The footnotes for Psalm 126:1 NIV provide an alternative for the phrasing, why is it there?

Psalm 126:1 When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dreamed

Psalm 126:1 with the footnote alternatives:

When the Lord brought back the captives to Zion we were like those restored to health

3 Answers 3


Ps 126:1 is a quintessentially succinct piece of Hebrew whose full meaning is tricky to convey. It is made more difficult by the fact that one of the words only occurs here and another has a double meaning. One can see plenty of evidence for this in the huge variety of ways the verse has been translated here: https://biblehub.com/psalms/126-1.htm

Here is my very literal translation:

When [the] LORD brought back/returned [the] captivity of Zion, we were like those who were healthy/dreamed.

Now to the difficulties of two tricky words here:

שִׁיבַ֣ת (shibath) = "captivity" is a noun feminine singular. It is clearly indicating a a collective noun here and thus some versions translate it as "captives"

כְּחֹלְמִֽים (k'hol'mim) from the root word חָלַם (chalam) = "healthy/dreamed" is a verb masculine plural. It primary meaning is "be healthy, strong" (BDB) but almost always means "to dream" (BDB), eg, gen 28:12, 37:5, 6, 40:4, 8, 41:1, 5, 11, 42:9, Deut 13:1, 3, 5, Judges 7:13, Isa 29:8, Jer 23:25.

Job 39:4, Isa 38:16 appear to be the only exceptions where חָלַם means healthy or strong.

Therefore, I suggest that the best idiomatic translation of Ps 126:1 is something similar to the NASB:

When the LORD brought back the captives of Zion, We were like those who dream.


שִׁ֗יר - song of

הַֽמַּ֫עֲלֹ֥ות - the steps/stairs = the accent

בְּשׁ֣וּב - preposition with the Qal infinitive construct - when he returns (infinitives usually translated present tense)

יְ֭הוָה - subject - the LORD

אֶת־שִׁיבַ֣ת - sign of the direct object with a construct noun feminine singular having the same root as the previous verb meaning return, but the only place in the Old Testament this noun is used. So, it's the thing returned: fortunes, captives, exiles. If not talking about returning/restoring, whatever this means would probably be expressed with a different noun.

צִיֹּ֑ון - Zion - absolute attached to the previous construct noun.

הָ֝יִ֗ינוּ - Qal perfect 1st person plural - we were/became - became is most likely because it usually has an object with a prefixed preposition.

כְּחֹלְמִֽים - prefixed preposition meaning like, according to, even as, as soon as with a Qal participle masculine plural absolute - BDB only has the meaning dream because that's what the verb means everywhere else in the Old Testament.

This translation has a more literal second clause, but may not be the most accurate:

When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, 
  we were like those who dream. 
     (Psalm 126:1, HCSV)

How the Hebrew experts translated it:

  When the LORD restores the fortunes of Zion 
     —we see it as in a dream— 
           (Psalm 126:1, JPS [Jewish Publication Society])

Hermeneia has some interesting commentary on this. First, their translation:

  When YHWH returned again to Zion,
     we were like those who dream.

Hossfeld, F.-L., & Zenger, E. (2011). Psalms 3: A Commentary on Psalms 101–150. (K. Baltzer, Ed., L. M. Maloney, Trans.) (p. 369). Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.

In their commentary, they point out that some extra-biblical texts clarify the meaning of this passage:

The ancient versions apparently derive שׁיבת from שׁבה, “be in prison,” and translate “turn back Zion’s imprisonment,” that is, put an end to it. It is possible that the Masoretes already understood it this way, as the change from the ketib שׁבות, “return,” to the qere שׁבית, “war captivity,” in Ps 126:4* shows. The noun attested in Ps 126:1b in Codex Lenigradensis/Petropolitanus, שׁיבה, “restoration, turning,” is indeed a biblical hapax legomenon, but it is now attested also in an ancient Aramaic contractual text from Sfire (Stele III from the Sfire steles, mid-eighth century B.C.E.), in combination with the verb שׁוב in the Hifil, where the turning means “restore a previous situation”: “The gods restored my paternal house/my dynasty” (cf. KAI no. 224, 24–25).* Accordingly, there need not be a textual or scribal error in Ps 126:1*, as was previously often supposed (thus, for example, Kraus, 2:1031). It is true that Ps 126:1*, 4* does not have the Hifil (causative stem), but the Qal (basic stem) of שׁוב, “turn back,” so that the Sfire example cannot be adduced to explain Psalm 126 (nor the other biblical passages in which the expression appears). We should assume, with Ina Willi-Plein (“Wiedererwägung,” 59, 62), that the form attested in some manuscripts for v. 1b*, שְׁבוּת, “return,” is the original reading and in addition, the verb in the expression שׁבות שׁוב must be translated not “bring back” (Hifil), but “come back, return” (Qal). The accusative את־שׁבות ציון, “return with regard to Zion,” is then to be understood as an “internal object” and as a status constructus phrase, with the genitive dependent on שׁבות designating the entity benefited by YHWH’s return. Literally, Ps 126:1* should be translated: “At the returning/at the return of YHWH in a coming back/in a return with regard to Zion we were.…” Thus, we have here a figura etymologica (or a paronomastic object), which I translate “return again” (both in v. 1b* and in v. 4a*). Likewise, in most of the other biblical passages in which the expression appears, the verb שׁוב in the Qal indicates “not a transitive ‘bringing back’ but an intransitive ‘coming back’ of the subject (always God!) to a previous decision or condition” (Willi-Plein, “Wiedererwägung,” 62).

Hossfeld, F.-L., & Zenger, E. (2011). Psalms 3: A Commentary on Psalms 101–150. (K. Baltzer, Ed., L. M. Maloney, Trans.). Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.

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