Ps. 126: Dreams of Restoration, in Every Sense
Matthew L. Skinner is Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary in Saint Paul and Scholar for Adult Education at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis. His most recent publications are Acts: Catching Up with the Spirit and the three-volume Companion to the New Testament. He co-hosts the Sermon Brainwave podcast on the Working Preacher website and wishes he could be better at both cooking and gardening.
The imagery of Psalm 126 delivers a feast for the senses. With an economy of words it conjures vivid experiences. Maybe you hear the laughter and shouting of exuberant children swarming all over a playground. My mind goes to the roar of fresh water as it pours through a formerly dry riverbed and splashes the onlookers who have come to inhale sweet-smelling petrichor. There is also the tingling buzz of anticipation that pulses through a community when the harvest comes in or when caterers arrive to lay out the banquet for a long-awaited wedding reception.
Those experiences are signs of vitality. They paint scenes of a renewed, flourishing society that made an improbable recovery after a traumatic exile. The scenes and the feelings they generate connect also to modern experiences. They remind us, we who navigate now-dangerous public spaces and especially-dangerous-for-some social systems, of what our hopes for communal restoration could be. They tell us how we’ll know when we’ve arrived into a safer and more equitable world.
The psalm speaks about healthy society in an additional way, beyond the vocabulary of celebration, testimony, irrigation, and agriculture. That additional dynamic is dreaming.
If our senses cannot detect God’s graciousness among us, perhaps our dreams can help. Dreaming prompts us to ask who we are and how we got here.
Dreams can tell us about ourselves. In dreams our minds put old memories into conversation with recent experiences and unresolved problems. In some cases dreams represent attempts to take memories, whether they are suppressed or conscious, and weave them into a coherent, although not always pleasant, narrative. Dreams can help us make sense of things. New sense.
“Those who dream” are those who draw from the past to imagine and bring forth a meaningful future.
Historians look at past events and movements and stitch them together, not only to chronicle cultural memories and to explain history’s subterranean currents, but also to discover insights into a society’s present identity. Historical remembrance can help a community acknowledge who it is now and what makes it well or poorly suited to face current challenges. Any religious community that is attentive to ritual knows that. Perhaps dreaming allows us to do something similar when it activates the human tendency to put past and present into coherent dialogue. Dreamers ponder how to journey into a better future.
Of course, not all dreams are friendly. Nightmares, including the ones fueled by COVID anxieties and threats that visit minoritized bodies in white spaces, remind us how frightening it can be to look to the past. Even recovering joys and hopes from yesteryear is not a guarantee for finding more in the future.
That’s where Psalm 126 proves helpful. One lovely characteristic of this psalm is the ambiguity in how its verbs are situated in time. Some interpreters say the psalm speaks entirely in the future tense, making it from start to finish a prayer for a yet-to-be-accomplished restoration. Other interpreters contend that the entire psalm sings of restoration that occurred in the past, offering praise and gratitude for what has already happened. Still others understand the verbs in vv. 1-3 as past tense, hearing them describe memories of God’s prior faithfulness, and the verbs in vv. 5-6 as future tense, meaning that the psalmist relies on old memories and convictions to provide confidence in what God might yet do.
Translators need to decide one way or another, because they have translations to produce. But I’m happy to embrace the ambiguity and leave those temporal distinctions undefined because, for me, time tends to collapse on itself when I consider God’s faithfulness. Yes, my spiritual ancestors’ perceptions of God’s reliability matter, and their songs and dreams help me know why I believe and hope as I do, but God’s restorative work has never been complete, if complete means finished.
God’s reliability in the past orients me toward the future in faith, but the past was never enough. Restoration always has to involve, I believe, wanting more. I don’t know exactly what restoration for our society will look, sound, taste, smell, or feel like, but it has to be life-giving in every sense.
If scripture’s expectations for peace, justice, and plenty are indeed accurate depictions of a God Who Restores, then may our dreams connect to the dreams God has. May our shared visions make us alert and responsive along the journey to where God has been and where God will be.
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The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.