Home > Opinion > A Rock to Cling To: A Meditation on Psalm 129
Associate Professor Neil Pembroke - Trinity College Queensland

A Rock to Cling To: A Meditation on Psalm 129

By Neil Pembroke, Trinity College Queensland. 

Vinita Nangia writes inspirational pieces for the Times of India. Here’s a recent offering:

Helplessness is one of the worst feelings. But much worse than helplessness is hopelessness. So long as you know you have control over a situation, you call upon your inner resources to fight back, plan, strategise and hope for some control. You keep a grip over self, and on your life. Life is good when you feel strong and in charge.

However, sometimes a point comes when you realise that a situation is beyond control and you are helpless. It is then, once you realise your inner resources are not enough to grapple with a problem, that you start looking towards others for help or guidance. These others could be members of your family, friends or acquaintances.

Good common-sense wisdom. But if we could go back in time and offer this piece of advice to the Exiles in Babylon, they would very likely receive it as worse than useless. Not much family or friends could do to liberate Israel.

Verse 4 of Psalm 129: ‘The Lord is righteous; he has cut the cords of the wicked.’ Whenever Israel found itself in a dire situation, its characteristic response was to call upon Adonai for help. From Ps 121, verses 1 and 2: ‘I lift up my eyes to the hills—from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.’

Israel finds itself in dire straits. The people are desperately poor, they are oppressed and mistreated, and they can’t sing the Lord’s song in this strange land. The psalmist uses two striking agricultural images to paint this picture.

Verse 3: ‘The ploughers ploughed on my back; they made their furrows long.’ Such an arresting and graphic image. A man is lying face down, and the plough shares are digging into him. He lies there in agony, completely helpless and passive.

In verses 6 and 7, we have the image of grass on housetops that withers before it grows up. This may refer to the fate of the enemies mentioned earlier in the Psalm. Just as the grass withers quickly away, so will they under the righteous action of the Lord.

But I think the reference may well be to the threatened transience of Israel rather than to that of its enemies. Verse 7 makes mention of ‘reapers’ and ‘binders of sheaths’. Why would there need to be any reaping if all the grass has withered away? It’s a very poor harvest rather than no harvest. We’re being presented with a contrast: The poverty of the harvest in Babylon is contrasted with the abundance of life in Israel.

Israel is in dire straits. The people are helpless, passive, and dirt poor. Where do we find echoes of this desperate state in the Scriptures? Who are the ones who find themselves feeling helpless and vulnerable? ‘He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that is silent before its shearers …’ This is the tragic fate of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah.

Like the Suffering Servant, Jesus was humiliated, beaten, and killed. There is, of course, a major difference between the stories of the Servant and Jesus, on the one hand, and that of Israel, on the other. Israel had come under the curse of Adonai. As Ezekiel so graphically put it, she had gone whoring after other gods. Israel had wilfully trashed the covenant that the Lord God made with her. God, in his wrath, issued a writ of divorce; she has been cast off.

The Servant and Jesus, in stark contrast, are the innocent ones who have taken our transgressions upon themselves. By their bruises, we are healed.

Let’s turn our minds to the contemporary scene. Sadly, it’s not hard to think of people groups throughout the world who are in a similarly desperate situation. There are ethnic and religious communities in many places share Israel’s experience of helplessness, passivity, and poverty. They are completely at the mercy of their oppressors.

My mind goes especially to asylum seekers and refugees. They are among some of the most vulnerable and needy people in the world. They desperately need people ready to enter into solidarity with them.

Let me share some hopeful stories of being-with and acting-for those who are displaced. The first one highlights the fact that sometimes those who have almost nothing express beautiful neighbour-love.

Along the U.S./Mexico border, a few groups offer humanitarian aid to immigrants who make the gruelling trek of 60 km or more across deserts, mountains, and other dangerous terrain. One summer in Arizona, as temperatures reached 45 degrees, a group called the Samaritans sent volunteers to keep watch for any immigrants who might be in need or in distress. When a group of 20 immigrants came walking along a dry riverbed, a volunteer called out to them from a ledge on a hill and asked, ‘Is anybody injured?’ ‘Do you need any food? Do you have any water?’ Suddenly the group of immigrants stopped. Unsure of who was speaking to them, they huddled together and deliberated awhile. Then slowly, the leader began walking toward the Samaritan volunteers and said, ‘We don’t have any more food. And we only have a little bit of water. But if you are in need of it, we will share what we have with you.’

 

The following stories come from 2016 when the so-called ‘European refugee crisis’ (this labelling is actually unhelpful) was at its peak. In Vienna, thousands of people welcomed refugees in train stations, offering food and clothing. On the Greek island of Lesvos, volunteers used their own vehicles to ferry refugees from the shore to cities, and this was under threat of arrest for ‘smuggling’ offences. A Greek Teachers’ Union, ‘Aristotle’, worked to get 45 children living at City Plaza to register in the infant and primary schools of the neighbourhood. On the Union’s Facebook page, we find this post from 18 June 2016: ‘No bureaucracies and no bureaucrats managed to stop us … A hive of people, parents, and children, teachers, translators from City Plaza, sweets and fruits to welcome everyone, and the children with a great smile on their lips!’

Acts of solidarity are immensely important to those who are feeling helpless and alone. These acts create hope. For those who are people of faith, though, the ultimate source of hope is not any human agent but a divine one. It’s true, of course, that God most often acts through people. God’s love is manifested through the Samaritans taking food and water to the border and through the people in European cities who took large risks to reach out to very vulnerable people. Thank God for loving neighbours!

I started with Israel’s characteristic response when in dire need. I’d like to finish on that note. The People turned to their covenant partner, to their God, for deliverance. From Psalm 124: ‘If it had not been the Lord who was on our side when our enemies attacked us, then they would have swallowed us up alive …’ From Psalm 125: ‘Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion, which cannot be moved, but abides forever.’

Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth. Blessed be the name of the Lord.

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