Scripture Reading • Psalm 129 (NIV)
“They have greatly oppressed me from my youth,”
let Israel say;
“they have greatly oppressed me from my youth,
but they have not gained the victory over me.
Plowmen have plowed my back
and made their furrows long.
But the Lord is righteous;
he has cut me free from the cords of the wicked.”
May all who hate Zion
be turned back in shame.
May they be like grass on the roof,
which withers before it can grow;
a reaper cannot fill his hands with it,
nor one who gathers fill his arms.
May those who pass by not say to them,
“The blessing of the Lord be on you;
we bless you in the name of the Lord.”
I’m always amazed by the difficult things people can make it through.
How are some people able to stick with it, no matter what, even though it looks so impossible … so hard … so painful?
Have any of you all ever read “The Hiding Place” by Corrie Ten Boom? Man.
Talk about someone who persevered and made it through something difficult … difficult isn’t even a strong enough word for what she and so many other people experienced during World War 2. Corrie Ten Boom risked her life and wound up spending a long time in Nazi concentration camps because of her family’s insistence that as Christians, they could not stay silent, they had to do something to help as their Jewish neighbors were persecuted and killed. Corrie Ten Boom experienced so much pain and darkness … she experienced so much hatred … she saw so much of the worst things people can inflict on each other … and she persevered … she wasn’t hard or bitter … she was filled with God’s grace and has been an encouragement to many people.
The Psalmist and the community he is leading in prayer sound like they are people who have made it through a lot of pain and difficulty. The Psalm sets up a call and response. (I have to confess, when I read the first part of the Psalm, I get a picture of that chain gang scene at the beginning of “O Brother Where Art Thou” stuck in my head.)
“They have greatly oppressed me from my youth” … Everybody together … Let all of Israel say–
“THEY HAVE GREATLY OPPRESSED ME FROM MY YOUTH,
But they have not gained the victory over me.”
Who is “they?”
There are any number of possibilities for who “they” could be – Egypt … the Philistines … the Babylonians … the Assyrians … maybe even some of Israel’s own terrible kings? They oppressed us … they tormented … harassed … afflicted us … they set out to crush and squash us. It is that power of good poetry again … just enough information to spark our imaginations … just enough information to encourage us to add our own experience to the song.
Whoever it was that set out to get us … whoever it was that intended to break us down … to hurt us … Whoever it was that caused this pain (the psalmist uses the image of farmers plowing fields … they plowed my back … they cut long and painful rows into our backs) … Whoever it was, they couldn’t break these people … they couldn’t get them to turn from what mattered most … they couldn’t gain victory over them. The Psalmist and his people made it through … they persevered … they remained steadfastly faithful despite difficulty and pressure … they were resilient … they didn’t lose their shape … or their identity … they snapped back … they continued as God’s faithful and devoted people.
This is the song … this is the prayer of people who have made it through something extremely painful … something incredibly difficult.
The psalmist also points out it wasn’t because of sheer will power … it wasn’t their own strength or competence that got them through. (Though, I would bet they must have had strength and competence.)
They owe making it to their God.
“The Lord is righteous … the Lord has cut me free from the cords of the wicked.”
The Psalmist gives credit to God … God got them through … The Lord cut the harnesses of whatever beast of burden was driving those cruel metaphorical plows … The oppressors’ purposes were thwarted. With God’s help … these people persevered … These people made it to live and serve, sing and pray another day.
Eugene Peterson, the Presbyterian pastor and translator of the version of the bible called The Message, translates verse four of this Psalm – “But God wouldn’t put up with it, he sticks with us; Then God ripped the harnesses of the evil plowmen to shreds.”
He says that verse 4 is the center of the Psalm.
The cornerstone sentence of Psalm 129 is “GOD wouldn’t put up with it, he sticks with us.” When the Bible says that God sticks with us, the emphasis is on [God’s] dependable personal relationship, that [God] is always there for us … That “[God] sticks with us” is the reason Christians can look back over a long life crisscrossed with cruelties, unannounced tragedies, unexpected setbacks, sufferings, disappointments, depressions—look back across all that and see it as a road of blessing, and make a song out of what we see. “They’ve kicked me around ever since I was young, but they never could keep me down.” God sticks to his relationship. [God] establishes a personal relationship with us and stays with it. The central reality for Christians is the personal, unalterable, persevering commitment God makes to us. Perseverance is not the result of our determination, it is the result of God’s faithfulness. We survive in the way of faith not because we have extraordinary stamina but because God is righteous, because God sticks with us (A Long Obedience, 132-133).
There is so much we can’t explain … we don’t know why it happened … we don’t understand it … but we know God was there, right there in the pain with us. The Psalmist was convinced that perseverance depended on God.
Corrie Ten Boom and her sister Betsie were shuffled around from nazi concentration camp to concentration camp … they experienced hard labor and hunger … sickness, humiliation, and hatred, and some how, even though it seems impossible, they experienced God’s relationship, God’s sticking with them during that time.
Corrie Ten Boom remembered in her book, “The Hiding Place,”
It grew harder and harder. Even within these four walls [of the barracks] there was too much misery, too much seemingly pointless suffering. Every day something else failed to make sense, something else grew too heavy … But as the rest of the world grew stranger, one thing became increasingly clear. And for that reason the two of us were here. Why others should suffer we were not shown. As for us, from morning until lights-out, whenever we were not in ranks for roll call, our Bible was the center of an ever-widening circle of help and hope. Like waifs clustered around a blazing fire, we gathered about it, holding out our hearts to its warmth and light. The blacker the night around us grew, the brighter and truer and more beautiful burned the word of God. “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? … Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us” (p. 206).
As the darkness and pain of the worst people can do closed in on her, Corrie became more aware and more convinced of the Apostle Paul’s words to the Christians in Rome – nothing could separate them from God … nothing, not even the worst people could inflict on each other could keep God away.
I see something like this too … though in a more wimpy and probably much less intense ways than Corrie Ten Boom and the Apostle Paul saw it. The more I see of the world … the more I see of the ways people treat each other … the more stories I hear about people who have been hurt and walked over … the more I appreciate Jesus and I want Jesus’ goodness and love and healing to be experienced in the world … the more I see how the kingdoms and governments of this world operate … the more I encounter people who are left out and walked over … the more I long for Christ’s kingdom to come and for his will do be done on earth as it is in heaven and I hold onto the promise that God will stick with us.
The author of Hebrews said it well,
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart (Hebrews 12.1-3 NIV).