10. Psalm 129. Afflicted but Not Defeated

Audio (12:08)

Vincent Van Gogh,
Vincent Van Gogh, "Country Road in Provence by Night" (1890), oil on canvas, 46 x 32 in, Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, Netherlands.

When you read Psalm 129, you immediately sense the psalmist's pain, an enduring pain that has continued from the time he was a child. A pain that has put bitterness in his heart. And now, even though the Lord has finally "cut the cords of the wicked" (verse 4), the bitterness remains..

Sunny, joyful psalms lift the soul. But we are not always happy. Sometimes we struggle with agony deep in our souls. For those times, the psalmist has put into words a lament like this psalm.

"A Song of Ascents.

1  'Greatly have they afflicted me from my youth' -- 
let Israel now say -- 
2  'Greatly have they afflicted me from my youth, 
yet they have not prevailed against me. 
3  The plowers plowed upon my back; 
they made long their furrows.' 
4  The LORD is righteous; 
he has cut the cords of the wicked. 
5  May all who hate Zion be put to shame
and turned backward! 
6  Let them be like the grass on the housetops, 
which withers before it grows up, 
7  with which the reaper does not fill his hand 
nor the binder of sheaves his arms, 
8  nor do those who pass by say, 
'The blessing of the LORD be upon you! 
We bless you in the name of the LORD!'" (Psalm 129:1-8, ESV)

They Have Afflicted Me from My Youth (Psalm 129:1-2)

We can only guess at the occasion that prompted this psalm.

"1  'Greatly have they afflicted me from my youth' -- 
let Israel now say -- 
2  'Greatly have they afflicted me from my youth, 
yet they have not prevailed against me." (Psalm 129:1-2)

It is written in the first person -- "Greatly have they afflicted me from my youth." It is a personal pain. But it is a pain shared with all Israel, a kind of corporate, national lament, since the psalmist invites other worshippers to repeat the line with him -- "Let Israel now say." They've all experienced this.

Thus it recalls a time when not only the psalmist, but all of Israel is oppressed by their enemies. "Afflicted" (ESV, KJV), "oppressed" (NIV), "attacked" (NRSV) translates a word that means "bind, be narrow, be in distress" that we saw on Day 1 (Psalm 120:1). The idea is of being confined, of being pressed, trapped with no way to escape.121

My mind goes to the first Star Wars movie, where Luke, Han, Leia, and Chewbacca fall into a trash compactor aboard the Death Star. The walls begin to rumble and edge toward each other, closer and closer. It is confining, terrifying, no place to go -- until their droid C-3PO finds a way to shut it down and they escape. You've had experiences where you seemed trapped in your confining circumstances.

I like the last part of verse 2.

"Yet they have not prevailed against me."

They have done their worst to me, but they haven't been able to "prevail" or "gain the victory"122 over me! Praise the Lord! I'm still alive. Still fighting. Still trusting.

Plowing My Back (Psalm 129:3)

Not only had it been a difficult, punishing time for the psalmist, but the oppressors themselves are cruel and vicious.

"The plowers plowed upon my back; 
they made long their furrows." (Psalm 129:3)

The psalmist is speaking figuratively of the open welts and ragged cuts on his back made by flogging and beating that remind him of a plowed field. I can't help but think of Jesus being scourged unmercifully, nearly beaten to death. Isaiah prophesied of this terrible beating:

"But he was pierced for our transgressions; 
he was crushed for our iniquities; 
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, 
and with his wounds we are healed." (Isaiah 53:5)

The King James Version translates it, "by his stripes123 we are healed." We suffer, but Jesus knows what suffering is all about. He, too, was afflicted, but Satan didn't break his spirit.

"[He] endured the cross,
despising the shame,
and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God." (Hebrews 2:2b)

Cut the Cords of the Wicked (Psalm 129:4)

Now the psalmist declares that Yahweh has delivered his people.

"The LORD is righteous; 
he has cut the cords of the wicked." (Psalm 129:4)

The suffering was painful and prolonged, but now it is over. Yahweh is just. He is righteous. And he has delivered them. The image is of the Israelites being in bondage, bound by their wicked enemies with cords or ropes. Then the Lord cuts the ropes and they are free.124

I think of Jesus who delivers a woman with severe scoliosis, a curvature of the spine. The Pharisees question his healing on the Sabbath, but Jesus declares the rightness of his action.

"And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath day?" (Luke 13:16)

Jesus frees people from their bondages. Perhaps he has freed you. Hallelujah!

A Curse on the Wicked (Psalm 129:5-8)

This Psalm talks about a time of great suffering and oppression from which God delivers, and concludes with a curse on the enemies who have done this to Israel, what we call an "imprecatory" psalm (from Latin imprecationem, "an invoking of evil").125 The curses express the bitterness built up in them towards their enemies. We'll consider a more Christian approach in a moment, but first let's consider their curses.

"May all who hate Zion be put to shame126 
and turned backward!"127 (Psalm 129:5)

Their oppressors have shamed Israel, now let them be ashamed and defeated. Let their assault on God's people be turned back. The psalmist continues.

"6  Let them be like the grass on the housetops, 
which withers128 before it grows up, 
7  with which the reaper does not fill his hand 
nor the binder of sheaves his arms...." (Psalm 129:6-7)

You know now that many ancient Israelite homes had flat roofs, made of brush over rafters, then plastered with mud. Grass would grow on the roofs in the spring, but by early summer it would wither and die without getting very tall -- way too short for a harvester to bother with. May our enemies be like roof-grass in summer -- worthless, short, withered!

The curse concludes:

"... Nor do those who pass by [them] say, 
'The blessing129 of the LORD be upon you! 
We bless you in the name of the LORD!'" (Psalm 129:8)

In the small villages of Bible times neighbors would greet one another as they walked by saying, "God bless you." But for the enemies of Israel, the psalmist says, let them have no one to greet them and wish them well. No one to care. Nobody!

Blessing Our Enemies

It's hard for us to witness the psalmists curse their enemies, sometimes with the most cruel curses imaginable. We Christians believe in what theologians call, "progressive revelation," truths that are revealed gradually, and over time. The Patriarchs met the Lord, but they didn't know all about his character and his righteousness. The psalmists experienced God, but they didn't understand everything about grace and love. It is in the New Testament, in the teachings of our Lord Jesus, that we begin to understand what love requires. And even when we understand it, we find it hard to practice. So we can't really blame the psalmist for not grasping it.

Jesus brings a new word:

"You have heard that it was said, 
'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' 
But I say to you, 
Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." (Matthew 5:43-44)

"Love your enemies,
do good to those who hate you, 
bless those who curse you,
pray for those who abuse you." (Luke 6:27-28)

Paul, who has been beaten numerous times, stoned and left for dead, tells us:

"Bless those who persecute you; 
bless and do not curse them." (Romans 12:14)

But they deserve to be cursed, we cry! They're evil! They're cruel! And then we hear Paul's words to us:

"And such were some of you. 
But you were washed, 
you were sanctified, 
you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ 
and by the Spirit of our God." (1 Corinthians 6:11)

None of us can stand before God by our own righteousness. Christ took our curse upon himself and stood in our place before the Judge of All the Earth.

"God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners,  Christ died for us." (Romans 5:8)

The psalmist teaches us that we can be sorely afflicted, but not defeated. He teaches us that Yahweh can "cut the cords of the wicked" and set us free. But he has little to teach us about grace.

It takes Jesus and his sacrifice for us to learn about grace and to extend that grace even to our enemies. And that lesson of grace is one of the most amazing lessons of all.

"For God so loved the world, 
that he gave his One and Only Son, 
that whoever believes in him should not perish 
but have everlasting life." (John 3:16)


Songs of Ascent (Psalms 120-134), by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Available in paperback, PDF, and Kindle formats.

Thank you for delivering us from our afflictions, O Lord. Thank you for cutting the cords of the wicked in answer to our prayers. And thank you for taking our curse upon yourself, so that we need not curse our enemies, but rather love them with the radical love that we find at the cross. In Jesus' name, we pray. Amen.


Day 10 Meditation (Psalm 129). Can you think of times in your life when God has delivered you from affliction? Or perhaps from "the cords of the wicked"? How have you dealt with the bitterness that comes from oppression? Have you been able to forgive? If not, what would it take to enable you to forgive your enemies and offer them a blessing? https://www.joyfulheart.com/forums/topic/1909-10-afflicted/


Abbreviations and References

[121] Sārar, TWOT #1973.

[122] "Prevailed" (ESV, NRSV, KJV), "gained the victory" (NIV) is yākōl, "be able, prevail, overcome." The verb is used of ability or capacity in a physical, ethical, or religious sense. When used of men in wrestling or battling, the verb can be translated, "prevail, overcome" (Paul R. Gilchrist, TWOT #866).

[123] "Wounds" (ESV, NIV), "bruises" (NRSV), "stripes" (KJV) in Isaiah 53:5 is the Hebrew noun is ḥabbûrâ, "stripe, blow" (TWOT #598g); "wound, stripe" (Holladay, p. 93). Where it is quoted in 1 Peter 2:24, the Greek word is mōlōps, "welt, wale, bruise, wound caused by blows" (BDAG 663).

[124] "Cords" (ESV) is ʿabōt, "(twisted) cord, rope," from the verb ʿābat, "weave, wind, twist" (TWOT #1558b; Holladay, p. 264).  "Cut" (ESV, NRSV), "cut free" (NIV), "cut asunder" (KJV) is the Piel stem of qāṣaṣ, "cut off." This root means "to sever," that is, to separate in two (Leonard J. Coppes, TWOT #2060).

[125] From Latin in-, "into within" + precari, "to pray, ask, request."

[126] "Put to shame" (ESV) is bôsh, "be ashamed, put to shame, disconcerted, disappointed." The primary meaning of this root is "to fall into disgrace, normally through failure, either of self or of an object of trust" (John N. Oswalt, TWOT #222).

[127] "Turned backward" (ESV, NRSV), "turned back" (NIV, KJV) is two words: (a) the Niphal stem of sûg, "move, go, turn back," with the primary idea being, "turn back," usually employed in hostile contexts (R.D. Patterson, TWOT #1469); and (b) the adverb ʾāḥôr, back part, the rear, mostly in adverbial phrases, "backward." Commonly, enemies are turned backward (R. Laird Harris, TWOT #68d). The verbs in verses 5-6 are in the imperfect tense, so they could be "they will be ashamed" (future), "they are ashamed" (present), or "may they be ashamed" (jussive) (NICOT Psalms, p. 993).

[128] "Wither" (ESV) is yābēsh, "become dry, wither." The primary meaning of this root is "to be or become dry without moisture from necessary or normal fluids" (Ralph H. Alexander, TWOT #837).

[129] "Blessing" (in verse 8b) is the noun berākâ, "blessing," from the verb bārak, "to bless, praise, salute," (which is used in the verse 8c).

Copyright © 2024, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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