Psalms of Ascent: 129

1   “Greatly have they afflicted me from my youth”
—let Israel now say—
2   “Greatly have they afflicted me from my youth,
yet they have not prevailed against me.
3   The plowers plowed upon my back;
they made long their furrows.”
4   The Lord is righteous;
he has cut the cords of the wicked.
5   May all who hate Zion
be put to shame and turned backward!
6   Let them be like the grass on the housetops,
which withers before it grows up,
7   with which the reaper does not fill his hand
nor the binder of sheaves his arms,
8   nor do those who pass by say,
“The blessing of the Lord be upon you!
We bless you in the name of the Lord!”

Psalm 129 is a strange song for a group of people to sing on their way to celebrate. While many cultures may celebrate their victories on such an occasion, and the Israelites certainly do that too, they also take time to remember their hardships.

The psalmist asks the people of Israel to talk about the ways their enemies have afflicted them from the beginning of their history (“from my youth”). But it is in the remembrance of the evils they’ve endured that makes their victories sweet. Their celebrations were lively because the threats they faced seemed impossible to overcome. Jewish comedian Alan King summarized all Jewish holidays this way: “They tried to kill us, we won, let's eat!”

Yet their victories were not by their own hands. Verse 4 says, “The Lord is righteous;/he has cut the cords of the wicked.” They are singing of the goodness of God to bring them out of their distress. The psalmist does not mention a particular instance here, because he/she doesn’t need to. Israel's whole history is full of the Lord rescuing them from danger. This is your whole history too.

Most of us give ourselves too much credit for the lives we have. The victory the Israelites are celebrating did not come from them pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. There’s no mention in Psalm 129 of hard work, intelligence, a powerful military, or any human work to thank for their success. Their life and freedom were won by God alone. And any human or deity who opposed God and harmed his beloved were put to shame, utterly destroyed (verses 5-8).

Remembering the past, the hardships God has brought us out of, is so important for our faithfulness in the present and our hope for the future. You’ve heard this a few times in this devotional series, but that’s because this theme is so central to the Psalms of Ascent. Let’s celebrate often. Let’s share the stories of the sin and despair God has saved us from. He has rescued us before and he will do it again.