Psalms of Ascent: Ps 129

gawlerbapPsalms of Ascent

As is usual for the holiday period, we do a short series.  As we hadn’t finished doing the psalms of ascent, we thought we’d continue from where we left off in January this year.  Remember that it’s thought the psalms of ascent were songs of worship the people of Israel would have sung as they travelled to the Jerusalem temple for key festivals of celebration.  As Melinda reminded us, they are walking psalms, and are aptly named ‘ascents’ as the only way to Jerusalem was up.

I’ve made the comment numerous times that one of the things I like about the psalms is their authenticity—they’re real, and reflect what everyday ordinary life is like.  We of think of them as uplifting and encouraging, as well as being fertile ground for spiritual uplift.  But I’d have to say that on the surface, there doesn’t appear to be too much that’s uplifting about this psalm, especially as one of its main points is to ask the Lord to cause Israel’s enemies to wither and die!  Such a happy psalm for the last Sunday of the year!!  So what do we do with it?

Verses 1-3

What is in view here is not a person but a people.  These verses take us back to Israel’s youth when they were under attack in the form of being slaves in Egypt.  The people are encouraged to repeat the phrase for emphasis.  The writer describes what it was like through the use of quite a graphic image.  The image is one like the man ploughing with the oxen, and it’s not hard to move from that picture to one of the long furrows on the backs of the people, presumably a metaphorical reference to whip marks on the people’s backs [3].  Despite all that, the enemies didn’t prevail [2].

Verse 4

The first time I read this through as I began preparing for today, verse four seemed like a sudden jolt.  Having just made reference to the awful suffering of the people under slavery in Egypt, the writer throws in, “The Lord is righteous.”  That felt to me like a sudden crunching of gears.  But as I read some commentaries and thought further, I came to the conclusion that it’s a jolt with a purpose.

The Lord is Righteous [4]

These four words are central to the psalm and govern how we should read it.  God’s righteousness is inextricably linked to his faithfulness to his covenant, and despite all Israel’s failures to be faithful to him, he never wavered.  Yes, Israel had come under sustained attack and suffering since her youth, but the righteous God remained faithful to his covenant with them.  That’s the filter through which we have to read the psalm.  Despite all that had happened to the nation, God’s righteousness was displayed in his faithfulness to his covenant and that’s why Israel’s enemies didn’t succeed.

Cut the Cords of the Wicked

As a faithful God, he cut the cords of the wicked.  It’s not exactly clear what this refers to, but following the imagery from verse 3 it’s most likely the idea of the Lord cutting the plougher’s harness so they couldn’t continue furrowing.  We may think of this as being for the benefit of the Israelites so that they were relieved from their suffering.  That’s not untrue, but the primary reason for God acting was out of his covenant faithfulness i.e. he acted in order to remain true to himself and his integrity as one who kept his promises.

Verses 5-8

The writer doesn’t hold back in terms of what he asks the Lord to do.  He wants those who hate Israel to be turned back in shame [5] and he uses a wonderful image to describe what he wants to see happen to them.


In my holidays I spent a couple of days up north with the former Anglican vicar of Gawler.  It was wonderful wandering around the bush essentially doing nothing, and doing it really well!  I don’t think I’ve seen so many emus and kangaroos for a long time.  One of the things that concerned me was the seeming intrusion of prickly pear.  I’ve seen them in almost plague proportions a bit further south, but it’s the first time I’ve really noticed them that far up.  I assume they manage to propagate there because they’re such a hardy plant.  But no matter how hardy, I wouldn’t like the long term chances of one I saw in the gutter on a shed at Murray Bridge some years ago.  That’s one of the things I thought of as I read this section of the psalm.  I also thought of a corolla we had once that had grass growing in the rust hole of the front mud guard!

Grass growing in places like that is on a very short life span as it only takes heat and lack of water to cause them to wither and die.  There’s no abundance or harvest from such grasses.  That’s what the writer wanted to have happen to those who hated Israel: to shrivel up and die.

No Blessing [8]

Not only that, the people who hated Israel would not be blessed.  It was the custom of people passing harvesters to bless them in their harvesting and giving thanks to God for his provision.  The harvesters themselves would then return the blessing.  We see an example this in Ruth:

Ruth 2:4 (NRSV)

4 Just then Boaz came from Bethlehem. He said to the reapers, “The LORD be with you.” They answered, “The LORD bless you.”

It was essentially an acknowledgement of God’s faithful provision.  But not even that blessing would be offered to haters of Israel, the implication being they would actually come under God’s curse.

What Do We Make of this Psalm?

In my years of doing sermons, there’s the odd occasion when I think, “Why did I choose this passage?!  I have no idea what to do with it.”  This was another of those occasions, mainly because it all seems doom and gloom and lets bash Israel’s enemies.  My feelings were not helped by today’s political climate, especially in light of the furore caused by Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as the official capital of Israel.  A passage such as this could be used to justify revenge and a request for the Lord to zap those who don’t go along.  That leads me to ask this question:

What’s the Tone?

Have you ever sent a letter only to have it blow up in your face because the recipient misread your intent?  More than once I’ve been asked, “Should I send this?” to which my usual reply is something along the lines of, “don’t send anything!”  The problem with written communication is that it lacks social context, body language, the sound and tone of the voice—all those things that usually gives us clues into how we should receive the communication.  I feel a bit like that about this psalm.  How should we read and hear it?  That problem is compounded by our distance from the culture.  I suspect that someone reading or singing it at the time may well have had a far fuller understanding of its style, meaning and intent.

Our hearing of the tone of the psalm has to be governed by the phrase I highlighted before: The Lord is righteous.  We cannot read and hear this apart from the context of God’s covenant faithfulness.  Even though on a first superficial reading it could be seen as a call for vengeance on Israel’s enemies, it’s not that.  It’s a psalm to God himself and one holding him to his own covenantal promises—not for themselves but out of concern for God’s honour.  That was at stake if the haters of Israel were to prevail, because then God could be accused of not being faithful.  It’s a call for the people to persevere no matter what.

Let me finish with a couple of thoughts from Eugene Peterson that help bring the same message to us in a world far removed from that time.

“The central reality for Christians is the personal, unalterable, persevering commitment that God makes to us. Perseverance is not the result of our determination; it is the result of God’s faithfulness. We survive in the way of faith not because we have extraordinary stamina but because God is righteous. Christian discipleship is a process of paying more and more attention to God’s righteousness and less and less attention to our own; finding the meaning of our lives not by probing our moods and motives and morals but by believing in God’s will and purposes; making a map of the faithfulness of God, not charting the rise and fall of our enthusiasms. It is out of such a reality that we acquire perseverance.”

Eugene Peterson quoted in:

The audio for this sermon can be found here.