1 When the LORD turned again the captivity of Zion, we were like them that dream. 2 Then was our mouth filled with laughter, and our tongue with singing: then said they among the heathen, The LORD has done great things for them. 3 The LORD has done great things for us; whereof we are glad."

COMMENTS: In the first verse of this psalm, the Hebrew word translated as captivity is found only here in all of the Old Testament, and when it is coupled with the term translated as "turned again," the phrase can be taken to mean a return to a restored condition. The verse applies this to the location of Zion, which seems to indicate a former state of desolation for the beloved city, not just the captivity of individuals. After a period of rebellion against the domination by Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonians destroyed the temple and broke down the walls of the city, leaving none of the former excellence of either. The following portion of Psalm 136 gives evidence of the deep felt loss of Zion by those captive Jews who loved the LORD. "1 By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yes, we wept, when we remembered Zion. 2 We hanged our harps on the willows in the middle thereof. 3 For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion. 4 How shall we sing the LORD's song in a strange land?"

Psalm 126 opens by giving full credit to the LORD for bringing a restoration from captivity, and does not mention anything at all about a captor, thus leaving thanks exclusively to the LORD. The emotions accompanying the return of Zion are likened to something that seems as good as in the best dream imaginable. The joyful outburst of those who felt the release from captivity had impact even on heathen observers, and they concluded that the LORD had done something great for His people. The believers affirmed that they did not experience a dream, for indeed they were glad because the LORD had done great things for them! Those who have a true heart for the LORD might endure the same consequences along with others who honor with their lips but have their heart set on other things. When restoration of a sense of the presence of the LORD comes even in the midst of a lack of material abundance, the heart of a child of God can overflow with the joy of the LORD.


Psalm 126 "4 Turn again our captivity, O LORD, as the streams in the south. 5 They that sow in tears shall reap in joy. 6 He that goes forth and weeps, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him."

COMMENTS: In verse four, the Hebrew word translated as captivity is the same word used in Deuteronomy 30:3 (in section "A" of this study), and is appropriately applied to people who are under some form of captivity. These last three verses of Psalm 126 seem to indicate that the prayers have not stopped as the request now goes to asking for an increase of prosperity through blessings from the LORD. The physical condition of Zion was not miraculously restored by the LORD immediately after Cyrus made the first decree to allow captives to return from Babylon, and there were subsequent returning groups. It would take many years, even decades, for the walls and buildings of the city to be rebuilt, as well as the temple. Even the countryside and smaller villages around Jerusalem had been depleted of people and resources by conquering forces. When a significant blessing from the LORD is experienced, it may be necessary to be very determined in prayer to continue moving toward the spiritual goal the LORD has planned. The agricultural word picture in verses five and six portray a process of preparation followed by a time of waiting for the end result. Once the seed was in the ground, the farmer had little ability to bring to the point of harvest, but waited rather upon the LORD. This picture is phrased in a note of confidence about bringing in sheaves with joy that must then be attributed to steadfast faith that the LORD will indeed provide the blessing.

The writings of Jeremiah provide much information about the latter days of Judah and Jerusalem before and during the captivity. There also is insight into the just judgment of the LORD, and prophecy of hope for those who would return to the LORD with their whole heart. This may help in some ways to connect with the emotion of Psalm 126, whether it was written before or after the time of Jeremiah. Jeremiah 31:23-25 "23 Thus said the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel; As yet they shall use this speech in the land of Judah and in the cities thereof, when I shall bring again their captivity; The LORD bless you, O habitation of justice, and mountain of holiness. 24 And there shall dwell in Judah itself, and in all the cities thereof together, farmers, and they that go forth with flocks. 25 For I have satiated the weary soul, and I have replenished every sorrowful soul."

There were Jews who did not accept the prophecy of Jeremiah, and even thought him to be traitorous because he did not encourage rebellion against Nebuchadnezzar. Perhaps there are times when it is most difficult for Christians of today to wait upon the promises of the LORD. It would be more than presumptuous to say that we can completely and definitively know all aspects of certain scripture passages. Peter indicated that even as the prophets wrote, they did not always know the full meaning of their Spirit directed words. 1 Peter 1:10-11 "10 Of which salvation the prophets have inquired and searched diligently, who prophesied of the grace that should come to you: 11 Searching what, or what manner of time the Spirit of Christ which was in them did signify, when it testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ, and the glory that should follow." And Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 13:12 "For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known." This will be the final selection of the many encouraging passages that can be found in Jeremiah that could have bolstered the faith of those returning from Babylon. Jeremiah 33:6-11 "6 Behold, I will bring it health and cure, and I will cure them, and will reveal to them the abundance of peace and truth. 7 And I will cause the captivity of Judah and the captivity of Israel to return, and will build them, as at the first. 8 And I will cleanse them from all their iniquity, whereby they have sinned against me; and I will pardon all their iniquities, whereby they have sinned, and whereby they have transgressed against me. 9 And it shall be to me a name of joy, a praise and an honor before all the nations of the earth, which shall hear all the good that I do to them: and they shall fear and tremble for all the goodness and for all the prosperity that I procure to it. 10 Thus said the LORD; Again there shall be heard in this place, which you say shall be desolate without man and without beast, even in thecities of Judah, and in the streets of Jerusalem, that are desolate, without man, and without inhabitant, and without beast, 11 The voice of joy, and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom, and the voice of the bride, the voice of them that shall say, Praise the LORD of hosts: for the LORD is good; for his mercy endures for ever: and of them that shall bring the sacrifice of praise into the house of the LORD. For I will cause to return the captivity of the land, as at the first, said the LORD."


Luke 4 "18 The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he has sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, 19 To preach the acceptable year of the Lord."

John 8 "31 Then said Jesus to those Jews which believed on him, If you continue in my word, then are you my disciples indeed; 32 And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free. 33 They answered him, We be Abraham's seed, and were never in bondage to any man: how say you, You shall be made free? 34 Jesus answered them, Truly, truly, I say to you, Whoever commits sin is the servant of sin. 35 And the servant stays not in the house for ever: but the Son stays ever. 36 If the Son therefore shall make you free, you shall be free indeed."

Romans 6 "20 For when you were the servants of sin, you were free from righteousness. 21 What fruit had you then in those things whereof you are now ashamed? for the end of those things is death. 22 But now being made free from sin, and become servants to God, you have your fruit to holiness, and the end everlasting life. 23 For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord."

Romans 7 "22 For I delight in the law of God after the inward man: 23 But I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members. 24 O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death? 25 I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord. So then with the mind I myself serve the law of God; but with the flesh the law of sin. 8:1 There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. 2 For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death."

Hebrews 2 "14 For as much then as the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself likewise took part of the same; that through death he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil; 15 And deliver them who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage."

1 Corinthians 15 "54 So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. 55 O death, where is your sting? O grave, where is your victory? 56 The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God, which gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ."

COMMENTS: Jesus came into the world to fulfill the prophecy that he quoted from Isaiah 61, and the release he spoke of was from the captivity within the heart of man. The most desperate condition of captivity is that which is not perceived as captivity at all. The inability to see the sin of oneself was the problem of the Jews addressed by Jesus in John chapter 8 above. Paul tells us in Romans chapter 6 that the release from this state of captivity that holds every person, is a gift offered by God through Jesus Christ. Paul goes on to tell the believer at the end of Romans chapter 7 and in the beginning of chapter 8, that we can expect a struggle while we remain in the flesh, but we have ultimate victory because "the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death." The passage from Hebrews assures us that we have been freed from any fear of death, and the passage from 1 Corinthians expresses the faithful promise of the joyful conclusion at the end of our life in the flesh.

--- Reflections in prayer ---

LORD, though I cannot relate directly to the loss the Jews felt with the devastation of their beloved Zion, I know that as part of all mankind, I lost the blessed relationship with you in the Garden of Eden. I thank you LORD that your promise of restoration will never fail when a person turns back to you with all their heart and soul according to your Word. Scripture contains the historical record of this truth as demonstrated over many centuries. Thank you my precious Savior for opening my heart to the truth of my captivity to sin, and that you provided the way of escape to a freedom of abundance of peace and truth that can never again be lost. Just as your first coming perfectly fulfilled prophecy of scripture, so shall your return come about to accurately fulfill all related prophecies. Guide me daily Lord Jesus to continually go out with the seed of your Word in anticipation of the joyful harvest when you send the reapers into your fields. Amen.

Published 27 February 2012