Psalm 126 — Joy

Joy is infectious

When God’s people are joyful it has a knock on effect. What is more when God has worked in us before it is good to remember that what he has done before he can do again. This gives us joy, even in the hard times.

Psalm 126

A song of ascents.

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
    we were like those who dreamed.
Our mouths were filled with laughter,
    our tongues with songs of joy.
Then it was said among the nations,
    ‘The Lord has done great things for them.’
The Lord has done great things for us,
    and we are filled with joy.

Restore our fortunes, Lord,
    like streams in the Negev.
Those who sow with tears
    will reap with songs of joy.
Those who go out weeping,
    carrying seed to sow,
will return with songs of joy,
    carrying sheaves with them.

Seven people jumping for joy, silhouetted against a sunset.

The Songs of Ascents or Songs of Degrees are calls from the world to God. In the Eastern Orthodox Church and those Eastern Catholic Churches which follow the Byzantine Rite, the Songs of Degrees make up the Eighteenth division of the Psalter and are read on Friday evenings at Vespers throughout the liturgical year.

The story of the blues

Some time ago I attended a traditional Matins service. The psalm at that service, this one, was sung in that beautiful, peaceful Anglican chant. But it struck me as odd that such words of joy could be sung, particularly by the congregation, in such an emotionless way. That afternoon I got the guitar out and wrote a mote joyful version, ironically a blues.

In the British Blues Boom of the late 1960s and early ’70s, there were many musicians trying to get “into the blues,” many of them from middle-class art college backgrounds. They were going in the wrong direction. American blues musicians were from a put-down and put upon community, they were trying to use their music to escape the blues. Magic Sam’s “Out of bad luck” sums this up in the first line, “I’ve been down so long, but I’m on my way up again.[1] It is a blues and it is a song of optimism. Mahalia Jackson’s Gospel songs are full of optimism and joy, but it is still the blues, the music of an oppressed minority.

Psalm 127, taken on its own, is joy through and through. But the Psalms of Ascent start with a rant and a lament before they get to the first song of praise. It is clear from the opening words, “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,” that this song is rooted in being a song of a previously enslaved people who still remember being enslaved. It is a song of joy, but also a song of an underdog. A blues.

Look to the future

Verse 3 is the pivot of the psalm. It says, “We are filled with joy.” Present tense. Before that it is in the past tense, after that about the future. The psalmist can remember for it felt to be freed. How it felt to return from exile and looking back on this joy gives him joy. Then he projects this into the future, seeing people continuing to rejoice into the future.

God has blessed us before therefore God can bless us again. No that is wrong. God blessed us before therefore God will bless us again. That’s better.

There is an old song, “Count your many blessings, name them one by one, and it will surprise you what the Lord has done.”[2]


[1]Songwriters: Sam Maghett / Al Benson. Out of Bad Luck lyrics © Bug Music O/b/o Leric Music, Bmg Platinum Songs Obo Conrad Music, Conrad Music, A Division Of Arc Music Corp, Nam Jean Publishing.

[2]Count your blessings, lyics by Johnson Oatman Jr, 1856 – 1922

Holy Bible, New International Version® Anglicized, NIV® Copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

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