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Saturday, October 15, 2011

Psalm 126

Jacob van Loo 1614-1670
Zerubbabel displays a plan of Jerusalem to Cyrus the Great
Oil on canvas
95.2 x 90.5 cm
Musée des Beaux-Arts, Orleans

Exile and tribulation were experiences which Jacob van Loo knew only too well.

He was regarded as one of the Masters along with his contemporaries Rembrandt and others in Amsterdam. Van Loo is recorded as living in Amsterdam from 1642.

However in 1660, a charge of manslaughter forced Jacob van Loo to flee to Paris. He was found guilty and sentenced to death in absentia.

He remained in France until his death unable to return to his homeland

The scene depicts the events after the conquest of Babylon by Cyrus, king of Persia (559-530 BC) in 539 BC and the capture of Nabonidus, the last Babylonian king.

As part of his policy Cyrus organized the return to their homelands of a number of people who had been held in Babylonia by the Babylonian kings. The Jewish people held in Babylon and their return to Jerusalem was part of this policy.

Zerubbabel became the governor of the Persian Province of Judah and along with the high priest Joshua led the Jewish people to Palestine

This policy of Cyrus incidentally is memoralised in a fascinating exhibit in The British Museum in London: The Cyrus Cylinder (See below)

The Cyrus Cylinder
Babylonian, about 539-530 BC
Length: 22.500 cm
From Babylon, southern Iraq

There is a modern translation of the text on the Cyrus Cylinder here:


"I sought the safety of the city of Babylon and all its sanctuaries. As for the population of Babylon […, w]ho as if without div[ine intention] had endured a yoke not decreed for them, I soothed their weariness; I freed them from their bonds(?). ...

From [Shuanna] I sent back to their places to the city of Ashur and Susa, Akkad, the land of Eshnunna, the city of Zamban, the city of Meturnu, Der, as far as the border of the land of Guti - the sanctuaries across the river Tigris - whose shrines had earlier become dilapidated, the gods who lived therein, and made permanent sanctuaries for them.

I collected together all of their people and returned them to their settlements, and the gods of the land of Sumer and Akkad which Nabonidus – to the fury of the lord of the gods – had brought into Shuanna, at the command of Marduk, the great lord, I returned them unharmed to their cells, in the sanctuaries that make them happy.

May all the gods that I returned to their sanctuaries, every day before Bel and Nabu, ask for a long life for me, and mention my good deeds, and say to Marduk, my lord, this: “Cyrus, the king who fears you, and Cambyses his son, may they be the provisioners of our shrines until distant (?) days, and the population of Babylon call blessings on my kingship. I have enabled all the lands to live in peace."

The biblical record of the Edict of Cyrus is recorded in The Old Testament and reads as follows.

“Thus says Cyrus king of Persia, All the kingdoms of the earth has Jehovah, the God of heaven, given me; and he has charged me to build him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whosoever there is among you of all his people, his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and build the house of Jehovah, the God of Israel he is God, which is in Jerusalem. And whosoever is left, in any place where he sojourns, let the men of his place help him with silver, and with gold, and with goods, and with beasts, besides the freewill-offering for the house of God which is in Jerusalem” (Ezra 1:2-4; cf. also 6:2-5).


This great event in the history of the people of Israel is celebrated in The Old Testament. And on Wednesday last the Pope delivered his catechesis on one of the Psalms which celebrates this event: Psalm 126.




"Psalm 126

A song of ascents.

1 When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, then we thought we were dreaming.

2 Our mouths were filled with laughter; our tongues sang for joy. Then it was said among the nations, "The LORD had done great things for them."

3 The LORD has done great things for us; Oh, how happy we were!

4 Restore again our fortunes, LORD, like the dry stream beds of the Negeb.

5 Those who sow in tears will reap with cries of joy.

6 Those who go forth weeping, carrying sacks of seed, Will return with cries of joy, carrying their bundled sheaves."


Psalm 126 is one of the Song of Ascents (Psalms 120 - 134) which were eventually combined into the Book of Psalms. They are songs of pilgrims on their way of pilgrimage to the restoration of the terrestial Jerusalem and the rebuilding of the Temple and by extension for Christians towards the Heavenly Jerusalem.

This psalm is the seventh Step

It seems to date after the Babylonian exile (539 BC)


In fact the Psalm directly refers to the situation when the Jewish people returned to the Land of Israel and were in the process of resettling the land and rebuilding the Second Temple in Jerusalem


The Ingeborg Rennert Center for Jerusalem Studies at Bar-Ilan University Ramat-Gan, Israel summarises the situation more fully thus:

"Second Temple Period (538 B.C.E. to 70 C.E.) Persian Rule.

The Assyrians and Babylonians used mass exile to eliminate popular movements for national independence and maintain peace within their vast empires. King Cyrus of Persia, who conquered Babylonia and established an even greater empire, reversed this policy and allowed local religious autonomy. Jerusalem became the capital of Yehud (named for the tribe of Judah; most Jews are descendants of the tribe of Judah) a small Persian province 40 km. by 50 km.

The book of Ezra opens with Cyrus's call to the Jews to return to their land and rebuild their temple (in 538 B.C.E.).

Thousands returned to Jerusalem, led by Shesbazzar and Zerubavel (probably the son and grandson of the exiled King Jehoiakim of Judah) and Yeshua son of Yozadak (probably the grandson of the last high priest of Jerusalem). They built an altar on the Temple Mount and began rebuilding the Temple and the city.

Three chieftains of provinces bordering on Yehud complained to the Persians, warning that if the Jews were permitted to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem they would rebel. King Darius responded by stopping all building in Jerusalem.

Subsequently the original building authorization was found in the royal archive and the work resumed with the encouragement of the prophets. Haggai criticized the people for sitting in comfortable houses while the Temple was not yet rebuilt (Haggai ch. 1-2).

Construction of the Second Temple began in 521 and was completed in 516. The Second Temple was apparently built on the spot where the First Temple had stood, with the same dimensions, but with an important difference: the First Temple had stood next to the king's palace, almost as if it were his private house of worship. At the beginning of the Second Temple period the royal palace complex did not exist, and the Temple towered over the city with no royal city intervening, making it appear more accessible to the common people. Thousands of pilgrims ascended to the Temple on the three annual pilgrim festivals: Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot (Tabernacles).

The completion of the Temple enhanced the prestige of the high priest, who became the religious and political leader of the Jews. The political leaders mentioned in the opening chapters of the book of Ezra disappear without a trace."


It is this liberation from exile and the resettlement of Judaea by Cyrus the Great (580-530) that is recalled in these works:

Attributed to the workshop of Aurifaber
Cyrus and the Reconstruction of the Temple
Initial from the first chapter of the Book of Ezra
c. 1250
Illustrated manuscript
From the Dominican Convent, Dijon
F. 227v ms. 0007 Dijon - BM -

Pieter Lastman 1583 - 1633
Cyrus gives the order to build the Temple at Jerusalem
Pen and ink drawing
38.8 x 16.2 cm
Kupferstichkabinett (SMPK), Berlin, Germany

Cyrus was hailed as a good and just King by the people of God. Their thanks to him was boundless. "The Third Isaiah" memorialises the gratitude of the people to Cyrus in Isaiah 45:1-6 despite the fact that Cyrus did not recognise God of the Israelites and worshipped other gods:

"1 “This is what the LORD says to his anointed,
to Cyrus, whose right hand I take hold of
to subdue nations before him
and to strip kings of their armour,
to open doors before him
so that gates will not be shut:
2 I will go before you
and will level the mountains;
I will break down gates of bronze
and cut through bars of iron.
3 I will give you hidden treasures,
riches stored in secret places,
so that you may know that I am the LORD,
the God of Israel, who summons you by name.
4 For the sake of Jacob my servant,
of Israel my chosen,
I summon you by name
and bestow on you a title of honour,
though you do not acknowledge me.
5 I am the LORD, and there is no other;
apart from me there is no God.
I will strengthen you,
though you have not acknowledged me,
6 so that from the rising of the sun
to the place of its setting
people may know there is none besides me.
I am the LORD, and there is no other. "


Psalm 126 itself consists of a narrative (vv1-2), a song (v:3), a prayer (v 4), and a promise (vv 5-6)

It consists of two parts: the first is the celebration of the freedom from Babylon to go back to the land of Israel; the second part is in relation to the great task ahead on arrival in Israel

In his talk the Pope said:

"The psalmist begins the prayer in the name of all Israel by recalling the thrilling experience of salvation:

"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" (Verses 1-2a).

The psalm speaks of "restored fortunes"; that is, restored to their original state in all their former favourability.

It begins then with a situation of suffering and of need to which God responds by bringing about salvation and restoring the man who prays to his former condition; indeed, one that is enriched and even changed for the better.

This is what happens to Job, when the Lord restores to him all that he had lost, redoubling it and bestowing upon him an even greater blessing (cf. Job 42:10-13), and this is what the people of Israel experience in returning to their homeland after the Babylonian exile.

This psalm is meant to be interpreted with reference to the end of the deportation to a foreign land:

The expression "restore the fortunes of Zion" is read and understood by the tradition as a "return of the prisoners of Zion."

In fact, the return from exile is paradigmatic of every divine and saving intervention, since the fall of Jerusalem and the deportation into Babylon were devastating experiences for the Chosen People, not only on the political and social planes, but also and especially on the religious and spiritual ones.

The loss of their land, the end of the Davidic monarchy and the Destruction of the Temple appear as a denial of the divine promises, and the People of the Covenant, dispersed among the pagans, painfully question a God who seems to have abandoned them.

Therefore, the end of the deportation and their return to their homeland are experienced as a marvelous return to faith, to trust, to communion with the Lord; it is a "restoring of fortunes" that involves a conversion of heart, forgiveness, re-found friendship with God, knowledge of His mercy and a renewed possibility of praising Him (cf. Jeremiah 29:12-14; 30:18-20; 33:6-11; Ezekiel 39:25-29).

It is an experience of overflowing joy, of laughter and of cries of jubilation, so beautiful that "it seems like a dream."

Divine help often takes surprising forms that surpass what man is able to imagine; hence the wonder and joy that are expressed in this psalm:

"The Lord has done great things."

This is what the nations said, and it is what Israel proclaims:

"Then they said among the nations,
'the Lord has done great things for them.'
The Lord has done great things for us;
we are glad" (Verses 2b-3).

God performs marvelous works in the history of men.

In carrying out salvation, He reveals Himself to all as the powerful and merciful Lord, a refuge for the oppressed, who does not forget the cry of the poor (cf. Psalm 9:10,13), who loves justice and right and of whose love the earth is filled (cf. Psalm 33:5).

Thus, standing before the liberation of the People of Israel, all the nations recognize the great and marvelous things God has accomplished for His People, and they celebrate the Lord in His reality as Saviour.

And Israel echoes the proclamation of the nations, taking it up and repeating it once more -- but as the protagonist -- as a direct recipient of the divine action: "The Lord has done great things for us"; "for us" or even more precisely, "with us," in hebrew 'immanû, thus affirming that privileged relationship that the Lord keeps with His chosen ones, and which is found in the name Emmanuel, "God with us," the name by which Jesus would be called, His complete and full revelation (cf. Matthew 1:23)."


The Pope summarised the first part of the Psalm thus, concentrating on the joy which it expresses and the necessity for expressing gratitude to God for everything which He has done for us and in particular delivering us from exile towards home and liberation:

"[I]n our prayer we should look more often at how, in the events of our own lives, the Lord has protected, guided and helped us, and we should praise Him for all He has done and does for us.

We should be more attentive to the good things the Lord gives to us.

We are always attentive to problems and to difficulties, and we are almost unwilling to perceive that there are beautiful things that come from the Lord.

This attention, which becomes gratitude, is very important for us; it creates in us a memory for the good and it helps us also in times of darkness.

God accomplishes great things, and whoever experiences this -- attentive to the Lord's goodness with an attentiveness of heart -- is filled with joy.

The first part of the psalm concludes on this joyous note. To be saved and to return to one's homeland from exile are like being returned to life: Freedom opens up to laughter, but is does so together with a waiting for a fulfillment still desired and implored."


In the second part of the psalm, joy gives way to a less happy note. As Pope Benedict says:

"Freedom opens up to laughter, but is does so together with a waiting for a fulfillment still desired and implored. ...

If at the beginning of the prayer, the psalmist celebrated the joy of a fortune already restored by the Lord, now instead he asks for it as something still to be realised.

If we apply this psalm to the return from exile, this apparent contradiction could be explained by Israel's historical experience of a difficult and only partial return to their homeland, which prompts the man who prays to implore further divine help to bring the People's restoration to completeness. ...

the psalm uses distinctive imagery that in its complexity calls to mind the mysterious reality of redemption, in which the gift received and yet still to be awaited, life and death, joys dreamed of and painful tears, are interwoven"


The Pope meditates on the first image of the second part: "the dried-up streams of the Negeb desert,which with the rains are filled with rushing waters that restore life to the arid ground and make it flourish"

There are a number of images in Wikipedia which demonstrate what the Psalmist is referring to: the flash flood which transforms the arid desert landscape


A fast flood taking shape. A series of two pictures taken less than 2 minutes apart. April 2006. The Israeli southern desert - Negev

Flooded trees at the Negev desert, Israel. (close to Sde Boker) (Yuvair)


The second image is the pain and toil involved in sowing seeds: the deprivation of not eating the seeds and the backbreaking work involved in planting in the hope of better returns:

Edgar Degas 1834 - 1917
Scène orientale
Oil on canvas
12.5 x 22.4 cm
Musée d'Orsay, Paris

Then the waiting and taking care of the plants

Until finally the joy of harvest:

Giovanni Segantini 1858 - 1899
Harvesting hay
Oil on canvas
Musée Segantini, Saint-Moritz

Of the second part of the Psalm, the Holy Father linked this up with the New Testament references to seed, the Parable of the Sower, and the Grain of Wheat and said:

"The first image refers to the dried-up streams of the Negeb desert, which with the rains are filled with rushing waters that restore life to the arid ground and make it flourish. Thus, the psalmist's request is that the restoration of the People's fortunes and their return from exile be like those waters, roaring and unstoppable, capable of transforming the desert into an immense stretch of green grass and flowers.

The second image shifts from the arid and rocky hills of the Negeb to the fields that farmers cultivate for food.

In describing salvation, the experience renewed every year in the world of agriculture is here recalled: the difficult and tiring time of sowing, and then the overflowing joy in the harvest.

It is a sowing in tears, since one casts to the ground what could still become bread, exposing it to a time of waiting that is full of uncertainty: The farmer works, he prepares the earth, he scatters the seed, but as the parable of the Sower illustrates well, one never knows where the seed will fall -- if the birds will eat it, if it will take root, if it will become an ear of grain (cf. Matthew 13:3-9; Mark 4:2-9; Luke 8:4-8).

To scatter the seed is an act of trust and of hope; man's industriousness is needed, but then one must enter into a powerless time of waiting, well aware that many deciding factors will determine the success of the harvest, and that the risk of failure is always lurking.

And yet, year after year, the farmer repeats his gesture and scatters the seed. And when it becomes an ear of grain, and the fields fill with crops, this is the joy of he who stands before an extraordinary marvel.

Jesus knew well this experience, and He spoke of it with those who were His own:

"He said:

'The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed upon the ground, and should sleep and rise night and day, and the seed should sprout and grow, he knows not how'" (Mark 4:26-27).

It is the hidden mystery of life, these are the wondrous, "great things" of salvation that the Lord carries out in human history and whose secret men do not know.

When divine help is manifested in all its fullness, it has an overflowing dimension, like the watercourses of the Negeb and like the grain of the fields -- the latter also evoking a disproportion characteristic of the things of God: a disproportion between the effort of the sowing and the immense joy of the harvest; between the anxiety of waiting and the comforting vision of the granaries filled; between the little seeds thrown upon the ground and the great sheaves of grain made golden by the sun.

At the harvest, all is transformed; the weeping has ended and has given way to an exultant cry of joy.

This is what the psalmist refers to when he speaks of salvation, of liberation, of the restoration of fortunes and of return from exile. The deportation to Babylon, like every other situation of suffering and of crisis, with its painful darkness filled with doubts and the apparent absence of God, in reality -- our psalm says -- is like a time of sowing.

In the Mystery of Christ -- in the light of the New Testament -- the message becomes even clearer and more explicit: The believer who passes through this darkness is like the grain of wheat that falls into the earth and dies, but that bears much fruit (cf. John 12:24); or, borrowing another image that was dear to Jesus, the believer is like the woman who suffers the pains of labor for the sake of attaining the joy of having brought a new life to light (cf. John 16:21)."