Psalm 129 – Persevering through Pain

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The Psalms of Ascent | Stepping Stones to God’s Heart

“Persevering through Pain” (Psalm 129)

“They have not gained the victory over me.” (Psalm 129:2)

INTRODUCTION: Our message series is called “Stepping Stones to God’s Heart,” and we are working our way through the Psalms of Ascent together. Remember the Psalms of Ascent follow a three-fold pattern with a psalm of trouble followed by a psalm of trust followed by a psalm of triumph, and then repeating the pattern all over again.

Last week we looked at Psalm 128, one of the psalms of triumph, which means we’re back to a psalm of trouble again this week. And so today we move from the blessing of the ideal family in Psalm 128 to the rough reality of Psalm 129. In Psalm 128 we saw God pouring out his blessing on his people. In Psalm 129 we see God withholding his blessing from those who hate his people. Psalm 129 is all about persevering through pain, and it is one of the more striking of the psalms of trouble. (Read Psalm 129:1-8 and pray.)

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Today’s message is about a subject that is difficult, private and personal for many of us. This morning we are talking about pain. We all face pain in this life, but the question is how will you face the pain when it comes? Will you overcome it, or will it overcome you? Psalm 129 is a psalm about persevering through the pain and gaining the victory over those things that stand against you. Life is a struggle. It is a continuing battle, and it takes perseverance to go the distance.

As a Christian you will face persecution and suffering in this world, but Psalm 129 teaches you that you can persevere through the pain because in Christ your victory is assured. You can make it because God is with you. We’ve all heard about tough love before. Well Psalm 129 is about tough faith – trusting God to get you through the hard times, even when the pain is intense and the suffering is long.

Psalm 129 divides into two sections. The first section talks about persevering through the pain, and the second section talks about praying through the pain. Both parts are equally important. The truth is you can’t do one without the other.

I. Persevering through the pain (1-4)

So let’s take a look at the first part of the psalm first which talks about persevering through the pain. Look at verses 1-4 with me: “They have greatly oppressed me from my youth – let Israel say – 2 they have greatly oppressed me from my youth, but they have not gained the victory over me. 3 Plowmen have plowed my back and made their furrows long. 4 But the LORD is righteous; he has cut me free from the cords of the wicked.” (Psalm 129:1-4)

Now the specific situation that the psalmist addresses here is that of oppression and persecution, but the principles we will be looking at this morning apply no matter what the source of your pain. Whether it is persecution or illness or relational pain or emotional distress, with Christ you too can persevere through your pain. So let’s take a look at some of the principles this psalm teaches us about persevering through pain.

   A. You can suffer pain without suffering defeat
      – Psalm 124:1-2; 2 Corinthians 4:8-10

And the first one is this. You can suffer pain without suffering defeat. Look at verses 1-2: “They have greatly oppressed me from my youth – let Israel say – 2 they have greatly oppressed me from my youth, but they have not gained the victory over me.” (Psalm 129:1-2)

The psalmist recalls the long years of suffering Israel has experienced stretching back even to their early days as a nation. They experienced slavery in Egypt, the wanderings in the wilderness, the various battles in Canaan, continual fighting with the Philistines and other nations, and then eventually exile under the Assyrians and the Babylonians. The history of Israel was one conflict after another.

Yet Israel persevered. Even though wicked men had greatly oppressed her, they had not gained the victory over her. Israel was a survivor, and she still is today. Have you ever stopped to consider how amazing it is that Israel is still in existence today? That the Jewish people have survived so many attacks over the years? Most of you have Jewish friends or know Jewish people in your community. How many Philistines or Ammonites do you know? I believe the survival and continued existence of Israel and the Jewish people is one of the many evidences that the God of the Bible is real and that he is the one, true God.

But here is the application for us today. You can suffer pain without suffering defeat. We sometimes think if we’re hurting that means we’re defeated. But it’s not true. You can be down but not out. You can persevere through the pain.

Did you notice the phrase “let Israel say” in between verses 1 and 2? Does that seem familiar to you? It should! It is an echo of the same phrase used back in Psalm 124, one of the earlier Psalms of Ascent. Psalm 124:1-2 said: “If the Lord had not been on our side – let Israel say – if the Lord had not been on our side when men attacked us.” (Psalm 124:1-2) You can see how the Psalms of Ascent continue to reflect each other and build upon each other as we progress through this series of fifteen psalms.

The repetition is here for emphasis, and the invitation “let Israel say” makes the entire nation of Israel take this song upon their lips. Perseverance is not just for the special few. This psalm is for all of us, for all of God’s people. All of us can say, whatever the source of our pain: “They have greatly oppressed me from my youth, but they have not gained the victory over me.”

The apostle Paul knew what it meant to suffer for Christ. And in some of the most encouraging, inspiring words in all of Scripture Paul testified in 2 Corinthians 4: “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body.” (2 Corinthians 4:8-10) Paul knew suffering. He knew pain. But he also knew that it had not gained the victory over him. As Eugene Peterson says: “The person of faith outlasts all the oppressors.”

So that’s our first principle on persevering through pain this morning: You can suffer pain without suffering defeat.

   B. God has set a limit for your suffering
      – Psalm 124:7, 125:3; Isaiah 50:6, 53:5; 1 Corinthians 10:13

Secondly, God has set a limit for your suffering. Look at verses 3-4 where the psalmist writes: “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.” (Psalm 129:3-4)

This is the first of two striking visual images in the psalm. The picture here is of the wicked running their plow over the backs of the righteous. Imagine lying face down in the field and the sharp blades of the plow cutting deep into your back. And the wicked have no mercy. They have made their furrows long. They start at the top and run the full length of your back.

This image tells us that Israel’s pain was real and her suffering had been intense, but God cut Israel free from the cords of the wicked. He cut the ropes that pulled the plow and set Israel free from her oppressors.

Once again Psalm 129 builds upon some of the earlier Psalms of Ascent. In Psalm 124:7 we read: “The snare has been broken.” (Psalm 124:7) In Psalm 125:3 we read: “The scepter of the wicked will not remain.” (Psalm 125:3) And so we have the pictures of the broken snare in Psalm 124, the removal of the scepter in Psalm 125 and cutting the cords of the plow here in Psalm 129. What do all these images teach us? That God has set a limit for your suffering, that your pain is temporary, and that the wicked will not always rule over the righteous.

1 Corinthians 10:13 tells us: “God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.” (1 Corinthians 10:13) The word translated “tempted” in that verse can also mean “tested.” Whether you are being tempted by sin or tested by pain, God is faithful and he will not let you be tested beyond what you can bear. God will eventually cut the cords of the wicked. Not simply untie them, which would mean they could be tied up again, but he will permanently cut the cords, setting you free from whatever pain you are currently experiencing. God has set a limit for your suffering, and we can persevere because God is faithful.

Before we move on to the next principle we should pause here and consider this image of the plow on the back in light of Christ’s sufferings for us. Jesus not only suffered on the cross. He experienced great pain on his way to the cross. The Roman soldiers cut deep furrows in his back with their whips and their scourging. The prophet Isaiah foretold these sufferings when he wrote in Isaiah 50: “I offered my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard; I did not hide my face from mocking and spitting.” (Isaiah 50:6)

Isaiah 53:5 says: “But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:5) The word translated “wounds” in Isaiah 53 can also be translated “stripes” and may refers to the stripes or deep furrows cut into Jesus’ back by the cruel whips of the soldiers. By Christ’s wounds, by his stripes we are healed.

Jesus suffered extreme pain voluntarily for us. He persevered through the pain to pay the penalty for our sins so that we could be saved. Remembering Jesus’ sufferings should also help us as we learn to persevere through the pain in our own lives.

   C. In Christ your victory is assured
      – Jeremiah 1:19; Matthew 16:18; 2 Thessalonians 1:8-10

And that leads us to our third principle this morning, that in Christ your victory is assured. The psalmist in Psalm 129 said, “They have greatly oppressed me … but they have not gained the victory over me.” (Psalm 129:2) And in Christ you can say that, too.

What God told Jeremiah in the Old Testament he says also to you in the New: “They will fight against you but will not overcome you, for I am with you and will rescue you,” declares the Lord. (Jeremiah 1:19) Jesus said in Matthew 16:18: “I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” (Matthew 16:18)

We read this about God in 2 Thessalonians 1: “He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power on the day he comes to be glorified in his holy people.” (2 Thessalonians 1:8-10) When Christ returns, the wicked will be punished and the righteous will be saved.

When you suffer pain in your life, remember these three principles to persevere. You can suffer pain without suffering defeat. God has set a limit for your suffering. In Christ your victory is assured. Whatever you are suffering, you too can say, “It has not gained the victory over me.” You can persevere through the pain.

II. Praying through the pain (5-8)

So the first part of the psalm is all about persevering through the pain. The second part is all about praying through the pain. And indeed praying through the pain is one of the most important ways you can persevere. The first part of the psalm was about the survival of the righteous. The second part is about the transience of the wicked. The righteous will endure, but the wicked will not last. And though prayer is essential no matter what kind of pain you are experiencing, once again the focus in this psalm is on the pain of being persecuted for your faith.

Look at verses 5-8: “May all who hate Zion be turned back in shame. 6 May they be like grass on the roof, which withers before it can grow; 7 with it the reaper cannot fill his hands, nor the one who gathers fill his arms. 8 May those who pass by not say, ‘The blessing of the LORD be upon you; we bless you in the name of the LORD.’” (Psalm 129:5-8)

Many people struggle with these verses because they seem to support praying against people rather than for people. Aren’t we supposed to love our enemies? Is it okay we pray against them like this? These are a special type of prayer we find in the Bible called imprecations, which literally means “a spoken curse.” There are a number of psalms which contain imprecations like these, and we call them the “Imprecatory Psalms.” (The main Imprecatory Psalms include Psalms 5, 6, 11, 12, 35, 37, 40, 52, 54, 56, 58, 69, 79, 83, 137, 139, and 143.) The important thing to remember whenever you get to one of these psalms is that the prayers are directed against God’s enemies rather than your enemies. Now they may be your enemies as well, but the focus in the psalm is praying against God’s enemies and against their success – which makes sense when you think about it. Why would we want God’s enemies to succeed?

   A. Pray for persecutors to be turned back in shame (5)
      – Genesis 12:3; Psalm 35:4

So with that in mind let’s look at three prayers to pray when you are going through the pain of persecution. First of all, pray for persecutors to be turned back in shame. Look at verse 5: “May all who hate Zion be turned back in shame.” (Psalm 129:5) We have seen earlier in these psalms that Zion is the place where God meets with his people. To reject Zion is to reject God’s people. To reject God’s people is to reject God himself. So this is a prayer motivated by concern for God’s kingdom rather than personal revenge. You are not simply praying against your enemies, but against God’s enemies.

Notice also that you are not simply praying for your own persecutors to be turned back in shame, but for all persecutors everywhere. Your prayer is for all of God’s people who are suffering for their faith.

To be turned back in shame means to fail, and so you are praying that these persecutors will not succeed, that they would fail in their plots against God and his people. We find a similar prayer in Psalm 35:4: “May those who seek my life be disgraced and put to shame; may those who plot my ruin be turned back in dismay.” (Psalm 35:4)

When God first called Abraham he made a covenant with him, and part of that covenant included blessing and cursing. We read God’s promise to Abraham back in Genesis 12:3: “I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” (Genesis 12:3) So when we pray for God’s enemies to fail, we are simply praying in agreement with God’s word, that God will curse those who stand against him and his people. And we are praying that God’s blessing would go forth to all peoples through Christ.

   B. Pray for the wicked to be stopped in their tracks (6-7)
      – Psalm 92:6-7

Secondly, pray for the wicked to be stopped in their tracks. Look at verses 6-7: “May they be like grass on the roof, which withers before it can grow; with it the reaper cannot fill his hands, nor the one who gathers fill his arms.” (Psalm 129:6-7)

This is the second of the two images in the psalm. The first image was that of the plow on the back, and this is the image of the withered grass. The cultural setting here is the flat roof of Biblical times where grass seeds blown by the wind would settle in a thin layer of soil and suddenly spring up. Of course there was no depth to the soil, and so the grass would wither away before it ever had the chance to grow. This is in contrast with the rich harvest in the fields where the reaper would fill his arms with sheaves of grain. On the flat roof there wasn’t even enough to fill your hands.

In the same way it is right and just to pray for the wicked to be stopped in their tracks, to wither away like grass, that none of their plans might come to fruition. We already know that God will cut off the wicked in light of eternity. We read in Psalm 92:7: “Though the wicked spring up like grass and all evildoers flourish, they will be forever destroyed.” (Psalm 92:7) But Psalm 129 takes it a step further, where we ask that God would prevent their wickedness from growing and flourishing even now. “May they be like grass on the roof, which withers before it can grow.” Pray that God would stop the wicked right in their tracks.

   C. Pray for discernment and recognition of evil (8)
      – cf. Ruth 2:4; Isaiah 5:20; Matthew 7:6; Ephesians 5:11

And then thirdly, pray for discernment and recognition of evil. Look at verse 8: “May those who pass by not say, ‘The blessing of the LORD be upon you; we bless you in the name of the LORD.’” (Psalm 129:8) This was the standard blessing during harvest time in Israel where you would greet each other with blessings from the Lord. (cf. Ruth 2:4) But here the prayer is that we would not bless that which God has called wrong or sinful. It is a prayer for discernment and recognition of evil.

God says in Isaiah 5:20: “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil.” (Isaiah 5:20) Jesus spoke about discernment in the Sermon on the Mount. He says in Matthew 7:6: “Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and then turn and tear you to pieces.” (Matthew 7:6) The apostle Paul tells us in Ephesians 5:11: “Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them.” (Ephesians 5:11)

As Christians we should not go blindly about blessing everyone and everything. We are to pray for discernment for ourselves and others that we might recognize evil in this world and that we might be careful not to support that which goes against God and his word.

   D. Love and pray for your enemies
      – Matthew 5:44; Romans 12:14; Ephesians 6:12

And then there is one final point we should make before leaving this whole area of praying against God’s enemies. And that is the reminder that the Bible teaches us that we are to love and pray for our enemies. Jesus said in Matthew 5:44: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matthew 5:44) Romans 12:14 says: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.” (Romans 12:14)

These verses and others like them remind us that we must never pray from an attitude of personal hatred or revenge. When we pray against evil men and their ways, we are actually praying for God’s kingdom and his ways. But we must never mistake our fellow human beings for the real enemy. As Paul reminds us in Ephesians 6:12: “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (Ephesians 6:12)

So yes, pray for persecutors to be turned back in shame. Pray for the wicked to be stopped in their tracks. Pray for discernment and recognition of evil. But as you do so, make sure that you are also loving your enemies and praying for them to come and know Christ. Because that is the very best way to stop the evil in this world.

CONCLUSION: And so we learn some very valuable lessons about dealing with pain from this psalm, what Samuel Cox calls “these sacred lessons of trust, of patience, of an assured belief in the final and complete victory of good over evil.” God’s enemies will never have the victory, because the victory belongs to Christ alone.

As a Christian you will face persecution and suffering in this world, but you can persevere through the pain because in Christ your victory is assured. With Christ you can persevere and pray through the pain, knowing that victory awaits you on the other side. And with the psalmist you can testify, whatever your pain: “It has not gained the victory over me.”

© Ray Fowler

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