The Thirteenth Decade of Psalms
One of Scripture’s great themes is the theme of deliverance. God first delivers us from the bondage of our sins, and then after this He delivers us from the spite and hate leveled at us by those who hate the fact that we have been delivered from the bondage of our sins. This is a psalm about that second kind of deliverance.
This is the way of the world. No sooner is the man child of Revelation born but the dragon is after him and his mother both (Rev. 12:13). The history of the world is a history of billions of deaths, but remember that the very first one was a martyr’s death (Luke 11:51; Heb. 11:4).
We will be addressing the subject of persecution, and while I will not be making explicit references to our situation here in Moscow, you are invited to make your own applications for use in your prayers. This teaching does apply for the simple reason that these things always apply.
“A Song of degrees. 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 plowers plowed upon my back: They made long their furrows. The Lord is righteous: He hath cut asunder the cords of the wicked. Let them all be confounded and turned back that hate Zion. 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. Neither do they which go by say, the blessing of the Lord be upon you: We bless you in the name of the Lord” (Psalm 129:1-8).
Summary of the Text
The psalmist here has been afflicted “many a time,” and this has been the case from his youth on (v. 1). This was true for him, and all of Israel was invited to join with him in his lament. “Let Israel now say . . .” Many a time they have afflicted me (that is to say, us), and yet have not prevailed (v. 2). The image of plowing is then used, referring probably to the stripes raised by a flogging (v. 3). They made long furrows on his back. But the Lord is righteous and He intervened—He cut the traces and cords of the oxen pulling these plows of contempt, this machinery of persecution (v. 4). This is then followed by the psalmist’s pious wish that those who hate Zion be confounded and turned around (v. 5). Let them be like grass that grows on rooftops, which withers almost immediately (v. 6). Let them not be enough grass for a mower even to bother with, or a harvester to gather (v. 7). Let them grow to nothing, in other words. The last verse implies a likely custom of that day—when you walked by a field of abundant grain, you would bless it in the name of the Lord (v. 8). Let that not happen with these little tufts of brown rooftop grass, the kind of grass that might grow in your rain gutters.
Now whenever American Christians take note of the first stages of our coming persecution, as we ought to do, we are often mocked as being nothing more than pampered whiners. “You think you are persecuted because sitcoms make fun of your kind?” But we are Christians, and so we should stand back from this sort of taunt and let our Lord define what persecution looks like. Scurrilous verbal abuse is most certainly included in what He describes, and it is frequently used as the preliminary preparation for what is coming next.
“Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad: for great is your reward in heaven: for so persecuted they the prophets which were before you” (Matthew 5:11–12).
Matt. 5:11-12 (KJV)
So we may allow the Lord to define what it means to be persecuted, and we are most certainly reviled and lied about. But we must also take care not to apply just one half of the passage, the part that applies to them. When we are lied about—you racists—make sure to rejoice. Make sure your response is to be exceedingly glad. Make sure to overflow with exceeding gladness.
The Soil of Our Pain
Now some might think that this metaphor of a plowed back is an odd one. But although it is striking, there is profound sense in it. When the persecutors do their work, their intention is to grow a crop in the soil of our pain. That is what a man intends whenever he plows a field, is it not? He purposes a crop. That means they want to grow something for themselves out of the travail of the saints. They are after something, and our responsibility is to not let our fields yield the crop they are after.
This is all the more possible because what does God do? He allows them to do what they do, and then, when the time is just right, He cuts the traces, and their oxen run off. This is because He is making them do the work for a crop of His own design. And when we look at that crop—full, abundant, rich, golden—we can say over the harvest, “bless you in the name of the Lord.” The devil wants to grow despair in the furrows of your affliction. God intends to grow a bumper crop of joy and gladness out of those same furrows.
Notice that this prayer of imprecation is not a matter of taking up personal vengeance. This prayer of cursing is directed that all those who hate Zion (v. 5). Imprecatory psalms are no justification for road rage, nor are they to be directed at people who happen to inconvenience you. These psalms are not the pins for scriptural voodoo dolls. No—we stand against those who hate the Lord, and who hate all His people because they are His people. This prayer is leveled against the enemies of Zion.
Now if it is the good pleasure of the Lord to destroy an enemy by making him into a friend, as He did with the apostle Paul, this is something that the sons and daughters of Zion can readily take as a true and genuine blessing. “But they had heard only, that he which persecuted us in times past now preacheth the faith which once he destroyed. And they glorified God in me” (Gal. 1:23–24). They glorified God in me. Imagine being a widow listening to a sermon from a man whose persecuting zeal had led to your husband’s death. “They glorified God in me.”
But if such a “triumph through conversion” is not the will of our God, then we should still continue to ask Him to undertake on our behalf. Spurgeon put it this way: “Study a chapter from the Book of Martyrs, and see if you do not feel inclined to read an imprecatory psalm over Bishop Bonner and Bloody Mary. It may be that some wretched nineteenth century sentimentalist will blame you: if so, read another over him.”
Christ is the Ultimate Persecuted One
Our Lord was flogged, and by His stripes we are healed (Is. 53:5; 1 Pet. 2:24). His suffering is ours. But we also learn in Scripture than our suffering is His. “And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?” (Acts 9:4). The Lord reckoned Saul’s persecution of the body as persecution directed at the Head, which it was. And what is done to the “least of these” is reckoned as done to Christ (Matt. 25:40-45).
So remember that you are not being persecuted for your failures, but rather because of your connection to the Lord Jesus. And what failings you do carry around with you, as we all have to deal with, are overcome in the grace of the gospel. Before you even think about turning to face a persecutor, remember that the grace of God is more than adequate to deal with all of your shortcomings. Never forget, as the great Puritan Richard Sibbes once put it, that there is far more grace in Christ than there is sin in you. In fact, there is infinitely more grace in Christ than there is sin in all of you put together. And to apply another great Puritan (Thomas Goodwin), Christ could not love you any more than He does. God’s love for you in Christ cannot be improved upon. There is no room for better.
Your union with Christ is a precious gift—so of course don’t abuse it by misidentifying the source of your troubles (1 Pet. 4:15). But your identity as a Christian brings you to the source of true glory. “Yet if any man suffer as a Christian, let him not be ashamed; but let him glorify God on this behalf” (1 Peter 4:16). This is because Christ is in all of it. The crop that God intends is a crop that will glorify Him, and you can truly say over every furrow on your back cut by every lying plow, “We bless you in the name of Christ.”
Why is this happening? Christ is the farmer, and Christ is the soil, and Christ is the seed, and Christ is the rain, and Christ is the sun, and we are in Him. He purposes a crop.