Calvin's Commentaries, Vol. 12: Psalms, Part V, tr. by John King, [1847-50], at sacred-texts.com
This Psalm consists of three parts. First, the Prophet exhorts the faithful, who had returned from the captivity, to gratitude, and highly extols the grace displayed in their deliverance, to show them, beyond all doubt, that they were brought back to their own country by the hand of God, and not by a fortuitous conjuncture of circumstances, or by the favor of men. In the second part a prayer is added, that God would perfect his own work which he had begun. Finally, although there was no immediate prospect of a full restoration, yet he mitigates the feeling of weariness which delay might occasion, and assures them, that though at present the seed was watered with tears, the harvest would be joyous.
A Song of Degrees.
1. When Jehovah brought back the captivity 85 of Zion, we were like those that dream. 2. Now shall our mouth be filled 86 with laughter, and our tongue with rejoicing: now shall they say 87 among the heathen, Jehovah hath done great things for them. 3. Jehovah hath done great things for us, whereof we have been made glad.
1. When Jehovah brought back the captivity of Zion, etc. It is unnatural and forced to suppose, with some expositors, that this is a prediction of what was to come. For my part I have no doubt that the Psalm was composed upon the return of the Jewish people from the Babylonish captivity; and for this reason I have translated the verb בשוב, beshub, in the past tense. Now, whoever was the author of it, 88 whether one of the Levites or one of the Prophets, he affirms that the manner of their deliverance was too wonderful to be attributed to fortune, in order to lead the faithful to the conclusion that the prophecy of Jeremiah, which had assigned seventy years as the term of the captivity, was truly fulfilled. (Jer 25:12, and Jer 29:10.) By the verb dream, which expresses the astonishing character of the event, he teaches us that there is no room left for ingratitude. As often as God works by ordinary means, men, through the malignity of their natures, usually exercise their ingenuity in devising various causes of the deliverance wrought, in order to darken the grace of God. But the return of the Jewish people from the Babylonish captivity, having been a miracle of such splendor as was sufficient to swallow up and confound all the thoughts of men, it compels us. to own that it was a signal work of God. This is the reason why the Prophet compares this deliverance to a dream. “So far,” he materially says, “is any mind from comprehending this unparalleled benefit of God, that the bare thinking upon it transports us with amazement, as if it were a dream, and not an event which had already taken place. What impiety, then, will it be, not to acknowledge the author of it.” Moreover, he does not mean that the faithful were so dull of understanding as not to perceive that they were delivered by the hand of God, but only that, judging according to carnal sense and reason, they were struck with astonishment; and he was apprehensive lest, in reasoning with themselves about that redemption, as about an ordinary thing, they should make less account of the power of God than it became them to do. The noun שיבת, shibath, translated captivity, might be rendered bringing back, as some do, which would give greater elegance to the expression of the Psalmist, as in that case שיבת would be a noun of the same verb which is used in the beginning of the verse. 89 As, however, this makes little difference in regard to the sense, it is enough to have noticed it to my readers in passing.
2. Now shall our mouth be filled with laughter. The adverb of time, אז, az, is commonly translated then; but as the verbs are in the future tense, I have thought that it might not be improper to translate tires — grow shall our mouth be filled, and now shall they say. If, however, we admit what some Hebrew Doctors affirm, that the force of this particle is to change the future tense into the past, the adverb then will be the appropriate word. The design of the Prophet is not at all obscure. He would have the people so to rejoice on account of their return, as not to bury in forgetfulness the grace of God. He therefore describes no ordinary rejoicing, but such as so fills their minds as to constrain them to break forth into extravagance of gesture and of voice. At the same time he intimates that there was good ground for this joy, in which it became the children of God to indulge, on account of their return to their own land. As there was at that period nothing more wretched than for them to live in captivity, in which they were in a manner dispossessed of the inheritance God had promised them; so there was nothing which ought to have been more desirable to them than to be restored. Their restoration to their own country having been therefore a proof of their renewed adoption by God, it is not surprising to find the Prophet asserting that their mouth was filled with laughter, and their tongue with exultation. With a similar joy does it become us at the present day to exult when God gathers together his Church and it is an undoubted evidence that we are steel-hearted, if her miserable dispersion does not produce in our minds grief and lamentation. The Prophet proceeds farther, declaring that this miracle was seen even by the blind; for in that age of the world, as is well known, the heathen were wandering in darkness like blind men, no knowledge of God having shone upon them; and yet God’s power and operation were so conspicuous in that event, that they burst forth into the open acknowledgment that God had done great things for his people. So much the more shame-fill then was the indifference of the Jews to be accounted, if they did not freely and loudly celebrate God’s grace, which had acquired so much renown among the unbelieving. The form of speech employed is also to be marked, which forcibly expresses the idea intended to be conveyed, that the mighty power of God in this deliverance was known by the Gentiles. In the following verse the Prophet repeats in his own person, and in that of the Church, the words uttered by the heathen in the last member of the preceding verse. Let us at least, as if he had said, put forth a confession corresponding to that which God has extorted from the unbelieving Gentiles. When he adds that they were glad, there is an implied antithesis between this fresh joy and the long continued sorrow with which they were afflicted in their captivity. he expressly declares that joy was restored to them, to enable them the better to estimate the dismal condition from which they had been extricated.
4. O Jehovah! bring back our captivity, 90 as rivers in the south. 91 5. They who sow in tears shall reap in joy. 6. Going forth, he shall go and weep, carrying the price of the seed: coming, he shall return with rejoicing, carrying his sheaves with him.
4. O Jehovah! bring back our captivity. The second part of the Psalm, as I have said, contains a prayer that God would gather together the residue of the captives. The Holy Spirit endited this form of prayer for the Jews who were already come home to their own country, that they might not forget their poor brethren who were still in exile. All the Jews, no doubt, had a door opened to them, and perfect liberty granted them, to come out of the land of their captivity, but the number of those who partook of this benefit was small when compared with the vast multitude of the people. Some were kept from returning by fear, and others by sloth and want of courage, on seeing such perils at hand as they apprehended they had not power to overcome, choosing rather to lie torpid in their own filthiness, than to undertake the hardship of the journey. It is probable also that many of them preferred their present ease and comfort to eternal salvation. What the Prophet Isaiah had foretold was no doubt fulfilled, (Isa 10:22,). That although the people were in number as the sand of the sea, yet only a remnant of them should be saved. Since, then, many openly refused the benefit when it was offered them, and as there were not; wanting many difficulties and impediments to be encountered by those who availed themselves of this liberty granted them by the good pleasure of the king, 92 so that it was only a few of sounder judgment and of a more intrepid heart, who dared to move a foot — and even they with reluctance, — it is no wonder that the Prophet requires the Church still to make supplication to God for the bringing back of the captivity. Along with this, the state of those who had already returned is also to be noted; for their land being in the possession of strangers, who were all their inveterate and sworn enemies, they were no less captives in their own country than among the Babylonians. It was therefore necessary, on a twofold account, that the Church should earnestly beseech God to gather together such as were dispersed; first, that he would give courage to the timid, awaken the torpid, cause the besotted to forget their pleasures, and stretch forth his hand to be a guide to all; and, secondly, that he would settle the body of the people who had returned in liberty and ease.
As to the similitude which follows, many think the sense to be, that the bringing back of their captivity prayed for would be as grateful to them as if water should flow through a desert. 93 We know how grievous and painful a thing it is to travel in a hot country through and sands. The south, is taken for the wilderness, because the region on the south of Judea was waste and almost uninhabitable. Yet it seems to me more just to say, that the grace of God is here magnified, and still more enlarged by the Prophet’s comparing it to a miracle. “Although it is a difficult matter,” he substantially says, “for the dispersed remnant to be again united into one body, yet God, if he please, can do this, just as he can cause rivers of water to flow through a parched desert.” He, at the same time, alludes to the road intervening between Judea and Babylon, as appears from the situation of the two countries. Thus the words will not require any supplement, the meaning being simply this, that the bringing back of their captivity would be as if a river should run through a barren and and country. And, certainly, to open up a way for the people who, so to speak, were swallowed up in a deep gulf, was as if a course had been opened up for irrigating waters to flow through a desert.
5. They who sow in tears shall reap in joy. This sentence, in my opinion, ought not less to be extended to the future than understood of the past. The carrying away of the Jews into Babylon was to them as a seed-time; 94 God having, by the prophecy of Jeremiah, encouraged them to hope for the harvest. Still, it was not without very great heaviness and anguish of heart that they were dragged into such long continued captivity. It was, as if in the time of dearth the poor husbandman, who already experiences the gnawings of hunger, were compelled to abridge himself of his ordinary food in order to provide for the coming year; and although this is a hard and distressing case, he is yet moved to sow from the hope of the harvest. The Jews then, when led into captivity, were, doubtless, no less sorrowful than he who, in the time of scarcity, casts the precious seed into the ground; but afterwards a joyful harvest followed, when they were delivered; for the Lord restored to them gladness, like that which is experienced in a most abundant increase. 95 I, however, also conceive that the Prophet exhorts the faithful to patience in reference to the future. The restoration of the Church was not yet completed, and even, for the two reasons which I have a little before specified, that period was evidently the time of sowing. Although the edict of the king frankly invited the Jews to return, yet only a few of many returned, gradually and fearfully, in small companies. Moreover, those who did so were unkindly and harshly welcomed by their neighbors, and to so much trouble were they subjected that their former bondage appeared equally tolerable. Whence we gather, that they had still to suffer — the full time of harvest, not having yet arrived; and, therefore, the Prophet, not without cause, exhorts them strenuously to labor, and to persevere in the midst of continual difficulties without fainting, until they found themselves placed in more favorable circumstances. With respect to the words, some translate. משך, meshech, a price; and others, a basket or seed vessel. 96 For the latter translation there is no foundation. Those who translate price quote in support of their version that passage in the book of Job 28:18 “The price of wisdom is above rubies.” But as the verb משך, mashach, from which this noun is derived, signifies to extend or to draw out, it may perhaps, both here and in that other place, be more fitly taken in its proper signification. In the text quoted from Job it is profound wisdom, and not intellectual acuteness, which is commended, and thus the extending of wisdom, that is to say, a continual course of wisdom, is, from its being deeply grounded, better than pearls. In like manner, in the passage before us, the drawing out of the seed is applied to the husbandmen themselves, implying, that they extend and prolong their life when they sow. If, however, the word price is preferred, the sense will be, that when corn is scarce, seed is committed to the ground with tears, because it is precious and costly. This doctrine extends still farther. Our life is, in other parts of Scripture, compared to the seed-time, and as it will often happen that we must sow in tears, it becomes us, lest sorrow should weaken or slacken our diligence, to raise our minds to the hope of the harvest. Besides, let us remember that all the Jews who were carried captives into Babylon did not sow; for as really among them, who had hardened themselves against God and the Prophets, had despised all threatenings, so they lost all hope of returning. Those in whom such despair brooded were consumed in their miseries; but those who were sustained by the promise of God, cherished in their hearts the hope of harvest, although in a time, of extreme scarcity they cast their seed into the ground, as it were, at venture. In order then that joy may succeed our present sorrow, let us learn to apply our minds to the contemplation of the issue which God promises. Thus we shall experience that all true believers have a common interest in this prophecy, That God not only will wipe away tears from their eyes, but that he will also diffuse inconceivable joy through their hearts.
The abstract noun is put for the concrete, “the captivity of Zion” for “the captives of Zion” — those who were led away captive from Zion. Accordingly, in the French version, Calvin uses the concrete —”Les captifs;” —”The captives.”
“Ou, alors nostre bouche a este remplie.” — Fr. marg. “Or, then our mouth was filled.”
“Ou, alors on disoit.” — Fr. marg. “Or, then they said.”
Grotius and Amyraldus suppose that it was compiled by Ezra, after the Jews had begun to return from Babylon.
That is, it would be derived from שוב, shrub, he returned; whereas if it is rendered captivity, it is derived from שבה, shabah, he led captive. The English Bible translators seem to have been uncertain whether שיבת, shibath, is to be considered as derived from the first of these verbs or from the second, their reading in the text being, “turned back our captivity,” and their marginal rendering being, “returned the returning.” There is a play upon the words, שוב, “turn,” and שיבת, “captivity.” It is to be observed that the concluding part of the above sentence in the text is from Calvin’s French Commentary. There is nothing to represent it in the Latin Version.
Walford reads, “Bring back all our captives, O Jehovah!” “The word all,” says he, “is not in the Hebrew text, but is necessary to the sense; for some had returned, and others were returning or about to return.” Some of the captive Jews came back to their own land in the reign of Cyrus, others in the reign of Darius, and the rest in the reign of Xerxes. Such therefore as had been the first to return, may be supposed to pray in these words for the restoration of their brethren.
Phillips translates in the dry place. “The noun נגב,” says he, “in its usual acceptation, signifies south; but its primary sense is that of dryness, in which it is used in Jos 15:19; Jud 1:15; where ארץ הנגב is opposed to גלת מום, springs of water.” In the Septuagint the reading is, like the torrents m the parched land.’ Street has —
“Jehovah hath restored us from our captivity,
As he restoreth the torrents in the dry country.”
French and Skinner in like manner read “in a thirsty land.”
“Precaria libertas.” — Lat. “Ceste liberte obtenue d’eux par le bon plaisir du Roy.” — Fr.
Walford reads, “like the streams of the south.” — “In the southern districts of Palestine and Arabia,” says he, “the heat is so vehement during some seasons as to dry up the rivers completely, and parch the soil. When rains come, the torrents again flow, and the soil is refreshed and verdant; — a delightful image of the joy experienced by captives on returning to their native land.”
“Fuit Judteis sun migratio sationis instar.” — Lat. “Le tranaport des Juifs en Babvlone leur a este comme un temps de semence ” — Fr
The word then may be prefixed to this verse: then, ie., when thou hast brought back the captives, they that sowed in tears shall reap in joy.” — Cresswell.
“משך. This word has been variously interpreted; for as it is found only here and in Job 28:18, its signification is uncertain. In the Syriac we have it rendered by a word which signifies a skin and hence J. D. Michaelis proposes to take משך for a sack made of skin. So Aben Ezra thinks ‘that it is the name of a measure in which there is seed.’ The author of Mendlessohn’s Beor, approves of this comment, and observes, that משך was a small cup made of skin.’ The root is משך, to draw out.’ We should, however, adhere as strictly to the meaning of the root if we render the expression as Gesenius has done, by the drawing of the seed, i.e., the strewing or sowing of the seed. I think, however, Michaelis’s rendering is the best, as fitting with the preceding word גסא; and so we have carrying the sack of seed, at the end of the first hemistich, which corresponds with carrying his sheaves at the end of the second.” — Phillips. On the margin of our English Bible it is “seed-basket.” Street reads, “Bearing the vessel with the seed;” Horsley, “He that goeth, and weeping beareth the seed to be drawn forth; French and Skinner, “Bearing seed for his sowing;” Fry, “Sowing his seed,” observing, that משך expresses the action of casting the seed into the ground; and Walford, “Carrying seed for sowing.” “Literally it is,” says Cresswell, “a drawing forth of seed, i.e., as much as the sower, putting his hand into whatever contained the seed, could take out at once. Am 9:13.”