how pilgrims persevere

They Have Afflicted Me from My Youth
A Song of Ascents. Psalm 129

“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 their 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
!”

On the third day of our trek, coming up and over the highest elevation and down toward Thuman, my body rebelled. The students got further and further ahead. I paused more often to rest. My thirst increased. My body ached. My bowels failed. I was beyond my limit in many ways and didn’t think I could go on. I wondered what the students were thinking (likely nothing at all). I wondered what the guides were thinking. I know what I was thinking, that this was a really bad idea.

Psalm 129 is about when the trekker/pilgrim remembers a time he was overwhelmed and exhausted and couldn’t go on, a time when his thoughts turned dark. The challenge in this text is not a mountain, however, but a history of abuse. So let’s start at that moment, near the end, as the pilgrim’s thoughts become more negative and even vindictive.

Pilgrims are not perfect, and this song/prayer calls for the enemies of God’s people to have short lives, like grass on the rooftop which withers, and for these short lives to be without comfort—with no passing stranger to even say “the blessing of the Lord be upon you!” The writer likely knew better than to think this way, of course. Leviticus 19 taught him not to “hate his brother in his heart” or take vengeance or bear a grudge. Proverbs 24: 17 warns, “Don’t rejoice when your enemy falls, and let not your heart be glad when he stumbles, lest the LORD see it and be displeased.”

But such negative thoughts reflect authentic and honest feelings, especially given the context. As a nation, they had been afflicted from the very beginning of their history, “from their youth” in Egypt and ever since. Greatly afflicted, we are told. The history of Israel is one of misunderstanding and abuse—as if plowmen crisscrossed their backs, leaving long furrows, tearing their flesh and trying to get all they can out of the children of God. It a horrid image of a horrid history. And even the kindest believer sometimes thinks out loud: enough is enough. They have been kicking us around long enough. Let them be put to shame. A melancholy believer might even write a song about this. And did.

But the journey of faith takes the long view. And in the middle of the Psalm, the pilgrim remembers, as we should, that the Lord is righteous. He has (or will) cut the cords of the wicked, the harness to their plows: “Greatly have they afflicted me from my youth, yet they have not prevailed against me,” he says. But the secret of perseverance is not that we tried harder but that the Lord was more faithful. We may long for those who hate Zion to be put to shame. We may even steel ourselves for the next blow, grit our teeth, determined to persevere. But then we remember that God is faithful and just. He will put things right. Our grimace softens because our experience is not like that of those who hate Zion. Our Lord is righteous. And even merciful. For us, the reaper will fill his hand and the binder of sheaves his arms. And we will be comforted by believers around us who bless us in the name of the Lord.

My trip down to the mountain that afternoon was difficult until the last step. But somewhere along the way my guide Dahn began to carry my backpack. I would stop, exhausted, and he would rummage around and hand me my water bottle. And he would wait, longer than seemed comfortable to me, without a word of judgment and without any sign of impatience. As the day turned dark, he was behind me, pointing to the right trail, reaching out to steady me when I slipped, silent and steady.

Sometimes I have that sense about God, even when what I’m thinking is not what I should be thinking. Then I remember he has cut the cords of the wicked. I know the enemy will not prevail.

And because of his faithfulness, I will persevere.

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