Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
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 (Psalm 129:1-4). And now once more the malignant foes of Zion shall perish before they have matured their plots against her (Psalm 129:5-8).
The Psalm corresponds in length, style, and the general tenor of its contents, to Psalms 124. Israel is introduced as the speaker in both (‘Let Israel say’): the figure of rhetorical repetition is employed in the first two verses of both: in both Israel is face to face with malicious enemies, but confident of Jehovah’s protection. They may well have been written by the same poet in the same period, with reference to the dangers which threatened the community in the time of Nehemiah.
A Song of degrees. Many a time have they afflicted me from my youth, may Israel now say:1. Much have they vexed me from my youth up, let Israel now say.
The history of Israel is often compared to the life of an individual. Israel’s life began in Egypt Cp. Hosea 2:3; Hosea 2:15; Hosea 11:1; Jeremiah 2:2; &c. From the Egyptian bondage onward it has repeatedly been oppressed by enemies. For let Israel say, i.e. let Israel thankfully recall the lessons of its history, cp. Psalm 118:2; Psalm 124:1.
1–4. Throughout its history Israel has been harassed by enemies, but in His faithfulness Jehovah has preserved His people from destruction.
Many a time have they afflicted me from my youth: yet they have not prevailed against me.2. yet they have not prevailed against me] Cp. 2 Corinthians 4:8-10.
The plowers plowed upon my back: they made long their furrows.3. Plowers have plowed upon my dock] 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. Cp. the similar figure in Isaiah 51:23. The use of the metaphor may have been facilitated by the common identification of the people with the land, and it may be intended to suggest the thought of the slave’s back torn and furrowed by the lash (Isaiah 50:6). We are reminded also of Micah 3:12, and of the story that a plough was driven over the site of the Temple by Terentius Rufus after the capture of Jerusalem by Titus, and again by Hadrian after the suppression of Bar Cocheba’s revolt.
they made long their furrows] According to Delitzsch, the word means more exactly the strip of land which is ploughed at one time, but the meaning will be the same: they did their cruel work thoroughly and spared nothing.
The LORD is righteous: he hath cut asunder the cords of the wicked.4. The Lord is righteous: he &c.] Better, Jehovah the righteous hath cut asunder. The same attribute of righteousness which compels Him to punish (Nehemiah 9:33) binds Him to deliver, for it involves faithfulness to His covenant. Cp. Psalm 51:14 note; Isaiah 45:21.
cords] The word usually denotes the straps or bands by which the yoke was fastened on to the neck of the ox (Job 39:10). If the metaphor of the preceding verse is continued, the meaning is that the plower’s harness is broken so that they can no longer continue their work. But the figure may be changed; Israel may be the ox, and the cords those which fasten the yoke of servitude upon its neck. Or ‘cords’ may be used generally as a figure for subjection. Cp. Psalm 2:3. The reference is to the deliverance of Israel from successive oppressions, but especially to the great deliverance from the captivity in Babylon, and to the escape which is the theme of Psalms 124.
Let them all be confounded and turned back that hate Zion.5. Put to shame and turned backward
Shall be all that hate Zion.
It is difficult to decide whether these words are a prayer, as most Versions and commentators render them; or an expression of faith, that Israel’s enemies will be foiled and repulsed in the present crisis as they were in the past. On the whole the latter explanation seems best. Cp. Psalm 6:10. The haters of Zion were such as Sanballat and Tobiah, who “were grieved exceedingly” when Nehemiah came “to seek the welfare of the children of Israel” (Nehemiah 2:10), and all who joined them in endeavouring to prevent the restoration of Jerusalem.
5–8. The enemies of Zion shall be destroyed before their malicious schemes are matured.
Let them be as the grass upon the housetops, which withereth afore it groweth up:6. as the grass upon the housetops] Cp. Isaiah 37:27. Grass or corn springs up quickly on the flat roofs of oriental houses, but having no depth of soil (Matthew 13:5 f.) it withers prematurely away, and yields no joyous harvest.
afore it groweth up] Lit. before it has unsheathed, put out its flower-stalk and given promise of fruit. So let Zion’s enemies perish before they can mature their plots. The rendering of P.B.V., afore it be plucked up, is that of some MSS of the LXX, and the Vulg. (‘priusquam evellatur’), but though possible, is less suitable.
Wherewith the mower filleth not his hand; nor he that bindeth sheaves his bosom.7. mower] Reaper (R.V.). The ‘grass’ includes corn springing from grains accidentally dropped on the roof.
bosom] The ‘lap’ or loose fold of the garment, which could be used for collecting the ears of corn. Cp. Nehemiah 5:13. Children were carried in it (Isaiah 49:22).
7, 8. An expansion of the simile (cp. Psalm 127:4-5).
Neither do they which go by say, The blessing of the LORD be upon you: we bless you in the name of the LORD.8. The blessing of Jehovah be upon you is the friendly greeting of the passers-by to the reapers at their work: we bless you in the name of Jehovah may be simply an emphatic repetition of the greeting (cp. Psalm 118:26): or it may be, as the Targ. takes it, inserting and they do not answer them, the reapers’ reply. For this kindly custom cp. Ruth 2:4, “Boaz came from Bethlehem, and said unto the reapers, The Lord be with you. And they answered him, The Lord bless thee.”
The fate of Zion’s enemies will be the opposite of her lot as foretold by the prophet, “Yet again shall they use this speech in the land of Judah and in the cities thereof, when I turn their fortunes, Jehovah bless thee, O habitation of righteousness, O mountain of holiness” (Jeremiah 31:23).