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Bible Commentaries

The Expositor's Bible Commentary

Psalms 129

Verses 1-8

Psalms 129:1-8

THE point of view here is the same as in Psalms 124:1-8, with which the present psalm has much similarity both in subject and in expression. It is a retrospect of Israel’s past, in which the poet sees a uniform exemplification of two standing facts-sore affliction and wonderful deliverance. The bush burned, nec tamen consumebatur. "Cast down but not destroyed," is the summary of the Church’s history. No doubt the recent deliverance from captivity underlies this, as most of the pilgrim psalms. The second part (Psalms 129:5-8) blends confidence and wish, founded on the experience recorded in the first part, and prophesies and desires the overthrow of Israel’s foes. The right use of retrospect is to make it the ground of hope. They who have passed unscathed through such afflictions may well be sure that any tomorrow shall be as the yesterdays were, and that all future assaults will fail as all past ones have failed.

The words which Israel is called upon to say twice with triumphant remembrance are the motto of the Ecclesia pressa in all ages. Ever there is antagonism; never is there overthrow. Israel’s "youth" was far back in the days of Egyptian bondage; and many an affliction has he since met, but he lives still, and his existence proves that "they have not prevailed against" him. Therefore the backward look is gladsome, though it sees so many trials. Survived sorrows yield joy and hope, as gashes in trees exude precious gums.

Psalms 129:3 expresses Israel’s oppressions by a strong metaphor, in which two figures are blended-a slave under the lash, and a field furrowed by ploughing. Cruel lords had laid on the whip, till the victim’s back was scored with long wounds, straight and parallel, like the work of a ploughman. The Divine deliverance follows in Psalms 129:4. The first words of the verse do not stand in the usual order, if rendered "Jehovah is righteous," and are probably to be taken as above; "righteous" standing in apposition to "Jehovah," and expressing the Divine characteristic which guaranteed and in due time accomplished Israel’s deliverance. God could not but be true to His covenant obligations. Therefore He cut the "cord of the wicked." The figure is here changed to one occasioned by the former. Israel is now the draught ox harnessed to the plough; and thus both sides of his bondage are expressed-cruel treatment by the former, and hard toil by the latter, figure. The same act which, in the parallel 124th Psalm, is described as breaking the fowler’s snare, is in view here; and the restoration from Babylon suits the circumstances completely.

The story of past futile attempts against Israel animates the confidence and vindicates the wish breathed in the latter half of the psalm. To hate Zion, which Jehovah so manifestly loves and guards, must be suicidal. It is something far nobler than selfish vengeance which desires and foresees the certain failure of attempts against it. The psalmist is still under the influence of his earlier metaphor of the ploughed field, but now has come to think of the harvest. The graphic image of the grass on flat housetops of clay, which springs quickly because it has no depth of earth, and withers as it springs, vividly describes the short-lived success and rapid extinction of plots against Zion and of the plotters. The word rendered above "shoots forth" is by some translated "is plucked up," and that meaning is defensible, but grass on the housetops would scarcely be worth plucking, and the word is used elsewhere for unsheathing a sword. It may, therefore, be taken here to refer to the shooting out of the spikelets from their covering. The psalmist dilates upon his metaphor in Psalms 129:7 which expresses the fruitlessness of assaults on God’s chosen. No harvest is to be reaped from such sowing. The enemies may plot and toil, and before their plans have had time to bud they are smitten into brown dust; and when the contrivers come expecting success, there is nothing to mow or gather. "They look for much, and behold little." So it has been; so it shall be; so it should be; so may it be, wishes the psalmist; and true hearts will say amen to his aspiration.

Such reapers have no joy in harvest, and no man can invoke Jehovah’s blessing on their bad work. Psalms 129:8 brings up a lovely little picture of a harvest field, where passers-by shout their good wishes to the glad toilers, and are answered by these with like salutations. It is doubtful whether Psalms 129:8 c is spoken by the passers-by or is the reapers’ responsive greeting. The latter explanation gives animation to the scene. But in any case the verse suggests by contrast the gloomy silence of Israel’s would be destroyers, who find, as all who set themselves against Jehovah’s purposes do find, that He blasts their plans with His breath, and makes their "harvest a heap in the day of grief and desperate sorrow."

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Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Psalms 129". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary".