Bible Commentary: Psalm 129

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Psalm 129

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As the first song of ascents in the fourth set of three (of the five sets of three), Psalm 129 is set in the context of distress, recalling those who have hated and abused God's people and pronouncing consequences on them.

The afflicted "me" in verses 1-2, as this is to be declared by all Israel--per the formula "Let Israel now say" (verse 1; compare Psalm 118:2; Psalm 124:1)--refers to the nation collectively and to all its citizens individually. As for their enemies here, the people of Israel throughout their history often suffered under the brutality of foreign oppressors--and even from other Israelites who were not classed with them here as part of Israel, these being disobedient to God's covenant. (Consider that faithful Israelites often suffered at the hands of their own countrymen.)

The striking imagery of plowers having plowed on Israel's back in long furrows in verse 3 probably combines different metaphors. The obvious meaning here is that of the lash cutting into the people's backs, creating bleeding furrows or stripes--as, for example, the Messiah was prophesied to experience (see Isaiah 50:6; Isaiah 53:5). Yet it should be noted that God foretold Jerusalem's destruction by the Babylonians in terms of plowing: "Zion shall be plowed like a field, Jerusalem shall become heaps of ruin" (Jeremiah 26:18). The furrows in this case would be paths of destruction through the land. And this was on the back of the people in the sense of their bearing it as a burden.

Yet because the Lord is righteous, the enemies of Israel have never ultimately prevailed (Psalm 129:2). God has always at some point delivered His people, intervening to "cut in pieces the cords of the wicked" (verse 4)--that is, the figurative cords they have used to bind God's people and to scourge them. God's past deliverance is the basis of faith in His future intervention.

Verses 5-8, the second stanza of the psalm, then declare an imprecation or curse on the wicked oppressors, expressing God's judgment. The psalmist asks that all who hate Zion and what it represents--God, His laws, His covenant nation, His Church, His Kingdom--"be turned back in shame" (verse 5, NIV). And "consistent with the agricultural language of the psalm, the people pray that the wicked may wither like 'grass on the roof' (v. 6 [NIV]; 2 Kings 19:26; Isaiah 37:27). Roofs were flat; and during periods of moisture or precipitation, grassy weeds might sprout and grow in the shallow dirt. However, the plants soon withered when deprived of moisture (cf. Matthew 13:5-6). The grass may grow, but it is so useless that a reaper need not cut it down with a scythe nor bind it into sheaves ([Psalm 129] v. 7). It is a wasted growth. So it will be with the wicked" ( Expositor's Bible Commentary, note on verses 5-8).

In verse 8, the righteous are reminded to not inadvertently pronounce a blessing on those who are cursed through a typical greeting or bidding of farewell using God's name (compare 2 John 9-11).

In an ultimate sense, this song of ascents looks forward to the fulfillment of the fall festivals in the return of the Messiah, Jesus Christ, when Israel--meaning both God's physical nation and His spiritual people, the Church--are delivered from their bondage in this world, their oppressors being both human and, primarily, demonic.The cords of Satan and sin will be broken, God's people will at last be set free, and Satan and his followers will be brought to shame.