Summary: Our response to oppression & adversity
Psalm Steps> “Stick-to-it-iveness” Psalm 129 Pastor Bob Leroe, Cliftondale Congregational Church, Saugus, Massachusetts
It pays to persevere. Thomas Edison experimented with hundreds of filaments before he succeeded in making the first electric light; Jonas Salk failed over 200 times before he found the right vaccine for polio. Douglas MacArthur was rejected twice before he was allowed to enter West Point. In art school Charles Schulz received a low grade for his ability to draw children. And Michael Jordan didn’t make his high school varsity basketball team but kept on trying. We know their names because these were people who didn’t quit. It’s been said, “You’ve got to get up every morning with determination if you’re going to go to bed with satisfaction” (George Lorimer).
Psalm 129 is all about sticking with a task, determining to continue on, regardless of opposition or set-backs. Perseverance is a sign of genuine faith. Authentic faith produces a life of faithfulness. The Christian life is a cooperative effort—we do our part and God does His part. Paul counsels Timothy to be consistent, “in season and out of season” (II Tim 4:2). That means whether we feel like it or not, we continue to trust God and live for Him, relying on His strength.
The psalm-writer begins in verses 1-2 by describing his lifetime of oppression; he then calls for his listeners to repeat the refrain. The enemies of Israel tried everything, but nothing worked: “They have not gained the victory over me.” This is a healthy refusal to succumb to discouragement. He is talking personally, and is speaking for the nation as well. Israel was persecuted but not forsaken.
Perseverance is not passive resignation, or putting up with things the way they are. It is growing stronger through the storms of life, weathering them and becoming better able to withstand adversity. Perseverance is not perfection. We continue on, through our successes and failures, learning from both. Even when we fall, we get up and keep going.
We may be persecuted, but not destroyed. Verse 3 offers a gruesome image of an enemy attack, cutting gashes like a farmer plowing a field. It’s as though Israel has been forced to lie face down on the ground and plows are run over the nation’s back. There is blood and pain, back-and-forth cruelty, likely a reference to cuts made by a whip; Israel has been lashed mercilessly by enemies…but then comes verse 4: the harness cords, the ropes connecting the plow to the oxen, are severed. The plows of persecution stop functioning, because “the Lord has cut me free from the cords of the wicked.” This refers to deliverance from slavery and tyranny.
We’re able to persevere because (still verse 4) “the Lord is righteous”. This attribute of God describes His relationship toward us. God is righteous in how He deals with us. Perseverance is not the result of our determination; it’s not self-generated; it is the result of God’s goodness and faithfulness. We survive, not because we have extraordinary stamina, but because God is righteous. He rescues His people.
When I attended my high school 30-year reunion in New Jersey, I thought, “What message can I try to convey to my former classmates about my faith?” The message is simply that after 30 years God continues to sustain me—what stronger argument need I supply to defend my faith?
The danger in a message like this is that we may miss the point and think that perseverance is something we have to produce. We should expect little from ourselves, and expect everything from God. We’re not in charge of perseverance—that’s something God does within us. This doesn’t mean we grow complacent—it means we actively rely on God for victory. Eugene Peterson writes, “The way of faith is not a fad that is taken up in one century only to be discarded in the next. It lasts. It is a way that works. It has been tested thoroughly.”
How do we respond to our enemies? We defend ourselves, but we also let God deal with them. This doesn’t mean we idly stand by and let ourselves be abused; it means when we are being mistreated the first Person we should go to is God. Verse 5 is a prayer for vindication, asking God to fight our battles. The writer is honest and angry, angry enough to ask God to take action: “May all who hate Zion be turned back in shame.” Zion is another name for the hilly geography of Jerusalem, and often refers to the entire land of Israel. God causes the enemies of His people to retreat in humiliation. The writer is passionate about his pain and God’s power. People who give up become apathetic and indifferent. Psalm 129 is the gutsy prayer of one who cares deeply enough to ask God to intervene and provide vindication. God’s enemies will be “turned back”—their destiny is defeat.