As a “song of ascents,” this psalm may have been sung when Israelites went up to Jerusalem for worship. The reference to the “captivity of Zion” in the Septuagint and the less specific mention of restoration associated with Zion in the Masoretic Text suggest that this composition dates after the Babylonian exile.
YHWH is credited with the restoration. To those returning to Zion, the development was like a dream — unreal or too good to be true. The marvelous liberation from exile prompted unspeakable joy. It filled the mouth of the returnees with appreciative laughter, and their tongue became the organ for expressing joy. Among the nations, those who witnessed the restoration were moved to acknowledge that YHWH had done something “great” for his people. Because he had done this “great thing,” effecting their deliverance, those returning acknowledged it as YHWH’s doing and were joyful.
The psalmist petitioned YHWH to restore his people’s “fortunes” or “captivity” like streambeds in the Negeb. In the Negeb, the area lying south of the mountainous region of ancient Judah, streambeds were dry in the hot summer months. During the rainy season, they would again flow with water and vegetation would begin to flourish. This suggests that, with God’s blessing, the restored people would be able to transform their desolated land into a beautiful and productive region.
The mention of sowing seed with tears and thereafter experiencing rejoicing may originally have served to encourage the scattered people to choose to return to Zion even though the prospects of enjoying prosperity would initially not be favorable. Limited grain supplies meant that precious seed that could have been ground into flour and used for making bread was needed for sowing. For a father to use seed for this purpose would have been like taking food away from his family, but he had no other choice. Without sowing seed, he could not expect a harvest and accompanying rejoicing. Therefore, he would go to his field with a quantity of seed and sow with tears of deep concern. At harvesttime, however, he would return home with rejoicing, carrying his sheaves.
The Septuagint (verse 1) does not say “like those who are dreaming,” but reads “like those who are comforted.”
In the Septuagint (verse 4), “Negeb” is rendered according to its basic meaning — “south.”
See Psalm 1 regarding the divine name (YHWH).