The Hebrew word אז (‘then’) is a hinge that occasionally turns more than the expected weight.
In Isaiah 35, for example, אז is the pivot at the beginning of the memorable phrase ‘Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the mouth of the dumb unstopped.’ The text contrasts the hearers’ present despondent state with the euphoria that shall accompany liberation and restoration.
Psalm 126 deploys the powerful temporal distinction that אז makes available, but in a direction opposite to that of the Isaiah passage:
Then (אז) our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then (אז) it was said among the nations, ‘The LORD has done great things for them.’ (Psalms 126.2 NRSV)
The poet recalls a time of almost giddy good fortune, remembered from his forlorn moment with deepest longing.
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; 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 rejoiced. (Psalms 126:1–3 NRSV)
The Psalm may indeed reveal a connection of some sort with the anticipated redemption of Isaiah 35, for that text sketches out the loudly danced exuberance of return to Jerusalem from exile. Here the poet’s vision falls in nostalgic retrospect upon that very experience. Both texts speak of a blessed then (אז), one with the strong cadence of hope and the other with the faltering accent of a paradise lost.
This, at least, is the understanding reflected in English translations like the quoted New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), which appropriately reads the two summarizing verbs of verse 3 according to their conventional connotation as referring to the past: The LORD has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.
(Contrast the New International Version’s perfect and present tenses: The LORD has done great things for us,and we are filled with joy; and the Jewish Publication Society’s future tenses: The LORD will do great things for us and we shall rejoice. )
Prayer, in this psalm and others, is capable of surveying past blessing with eyes wide open both to the satisfaction or delirium of that moment and to the reality that the sun has set upon it. Biblical observation takes in things as they are, not as they must be nor as fantasy would have them if it could.
The one hundred twenty-sixth psalm, however, moves beyond nostalgia to urging upon YHWH a change of fortune that will recover what once was.
Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses in the Negev. May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy. Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves. (Psalms 126:4–6 NRSV)
We must not miss the twin references to tears and to weeping. These, it seems, are the lot of the poet and his contemporaries. Yet the images of agriculture in which the salty heat of them is embedded lean into a time when they shall have become the seed from which better things have germinated, the roots of a well-fed community that may learn again to dream and to laugh.
The past does not always become the future. Nostalgia can be distracting, enervating, or paralyzing.
Yet the memory of better days can nourish the confidence that days to come also bear some magic in their allotted space. Prayer pleads for its release. And for ours.