The late great American preacher Clarence McCartney recounted ministering at the funeral of a young husband. He stood by the coffin and listened as the young widow poured out her soul in grief. Finally he said to her: “God will give you strength and faith, and out of this will come good.”
“No,” she answered, “good will not come out of this.”
McCartney later reflected that no matter how much God wills it, good would never come to that widow unless she also willed it.
In Psalm 129, this 10th of 15 psalms of ascent, two-thirds of the way up to Jerusalem, the Psalmist considers the long-enduring adversity suffered by the people of God from their enemies. Perhaps you are in the same situation—what Eugene Peterson calls “a long obedience.” You have found no quick answers or short-cut solutions for an ever-present problem, and you doubt good will ever arrive.
Some things are so hard that you find it difficult not to repeat how hurt you feel. That’s what the Psalmist does. He opens, “They have greatly oppressed me from my youth”; then stops and asks for his listeners to join in, “Let Israel say—they have greatly oppressed me from my youth” (vv. 1,2).
The refrain, “Let Israel say” hearkens back to an earlier psalm of ascent when Israel had been asked to say, “If the Lord had not been on our side” (124:1).
Life is often lived out between the bookends of these realities: “They have greatly oppressed me,” and, “If the Lord had not been on our side.” Phrase one describes the hurt; phrase two, the help. In between lies the battle for survival.
Maybe your trial isn’t over. You’ve not yet gotten to the top of the mountain. Like the Psalmist, perhaps the best thing you can say is, “They have not gained the victory over me” (v. 2). You haven’t won, but neither has the adversary.
The Psalmist employs a horrific analogy to describe the agony of an extensive drawn-out difficulty: long furrows plowed down his back.
Vance Havner writes, “God uses broken things. It takes broken soil to produce a crop, broken clouds to give rain, broken grain to give bread, broken bread to give strength. It is the broken alabaster box that gives forth perfume . . . it is Peter, weeping bitterly, who returns to greater power than ever.”
If you have been broken into—as soil penetrated by a plow—take to heart the comfort that a better day lies ahead: “But the Lord is righteous; he has cut me free from the cords of the wicked” (v. 4).
A mother told her son to sit on a stool in his bedroom facing the corner because he had been disobedient. With his face to the wall, he defiantly announced: “I may be sitting down on the outside, but I’m standing on the inside.”
We do well to put that boy’s attitude to good use when we feel we’re being punished for something we haven’t done: “I may be plowed into, but I’m not plowed under; I may be tied up on the outside, but I’m free on the inside; others may have forgotten me, but the Lord has not.”
Will things ever be right side up?
When you are hurt, you may not be in too forgiving a mood. The Psalmist wasn’t. He asked God for three things against the adversaries: bring shame upon them (v. 5), cause them economic ruin (vv. 6,7), and refuse to bless them (v. 8).
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Christian pastor and theologian martyred by the Nazis in the closing days of World War II, commented that there are some things in the Psalms that can only be prayed purely by Jesus himself. He felt that vengeance requests, like those reflected in these verses, did not belong on the lips of sinful humans who themselves deserve God’s punishments. These are the kinds of prayers God grants at the end of the age, when all the mercies of Jesus have been spurned by an ungrateful and rebellious humanity, and finally Christ himself must call for the complete judgment of heaven upon earth. Until then, we are to take up the cry of the Cross, “Father, forgive them“ (Luke 23:34).
You’re not God, and you will never thrive if you don’t take a higher way than spending your time and energy getting even. God will work for the good. Will you?