I recently met with a visitor to our church and, and during our time together he asked me about the doctrine of eternal security. I explained to him what our church believes, but then added that “the perseverance of the saints” is probably a better description of this biblical teaching.
The doctrine of the perseverance of the saints teaches that, once a person is justified by faith alone in Christ alone, they are forever justified. And this is because Jesus Christ preserves us.1 He, in fact, perseveres with us. This is why we persevere to the end (Jude 24–25).
Those who have been born again by the grace of the gospel of God are assured that they will be increasingly sanctified (practically, progressively and positionally set apart from sin). We are also assured that we will one day be glorified—we will be “filled with all the fullness of God” in Christ (Ephesians 3:19). Yes, we will persevere to the end and be finally and fully saved. But the reason, fundamentally, is because of the perseverance of the Saviour. Jesus will complete what He has begun (Philippians 1:6). This is good news for us. The conviction about Jesus’ perseverance will go a long way towards helping us to persevere in the face of difficulties as we seek to be faithful and fruitful disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ. This is the theme of Psalm 129.
Psalm 129 is, of course, another of the Psalms of Ascent. As we have seen, the Jewish pilgrims sang these songs on their way to Jerusalem for the prescribed religious feasts. As they would sing this particular psalm, they no doubt would have reflected on their history of troubles and yet of God’s triumphs in their favour. As Kidner notes, “Whereas most nations tend to look back on what they have achieved, Israel reflects here on what she has survived.”2
It is clear that the theme of this psalm is God’s preserving of His people and their subsequent perseverance because of God’s perseverance with and for them. This story of Israel’s history is the story of everyone who is truly a member of the Israel of God (Galatians 6:16).
Kirkpatrick summarises this song well when he writes, “Israel’s chequered history supplies a ground of hope in a time of anxiety. Often as it has been oppressed by enemies, Jehovah has not suffered it to succumb entirely (1–4). And now once more the malignant foes of Zion shall perish before they have matured their plots against her (5–8).”3
We will divide this psalm into these two major headings.
The Troubles We Face and the Triumphs We Experience
The first broad section (vv. 1–4) describes the troubles we face and the triumphs we experience: “Many a time they have afflicted me from my youth,” let Israel now say—“many a time they have afflicted me from my youth; yet they have not prevailed against me. The ploughers ploughed on my back; they made their furrows long.”
The Troubles We Face
The troubles we face are detailed in vv. 1–2a and v. 3a. This psalm is reminiscent of Psalm 124 as it repeats for emphasis the reality of an onslaught against God’s people and yet His intervention and preservation from ultimate harm.
The writer begins with an assertion: “Many a times they have afflicted me from my youth.” He speaks here of “me,” but we should not necessarily think that he is speaking individualistically. The Old Testament often speaks of Israel as an individual. For example, consider Hosea 11:1: “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called My son.”
Though certainly these words can be applied to the individual, nonetheless the idea is that of the nation of Israel, the people of God. Once again, we are reminded of the biblical emphasis on the corporate community of faith rather than on the individualised communion of the saint. In fact, this is obvious from the words that follow the opening assertion: “Let Israel now say.” Yes, they are to say this together.
Israel’s history was one of affliction. Revelation 12 gives a brief history of Israel’s affliction in symbolic form:
Now a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a garland of twelve stars. Then being with child, she cried out in labour and in pain to give birth. And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great, fiery red dragon having seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems on his heads. His tail drew a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was ready to give birth, to devour her Child as soon as it was born. She bore a male Child who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron. And her Child was caught up to God and His throne. Then the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, that they should feed her there one thousand two hundred and sixty days.
Here, the woman represents Israel, and the dragon’s attacks represent the persecution that Israel faced throughout her history. The cause of her persecution was not as much racial as it was religious. She was opposed because she carried the promised Seed (Genesis 3:15). Consider the affliction by the Egyptians, the various nations recorded in Judges, as well as the Philistines under David, the Assyrians and Babylonians later in history.
But the persecution would not end with this psalm (which was likely written after the return from the Babylonian exile), for later the Persians under Antiochus and then the Romans would afflict Jews.
Affliction is part and parcel of being a member of God’s chosen people. The verses in Revelation 7 immediately following the vision of the persecuted woman shows how, when Israel was protected from the dragon, he turned his wrath on her offspring. That is, when the dragon found that he could not successfully defeat Israel, he turned on the Gentile church.
There is, of course, much affliction of God’s church in our own day. We should not be surprised. There is overt physical persecution in many parts of the world. There are subtle slights and the indifference of coworkers and the ostracising of family and fellow workers and former friends, etc. None of this should surprise us, for Jesus predicted—in fact, promised—this. That is why He commands would be disciples to take up their cross and follow Him. That is why He told would-be disciples to count the cost, for they would be called upon in some circumstances to leave family and home (Luke 9; Luke 14). It is why He warned that many of those who follow Him will face family division (Matthew 10). It is why He revealed that if the world hated Him that it would also hate those who identify with Him. It is why Paul said that all those who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will experience persecution (2 Timothy 3:12). It is why Paul exhorted Timothy to endure hardness as a good soldier of Christ Jesus (2 Timothy 2:1–3). It is why Paul exhorted newly planted churches that they will enter the kingdom of God through the doors of much tribulation (Acts 14:22). It is why Peter warned believers in both of his epistles that they would experience hardship for Jesus’ sake.
The longer the Christian is on the disciple pilgrimage, the more he or she will relate to these opening words: “Many a time they have afflicted me from my youth.” Yes, soon after being adopted into God’s family, afflictions begin.
In v. 3 the writer provides a very graphic description of the affliction. The afflictions he has in mind are not light afflictions—they are severe and painful: “The ploughers ploughed on my back; they made their furrows long.” As Kirkpatrick notes, this is “a bold metaphor for cruel maltreatment. Israel is imagined as thrown prostrate upon its face, while the remorseless foe drives the plough up and down over it, brutally lacerating its back…. They did their cruel work thoroughly and spared nothing.”4
Being a Christian is not easy. Satan hates God and he hates those made in the image of God. But he reserves his most severe hatred for those recreated to be made in the image of God’s Son. We should therefore not be surprised by his attempts to annihilate the church. The church in the West today seems to be surprised by opposition, as if there is a promise from God that the world will treat us well. As we have seen, the opposite is the case.
We need to remember that the Psalms are the song book of the Son. They are His songs. He is speaking through them.5 In fact, compare Hosea 11:1 referred to earlier with Matthew 2:15, which is specifically noted as a prophecy of Christ.
The Lord Jesus experienced this very affliction. Picture the scourging that He received at the hands of those who hated Him. Picture the 33 years in which He faced taunts and temptations and troubles. “Many times,” indeed! But, thankfully, as the Gospels reveal, and as is this psalm declares so boldly in what follows, the afflictions were not the final word.
The Triumphs We Experience
Verses 2b and 4 describe the triumphs that we experience: “Yet they have not prevailed against me…. The LORD is righteous; He has cut in pieces the cords of the wicked.” Yes, the opening words sound like pretty bad news. But there is good news to follow: “Yet they have not prevailed against me.” Conflict did not conquer. Opposition did not overcome. Troubles did not topple. Persecutors did not prevail. The Bible tells us so!
These are encouraging words. While afflictions were real and hurtful, they were not victorious.
The Christian should live with such a completion to their sentence. Yes, honestly state the facts: “Many a time they have afflicted me.” But there is a greater fact to embrace and declare: “Yet they did not prevail against me.” Yes, the enemies did a lot of damage. They caused a lot of pain and heartache, “yet they did not prevail.” Yes, the enemies did some damage to the church of God, “yet they did not prevail.” Yes, Christians suffer at the hands of enemies, and all too often we suffer because of our own sins, yet even in this God’s enemies will not prevail against the church. This is good news. This is gospel.
We need to quit being so defeatist. We need to know the Scripture and silence the accuser of the brethren (Revelation 12:10–11). We need to take God’s promises seriously. We need to reflect on redemptive history and we will find encouragement that God’s enemies ultimately do not prevail over His afflicted people.
The reason for the triumph is stated in v. 4: “The LORD is righteous; He has cut in pieces the cords of the wicked.”
The declaration, “The LORD is righteous” is a declaration that God is faithful. God is faithful to His character and therefore to His covenant. This is a revelation of God’s covenantal faithfulness. He always keeps His Word. He acts consistently with His character. And it is for this reason that enemies do not prevail over His people.
The reason that we persevere is because of God’s faithfulness. Peterson comments, “The central reality for Christians is the personal unalterable, persevering commitment that God makes to us. Perseverance is not the result of our determination, it is the result of God’s faithfulness.”6
Perseverance in the life of the church is an expression of God’s grace. Perseverance, as with all aspects of our salvation is the gift of God.
God’s power is displayed in the fact that “He has cut in pieces the cords of the wicked.” This provides a wonderful picture of God’s powerful rescue of His people. The “cords” here likely refer to the cords that tie a plough to the oxen that pull it. “The harness cords, connecting plough to oxen, have been severed. The ploughs of persecution aren’t working, and the oxherds haven’t even noticed! They plod back and forth, unaware that their opposition is worthless. They are wasting their time and energy.”7
Peterson speaks wisely when he explains the biblical meaning of perseverance: “Endurance is not a desperate hanging on but a travelling from strength to strength.”8 This strength comes from God. It is empowered by God (see Ephesians 3:15–19).
This is once again exemplified in our Saviour’s perseverance. Jesus was faithful to His Father; He was faithful to His promise (Hebrews 13:20–21) and was powerful to “break the power of cancelled sin.” His perseverance to justify us is the guarantee of His perseverance to glorify us (Romans 8:32).
The Troublers We Face and the Treatment They Can Expect
In the second half of the psalm (vv. 5–8) the psalmist points to the troublers we face and the treatment they can expect.
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!”
These verses serve as an imprecatory clause in this psalm. We have encountered these before. They are strong words9 that make it clear that those who cause trouble to God’s people by afflicting them are in trouble themselves. They are in trouble with God. Let’s see to what this looks like.
The Troublers’ Folly
Verse 5 describes the folly of those who trouble God’s people: “Let all those who hate Zion be put to shame and turned back.” On the other hand, God preserves His people from a life of folly.
Again, we have here the teaching of God’s perseverance both with and for His people. Those who hate Zion and who therefore plough on its back will be put to shame and will be turned back. Of course, this is a prayer request, but it is according to the will of God. “The community prays for the sake of the Lord’s Zion, asking for God’s righteous vindication of the godly. God’s righteousness demands that the wicked and apostates be ‘turned back in shame.’”10
Such language may be disconcerting, especially in light of what follows, but it is justified. These are not the words of an angry, vengeful and vindicate person. Rather, these imprecatory words are motivated by a passion for God and His purposes and therefore for His people. VanGemeren helpfully explains these imprecatory desires:
The psalmists wrote under the inspiration of God regarding the nature of evil. They were intoxicated with God’s character and name (9:16–20; 83:16–17) and were concerned with the manifestation of God’s righteousness and holiness on earth. Since evil contrasts in every way with God’s nature and plan, the psalmists prayed for divine retribution, by which God’s order would be re-established (109:6–21) and God’s people would be reassured of his love (109:21, 26). C. S. Lewis, too, was sensitive to the piety of the psalter when he wrote on the place of justice and judgment in the Psalms. He observes that the cry of the psalmists may be explained because they “took right and wrong more seriously” (Reflections on the Psalms, p. 31).
Thus the imprecatory psalms focus on the reality of evil and the hope of restoration. This is a very relevant question. C. S. Lewis rightly asks us to use the Psalms as a way of seeing this world as it is: “against all this the ferocious parts of the Psalms serve as a reminder that there is in the world such a thing as wickedness and that it … is hateful to God” (ibid., pp. 19, 33). Further, we caution against a wooden interpretation of the imprecations, as Kidner observes, “Here we should notice that the invective has its own rhetoric, in which horror may be piled up on horror more to express the speaker’s sense of outrage than to spell out the penalties he literally intends” (Psalms, 1:27).
For the Christian it is most important to uproot any selfish passions, judgmentalism, and personal vindictiveness, because those who practice these come under the judgment of God (Gal 5:5; James 4:13–16). These psalms help us to pray through our anger, frustrations, and spite to a submission of God’s will. Only then will the godly man or woman be able to pray for the execration of evil and the full establishment of God’s kingdom.11
The Troublers’ Futility
Not only are the troublers consigned to a life of folly, they are also consigned to a life of futility: “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” (vv. 6–7). The promise once again goes the other way: While God consigns His enemies to a life of futility, He protects His people from the same.
The picture is of Middle Eastern houses with flat roofs, finished off with soil. As seeds find their way onto the roof, grass and even the occasional wheat or corn will sprout—for a while. But because there is no depth of earth, they easily wither with the heat of the sun. Though for a while there seemed to be promise of a supposedly healthy crop, in the end there was not even a handful. All such boasting was futile. It was here today and gone tomorrow. As the prophet said, there is no peace for the wicked (Isaiah 48:22; 57:21). Life lived in defiance to God, as manifested by mistreatment of His people, is a futile existence.
With God persevering with and for His people, all attempts to annihilate them are futile. As Jesus so wonderfully promised, He will build His church and the gates hell will not prevail against it (Matthew 16:18). The hurtful afflictions suffered by the church at the hands of God’s enemies are painful—sometimes intensely and severely so. Yet we need to pity such enemies, for they are living a futile existence. The sooner that they realise this, the better for them. May God use this sense and experience of futility to drive them to Jesus Christ. May they experience salvation through the persevering and preserving Saviour. Let us pray with Jesus and with Stephen, “Father, forgive them!”
The Troublers’ Forsaking
The psalmist closes his song with a promise that those who trouble God’s people will ultimately be forsaken: “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!” (v. 8).
To live and die cut off from the blessing of the Lord is the worst kind of forsaking possible. But oh, how many live this way!
As we saw in Psalm 128, the blessed life is the holy life, and it is truly therefore the happy life. But to live without this blessedness is to be destroyed by the storms of life and to ultimately wither and perish (see Psalm 1:4–6). Such is the lot of those who hate God and His people.
This, of course, is not a denial of later New Testament revelation (Matthew 5:44; Romans 12:14; 1 Peter 3:9). Rather it is more a statement of fact. That is, those who live in rebellion against God are de facto cut off from the blessed life. Though we should desire that they be blessed with gospel grace, nevertheless, as long as they live in rebellion, they cannot share in the benefits of the persevering Saviour.
It should be noted as we close this study that the point of the psalm is not primarily for us to delight in the judgement of the wicked. Rather, the point is to move us to greater devotion to our sovereign and saving God, who preserves us through His Son who persevered for us.
Yes, many times we have been (and will yet be) afflicted. We will experience the tyranny of enemies who seek to wound us deeply. Yet our Saviour is righteous and will preserve us as He faithfully enables us to persevere through it all. One day, the Lord will completely deliver us (2 Timothy 4:16–19) and we will give Him all the praise and glory for the perseverance of all the saints because of His perseverance as our Saviour.
- Some have chosen instead to speak of the preservation of the saints, because it is not strictly our perseverance that keeps us, but Christ’s preserving grace. ↩
- Derek Kidner, Psalms: An Introduction and Commentary, 2 vols. (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973), 2:444. ↩
- A. F. Kirkpatrick, The Book of Psalms (Cambridge: Scripture Truth, n.d.), 755. ↩
- Kirkpatrick, The Book of Psalms, 756. ↩
- This is particularly important to grasp when we look at the closing verses of this psalm. ↩
- Eugene H. Peterson, The Journey: A Guide Book for the Pilgrim Life (London: Marshall Pickering, 1989), 118. ↩
- Peterson, The Journey, 114. ↩
- Peterson, The Journey, 117. ↩
- Comparatively speaking, of course, they are not as strong as many other imprecatory statements. ↩
- Willem A. VanGemeren, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 12 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991), 5:799. ↩
- VanGemeren, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 5:831–32. ↩