THIS psalm consists of a retrospect (Psalms 129:1-4) and an anticipation (Psalms 129:5-8). The retrospect shows Israel oppressed by enemies for a long term of years, but finally vindicated and delivered (Psalms 129:4). The anticipation shows her enemies afflicted in their turn, and suffering the just reward for their misdeeds.
Many a time have they afflicted me from my youth. Israel's recollection is one of frequent, almost constant, "affliction." She has been downtrodden beneath the feet of Egyptians, Moabites, Mesopotamians, Canaanites, Ammonites, Philistines, Syrians. Assyrians, Babylonians. Her sufferings began in her extreme youth, as soon as she was a nation (Exodus 1:11-22). May Israel now say; rather, let Israel now say. The psalmist directs his countrymen to look back upon their past history.
Many a time have they afflicted me from my youth. The repetition emphasizes the fact of Israel's long and bitter suffering. Yet they have not prevailed against me. Israel has not been given as a prey to the heathen's teeth (Psalms 124:6). She is still a nation, unsubdued; she holds her own; the struggle is not ended.
The plowers plowed upon my back. A strong metaphor, which does not elsewhere occur. The idea is perhaps taken from the cruel treatment of captives in those days, who, in certain cases, were "put under saws and harrows of iron" (2 Samuel 12:31), or, as it is elsewhere expressed, "threshed with threshing instruments of iron" (Amos 1:3). They made long their furrows; i.e. "lengthened out their tortures."
The Lord is righteous. Still, God is just. He allowed these sufferings to be inflicted on us because we deserved them; and he interposed on our behalf when we had been sufficiently punished, and cut asunder the cords of the wicked. Cut, i.e; the cords wherewith they had bound us. The "retrospect" here ends, and in the next verse the "anticipation" begins.
Let them all be confounded; or, "they shall all be confounded," or "put to shame." And turned back. Made to turn their backs upon their foes. That hate Zion. That have shown themselves enemies to Israel. The main verbs are in the future tense, but may be taken as expressive either of a wish or of a confident expectation.
Let them be as the grass upon the housetops; literally, they shall be as the grass of housetops. The flat roofs of Oriental houses are usually covered in early spring with a crop of bright-green grass. But the scorching rays of the sun soon burn this up, and it becomes dry and withered. Which withereth afore it groweth up; literally, before it is unsheathed; i.e. before the blossom has left the sheath in which it is formed.
Wherewith the mower filleth not his hand. Which is so worthless that no one takes the trouble to mow it. Nor he that bindeth sheaves his bosom. Much less does any one bind it into sheaves and store it away.
Neither do they which go by say, The blessing of the Lord be upon you; we bless you in the name of the Lord. Harvesters were thus greeted (Ruth 2:4), and still are to this day. "These expressions," says Dr. Thomson, "are most refreshingly Arabic. Nothing is more natural than for Arabs, when passing by a fruit-tree or cornfield loaded with a rich crop, to exclaim, Barak Allah! 'God bless you!'".
Sin a failure.
Neither the violence of sin against others nor its effort on its own behalf is successful.
I. THE FAILURE OF ITS VIOLENCE. The enemies of Israel are regarded as the enemies of the Lord; their attempts to despoil and destroy Israel were sins against God. They consequently proved to be utter failures. They were mercilessly cruel; they "ploughed upon the back, and made long their furrows;" they strove to enslave with their strong cords (Psalms 129:4), but "they did not prevail" (Psalms 129:2); their cords were cut asunder (Psalms 129:4). Israel survived the hardships of Egypt and the captivity of Babylon. Many nations and communities have passed through similar afflictions and oppressions, but they have borne them bravely; they may even have been the purer, the stronger, the more united, for all they have suffered. Many a man can speak in the same strain; his history has been one of struggle and hardship in youth, of toil in mid-life, of deliverance and gratitude in later years. He has lived to see his oppressors humbled, to find that they who offend God by ill treating his servants come to shame and sorrow. The most striking lesson of the psalm is—
II. THE DEGENERACY OF SIN. The psalmist prays (or states) that those who "hate Zion" may be like the grass which has no depth of earth, which withers before it attains maturity, which falls short of the blessing which the well-planted corn enjoys (Psalms 129:6-8). Here are two evils which the unholy have to face.
1. Early withering.
2. The loss of the higher good. The man who is living under the dominion of sin and selfishness misses all that is worthiest and best. In his life is no such scenery as that so beautifully sketched in the psalm. He has to go without the blessing of God and the benediction of his kind.
HOMILIES BY S. CONWAY
The Divine life.
This psalm is capable of a threefold application. It tells of the Divine life—
I. IN ISRAEL.
1. The existence of the chosen people was a lifelong struggle. The sounds of battle and war are never, save but for short intervals, absent from their history. From the oppression they had to endure in Egypt right down to the time when this psalm was composed, they never lacked enemies who "fought against" them, and did them all the harm they could.
2. But their enemies never altogether prevailed. (Psalms 129:2.) Sooner or later deliverance came. Such a deliverance had just now come, and hence this psalm. And the complete deliverance which is still needed for Israel we may well believe, from the records of the past, will, in God's good time, be forthcoming.
3. The sufferings which they caused them were very great. (Psalms 129:3.) As the ploughshare tears up the soil, so the lacerating scourge tore their flesh. In these psalms we yet hear the wail of their lamentations and their exceeding bitter cry (see Psalms 124:1-8; Psalms 137:1-9; and many more; comp. Isaiah 1:6; Isaiah 51:23).
4. The Lord, true to his covenant, put an end to their sufferings. As when the cords, the traces that fasten the oxen to the plough, are cut, the plough comes to a standstill, so the dread plough of suffering, which ploughed such agonizing furrows in their souls, was brought to a standstill; for the Lord cut asunder the cords.
5. But the bitter memory begot bitter prayers. (Psalms 129:6-8.) That those who so dealt with them may be ashamed, defeated, despised as worthless, like the grass that springs up and at once withers, because on the house-top there can be no depth of earth, and hence such grass is of no value at all (cf. Isaiah 37:27), and that they may be such as no blessing of the Lord can rest upon (Psalms 129:8). Before we condemn such prayers, we should put ourselves in the place of those who offered them. They may not be Christian any more than war is always Christian, but they are very natural. They are not the utterances of personal revenge, but prayers for the overthrow of those who hated Zion, and who were the enemies of God as well as of Zion. Nevertheless, in spite of all, Israel was preserved of God.
II. IN THE CHURCH. Verse by verse the words of the psalm tell of her experience. Cradled in conflict, oppressed with suffering, "fought against" by enemies one after another, varied in kind, but all terrible, yet never really defeated—"they have not prevailed against me;" so may the Church say. And long ago the Lord has cut asunder, for the most part, the cords whereby the cruel ploughshare of persecution was dragged over the bleeding flesh of the people of God. Our freedom should kindle and keep glowing our sympathy with those Christians who, in the dominions of the "unspeakable Turk," are yet subjected to horrible atrocities. Oh that the Lord may soon cut asunder those cords, and set his people free! Nor are the prayers against the perpetrators of such atrocities with which this psalm closes improper for us, and still less for those who endure such wrongs. But God's Church ever lives.
III. IN THE INDIVIDUAL SOUL. Again is this psalm the transcript of the history of the life of God, but now as existing in the soul of the individual Christian. The enemies now are not of flesh and blood, but spiritual, and, therefore, yet more terrible. For they who hurt the body soon have no more that they can do; but these can eternally torment us—they can destroy both soul and body in hell. Therefore we may well, as Christ bids us, fear them. Nor are the most terrible of the prayers in these imprecatory psalms out of place when we think of these foes. We are bound to hate them and pray against them, and by God's help we will.—S.C.
HOMILIES BY R. TUCK
Our seven sorrows.
"Many a time have they afflicted me;" so many times that it seemed useless to try and count them up. It is enough to represent them by one number, and that the representative of completeness, seven times. Israel may be said, as a nation, to have had an all-round experience of affliction and discipline. Eliphaz the Temanite speaks rightly to Job for God when he says, "He shall deliver thee in six troubles; yea, in seven there shall be no evil touch thee" (Job 5:19).
I. A FACT OF THE NATIONAL HISTORY. So far as the record reveals that history, it appears to be a series of calamities and distresses; some brought about by characteristic national frailties, some by individuals forcing their willfulnesses, some by untoward circumstances, and some by the active schemes of enemies. It would even seem that national sorrows are so well represented in this history that we may speak of its "seven sorrows;" and we may find the mission of all forms of human trial illustrated in the moral influence of these calamities and woes of Israel. But we need not assume that its experiences were unique. Every nation is born of, and molded by, similar troubles. The peculiarity of Israel does not lie in its experiences, but in the reading of its experiences. The Bible reads them in the light of Jehovah's relation to them. This is the only true reading of human history, and all history needs to be read in this light. God is in the sorrows of a nation.
II. A FACT OF THE INDIVIDUAL HISTORY. It does not matter where, or under what circumstances, or in what relations, a man's life is lived. A man is "born to trouble as the sparks fly upward." No man can escape it. It would be his curse if he could. A man can, as a moral being, become righteous; but there is no school in which he can be trained for righteousness save the school of affliction. It is no ground of boasting to any man that his life has been free from trials. If a man may boast at all, he should boast over his "seven sorrows," because he may indulge the hope that God's grace has been mighty in him, and he has come into much sanctifying discipline.—R.T.
The figure of the torn land.
The expression, "They made long their furrows," can only be understood through the peculiar conditions of Eastern ploughing. The word "furrow" (maanah) signifies a strip of arable land which the ploughman takes in hand at one time, at both ends of which, consequently, the ploughing team always comes to a stand, turns round, and begins a new furrow. Since the ordinary ox of Palestine is smaller and weaker than ours, and easily becomes tired under the yoke, which presses heavily on its neck and confines its neck, they are obliged to give it time to recover its strength by frequent resting. This always takes place at the termination of a furrow, when the peasant raises the unwieldy plough out of the earth, and turns it over, clearing off the moist earth with the small shovel at the lower end of the goad, and hammering the loosened edges and rings tight again, during which time the team is able to recover itself by resting. They do not, therefore, make the furrows of great length. The figure of this verse is explained by the over-exhaustion of the oxen, if the furrows through which they had to drag the plough were made overlong. The suggestion of the ' Speaker's Commentary ' is less natural. It takes the verse as a figure of scourging. (Improving on this, Dr. Wordsworth finds anticipation of the scourging of Christ.) "The lashes inflicted upon the back of the writhing slave by a cruel master are compared to the long furrows pierced in the passive earth by the share of the plougher." The figure must be explained in the light of the memories cherished by the psalmist, as representing the nation just returned from captivity. And the nation is symbolized by the land in which the nation dwelt.
I. ISRAEL'S SORROWS HAD BEEN LIKE THE WORK OF A PLOUGH IN THE LAND. Attention is indeed fixed only on the tearing open and turning over of the land; but we need not miss seeing that this stern dealing was the necessary preliminary to seed sowing and fruitage. (Compare "No trial for the present seemeth to be joyous," etc.) Better be torn land than harvestless land.
II. THE AGENTS OF ISRAEL'S SORROWS HAD OVERDONE THEIR WORK. They had gone beyond their commission, had increased the length of the furrow. So we often think of our sorrows when we try to estimate their moral value. But that is what we can never do wisely. They never do go beyond God-arranged limits.—R.T.
Righteousness may involve judgment.
The cutting asunder of cords figuratively presents the liberating of Israel from the Babylonian captivity, and also the yet earlier experience of the nation, when Jehovah cut the cords of Egypt, and set his people free. This is the consideration which relieves the psalmist's strain in thinking how many Israel's trials had been, and how greatly her enemies had enjoyed inflicting them. "Jehovah is righteous." There is always security and rest in that conviction. "He will not suffer us to be tempted above that we are able to bear." Men or circumstances may put cords about us. Whenever he sees it right to do so, our God can "cut the cords asunder." Men may "hate Zion," and gladly do her a mischief; but this we may always rely on—God can "confound them and turn them back," as he did the Syrians in the days of Elisha. "If God be for us, who can be against us?" Righteousness is a many-sided and many-related thing.
I. RIGHTEOUSNESS BEARS RELATION TO THE WORLD AS A WHOLE. It must be such as every one sooner or later can recognize. It must have in view the well-being of the whole; and this involves that it must not let evil go unpunished; it must bring judgment on the wicked. For the world's sake the righteous God must be active against all unrighteousness.
II. RIGHTEOUSNESS BEARS RELATION TO THE INDIVIDUAL. And in a life very various moral moods and conditions are represented. God must answer to all the moods if he is righteous; and this involves trial for reproof, and judgment for correction. God smiting his people is not only God acting in love, it is God acting in righteousness. "I know that in faithfulness thou hast afflicted me."
III. RIGHTEOUSNESS BEARS RELATION TO THE AGENTS OF NATIONAL AND INDIVIDUAL AFFLICTION. This is symbolically taught in God's prophecy concerning Egypt, as the oppressor of his people, "And also that nation whom they shall serve will I judge." And so Babylon, the agent of the Captivity, was to be judged. It needs to be seen that the fact of God's using Balaam, or Egypt, for his purposes does not relieve them from the responsibility of their conduct. Hating Zion may lead to action which works out God's purposes; but hating Zion surely brings a man or a nation into the judgment-vindication of the righteous God.—R.T.
A new figure of the grass.
Jowett says, "At Anata, the Anathoth of Scripture, I observed that the roofs of some of the houses were partially covered with grass—a circumstance which I noticed also in several other places. As the roofs of the common dwellings are flat, and, instead of being built of stone or wood, are coated with plaster or hardened earth, a slight crop of grass frequently springs up in that situation. Such vegetation, however, having no soil into which it can strike its roots, and being exposed to a scorching sun, rarely attains to any great height or continues long. It is a feeble, stunted product, and soon withers away. Hence the sacred writers sometimes allude to the grass of the house-top as an emblem of weakness, frailty, and certain destruction" (Isaiah 37:27). The meaning of Psalms 129:7, Psalms 129:8 is this—There will be no reapers of such worthless grass as this; there will be nothing to elicit the utterance of those common formulas of benediction with which passers-by were wont to greet harvesters. It is better to associate these verses with the short-lived enmity of the Samaritans to the returned exiles, than with the more systematic dealing of an empire like Babylon.
I. THE ENMITY OF THE SAMARITANS WAS SHOWY. After rain, the grass on the house-top springs up in a very showy and boastful way, as if it were going to do great things. And so the Samaritans vaunted much and taunted much, and at first seemed to accomplish much; for they put cords on the restoring work of the exiles, and stopped the building of the temple, and prevented the building of the wall.
II, THE ENMITY OF THE SAMARITANS WAS SHORT-LIVED. It was met with patience. Presently the energy of an Ezra and a Nehemiah, like an east wind or a scorching sun, hopelessly cut down the blades. Persecutors of God's people are never given a "long tether." God's people may always pray, "Come quickly."
III. THE ENMITY OF THE SAMARITANS BROUGHT THEM NO GOOD. It only spoiled permanently their relations with Israel, and put them out of favor with Persia. The mower never filled his hand with any harvest of the grass that grew on that housetop. The harvest of all enmities to God's people is never anything else than "a heap in a time of desperate sorrow." Goodness is a harvest reaped from good.—R.T.
Politeness in the harvest-field; or, right relations of employer and employed.
Dr. S. Cox writes, "It is a graphic picture of an ancient harvest scene. The field is thick with waving barley. The reapers cut their way into it with sickles, grasping the ears till their arms are full. The overseer is busy urging on the reapers. Vessels filled probably with the rough local wine are at hand, that the heated and thirsty laborers may refresh themselves at need. As the day advances, the master of the estate comes to see how the work goes on. With grave, pious courtesy he salutes his 'young men' with the words, 'Jehovah be with you!' and they reply, 'Jehovah bless thee!' It is true that this was oftentimes a mere formality; but, even if not altogether realized, it shows what the social relations should be."
I. EMPLOYERS AND EMPLOYED SERVE EACH OTHER. So much mistake is made, and so much confusion is caused, by the sentiment that only the employed serve the employer. Things would right themselves if it was fully apprehended that the service is mutual. We think the rewards of service ought to come to the employed; but if the employers also serve, the rewards of service ought to come also to the employer. If they come to either the one or the other in undue measures, there must be something wrong in the social system, which needs readjusting.
II. EMPLOYERS AND EMPLOYED NEED TO TRUST EACH OTHER. The complications of modern labor problems arise from the mischievous work of demagogues, who set class against class. The spirit of Christianity encourages mutual trust, and tends to bring classes together, and helps each class to consider the claims and needs of other classes. The dream of a universal equality has delighted and amused humanity in all ages, and it will to the end of the age. But it will never be more than a dream. Nature makes classes, and will go on making them; and Paradise can never be gained otherwise than by the laborer and his master realizing the Christly spirit of mutual service. The master must trust the servant to render his best of service; and the laborer must trust his master to give a fair and relatively proportionate reward.—R.T.
HOMILIES BY C. SHORT
Suffering and victory.
"Many a time have they afflicted me from my youth," etc. The connection is shown thus—
I. THE PSALMIST SAW THE REDEMPTIVE RIGHTEOUSNESS OF GOD AS SUPREME. (Psalms 129:4.) God's strength and justice surely prevail against all the devices of evil men.
II. GOOD MEN PREVAIL WHEN THEY USE THEIR SUFFERING AS CORRECTIVE DISCIPLINE. Some of the greatest lessons of life are learned from our severest sufferings. "For I reckon that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy," etc.; "Our light affliction worketh out … while we look not at the things which are seen," etc.
III. THE OPPOSITION OF ENEMIES CALLS FORTH THEIR GREATEST ENERGIES. This a law that operates in the physical, the intellectual, and the moral life. Stem a torrent, and you increase its force. An intellectual difficulty rouses us to the greatest endeavor, and moral obstacles call forth our most triumphant strength.
IV. THE UNRIGHTEOUS ARE ULTIMATELY DEFEATED IN THEIR OPPOSITION TO THE GOOD CAUSE. (Psalms 129:5, Psalms 129:6.) They are driven back, and made ashamed of their efforts and designs upon the righteous cause. The psalmist is not doubtful of the final issue of the conflict between good and evil. The evil will wither like grass on the house-tops.
V. THE RIGHTEOUS WILL GATHER THE HARVEST OF THEIR LABORS AMID THE BENEDICTIONS OF GOD AND MAN. (Psalms 129:8.) No good seed that has been sown will fail of a harvest more or less abundant. God and man rejoice in all good work done, whatever the extent of its consequences. "Well done, good and faithful servant;" "Blessed is the man that walketh not in the way of the wicked," whose "delight is in the Law of the Lord."—S.