One of Scripture’s great themes is the theme of deliverance. God first delivers us from the bondage of our sins, and then after this He delivers us from the spite and hate leveled at us by those who hate the fact that we have been delivered from the bondage of our sins. This is a psalm about that second kind of deliverance.
This is the way of the world. No sooner is the man child of Revelation born but the dragon is after him and his mother both (Rev. 12:13). The history of the world is a history of billions of deaths, but the very first one was a martyr’s death (Luke 11:51; Heb. 11:4).
We will be addressing the subject of persecution, and while I will not be making explicit references to our situation here in Moscow, you are invited to make your own applications for use in your prayers. This does apply for the simple reason that these things always apply.
“A Song of degrees. Many a time have they afflicted me from my youth, may Israel now say: Many a time have they afflicted me from my youth: Yet they have not prevailed against me. The plowers plowed upon my back: They made long their furrows. The Lord is righteous: He hath cut asunder the cords of the wicked. Let them all be confounded and turned back that hate Zion. Let them be as the grass upon the housetops, which withereth afore it groweth up: Wherewith the mower filleth not his hand; Nor he that bindeth sheaves his bosom. Neither do they which go by say, the blessing of the Lord be upon you: We bless you in the name of the Lord” (Psalm 129:1-8).
SUMMARY OF THE TEXT
The psalmist has been afflicted “many a time,” and this has been the case from his youth on (v. 1). This was true of him, and all of Israel was invited to join him in his lament. Many a time they have afflicted me (us), and yet have not prevailed (v. 2). The image of plowing is then used, referring probably to the stripes raised by flogging (v. 3). They made long furrows on his back. But the Lord is righteous and intervened—He cut the traces and cords of the oxen pulling the plows of contempt, the machinery of persecution (v. 4). This is followed by the psalmist’s pious wish that those who hate Zion be confounded and turned around (v. 5). Let them be like grass that grows on rooftops, which withers almost immediately (v. 6). Let them not be enough grass for a mower even to bother with, or a harvester to gather (v. 7). The last verse implies a likely custom of that day—when you walked by a field of abundant grain, you would bless it in the name of the Lord (v. 8). Let that not happen with this brown little rooftop grass.
Now whenever American Christians take note of the first stages of our coming persecution, they are often mocked as being nothing more than pampered whiners. “You think you are persecuted because sitcoms make fun of your kind?” But as Christians, we should stand back from this sort of taunt and let our Lord define what persecution looks like. Scurrilous verbal abuse is most certainly included in what He describes, and it is frequently used as the preliminaries for what is coming next.
“Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you” (Matthew 5:11–12).
So we may allow the Lord to define what it means to be persecuted, and we are most certainly lied about. But we must also take care not to apply just one half of the passage. When we are lied about—you racists—make sure to rejoice. Make sure to overflow with exceeding gladness.
THE SOIL OF OUR PAIN
Some might think that the metaphor of a plowed back is an odd one. But although it is striking, there is profound sense in it. When the persecutors do their work, their intention is to grow a crop in the soil of our pain. That is what a man intends when he plows a field, is it not? He purposes a crop. That means they want to grow something for themselves out of the travail of the saints.
But what does God do? He allows them to do what they do, and then, when the time is just right, He cuts the traces, and their oxen run off. This is because He makes them do the work for a crop of His own. And when we look at that crop—full, abundant, rich, golden—we can say over the harvest, “bless you in the name of the Lord.” The devil wants to grow despair in the furrows of your affliction. God intends to grow joy.
Notice that this prayer of imprecation is not a matter of taking up personal vengeance. This prayer of cursing is directed that all those who hate Zion (v. 5). Imprecatory psalms are no justification for road rage, nor to be directed at people who happen to inconvenience you. These psalms are not the pins for scriptural voodoo dolls. No—we stand against those who hate the Lord, and who hate all His people.
Now if it is the good pleasure of the Lord to destroy an enemy by making him into a friend, as He did with the apostle Paul, this is something that the sons and daughters of Zion can readily take as a true and genuine blessing. “But they had heard only, that he which persecuted us in times past now preacheth the faith which once he destroyed. And they glorified God in me” (Gal. 1:23–24).
But if “victory through conversion” is not the will of our God, then we still continue to ask Him to undertake on our behalf. Spurgeon put it this way: “Study a chapter from the Book of Martyrs, and see if you do not feel inclined to read an imprecatory psalm over Bishop Bonner and Bloody Mary. It may be that some wretched nineteenth century sentimentalist will blame you: if so, read another over him.”
CHRIST IS THE ULTIMATE PERSECUTED ONE
The Lord was flogged, and by His stripes we are healed (Is. 53:5; 1 Pet. 2:24). His suffering is ours. But we also learn in Scripture than our suffering is His. “And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?” (Acts 9:4). What is done to the “least of these” is reckoned as done to Christ (Matt. 25:40-45).
Your union with Christ is a precious gift—don’t abuse it by misunderstanding it by misunderstanding the source of your troubles (1 Pet. 4:15). But your identity as a Christian gives you the source of true glory. “Yet if any man suffer as a Christian, let him not be ashamed; but let him glorify God on this behalf” (1 Peter 4:16). This is because Christ is in all of it.