Shiur #37: "When The Lord Brought Back The Return Of Zion" Psalm 126 (Part II)

  • Rav Elchanan Samet




Lecture 37:

"WHen the Lord brought back the return of Zion"

Psalm 126 (part ii)

Rav Elchanan Samet





1                      When the Lord brought back

                        the return of Zion,

                        we were like dreamers.

2            (2)     Then our mouth

                        was filled with laughter

                        and our tongue with joy.

3                      Then they said among the nations:

                        "The Lord did great things

                        for these."

4            (3)     The Lord did great things

                        for us.

                        We were glad.


The first half of our psalm is comprised of four stanzas, each of which is made up of three short lines of two or three words each. In the first, second, and fourth stanzas the speakers are those whom God returned, and in each of the stanzas the speakers describe in first-person plural their various reactions to this event. The third stanza cites the words of the nations, and these words contain a historical-theological assessment of that very same event. The nations do not direct their words at the returnees to Zion, but rather they speak among themselves, saying, "The Lord did great things for these." From here it is difficult to determine the nation's emotional attitude toward the event that they are assessing. Are they rejoicing in the joy of the redeemed? Or are they perhaps expressing astonishment or scorn?[1]


In our usual manner, we ask: what idea is expressed in the first half of the psalm, and how does this idea develop as we advance from one stanza to the next? In other words, what are the stylistic and substantive connections between the various stanzas of this half, or what is the structure of this half of the psalm?


We will first explain each stanza independently, and then we will try to answer the questions raised regarding this half.


1.      STANZA 1


The meaning of the first two lines of this stanza was discussed at length in the first section of this study. What is left to discuss is the third line: "We were like dreamers." What does this analogy wish to convey? What emotional response does it mean to express with respect to the historical event?


The medieval commentators offer two interpretations. The Radak explains:


"We were like dreamers:" The troubles of the exile will seem to us like a passing dream, owing to the great joy that we will experience when we return to our land.[2] This is the way it was explained by my father z"l [R. Yosef Kimchi].


            R. Yeshaya of Trani offers a similar explanation, but whereas the Radak understands our psalm as referring to the final exile, R. Yeshaya relates our psalm to the Babylonian exile and therefore explains the analogy as referring to the length of the exilic period:


"We were like dreamers" – that is to say, that exile was like a dream, for it was only seventy years.[3]


            The Ibn Ezra explains the analogy, "we were like dreamers," in what seems to be the simplest and most convincing manner:


So will Israel say when God will bring back their return, "Nobody sees this marvel in a wakened state, but only in a dream!”[4]


            I find the Ibn Ezra's understanding most convincing for several reasons. First of all, our psalm does not explicitly mention the exile (its existence can only be inferred from the repeated reference to "bringing back the return"), and therefore it is difficult to relate the words "we were like dreamers" to it. According to the Ibn Ezra, the reference is not to the exile, but to the returnees' emotional reaction to "God's bringing back the return of Zion" mentioned earlier in the verse.


            Second, when a person undergoes a dramatic positive change in his life, he is more likely to be focused on the present, rather than engaged in an evaluation of the past.


            Third, there is a clear literary-linguistic parallel between stanza 1 and stanza 4, as will be discussed later in this study. One component of this parallelism is the third line of each stanza: "we were like dreamers" – "we were glad." Just as in stanza 4 the words "we were glad" clearly relate to the emotional reaction to the great things that God did for us, so too in stanza 1 the words "we were like dreamers" should relate to the emotional reaction to the very same great things.


            The feeling of being in a dream is the initial emotional response of someone who experiences a joyous and surprising life-changing event. This feeling expresses a certain emotional detachment from the new reality and does not yet constitute a real response to the event.


Accordingly, we may conclude that stanza 1 describes the initial stage of God's bringing back the return of Zion, immediately following Koresh's proclamation, perhaps even before the returnees actually left the land of their exile but were still preparing for their departure.


The Ibn Ezra's explanation of the words "we were like dreamers" accords with the understanding that our psalm describes God's bringing back of the return to Zion as an event that already occurred, and not merely as a wish for the future. When a person imagines in his mind the realization of his wishes in the future, he can see himself rejoicing (as is described in the continuation of this half, in stanzas 2 and 4). But it is doubtful that he can imagine that dream-like feeling that he will have when his situation changes. And even if he can imagine it, why would he include it in his description of the desired future?[5] If, on the other hand, our psalm relates to events that have already occurred, the psalmist might well be interested in describing the development of the returnees' emotional response to the events, and therefore he begins with an account of their initial response, which is not yet a real response. This will be further clarified in the continuation of our analysis of the first half of the psalm.




            This stanza describes the first real response to "this marvel" of the return to Zion. Although this response is made with a mouth that is filled with laughter and with a tongue that is filled with joy, it is not a verbal response. The mouth sounds laughter and the tongue joy, and in that way we express our happiness in a spontaneous manner.


            The feeling that "we were like dreamers" has dissipated, and it is replaced by laughter and joy, but a verbal response that has substance and expresses the thoughts of the redeemed has not yet been uttered.


3.    STANZA 3


We finally come to a verbal response to the great marvel of God's bringing back the return of Zion. But this response is the response of the nations – "Then they said among the nations." These words are said not to God and not to Israel, but among the nations themselves. We already proposed various possible ways of understanding what they said in the short introduction to this section and in note 1 above.


Why do the nations think "the Lord did great things for these"? The answer seems to lie in the uniqueness of the process of return of those who returned from the Babylonian exile to their homeland.


Many nations were exiled from their lands by the kings of Assyria and Babylonia over the course of the two hundred years that preceded the Persian conquest of Babylonia. To the best of our knowledge, however, none of these nations returned to their homelands other than the Jews who were exiled to Babylonia.[6] Koresh's proclamation set in motion the return to Zion that came in its wake, the renewal of settlement in Judea with political rights, limited as they may have been, and the rebuilding of the Temple and restoration of Jerusalem and its walls. All of these constitute a unique phenomenon in the history of the ancient world. Had it not been for the return of Jews to their homeland in recent generations, it might well have remained a unique phenomenon in all of history.


How was this made possible, and why did it not happen to other exiled nations as well?


A combination of three factors made the return of the exiles from Babylonia possible:


·        The returnees' preservation of their national and religious identity: they did not assimilate among the peoples living in the land to which they had been exiled, and they waited for the possibility of returning to Zion following a change in international political circumstances.[7] Other nations exiled from their lands began a process of assimilation, and even if they didn't, they adjusted to their new place of residence and showed no desire of returning to their homeland.[8]


·        The Babylonians did not settle other nations in Judea (as the Assyrians did in Shomron), and the exile was short enough that the land remained in its state of ruin and desolation and did not attract other nations in the area.[9] Thus, the returnees to Zion could return to their destroyed cities and rebuild them.[10] This was not the situation regarding other places whose inhabitants had been exiled; those lands were seized by other peoples who had been intentionally settled there or who had invaded them, so that the return of the exiles was no longer possible.


·        And of course, the most dramatic factor was the fall of Babylon and the rise of the Persian Empire, at the head of which stood a king like Koresh. This king's policy was conciliatory toward all the nations, but the most dramatic results of this policy related to the exiles in Babylonia. His famous declaration led to the unique process of bringing the exiles back to Zion, rebuilding the Temple, and restoring the ruins of Judea and Jerusalem.


We must not allow the dark and disappointing reality that later manifested itself after the return from Babylonia to Judea, as is described in the books of Ezra and Nechemya, to cast its shadow on the greatness of this one-time historical event. Without a doubt, in the first days following Koresh's proclamation, when the shock was still great and the hopes were still high, the Jews of Babylonia were "like dreamers."


Babylonian Jewry's non-Jewish neighbors were certainly also impressed by the quick and dramatic change in the situation of the Jewish exiles. The God of Israel revealed Himself as one who overturns historical processes, humbles nations, and raises others in their place so that His people would be able to return to their land. The prophets of Israel foretold the fall of Babylonia and the rise of Persia in its place; they saw this as a historical change, the primary objective of which was the return of the exiles to Zion. Their prophecies may have been known not only to the Jews, but to their neighbors as well, and even if not, it would not be surprising for these non-Jews to say: "The Lord did great things for these."[11]


4.    STANZA 4


The two first lines of stanza 4 repeat the two last lines of stanza 3, only that in stanza 3 these lines constituted a citation of the words of the nations, whereas in stanza 4 the speakers are the returnees from exile. The difference between the two stanzas lies in the pronouns: the nations say "with these," whereas the returnees say "with us."


What is the significance of this repetition? We are dealing here with an intentional repetition on the part of the Jews of the words of the nations, and therefore we must add between the two stanzas, "indeed," or even: "Then they said among the nations: 'The Lord did great things… [and we too say:] 'The Lord did great things….'" If so, stanza 4 contains what we had been looking for in the previous stanzas and were unable to find: A verbal response on the part of the returnees from exile to God's bringing back their return – a response that assigns religious content to their appreciation of the event that has made them so happy.




There is an obvious parallelism between the two inner stanzas in the first half of our psalm: "Then our mouth was filled" – "Then they said among the nations." Both open with the word "then" ("az") which alludes to the time mentioned in stanza 1 – "when the Lord brought back the return of Zion"; both instances of the word "az" are followed by a future tense verb, which in both cases should be understood as denoting the past. Substantively, the two stanzas focus on two responses to God's bringing back of the return to Zion: our response and that of the nations.


These two stanzas are surrounded by stanzas 1 and 4, the parallelism between which is also evident:


When the Lord brought back

The return of Zion,

We were like dreamers.

The Lord did great things

For us.

We were glad.


At the beginning of each of these two stanzas, mention is made of God's action on behalf of his people: "the great thing" that He did for us in stanza 4 is the bringing back of the return of Zion that is mentioned in stanza 1. These two stanzas end with a similar description of our responses to what God had done on our behalf. In essence, stanza 4 repeats stanza 1, while appreciating the fact noted in stanza 1 from the perspective of its meaning "for us" and expressing a more noticeable response on our part than that described in the first stanza.


This parallelism between the two responses leads to the question: How did the response of "we were like dreamers," which expresses a somewhat detached emotional stance, turn into the response of "we were glad," which expresses a clear and well-defined feeling? Put differently, what caused the development of stanza 1 to its improved form in stanza 4?


The answer to this question obligates us to examine another type of connection between the four stanzas, a connection in which progress is made from stanza to stanza until a climax is reached in stanza 4. For this purpose, let us examine the possibility of dividing this half into two pairs of stanzas, 1-2 and 3-4.


The connection between stanza 3 and stanza 4 is clear and evident. Both of them state: "The Lord did great things for…," indicating that the contents of these two stanzas are equal. It is more difficult to see the connection between stanza 1 and stanza 2, and we will note the substantive connection between them in a negative manner: both of them contain a non-verbal response to God's bringing back the return of Zion. There is clear progress from "we were like dreamers" to the mouth and tongue's filling with laughter and joy, as was noted in our discussion of these two stanzas above. But the common denominator between them is that there is still no mention of a response that has content expressed in words.


On this point, the second pair – stanzas 3-4 – differs from the first. Stanzas 3-4 describe two verbal responses expressing identical content.[12] The progress from stanza 3 to stanza 4 is in two realms. First, there is a change in the identity of the responders – the nations in stanza 3 and "us" in stanza 4. This difference leads to another difference: while the verbal response of the nations is cold and vague with respect to its intention (as was noted at the beginning of section III of this study), our response includes the meaningful words "we were glad." Our happy response is already described in stanza 2 through the words "laughter" and "joy." It turns out, then, that stanza 4 is built on a combination of motifs found in stanzas 2-3: the non-verbal joy described in stanza 2 joins with the verbal response of the nations in stanza 3. This combination contains more than the sum of these two separate factors. The unspecified and non-verbal joy of stanza 2 rises to a higher level in stanza 4 because there it stems from and accompanies the verbal declaration, "The Lord did great things for us," and the unspecified verbal declaration of the nations in stanza 3 rises to a higher level in stanza 4 where it is sounded by our mouths, for we express these words with elevated spirit and joy.




An analysis of the first half of the psalm – of each stanza by itself and of the connection between the four stanzas – reveals that this part of the psalm describes the developing response of those exiled to Babylonia to the dramatic and historical event of "God's bringing back the return of Zion." This development results from progress along the time line, starting with the initial (and positive) shock that they experienced with the arrival of the joyful news – "we were like dreamers" - until the assimilation of the impression of the response of the nations and the integration that the Jews did of this impression with their previous spontaneous joy. In this way, there is progress from stanza to stanza, from response to response, both on the emotional-psychological level and on the cognitive-intellectual level, until the response at the highest level in stanza 4: the verbal response that contains religious recognition of God's great deed, which is accompanied by happiness, both of which express gratitude to God.


Here we must note the striking difficulty regarding stanza 3's belonging to the first half of the psalm. Why is the response of the nations mentioned in the middle of the account of the developing response of the Jews to a historical event connected to them?


The answer to this question is given by the psalm itself. The Jews' repetition in stanza 4 of the words of the nations in stanza 3 (changing the pronoun so that it refers to themselves) teaches us that it was their hearing the words of the nations that brought the Jews to the response and recognition expressed in stanza 4. How so?


When a nation undergoes dramatic, historical changes relating to its very existence, it may need an objective, external perspective to help it properly define the historical process and respond to it in a fitting manner. The one for whom a miracle is performed does not see the miracle,[13] because he is too close to what is happening and an involved party. Moreover, recognizing the greatness of God's actions on behalf of Israel stems from the historical uniqueness of their redemption, something that did not happen for any other nation.[14] It is the non-Jewish nations that are particularly fit to testify to this uniqueness. Their words provide us with objective standards to understand the significance of this unusual act, and therefore we repeat what they say in our own words and express our joy in God's actions.


What is the significance of this analysis of the first half of the psalm with respect to the question posed at the beginning of this study - does the psalm describe what already happened or does it reflect hopes for the future? The answer is clear: An account of a developing response as in our psalm must express concrete experience. Only someone who actually underwent an emotional and cognitive process such as described in our psalm can describe it in all its stages. On the other hand, someone imagining the brilliant future awaiting the people when God will bring back its return is not only incapable of conceiving and describing this complex psychological process, but he also has no reason to do so. He is solely interested in the process's "bottom line," the joy and thanksgiving for what God will do on our behalf (that is to say, he would have contented himself with stanza 4).[15]


The literary analysis that we have proposed supports what the linguistic analysis suggested: that the verbs "hayinu" in stanzas 1 and 4 should be understood in their plain sense, as denoting the past, and that the phrases "az yimale" and "az yomeru" should also be understood as denoting the past, even though formally they are in future tense.[16]


Our literary analysis of the first half of the psalm also implies that the various responses that it describes took place immediately after Koresh's proclamation, and perhaps even on Babylonian soil and before the actual realization of Koresh's proclamation with the first return to the land of Judea. If this is true, the "nations" mentioned in stanza 3 might be the Babylonians, Israel's neighbors, among whom they had been exiled. This conclusion answers the objection raised by modern commentators with respect to the correspondence between our psalm and the description of the return to Eretz Yisrael in the books of Ezra and Nechemya.[17]


(Translated by David Strauss)

[1] The pronoun that the nations use in reference to Israel, "these" ("eleh"), suggests the latter understanding. Were it true that their reaction expresses empathy for the redeemed, they would surely have directed their words toward Israel, saying, ""The Lord did great things for you."

[2] Like most of the medieval commentators, the Radak understands the first half of our psalm as a description of the return of the exiles in the future, and not as we have explained this half, as an account of an event that already transpired. The Meiri, in his first explanation, also understands the psalm in this manner.

[3] The well-known aggada regarding Choni Ha-Me'agel in Ta'anit 23a seems to have understood the verse in a similar manner: "All the days of that righteous man [Choni], he was distressed over this verse: 'A Song of Ascents… we were like dreamers.' He said: Is there someone who sleeps seventy years in a dream?"

[4] The Radak and the Meiri bring this as a second explanation. The Meiri also brings another explanation: "This should be understood as saying that we will not despair of the redemption, but rather our hearts and minds are upon it at all times. And he said, that while we are still in exile, we are like dreamers regarding the redemption, that is to say, our hearts and minds are set upon it, so that owing to our imagination's having settled upon it, we dream about it." See the similar explanation proposed by the Malbim and brought in the first part of this study, note 19.

One reading of the Aramaic translation of our psalm offers an explanation that is radically different from all the other explanations cited thus far. "’Hayinu ke-cholmim’ – we shall be similar to those who have recovered from illnesses." Without a doubt, the Aramaic translation understands the word "cholmim" as "machlimim" – those who have recovered from the afflictions of the exile, which are likened to illnesses. Tz.P. Chajes proposed this explanation as his own novel understanding, failing to notice that it was already offered by the Aramaic translation.

[5] Tz.P. Chajes was sensitive to this difficulty in his commentary to our psalm. After presenting these two possible ways of understanding our psalm and choosing the second alternative, that the psalm gives voice to hopes about the future, he writes regarding the words "we were like dreamers:" "Our joy will be so great that we won't trust our own eyes and we will say 'a good dream.' It cannot be denied that 'ke-cholmim' fits in best according to the first explanation [that the psalm describes the return to Zion that has already taken place], and that it does not fit in well according to the second explanation which we have chosen. Surely they are praying and waiting for deliverance; why then should they not believe in their success?" This is similar to our last argument. In order to reinforce the explanation which he previously had accepted, Chajes suggests that we understand the word "ke-cholmim" in the sense of "hachlama" (recovery from illness); see second half of note 4.

[6] Even the ten tribes of Israel did not return to their land, neither at the time of Koresh's proclamation, nor later, and apart from a few remnants that may have survived in the lands of their dispersion, they completely disappeared over the course of the years, as did the rest of the nations who were exiled from their homelands.

[7] Psalm 137, the subject of our previous study, reflects the memory of Jerusalem among the exiles and the ways of preserving it. Yirmiyahu's prophecies taught the people to prepare for an extended, but not too extended exile, and promised the fall of Babylonia and the return of the exiles in the not too distant future.

[8] Compare with the words of Ravshakeh to the inhabitants of Jerusalem (II Melakhim 18:32): "And I will take you away to a land like your own land, a land of corn and wine, a land of bread and vineyards, a land of oil olive and of honey, that you may live, and not die." It is quite possible that with respect to the exiled nations, or at least some of them, their place of exile was no worse than the land from which they came, and they struck roots in the new place and adjusted themselves to living there.

[9] A certain qualification must be added here: The Edomites appear to have taken control of southern Judea, and it is quite possible that they would have expanded their control northward had the exiles not returned to their land.

[10] This has special importance with respect to Jerusalem, which remained in ruin and was not seized by any other nation.

[11] As stated, not only was the dramatic change in the international political situation a grand act of the God of Israel, but so was its timing, as it was at a point when the return of the exiles to their land was possible.

With this, we have tried to answer the question raised by Tz.P. Chajes and Kaufmann (mentioned in the first section of this study) regarding the correspondence between stanza 3 and the historical reality known to us from the account of the return to Zion in the books of Ezra and Nechemya. Our answer is that the nations referred to in our psalm are not the Shomronim and the other nations living in Eretz Yisrael, but rather the Babylonians among whom the exiles lived. The time described in our psalm is immediately following Koresh's proclamation, as is alluded to in stanza 1 in the words "we were like dreamers."

Chajes's question, "Surely it was not through their might and courageous spirit that they achieved their desires, but by way of the grace of their kings," is difficult to understand: Had they, in fact, achieved their desires through their might, it is doubtful that the nations would have said: "The Lord did great things for these." It is precisely these things - the dramatic political changes in the international world order, their occurrence at a time when the return of the exiles to their land was still possible, and the impact of these changes on the fate of the exiles – that were understood by the nations as the actions of the great God who acted on behalf of "these."

Even if we assume that the nations under discussion are the nations living in Eretz Yisrael, as Kaufmann assumed in his question, it is not impossible that they would have said out of jealousy, "The Lord did great things for these," and that based on this perception they would have tried to join with the Jews in the building of Jerusalem and the Temple. Only after their offers were rejected did their attitude toward the returnees turn into one of scorn and hatred.

[12] Stanza 4 also describes the returnees' verbal response to the events, for the transition from stanza 3 to stanza 4 requires that before stanza 4 we fill in the words, "we too say."

[13] The source of this saying is found in the words of R. Elazar in Nidda 31a: "Even he for whom a miracle is performed does not recognize the miracle performed for him."

[14] We noted this in our analysis of stanza 3 above.

[15] This is especially true about the response, "We were like dreamers." We already discussed this point in our analysis of stanza 1 above.

[16] See section II of this study.

[17] This question was raised at the end of section II of this study.