William Byrd captures the essence of Psalm 126 in his motet “Turn Our Captivity, O Lord.”
In this season of shortening daylight and bourgeoning autumnal hues, farming communities prepare for harvest time. Harvest celebrates the miracle that, somehow, meager seeds, faithfully planted early in the year and tended over time, transform in the darkness and quiet under the ground and break into sunlight, a living sustenance of winter’s food and next spring’s seed.
Harvest is a common theme throughout the Book of Psalms. Some instances are in praise of a literal harvest. Psalm 67:6 sees harvest as a sign of the Lord’s favor: “The land yields its harvest; God, our God, blesses us.” Psalm 85:12 looks ahead in anticipation to the blessing of a successful harvest for those who trust in God, declaring that “the Lord will indeed give what is good, and our land will yield its harvest.”
Elsewhere, harvest is seen as an analogy for the saving power of God who does not forsake his people. Psalm 126 uses vivid, poetic imagery to depict the harvest as the sign that God will vindicate the suffering of his people. The psalm recalls God’s deliverance in the past, the moment “when the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion”; it affirms that “The Lord has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy” (verse 3). Amid new troubles, it petitions God to “restore our fortunes” (verse 4); and it assures us that despite momentary affliction, “those who go out weeping, carrying seed to sow, will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with them” (verse 6).
In the Gospels, the Old Testament theme of harvest, as found in the psalms, is transposed through its association with Christ and his coming kingdom. Just as Psalm 126 describes the salvation of God as a redeeming harvest that comes after a tearful season of sowing, so John 12 affords a Christological transformation of that same sentiment. Jesus observes that for grain to grow, it first has to be separated from its mother plant and fall into the ground, where it dies and reproduces many times over (verse 24). This, Jesus affirms, is the heart of the life of faith: “Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (verse 25).
Jesus observes that for grain to grow, it has to be separated from its mother plant and fall into the ground, where it dies and reproduces many times over. This is the heart of the life of faith. In that moment, little could his listeners have fully understood that the dying to self to which he called his followers would only be made possible in his own death, in the offering of himself as the sacrificial grain of resurrection planted in the soil of humanity through his crucifixion. For those who are in Christ, our own trials aren’t meaningless episodes in the life of faith. Jesus, the suffering servant, transforms our experiences of sorrow, so that when God restores all things to himself, we might also repeat with assurance the words of the psalmist, that “those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy.”
The English Renaissance composer William Byrd (1540–1623) encapsulated the emotive meaning of this theme of harvest in his setting of Psalm 126:4–6, “Turn Our Captivity, O Lord.” Byrd, who lived through the English Reformation, and who became Catholic in 1570 amid the suppression of Catholicism, was no stranger to hardship. The motet itself is from the last collection of English songs he wrote, released in 1611. As such, perhaps it reflects a man in his latter days meditating on the way in which Christ faithfully brings to fruition that which he plants in the human heart.
Byrd adapted some of the words of the psalm in lyrical ways to his own ends, and the music which accompanies them carries the listener through the affective journey of sowing and reaping, from the slow and plaintive introduction of the piece to its sudden transfiguration into a spirited dance over the lilting words: “they shall come with.”
Byrd paints the text with vibrant melody and captivating rhythm, an expression of the English choral tradition at its finest. In this recording, John Rutter conducts the Cambridge Singers.
Turn our captivity, O Lord, as a brook in the South.
They that sow in tears, shall reap in joyfulness.
Going they went and wept, casting their seeds.
But coming, they shall come with jollity, carrying their sheaves with them.
Joel Clarkson is a composer of film, TV, and sacred music. He is writing a doctoral thesis on theology and music through the School of Divinity at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. Twitter: @joelclarkson. Originally published on Plough.com and used with permission.