Psalm 129: "They are trying to get me!"
“They’re trying to get me” is the catch phrase of the paranoid mind. The question it raises, is the identity of “they”. But the leading declaration of Psalm 129 is quite different. It is not a statement of fears but of memory: “Many time have they afflicted me from my youth, may Israel now say.” (1) The “they” is as specific as Israel herself. And yet the “they” is actually a succession of historical figures throughout Israel’s national life: from Pharaoh and his Egyptian taskmasters (Israel’s youth) to the Philistine insurgencies even after they acquired their freedom in the land of promise, to the reversion of the Assyrian and Babylonian captivities, and so on down to the Roman occupation of Jesus’ day. And yet, it is not a song of defeat, but of triumph: “yet they have not prevailed against me.” (2)
The word pictures given us for these afflictions from the Gentiles are, indeed, stark and brutal. “The plowers plowed upon my back: they made long their furrows.” (3) The famous picture of “Whipped Peter”, an African slave with deep gash marks crisscrossing his back from his flogging, once seen, cannot be unseen. What is perhaps most troubling about these metaphors, however, is that the plowing one usually thinks of is done in the interest of positive planting and growth. But misuse and abuse of God’s image bearers can never be justified as some means to a greater end. And yet, as Derek Kidner observes, the servant Song of Isaiah shows us a suffering one lifted to a higher plane as first a witness to the One preserving him, and “finally as vicarious sacrifice.” This could never be morally acceptable as the imposition of one person at the expense of another. But, in Christ, we have the voluntary assumption of our misery by God himself in order to break from the inside our bonds as subjects of the kingdom of darkness.
The Psalmist announces this good news of salvation as liberation: “The LORD is righteous: he hath cut asunder the cords of the wicked.” (4) It is only in light of this salvation accomplished that imprecation (cursing) of God’s people’s enemies becomes not only licit, but unavoidable. Death is either absorbed and defeated on the Cross of Christ, or it swallows up the one who resists and rejects the Cross. The Cross of Christ is either a savor of life or of death. Christ entered death’s jaws to break them from the inside, to borrow an image from St. John Chrysostom’s famous Easter Homily. It is necessary now for no one to be swallowed by death, except the one who forgoes the remedy offered to the world by the Lord of Life.
The pictures of hell–that is, of damnation—in the last stanzas of the Psalm, include a host turning and trampling each other in the confusion of battle (5), grass dried up on a flat Near Eastern roof top (6) so that it yields no satisfying harvest (7), and thus no blessing from the Lord is found from others for the one under these imprecations. It is a frightful foreboding of the frustration, consternation, loneliness, and emptiness that sin brings with it. The implication is that it is not the abuses and oppressor who enjoys triumph and prosperity in the end, but the one who looks to the Lord who preserves and delivers the poor in spirit. The only way the Psalmist has to offer of escape from the formless abyss, is to make our ascent. This is, after all, another Psalm of Ascent–of pilgrim journey in solidarity with Israel’s history of preservation by the Lord. That means his invitation to us is to press forward through life though the way be often hard with our eyes on the One who suffered for our salvation.
The Rev. Steven M. McCarthy is a church planter at St. Barnabas Anglican Fellowship, an extension work in the Reformed Episcopal Church’s Diocese of Mid-America (ACNA). He and his wife Emily are raising four young children in their home town of Lansing, MI.