Pain, Presence, and Perseverance

Derek Wells, Speaker

Psalms 129 | November 6 - Sunday Evening,

Sunday Evening,
November 6
Pain, Presence, and Perseverance | Psalms 129
Derek Wells, Speaker

Amen, church of God. Let’s go the Lord once more in prayer.

Father, as we come to You this evening before Your Word once again we want to confess our need of You, our need for Your Word to go forth in our hearts and in our minds. We pray, Lord, for Your Holy Spirit, that You would speak, that You would speak through the preaching of Your Word, that You would give us hearts to respond. In Christ’s name. Amen.

We’re continuing in our series on the Psalms of Ascent. I don’t know if you’ve read them a lot or read books on them or if you’re familiar with them or maybe not, but one of the things that I hope has happened for you through this series is that you’ve really grown in your love for this section of the Psalms. Hopefully you’ve come to appreciate just the historical richness of what’s going on, the people of God journeying to Jerusalem. But not only that, how these psalms hold these timeless truths for all of us on our spiritual journey.

We’ve seen that being unpacked in previous sermons and that certainly continues in Psalm chapter 129, which is where we’re going to be tonight. Psalm 129 deals with affliction. It deals with opposition. It deals with hostility that the people of God have suffered. Some people have called this psalm the Psalm for the Persecuted, and that certainly would be appropriate.

It carries with it this assumption, and the assumption is this, that affliction is inevitable for the people of God, affliction is inevitable for the people of God. That can be quite intimidating if you think about that. Affliction is associated with vexation, or pain, something that we suffer and something that is external to us, that comes to us.

Now it can come to us by way of opposition or persecution, and that’s the primary context here, but I really think that by this passage we can consider other kinds of affliction as well. You think of how we can be afflicted in a number of ways. We can be afflicted by grief, the loss of a loved one, or the loss of a job. We can be afflicted by physical pain or suffering, or fear over the future.

This psalm reaches out into any number of places where we might be afflicted on our spiritual journey.

Now why is that important? Why is it important for us to consider that? Well, it’s simply this, that affliction can threaten our vitality with the Lord, ___ it can erode our faith in Him, in who He is. It can even cripple our walk with Him.

We can wonder, we can wonder in the midst of trials and sufferings like this, why does God allow affliction? Why does God allow affliction? Or we can wonder whether He is really with us. Is God truly with us in affliction? Or whether, if we look out into the future, whether there’s really any hope for the future. It can threaten our vitality. It can erode our faith. It can make us question God.

So here’s the central question for this sermon this evening – How do we persevere in our walk of faith when affliction arrives?

So it’s inevitable, it’s going to come to us in some way, shape, or form, so here’s the question – How do you and I persevere when affliction arrives?

So I want to give us really three points to the sermon, but really I’ll call them three pillars for perseverance, if you want to write that, three pillars for perseverance from this text as we think about affliction.

Here’s the first one, that God preserves His people through affliction.

Number two, God is present with His people in affliction.

Number three, God prevails with His people over affliction.

So God preserves us in affliction, He’s present with us, and He prevails with His people over affliction.

So with that, let’s come to God’s Word in Psalm 129 and consider this.

Hear the Word of the Lord.

“Greatly have they afflicted me from my youth”—
let Israel now say—
“Greatly have they afflicted me from my youth,
yet they have not prevailed against me.
The plowers plowed upon my back;
they made long furrows.”
The Lord is righteous;
He has cut the cords of the wicked.
May all who hate Zion
be put to shame and turned backward!
Let them be like the grass on the housetops,
which withers before it grows up,
with which the reaper does not fill his hand
nor the binder of sheaves his arms,
nor do those who pass by say,
“The blessing of the Lord be upon you!
We bless you in the name of the Lord!”

There are a number of different angles that we can take with this psalm. Many see, and this is present here, they see this as a Psalm of Thanksgiving, a Psalm of thanksgiving for what the Lord has done. But it can also be seen as an imprecatory psalm, an imprecatory psalm, that is one of those psalms that calls down the curses of God against the enemies of God’s people, and certainly both of these realities are present.

Maybe as you read this, and maybe even reading ahead, it’s occurred to you as it’s quite striking, what a different chord this psalm strikes than Psalm 128. You remember last week, Psalm 128, which is all about the blessings of God’s people, but there’s this quick and radical turn here with Psalm 129 which is all about the pain of God’s people.

Look at verses 1 and 2. In verse 1, the psalm says “greatly have they afflicted me from my youth, let Israel now say greatly have they afflicted me from my youth.”

You might remember a couple weeks ago with Nathan’s sermon on Psalm 124, which starts out with a similar kind, it’s a refrain, it’s a responsive reading, so we think about the responsive readings that we have in our bulletin. It’s something where one might lead and they might read and it’s repeated.

So if you look at Psalm 124, let’s look at that for a second, he’s calling out by comparison, just recalling what Nathan said about this, he says this – If it had not been for the Lord who is in our side, and then he calls for a response, let Israel say if it had not been for the Lord who is on our side. He compels them to speak this truth, or to sing this truth, really.

So going back to Psalm 129, let’s try this. I’m going to take a little chance here, okay? So let’s treat this like a responsive reading. I’m going to read this to you and I’m going to say “let Israel say” and guess what? You get to be Israel, and that actually comes in at the end of the sermon, and then you’ll repeat “so greatly have they afflicted me from my youth.” Then I’ll say “let Israel say” and then you respond to me “greatly have they afflicted me from my youth.”

So I need some juice, I need some gusto here, okay? So here we go.

Greatly have they afflicted me from my youth. Let Israel say.

[response] Greatly have they afflicted me from my youth.

Okay, great. Do you feel that? Do you feel the force of it? You know, when you really want something to sink in, you put a song to it, you put a beat to it. Even learning your ABCs or you think of “deep and wide, deep and wide, there’s a fountain flowing deep and wide” and how that sticks with you. Or perhaps a song that sticks with me from long ago, perhaps less desirable, “shot through the heart and you’re to blame, baby, you give love a bad name.” Some of you are not familiar with that song.

But here’s the point. What we sing gets into our soul. It’s a deep expression of our soul. It gets into our soul and as Nathan noted, it was meant to impress the truth and implications, Psalm 124, of the Lord being on their side. It’s a way of saying, just stop for a second, let that sink in, let that soak in. Now you have this refrain in Psalm 129 which seems to be on the opposite end of the spectrum.

Let that contrast stand out to you. Here’s a question – Why is Psalm 124 so happy-clappy and Psalm 129 such a Debbie Downer, or seemingly a Debbie Downer? Why this swing? Why this pendulum? Why not praise all the time?

The short answer is that these psalms are intended to reflect the whole of our spiritual experience, thus the reason for the variance here. Life can be Psalm 124 one day and Psalm 129 the next day. You might wake up in the morning saying, “If the Lord had not been on our side, yes!” and you spring out of bed, and then you get home that night and you collapse into bed and you say, “Greatly have I been afflicted.”

Why? Because this is all part of the path of discipleship, of following the Lord. It’s this all-encompassing experience here. So what I want us to see is that God meets us in these psalms, in these songs, that we sing. They reflect that.

That’s why we have some hymns that are sad, by the way. Because guess what, we the people of God are at times sad. Now what do we do with our sadness?

So as affliction, what do we do with our affliction?

So he’s saying to Israel you have been vexed by your enemies from the very beginning. Recall it. Think about it. Contemplate it. Sing about it? Yes.

It starts out kind of depressing – Remember your difficult youth.

Now who wants to do that? What if I were to say to you, think of all the painful moments in your childhood. Let’s just stop for a second and gather together and we’re just going to share all our painful moments from our childhood. We don’t want to do that. I don’t know what your first memory is. Mine goes all the way back to when I was 4 years old and I was running through the living room of our house and I fell just face first and I went right into the corner of a radio speaker. I mean, it was a perfect bullseye, like right here. Bam. Just right on my head. I remember my mom coming in and seeing some blood, some degree of panic, and heading off into the emergency room to get stitches.

I remember sitting in the front seat of our 1978 station wagon, classic, okay? Not in a seat but on the console between two seats with no safety belt because we didn’t do that back then. We’re rushing to the emergency room and I remember looking in the rearview mirror at this sort of gash in my forehead, just staring at it. That’s my first memory in life. How about that? First memory I have.

It’s always left its impression on me. Not only for how unpleasant that was but for the care of my mom, as she grabbed me up, as she whisked me off to the hospital and she stayed with me.

We might wonder why does Israel need to recall their affliction all the way back to their youth. Why? Well, it’s not just to provoke them to self-pity, it’s not to just stir up pain from the past, it’s not for therapeutic reasons. Why is it?

It’s to move them to consider more deeply how God has been faithful, how God has delivered them, and how God has preserved them and kept them. Remember your youth, your years of slavery in Egypt. Israel, consider this. You were born into affliction.

You think about that. The nation of the people of God were born into affliction. That’s your starting point. That’s your marker.

He says recall how you were subjugated under force. Recall how you were pursued by Pharaoh and the Egyptian army. Recall your enemies who threatened you on all sides as you walked through the wilderness. Recall the hostility that you faced when you journeyed to the Promised Land. Recall the battles. Recall the Canaanites, the Amalekites, the Edomites, the Moabites, the Philistines, the Assyrians, and most recently the Babylonians. Recall all of that. Think about this – you’ve been enslaved, you’ve been surrounded, you’ve been outnumbered, you’ve been oppressed all your life and yet, think about the latter part of verse 2, they have not prevailed against me.

That’s amazing. That’s a marvel. Surrounded their whole life, afflicted and vexed their whole life, and yet they have not prevailed against me. All the hostilities and threats of the world against the people of God.

I remember when Michelle and I were dating. It wasn’t too long into our relationship. Her boss gave us tickets to the South Carolina – Georgia game in Athens, Georgia. Her boss was a graduate of the University of Georgia and these were season tickets, his season tickets. I should have thought about that a little bit before we showed up at the game in all our Gamecock gear, our South Carolina Gamecock gear, so you can imagine all these red dogs just around and here comes Michelle and Derek in their Gamecock gear down to their row 27 and seat 15 whatever it was. We quickly found out that we were surrounded by Georgia fans.

Now, listen, if there’s a group of fans you don’t want to be surrounded by, sorry, Joel, it’s Georgia fans. When I protested a call in the first quarter, it’s safe to say we began to encounter some opposition. As the game progressed, that opposition, lo and behold, turned into hostility. When it hit half-time, I said to Michelle, I said, “Uh, we have to leave.” She asked why and I just had a vision, okay, we had opposition, we had hostility, persecution is soon to be coming right now. Somehow we made it out of there alive, and it actually turned into a good time because Georgia was beating us really badly and we just got some ice cream on the way home. The Lord preserved us. Right? As we were threatened on all sides.

I think you get the point that what’s happening here with Israel as they were thinking about this, they were threatened on all sides, there’s a testimony about God’s covenantal faithfulness to His people, and that should inform how we think about our relationship to affliction.

That is while persecution, opposition, and affliction might be a close acquaintance with the people of God, it does not equal their defeat. It does not equal their ruin. It does not equal their undoing.

How? Why? Because God preserves His people.

We can take courage from that past. You and I can take courage from that past when we suffer affliction and we can entrust ourselves to God’s care.

Moreover, there’s a redemptive role as Israel was forged in the fires of affliction. We see that in the second point – God is present with His people in affliction.

We see this as he goes a bit deeper in verse 3. Look at verse 3. Very striking. “The plowers plowed upon my back. They made long furrows.” He recounts the nature of the opposition that they faced.

Now I can’t think of anything more excruciating than this image of someone taking a plow to your back. Now think about that. If you go back, thinking about a field and a farm, right? And back in the day they used to use oxen, and there’s these plowshares. Here’s what they would do. They would take up cords and they would hook them to the oxen and then hook them to the plowshare and those oxen would go along and they would pull those heavy plowshares and they would just be churning up soil, row after row, mile after mile, furrows as long as the eye can see.

You ever seen a freshly plowed field? You look for miles and miles and miles and it’s just churned up soil. Now we have machinery that does that, but you get the picture. Take that imagery and think of the back being exposed. The gashes in their flesh, back and forth, back and forth, turning their back into a bloody mess of raw flesh. The psalmist says that’s what our enemies did to us. That’s what our oppressors did to us. That’s enough to kill a man.

Now we might find it hard to resonate with this. Right? We might face seem opposition but not to this extremity, at least not yet. So it can be difficult for us to go there, and yet as I alluded to earlier in the opening, I think there’s a broader category that we can take into account here.

Sinclair Ferguson points out in a sermon he preached on this text that the kind of affliction this psalm ultimately has in view not only encompasses earthly powers, okay, so governments, leaders, that kind of thing, but spiritual powers as well. That’s why we read Ephesians 6. He says affliction brought on by all the dark forces that opposed and seek to wear the people of God down.

We might think of the increasing hostility of a secular culture, we might think of the uncertainty of our future, or maybe it’s just the shadow of sin and death that it can cast over your life, just in general. Another struggle, another trial, another difficulty, another problem, all the dark forces wearing you down. The weight of a fallen world bearing down on you and on me.

As I said, it threatens our vitality. It makes us weary so that we either, what’s the danger? The danger is that we are going to start languishing on our spiritual journey, we’re going to get worn down, or we’re just going to give up all together. We’re going to cease to persevere when we see all the dark forces that oppose us.

It makes me think of that scene in Braveheart where the Scottish army has gone through several battles and here they are, this huge battlefield, and they’re all there and there is not that many and there’s kind of a single file line and they’re just beleaguered. They’re weary. They’re just looking across the battlefield and what do they see? They see all the English forces just arrayed here, there, and everywhere. All their different lines of defense. There’s one soldier just looking at how outnumbered they are, how weary they are, how over-matched they are, how overwhelmed they are. He’s just kind of lost, staring at them, and in my terrible attempt at a Scottish accent, he just says, “So many.” So many.

What are we to do when we find ourselves in that place? When you look at all the forces that can be arrayed against you, against the people of God, and we feel ourselves overwhelmed, outnumbered, weary, beleaguered, or staying at those armies and those opposing forces and all the heaviness of a fallen world, and we’re going “so many.”

Well, the scene shifts in Braveheart when William Wallace comes riding in and all of a sudden their eyes move. Their eyes move from looking at these opposing armies and all the things that are against them, their eyes shift to Wallace and they fix their eyes on him.

The psalmist does something similar here. The psalmist reminds the people of God that they are not alone. He reminds them of what God has done for them.

Look at verse 4. He makes a turn. It doesn’t seem to flow in the passage, but it’s to hit us between the eyes. Here’s what he says: “The Lord is righteous; He has but the cords of the wicked.”

We might wonder how does thinking of the righteousness of God help us? Okay, yeah, He’s holy, He’s set apart, but what he’s really pointing to when he says “the Lord is righteous” is God’s righteousness displayed through His covenant faithfulness to His people, that is, through His redemptive acts. That’s the key. The righteousness of God displayed through His redemptive acts. He says He’s cut the cords of the wicked.

So back to the oxen, back to the enemies of God. It’s like this. There’s the oxen, cords are hooked up to them, plows, plowing, churning up the people of God, churning up their back, up and down, row after row after row, midstream and someone comes and just jumps on that plowshare out of nowhere, takes a knife out and just cuts the cords and just rips them apart, and they’re gone.

Eugene Peterson wonderfully picks up this imagery, picturing the oxen plodding back and forth on the ground, there they are going back and forth, and yet the plowshares are way back there somewhere and they don’t even know it. Back and forth they go over the ground but they are wasting their time. Their efforts are ultimately useless. They’re powerless, the psalmist says, that’s the enemies of God. Why? Because God has cut the cords of the wicked.

So he says recall the righteousness of God, how He’s acted on your behalf. Israel, He’s cut the cords of the wicked. He cut the cords of the wicked when He swallowed up the Egyptian army in the Red Sea. He cut the cords of the wicked when He overthrew all of Israel’s enemies in the conquest of the Promised Land. He cut the cords of great nations and governments who oppressed Israel. He considers the works of God, consider what God has done for you.

That is what we must do. Will He sustain us? Will He be with us? He says look no further than God’s redemptive acts on your behalf and then you will know. Is God with me? Look at His redemptive acts.

With this as the backdrop, he prays for the ultimate defeat of God’s enemies. We find these imprecations in verses 5 through 8. Verse 5, he says, may all those who hate Zion be put to shame and turn backwards. All those who hate Zion. Who are the wicked? They are those who hate Zion. Well, who were they? They are those who oppose God’s righteousness and His righteous ways.

Now many commentators note that he does not say “may all who hate Jerusalem,” but all who hate Zion. What is Zion? Zion is that city where the Lord dwells. Zion is the city of God, which points to the people of God throughout all time. So from this perspective, if we think about it this way, we can see a direct connection to the Church. May all who hate Zion be turned backwards.

It’s really fascinating that you can compare the history of Israel and the history of the Church. Think about this. Just as Israel was born into opposition and affliction, so the Church was born into opposition and affliction. Think of the birth of Christ and being opposed by Herod. Think of Christ being led into the wilderness where He was opposed by Satan. Think of the opposition to the disciples so clearly seen in the gospels and the book of Acts. Think of the stoning of Stephen. Think of Paul bearing the marks of affliction. Think of the early Christians suffering under Roman persecution. Just a brief survey of Church history shows us this, shows us a history of opposition, of threats, of persecution of the people of God, the Church, the people of God. Yet think about this – they have not prevailed.

Persecutors have risen and they’ve fallen. Governments have risen and they’ve fallen. But Zion, the city of God, still stands. How? Why? Because God is present with her.

Consider the confidence again of Psalm 46 in light of this. Thinking about affliction and God’s presence. God is our refuge and strength, the present help in trouble, therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling. There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. God is in the midst of her and she shall not be moved. God will help her when morning dawns. The nations rage, the kingdoms totter. He utters His voice, the earth melts. The Lord of Hosts is with us. The God of Jacob is our fortress.

It goes on to call us to behold the works of God and to be still and know that I am God. Amidst the upheaval of the world, Psalm 46 calls us back to our God, who we see is present with us, acting on our behalf.

That leads us to our third point – God prevails with His people over afflictions.

Verses 6 through 8 he prays for the ultimate defeat of God’s enemies, and you can look at this language here. Many grow uncomfortable with it, but it’s important to know that the psalmist, he’s not speaking out of a sense of a personal vindictiveness or personal vengeance. No, it’s actually an appeal to God’s covenantal faithfulness. You look at the imprecatory psalms and that’s key to interpreting them. The imprecations are an outflow of God’s covenantal promises.

Consider Genesis 12:3 – For God says to Abraham, I will bless those who bless you and I will curse those who curse you.

So what is he doing here? He’s saying display your righteousness, O Lord. Uphold what You have promised to Abraham. The psalmist asked God to turn back their enemies as He has promised to do, that they be like grass on the rooftop that is scorched by the heat of the sun.

You think of grass on the top of a roof, a half inch of top soil. What happens to that grass? It comes up for a time, it springs to life, but it has no deep roots so it quickly withers, quickly dies when it’s exposed to the sun. In other words, it doesn’t grow, it doesn’t prosper.

That’s what he’s saying. He’s not so much enumerating individuals, he’s saying, “Lord, cut the godless whole off, cut them off. May they not be fruitful. May they not multiply. May they not be long-lasting. May they not have descendants upon descendants. No Psalm 128 for them, Lord. May they dry out just as quickly as they spring up, so much so that when you walk by, it’s impossible to pronounce any blessing upon them or to say that they’ve been blessed.”

So he’s appealing to his God and His covenantal faithfulness here. Consider Isaiah 40:24. Here’s what it says of the rulers of the earth – Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown, scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth. When He blows on them, they wither and the tempest carries them off like stubble.

Seeing that God preserves us and that He is present with us by beholding His redemptive acts, there’s this quiet confidence and dare I say boldness as he prays towards the future and thinks about the future.

Here’s the seed of faith that it’s in this prayer. God’s enemies might rise up, they might make a lot of noise, they’re going to make a lot of noise today, they might afflict, they might oppress, they might persecute, they might for the moment gain the advantage, but ultimately their ways will be fruitless.

So there’s a kind of, here’s what I want you to see, there’s a kind of hope and expectation in this prayer and we should pray this way. We should pray this way. Lord, affirm what You have promised, O Lord, take what is wrong and make it right. Bless Your people according to Your righteousness. Judge the peoples of the earth according to Your righteousness.

Do we pray this way with this hope and expectation, calling upon God as we look to the future? Here’s the thing – affliction does not lead him to languish on his spiritual journey, it doesn’t lead him into passivity when he looks and he sees the armies and all of that. No, it prompts him to appeal to God according to His righteousness, to seek the presence of God, that God would affirm what He has promised. It prompts him to God.

Which gets us back to us and the ultimate question of our journey. I daresay we can’t enumerate all the enemies of God out there. We don’t know what the future holds for us. But as you and I think about opposition, present and future, as we think about pain, as we think about suffering that might come our way, and we ask this question, because we will, we will when it comes, the question will come, “Will God keep us? Is He with us? Will He prevail? Will we make it? Will we persevere?”

The answer in that moment is to look to the righteousness of God and to His works on our behalf.

As Kevin said a few weeks ago, we have to learn to read these psalms through New Testament eyes. So here’s a thing – in the midst of suffering and in the midst of affliction, and we’re going to look to the righteousness of God, in the midst of going through all of that, where are we going to look? We must look to Christ. We must look to Christ, who was, listen, born into our affliction. Christ, who gave His back to be scourged. Christ, who was plowed on our behalf.

We must consider the long furrows on Jesus’ back, for out of those furrows comes salvation, eternal life, and blessing for God’s people. As Isaiah says in 53:5, “By His stripes we are healed.”

So the message to us this evening is that in Jesus, God preserves us. In Jesus, God is present with us. In Jesus, God has ultimately acted on our behalf, coming to our rescue, cutting the cords of the wicked as it were of sin and death, which had the power to eternally afflict us.

All the dark forces of sin, opposition that might plod over our lives, they may do that, but they have no power to inflict the ultimate pain of death over us.

So no matter the opposition or affliction that we’re in in the present or in the future, we can look to Christ, we can look to Christ in that moment and we can say the Lord is righteous. He will preserve me, He is present with me, and He will lead me by His grace and strength to persevere and to prevail.

Let’s pray. Lord Jesus, we thank You for Your covenantal promises. We read about them in Old Testament and New. We thank You that we are enfolded into these things. I pray, Lord, as we walk this journey and many times face difficulties and pain and are at times discouraged, grow weary, sometimes we want to give up, I pray that You would help us, Lord, to look to Your righteousness and see all that You have done for us and that You will keep us and that You are present with us and that You will work in us that we might follow You all the days of our life. In Christ’s name. Amen.