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TEXT: Psalm 129

SUBJECT: Songs on the Way to Heaven #10

If I asked you to sum up the Christian life in one word, what would it be? Most of you-I believe-would select a positive word, maybe blessed or holy, forgiven or hopeful. These are all fine choices and capture a big part of the life we have in Christ.

But 'a big part' of a thing is not the whole thing. There is another side to the Christian life that has a less cheery ring to it. If Paul were asked to sum up his life in Christ, he might choose the word, cross. Not merely the cross on which our Lord paid for his sins, but his own cross too, the cross he and every believer is called to bear.

The cross stands for everything evil in this world, but especially for the opposition we face because we do not belong to this world. You don't have to read the New Testament very carefully to find all who live godly in Christ Jesus suffer[ing] persecution. Not just the verse-I mean-but real flesh-and-blood examples of it.

John the Baptist has his head served up on a platter. Stephen is stoned to death. James is slain by the sword. Peter and John are arrested and beaten, and then there's Paul, who gives a partial list of his sufferings in II Corinthians 11-

In stripes above measure, in prisons more frequently, in deaths often. From the Jews five times I received forty stripes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked.in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren.

Paul's life was exceptional, of course; he himself said so. But the exception was not in his sufferings for Christ, but only in the number and severity of his sufferings. If he suffered more than other Christians, the rest of us suffer less than he did. But, for Christ's sake, we suffer. This is the plain teaching of the New Testament-

It is through much tribulation that we enter the kingdom of God.

But it is not unique to the New Testament. Peter hints at this when he says,

Beloved, do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you.

He's saying, in effect, you're not the first people to be laughed at or excluded or driven from their homes or jailed or even murdered for God's sake. Suffering for God has a long and distinguished history. The first man to do it was Abel, whose own brother killed him. Then we have Noah, then Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; then Joseph, then Moses, and then Israel as the people of God.

This brings us to Psalm 129.

THE AFFLICTIONS

The Psalm begins with a short select history of Israel. We cannot say just it was composed, but it bears the marks of wear and tear, which makes me think it was far later than the glory days of David and Solomon. Many scholars put it sometime after the exile and I find their argument persuasive if not certain. In any event, Psalm 129 is about affliction.

There are two kinds of afflictions: innocent and guilty. They're equally painful, but they don't create the same feelings in us. When a man dies of an aneurysm, for example, his family is grief-stricken, but they're not mad because no one's to blame. But when the same man is mugged on the street and shot for the ten dollars in his wallet, the family is not only grief-stricken, they're furious. Because someone is to blame.

This is the affliction our Psalm is about. The kind that makes you mad!

Their afflictions began early and hardly ever let up-

Many a time they have afflicted me from my youth-Let Israel now say-many a time they have afflicted me from my youth.

The troubles began in Egypt where they were first enslaved, and then commanded to throw their babies into the River! When they escaped from Egypt they came into the wilderness, where again, they were attacked by the men of Amalek and seduced by the women of Beth-Peor.

When they crossed into their land, they were attacked by the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Canaanites, and the giant sons of Anak. When they displaced the first inhabitants, other nations marched on them, including the Moabites, the Midianites, the Amonites, and, most of all the Philistines, who threatened Israel for a hundred years.

When the kingdom was established and unified they had peace. But not for long. The Syrians harassed them from the north, the Ethopians invaded them from the south, and then, from the East, two great Empires arose. The Assyrians sacked Samaria in 721 BC, and then, a few generations later, the Babylonians took Jerusalem, wiped out its army, broke down its wall, carried off its civilians, ended its kingdom, and burned its temple to the ground.

Israel had its share of victories, of course, but for every win there were a dozen losses-

Many a time they have afflicted me from my youth up.

What did the afflictions feel like? He tells us in one of the Bible's most striking images-

The plowers plowed on my back;

They made their furrows long.

The picture is of a man being whipped or scourged. This was a common way of punishing a man in those days, but under the Law, the punishment was limited to forty stripes. They would teach a man the lesson he needed to learn, but they wouldn't humiliate him. Justice must be mixed with pity and respect. But the enemies of Israel had neither.

They not only beat them in the field of battle, but they rubbed it in; not satisfied with the just spoils of war they stripped the land bare. They had no honor or decency or compassion or humanity.

Their afflictions were many, cruel, and relentless.

THE SURVIVAL

But they were not effective. Pharaoh, Sennacherib, Hamaan, and others wanted to wipe out the People of God, and they had the will and resources to do it. But they didn't do it; try as they might, they could not do it. Why? Because

The Lord is righteous.

What does this mean? It means three things, deep and complex they are, but I have to skim the surface and suggest more than I really say.

The Lord is righteous means He hates oppression and sides with the oppressed.

The Lord is righteous means He will stop the oppressors and give them what they deserve.

Most of all, The Lord is righteous means He keeps His Word. He has not promised us an easy and carefree life, but He has promised to never leave us or forsake, especially when things aren't so easy or carefree.

Because the Lord is righteous,

He has cut in pieces the cords of the wicked.

This goes back to the plowers cutting deep furrows into the backs of God's People. Plows are not held on by hand, but by a harness connecting it to the oxen or mules or donkeys. While the Lord suffers wicked men to plow the righteous for a time, it is only for a time. In His own good time, he cuts in pieces the cords of the wicked.

Psalm 37 provides a far longer treatment of the same topic. Near the end, it counsels us to

Wait on the Lord,

And keep His way.

When the wicked are cut off,

You shall see it.

I have seen the wicked in great power,

And spreading himself like a native

Green tree.

Yet he passed away, and behold,

He was no more;

Indeed I sought him,

But he could not be found.

The future of the wicked shall be

Cut off.

We survive because the Lord is righteous. There's no toughness in us and no weakness in our enemies, but

Our help is in the name of the Lord

Who made heaven and earth.

THE IMPRECATION

What's going to happen to the enemies of God's People? We don't have to guess-

Let all those who hate Zion

Be put to shame and turned back.

Let them be as the grass on the

Housetops,

Which withers before it grows up,

With which the reaper does not fill his

Hand,

Nor he who binds sheaves, his arms.

Neither let those who pass by them

Say,

'The blessing of the Lord be upon you;

we bless you in the name of the Lord'.

The Psalmist pronounces a curse on his enemies. He wants them turned back in battle and made into a laughing stock; he hopes their plans fail and nobody wishes them the best.

We understand why he felt this way: the enemies of God were oppressing his people and he was mad about it! He wanted them driven out of the land, and this means he wanted war-and what goes with it: casualties, wounded and dead.

The language is fairly mild and, if read quickly, not too offensive. But other Psalms offer the same prayer in words far less gentle. Psalm 69, for instance says,

Do not keep silent,

O God of my praise!

For the mouth of the wicked and

The mouth of the deceitful

Have opened against me.

Set a wicked man over him,

And let an accuser stand at his right

Hand.

When he is judged,

Let him be found guilty,

And let his prayer become sin.

Let his days be few,

And let another take his office.

Let his children be fatherless,

And his wife a widow,

Let his children continually be

Vagabonds and beg;

Let them seek their bread also from

The desolate places.

Let the creditor seize all that he has,

And let strangers plunder his labor.

Let there be none to extend mercy to

Him,

Nor let there be any to favor his

Fatherless children.

Let his posterity be cut,

And in the generation following let

Their names be blotted out.

Let the iniquity of his fathers be

Remembered before the Lord,

And nlet not the sin of his mother

Be blotted out.

Le them be continually before the

Lord,

That He may cut off the memory of

Them from the earth.

As he loved cursing,

Let it come to him.

Let this be the Lord's reward to my

Accusers,

And to those who speak evil against

My person.

Break their teeth in their mouth, O God.

Break the arm of the wicked

And the evil man;

Seek out his wickedness until you find

None.

Let death seize them;

Let them go down alive into the pit.

When he has been judged,

Let him be found guilty,

And let his prayer become sin

For Christians who believe the whole Bible is the Word of God, this creates quite a problem. How do you square cursing your enemies with loving them?

One way of doing it is by saying the curses were not personal. While we are commanded to love our enemies, the Bible doesn't tell us to love God's enemies. That's the argument, and it's a bad one for the simple reason that the enemies of God's People are God's enemies too. Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me? Inasmuch as you have done it to the least of these my brethren, you have done it unto Me.

Another way of getting around it is by saying the morality or ethics of the Old Testament are lower than the New Testament. There is some truth in this saying. While the Law says, Do not commit adultery, our Lord says to not even Look at a woman with lust in your heart. The two commands differ, but only in degree. A curse, however, differs from a blessing-not in degree-but in kind.

A third way of solving the problem is to say that by asking God to overthrow His enemies, he's really asking Him to convert them into His friends, by saving them. I admire the ingenuity in the answer, and agree with its theology, but I can't see how you get there from the verses in front of us.

The only way to square this Psalm with the teaching of the New Testament is to remember: Who's directing it. While Israel once sang it, and the Church still does, it is Christ who leads the worship! Singing to His Father, our Lord says,

I will declare Your name to My

Brethren;

In the midst of the congregation

I will sing praise to You.

We don't pronounce curses on our enemies because we are not their judges and this is not the time for judging. But that time is coming and so is the Judge, our Lord Jesus Christ. Thus, we love our enemies until He passes judgment on them. And then, in the appalling words of Revelation 19, we celebrate the Judgment,

Alleluia! Salvation and glory and honor and power to the Lord our God! For true and righteous are His judgments, because He has judged the great harlot.and has avenged on her the blood of His servants shed by her. Again they say, 'Alleluia', and her smoke rises up forever.And I heard the sound of mighty thunderings, saying, 'Alleluia! For the Lord God omnipotent reigns'.

THE VINDICATION

Put all of this together and what we have is the vindication of God's People. In this world the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper. Because the justice of heaven has not yet come. But it will come, and when it does,

Everyone who swears by Him will

Glory;

But the mouth of those who speak lies

Shall be stopped.

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