George Booker
Psalms Studies - Book 5

Psalm 129

1. Structure

Just as 128 has two very similar stanzas, so also 129, except that here there is strong contrast:

Israel’s tribulation from enemies (cp. 124:1-3)
The enemies — no prosperity

2. A psalm of Hezekiah

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 construction of this phrase closely parallels that of 124:1,2, including as it does the refrain “May Israel now say”. In 124 Israel is a bird that escapes when the net is broken (v. 7); here she is a slave freed when her cords are cut asunder (v. 4).

They have afflicted me from my youth. With a swift backward glance all of Israel’s checkered history comes into view. From her “youth”, spent in Egyptian bondage (Hos. 2:15; Jer. 2:2), to the present time she has been afflicted by the wicked. Yet Israel still lives, while the chariots of Pharaoh and the swords of the Philistines, the scornful words of Rabshakeh and the host of Sennacherib, are no more.
The plowers plowed upon my back: they made long their furrows. In this unusual figure of speech, Hezekiah seems to identify himself with the Land itself, the very soil of Abraham’s promised possession. God loves this Land, and He has caused His Name and His glory to abide there. Even when He has put a curse upon it, and it is defiled by the tracks of alien chariots and the furrows of alien plows, still God delights in His Land, and still His ultimate purpose is that it will one day blossom as the rose.
The Lord is righteous, both in the tribulation He brings on His own people, and in the retribution He metes out to their cruel adversaries. As in Lam. 1:18, the most intense chastenings call forth from the best of men the recognition that God is indeed righteous, and that man suffers justly (Luke 23:41). The strokes from the Lord are designed to recall man to the traces of patient service.

He hath cut asunder the cords of the wicked. This links this verse with the preceding one. God has cut the cords of the plow that oppressed Israel, and it is fallen useless to the ground. God has cut the cords that bound Israel to Gentile servitude, and she is now free to serve her Lord.

Here and in vv. 5-8 there is, amazingly, little sign of resentful animosity against the invaders; but only a quiet satisfaction at the failure of their invasion.
Let them all. There are indications in Psa. 83 (see Par. 3 there) and various places in Isaiah and Joel, that the Assyrian army was greatly reinforced by contingents from other surrounding nations, glad of the opportunity to curry favor with the feared Assyrians, and also to work off longstanding hatred and envy of Israel.

Be confounded and turned back:

“And the Lord sent an angel which cut off all the mighty men of valour, and the leaders and captains in the camp of the king of Assyria. So he returned with shame of face to his own land... Thus the Lord saved Hezekiah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem from the hand of Sennacherib the king of Assyria, and from the hand of all other, and guided them on every side” (2 Chron. 32:21,22; Isa. 37:22,28,29,35).

That hate Zion, and its temple and its God. A study of the tirades addressed to Hezekiah and Jerusalem (Isa. 36; 37) and also the “idolatry” chapters in Isaiah (44, 46, and others) reveals that the driving motive for the invasion was to vindicate the greatness of the gods of Nineveh (humbled by Jonah two generations earlier), and to humiliate Yahweh and those who worshiped Him.
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. So let the brutal alien plowmen (v. 3) have a “harvest” like the dry, stunted growth on the housetops — and let them be that harvest! This passage is one of the most certain of identifications of the Songs of Degrees with the events of Hezekiah’s and Isaiah’s days. The only other occurrences of this graphic figure are in the parallel passages of 2 Kings 19:25,26 and Isa. 37:26,27 — God’s reply concerning the threat of Sennacherib’s army. (The AV improperly adds “corn” in both these latter passages. It is omitted in the RSV. Grass grew on housetops, but grain did not.)

Travelers in the Holy Land have corroborated this striking image. Thomson tells of climbing to a rooftop in Jerusalem for a view of the Tyropean valley; he found that grass which had grown over the soil-covered roof during the rainy season was then entirely withered and perfectly dry (The Land and the Book, p. 682). If the eastern sun did not destroy this housetop foliage, then the constant trampling of feet would, for the roof was a favorite resort of city folk during the summer (James Freeman, Manners and Customs of the Bible, p. 232).

Perhaps the scene of the slain host spread upon the ground inspired in Isaiah the words of Isa. 40:6-8, words carried forward and quoted effectively by John the Baptist (Mark 1:3; John 1:23) and Jesus (Matt. 6:28-30; Luke 12:27,28) and Peter (1 Pet. 1:24):

“All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field: the grass withereth, the flower fadeth: because the Spirit of the Lord bloweth upon it: surely the people is grass.”

David likewise exhorted his listeners that they fret not for the evildoers on every side, “for they shall soon be cut down like the grass, and wither as the green herb” (Psa. 37:1,2). Growing up, flourishing, and then dying in successive brief seasons, the grass of the fields (in the Middle East for certain, also in Texas and Australia, but not nearly so much in England!) is the perfect parable of all that passes away. In a brief span of time, so that the simplest of men may comprehend, we have mirrored our own lives. From God’s viewpoint, with whom a thousand years are but as a day, we see our lives for what they are — today we exist, and tomorrow the “oven” (Matt. 6:30; Luke 12:28) — meaning, in the common idiom used by Jesus, the harsh summer winds that blew off the Negeb, drying up and soon killing all grass and herbs and flowers. The account a man leaves with God is his only monument, his only hope.

And so the Assyrians in their military ranks — generals, officers, companies, platoons, right down to the last youthful recruit, 185,000 of them — a great “crop” of mankind, a glorious panoply that had struck terror in the hearts of a dozen peoples... perished as the grass of late summer. Like the lilies of the field, their glory was a vain abbreviated show; like the grass on the housetops, their high place was their ruin; like the seed of Christ’s parable that sprouted in shallow soil, their strength was without root.
Neither do they which go by say, The blessing of the Lord be upon you: we bless you in the name of the Lord. The psalm closes with two harvest blessings, drawing our minds back to Psa. 126. As for the grass that withers before it grows up, the passers by will never say to its reapers, “The blessings of the Lord be upon you.” Neither will the reapers respond with their greeting, “We bless you in the name of the Lord.” These were the traditional words of blessing at the ingathering. With such words the angel of the Lord met Gideon as he threshed wheat in a winepress, hiding from the Midianites (Judg. 6:12). In such manner Boaz blessed his workmen and they returned his salutation (Ruth 2:4; cp. also 2 Thes. 3:16).

3. Messianic reference

Frequently in Isaiah 40 through 66, Israel is used not only as the name of the nation, but also with reference to Israel’s Messiah, as the intimate representative of the nation.

From my youth suggests the incident of Jesus at the age of 12 in the Temple. It is conceivable that in Luke 2:46 many of the rabbinic comments gave the boy Jesus as much pain as if a scourge had been used on him. Also, the discussion on Passover and its meaning would already bring home to him the future experience of suffering which growing understanding made inevitable.
Many a time have they afflicted me from my youth... yet they have not prevailed against me. “When Israel was a child, then I loved him, and called my son out of Egypt” (Hos. 11:1). Jesus was afflicted from his youth; even the birth of this holy child brought death in its wake. The swords of Herod’s murderous “men of war” did their heartless work; anguished cries arose to heaven as mothers clasped lifeless forms to their breasts. Yet the power of the enemy could not prevail against God’s Anointed. In Egypt he was sheltered until the death of the mad Herod, and from there he was brought back to the Land of Promise. It was a prelude to the Father’s purpose to be accomplished in him — that one day many sons and daughters would be delivered from “Egyptian” slavery through divinely-arranged trials to eternal glory.
The plowers plowed upon my back: they made long their furrows. The Messianic passage of Isa. 50:6 — a part of the “Suffering Servant” prophecies that answer so well in the first place to Hezekiah — tells of a circumstance similar to this verse: “I gave my back to the smiters.” The cruel strokes of the Roman scourge (Matt. 27:26; cp. Isa. 53:5) are compared here to the furrows of a plow, they are so deep and long. The afflictions of Jesus, as the ideal “Israel” and the perfect man, culminated in the extremity of scourging, buffeting, and spitting. (Compare also the experiences of Paul and others, by which they came to understand the “fellowship of his sufferings”: Phil. 3:10; Acts 16:23; Col. 1:24; Heb. 11:36; Gal. 6:17; 2 Cor. 11:24).
The Lord is righteous: he hath cut asunder the cords of the wicked. Christ does the same for us. He removes from us the bonds of slavery to sin and offers us a new and lighter “yoke” to bear (Matt. 11:28-30). By God’s grace we see each day’s events as providential testings by which our characters are prepared. The heart of the believer cheerfully accepts the “problems” of life, and glories in the tribulations that make God’s love and His ultimate reward more tangible.

Or, again, are the cords of the wicked those which bound Christ as the sacrifice to the “altar” (Psa. 116:3; 118:27) — cords which were ultimately broken by his resurrection from the dead?
Let them all be confounded and turned back that hate Zion. Those who crucified Christ venerated Zion, so they thought. But the abuses and hypocrisies which they encouraged turned the temple into a place which brought God’s anger upon them and it. In that sense they were Zion’s enemies.
And so they became as the grass upon the housetops, withering away under the “sun” of the Roman invasion. They might have received the blessing from the Messiah (as vv. 7,8), but their own pride and stubbornness barred them from it.
The blessing of the Lord be upon you: we bless you in the name of the Lord. The announcement of the royal Seed, the Seed to be planted amid afflictions to produce the fruit of eternal life, was brought by Gabriel to an astonished Mary; it too was the traditional harvest blessing: “The Lord be with thee... Blessed art thou among women” (Luke 1:28). And what a “harvest” it was, and is!
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