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“And Though This World ...”

Psalm 129
Bob DeGray
August 11, 2002

Key Sentence

Since God is righteous, evil will not prevail.


I. The Oppression of Evil (Psalm 129:1-3)
II. The Righteousness of God (Psalm 129:4)
III. The Suppression of Evil (Psalm 129:5-8)


        David Jackson has been teaching the youth group about spiritual warfare using illustrations from The Lord of the Rings. That fits, because the truths Tolkien captured in the novel reflect the experience of many who have battled evil without and within.

        Frodo the hobbit, as many of you know, finds himself trying to keep the enemy’s ring of power from the enemy, Sauron. The enemy, in turn, uses two major approaches to recover his ring. The external approach is the Black Riders. These nine were once kings of men, but became enslaved to rings of power and are now Sauron’s most powerful and terrible servants, carrying fear and despair like weapons. The internal means Sauron is using to find his ring is its temptation of the one who carries it to use it, which would expose it to Sauron’s sight. This is why Frodo has been warned to keep the ring safe and secret and never put it on.

        But that’s easier said than done. As Frodo is escaping from the Shire he has several encounters with the Black Riders. The most terrifying occurs on Weathertop, a hill to which Frodo and his companions have been taken by their guide, Strider.

        Frodo felt a cold dread creeping over his heart. He huddled closer to the fire. At that moment Sam came running back from the edge of the dell. ‘I don’t know what it is,’ he said, ‘but I suddenly felt afraid. I durstn’t go outside this dell for any money; I felt that something was creeping up the slope.’

        ‘Did you see anything?’ asked Frodo, springing to his feet.

        ‘No, sir. I saw nothing, but I didn’t stop to look.’

        ‘Keep close to the fire, with your faces outward!’ cried Strider. ‘Get some of the longer sticks ready in your hands!’ For a breathless time they sat there, silent and alert, with thier backs turned to the wood-fire, each gazing into the shadows that encircled them. Nothing happened. There was no sound or movement. Frodo stirred, feeling he must break the silence; he longed to shout out loud. ‘Hush!’ whispered Strider.

        Over the lip of the little dell they felt, rather than saw, a shadow rise, or more than one. They strained their eyes, and the shadows seemed to grow. Soon there could be no doubt; three or four tall black figures were standing on the slope, looking down on them. So black were they that they seemed like black holes in the deep shade behind them. Frodo thought he heard a faint hiss as of venoumous breath, and felt a thin piercing chill. Then the shapes slowly advanced. Terror overcame Pippen and Merry, and they threw themselves flat on the ground. Sam shrank to Frodo’s side.

        Frodo was hardly less terrified than his companions, but his terror was swallowed up in a sudden hideous temptation to put on the Ring. The desire to do this laid hold of him, and he could think of nothing else. He did not forget Gandalf’s message, but something seemed to compel him to disregard all warnings, and he longed to yield. Not with the hope of escape, or of doing anything, either good or bad: he simply felt that he must take the Ring and put it on his finger. He could not speak. He shut his eyes and struggled a while; but resistance became unbearable, and at last he slowly drew out the chain, and slipped the Ring on the forefinger of his left hand.

        Immediately, though everything else remained as before, dim and dark, the shapes became terribly clear. He was able to see beneath their black wrappings. There were five tall figures: two standing on the lip of the dell, three advancing. In their white faces burned keen and merciless eyes; under their mantles were long grey robes; upon their grey hairs were helms of silver; in their haggard hands were swords of steel. Their eyes fell on him and pierced him, as they rushed towards him. Desperate he drew his own sword, and it seemed to him that it flickered red, as if it was a firebrand. Two of the figures halted. The third was taller than the others: his hair was long and gleaming and on his helm was a crown. In one hand he held a long sword, and in the other a knife. He sprang forward and bore down on Frodo.

        At that moment Frodo threw himself to the ground and heard himself crying aloud in the Elvish tongue. At the same time he struck at the feet of his enemy. A shrill cry rang out in the night and he felt a pain like a dart of poisoned ice pierce his left shoulder. Even as he swooned he caught, as through a mist, a glimpse of Strider leaping out of the darkness with a flaming brand of wood in either hand. With a last effort Frodo slipped the Ring from his finger and closed his right hand tight upon it.

        The truth illustrated by this account is that the most terrible evil around us is made worse by our internal temptations. Like Frodo, we don’t want to give in to those desires. But when the evil outside gangs up with the weakness within, we are in great peril. Fortunately, as believers, we have a greater source of help. Psalm 129 reminds us that since God is righteous, evil will not prevail.

I. The Oppression of Evil (Psalm 129:1-3)

        The first few verses of the Psalm lament the oppression of evil, and it’s effectiveness. Psalm 129, verses 1 to 3: They have greatly oppressed me from my youth– let Israel say – 2they have greatly oppressed me from my youth, but they have not gained the victory over me. 3Plowmen have plowed my back and made their furrows long.

The psalmist is literally saying ‘They’ve often put me in a tight place, ever since I was young.’ Peterson’s paraphrase says ‘they’ve kicked me around.’ And the Psalmist calls on Israel to agree with him: he says it on behalf of Israel. These words are his personal testimony and the experience of the nation as a whole.

        ‘I’ve been hard pressed.’ We don’t know who this Psalmist was, so it’s hard to know the situation he’s talking about. If it was David he could be thinking of Saul and Saul’s armies that made him a fugitive and pursued him up and down the length of Israel. David was often literally in a tight place. Or this may have been a Psalmist who lived in later years when the whole nation of Israel was oppressed by enemies like the Philistines or Edom or Assyria. Still later these same words might have been said by the exiles who lived in the dispersion or had been taken to Babylon. There are many scenarios both personal and national that would justify this remark.

         But things other than traditional enemies can also cause oppression. David knew the experience of having his close friends and even his own flesh-and-blood turn against him. His psalms also lead us to think that he faced disease, physical hardship and depression. In applying this Psalm to our lives we need to look at the whole range of things that can oppress us, things external to us and things within. I believe each person here battles with evil as an enemy, both evil within you and evil around you.

        Evil within. What would that be? It’s not hard - it’s the sin nature that seizes us and drags us, apparently against our will, into greater or lesser sin. Frodo didn’t want to put on the ring, but the temptation was great to do so. Paul says in Romans 7 “I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do__this I keep on doing . . . .In my inner being I delight in God's law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind, making me a prisoner of the law of sin.”

        In his profound book Temptation, Dietrich Bonhoeffer vividly portrays our experience: “In our members there is a slumbering inclination towards desire which is both sudden and fierce. With irresistible power desire seizes mastery over the flesh. All at once a secret, smoldering fire is kindled. The flesh burns and is in flames. It makes no difference whether it is sexual desire or ambition or vanity or desire for revenge or love of fame and power or greed for money.... At this moment God is quite unreal to us. Only our desire is real. Satan does not fill us with hatred of God, but with forgetfulness of God. … The lust thus aroused envelops the mind and the will in deepest darkness. The powers of discrimination and of decision are taken from us.”

        You know, of course, that I long ago invented a short-hand way of saying this: “Sin makes you stupid.” Now stupid isn’t a term I use lightly in the pulpit, but my experience time after time is that people who are caught up in sin do and say things so hurtful to themselves and others that if they had been thinking at all it never would have happened. The desires of sin shut down a person’s moral and ethical and even reasonable thought processes. I’ve seen it in myself, too often. I’ve seen it in others too often. The desires that drive you to sin also make you stupid. They are an enemy within, a traitor perfectly willing to betray you into catastrophe.

        Our own evil desires wage war against our souls. And these things do not disappear the moment we become believers. They may weaken; they may win fewer and fewer victories; the Holy Spirit may strengthen us. But until our final moment, till death takes us home or Jesus changes us at his second coming, there will be a battle with evil desires.

        In the same way, there are external enemies - and they are real too. Its true that our situation is probably different than that of the Psalmist. He had personal enemies who were also the enemies of his nation - he may have been a slave, a prisoner of war or a fugitive. We’re not any of those things. But we still have external enemies.

        Satan himself, and the demons who serve him are enemies of God’s people. Peter says “Be self_controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” Paul says “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” There is an enemy, and his desire is to make us immature and ineffective as followers of Jesus. Further, it seems he simply revels in evil. Anything that goes against the heart of God and the ways of God is something he’ll promote and delight in. So in the headlines this week we have seen greed, adultery, murder rape and child abuse - and I’m convinced Satan has chuckled with delight at every evil act.

        Satan and his demons do much of their work indirectly - through the fallen world in which we live. All around us Satan creates both the temptations and the vexations which give rise to our inner desires, and ultimately our sin. The apostle John says that we should not love the world or the things in the world, which he describes as the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life.

        But Satan constantly places the things of the world before us to grab our attention and ignite our evil desires. The lust of the flesh, for example, is always focused on some object, some image or person that God in his grace has forbidden to us. In the same way the lust of the eyes is focused on objects that ignite our greed, jealousy or covetousness. Selfish pride comes out in our relationships to others. In particular Satan has so distorted our relationships by selfishness, pride and sin that we often find our enemies to be those whom God intended to be closest to us - we make enemies of our parents and children and spouses - and they of us.
        So we can say with the Psalmist ‘they have greatly oppressed me.’ Internally we are oppressed by own sinful nature. Externally we have the multitude of things our nature responds to, whether in lust or in rage. At times this oppression is so strong that we feel with the Psalmist that it has plowed furrows in us. We agonize over the effects of sin in our lives, whether our own sin or someone else’s. That picture of a plow turning up the flesh of your back is not too strong for the pain you endure.

        Martin Luther captured this in the hymn we sang earlier: “For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe; His craft and power are great, and, armed with cruel hate, on earth is not his equal.” The next verse starts “Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing.” If we were in this by ourselves the plowmen would plow our backs, the oppressors would oppress us, and they would win the victory.

II. The Righteousness of God (Psalm 129:4)

        But we’re not in it by ourselves. Psalm 129:2 says “they have greatly oppressed me from my youth, but haven’t gained the victory.” Verse 4 shows why evil isn’t victorious: But the Lord is righteous; he has cut me free from the cords of the wicked.

        Against the enemies within, against the enemies without, we stand no chance without the righteous grace of God. Follow the logic of this verse. First, God is righteous. That means, among other things, that he always does what is right. But allowing victory, in any ultimate sense, to the enemies of his people would not be right. So God doesn’t do it. Instead he cuts us free from the cords of the wicked.

        Does that mean God steps in and just destroys all our enemies within and without? Well, in eternity, yes. But do we see that now - complete freedom from temptation, complete peace in all relationships, complete cessation of war and poverty and greed and violence and all the other consequences of sin? No we don’t see that yet, and neither did the Psalmist. What we see, and what the Psalmist saw was an unshackling from the effects of this sin through the effects of God’s righteousness.

        What frees us from the bondage of sin? If you can’t put the answer in one word, you haven’t been reading your Bible enough. Jesus frees us from the bondage of sin, because by his death Jesus fulfills God’s righteousness. This truth, that Martin Luther found in the book of Romans, transformed him from fear to freedom. “But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been revealed, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are made righteous freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice to turn aside wrath through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his own righteousness.”

        So a righteous God sets us free from slavery to sin by sending Jesus to pay the penalty for our sins. Paul says later in Romans. “But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Jesus said that everyone who sins is a slave to sin, but that those who hold to his teaching will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. A righteous God cuts the cords that bind us to sin. Because of Jesus we are no longer slaves to the enemy within or the enemy around us. Satan has been defeated and our own sin nature has been atoned for.

        This is what Luther celebrated in “A Mighty Fortress” “Did we in our strength confide, our striving would be losing; Were not the right Man on our side, the Man of God’s own choosing: Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is He; Lord of Hosts His Name, from age to age the same, And He must win the battle.” So the next verse assures us that “though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us, we will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us: The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him; his rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure, one little word shall fell him.” That word is Jesus. He gives the victory.

III. The Suppression of Evil (Psalm 129:5-8)

        So there are enemies within, and there are enemies around us that desire to oppress us, but in Jesus God has cut the cords. If you have believed in Jesus you are no longer a slave, but free, and you need no longer suffer under the hand of your enemies. The last verses of the Psalm tell us that having released us from their cords, he also suppresses their power. Psalm 129 verses 5 to 8: May all who hate Zion be turned back in shame. 6May they be like grass on the roof, which withers before it can grow; 7with it the reaper cannot fill his hands, nor the one who gathers fill his arms. 8May those who pass by not say, "The blessing of the Lord be upon you; we bless you in the name of the Lord."

        The nation of Israel had been sorely oppressed. The plowman had ploughed her back. But a righteous God cannot let the enemies of righteousness win the day. The psalmist is righteous when he prays that the Lord would bring shame on those who hate God’s nation and God’s people. It is not wrong to want victory over the enemies of righteousness - whether they are individuals, groups, the demons that order world events, or the sinful nature within us. All of these are legitimate enemies, legitimate targets and we should share the Psalmist’s desire that these things be defeated. God doesn’t allow us to hate - except that we should hate sin and wickedness and evil. We should also remember, though, that we must not hate the people who sin, but rather love them. Jesus said ‘love your neighbor’, he also said ‘love your enemy’. The unknown person who said “hate sin but love the sinner” really had it right.

        We should hate sin and pray for its demise, especially in our own lives. Verses 6 and 7 are a great word picture of the suppression of sin. We want it to be like grass on a roof - withered and fruitless. Now you have to picture this in its cultural context. The houses of Israel almost always had flat roofs. The roofs were made of dried clay or of thatch laid over sticks. Because they were flat the roofs accumulated a layer of dirt and soil and as winds carried seeds aloft or as birds dropped them, grass would spring up on those flat roofs. But it could not take root and there was no moisture in the Judean heat, so the grass died and withered long before it came to harvest.

        In the same way God suppresses the effects of evil for those he has freed. Having cut the cords of slavery to sin, he guards his people so that though sin and evil may spring up within or around them, he is at work to wither it and make it unfruitful.

        Here’s a simple thought that should be comforting: God is on your side against evil. He doesn’t want it. He doesn’t like it. He allows it at times, but only when it is ultimately for our good, which means that ultimately it will never have the victory over those who are in him. When you see evil at work in you, around you or in the world, think of it as grass that withers. This is how David saw it in Psalm 37: “Do not fret because of evildoers, be not envious toward wrongdoers. For they will wither quickly like the grass and fade like the green herb.” This is the same thing Isaiah told Israel’s king about his enemies: “they will fade like grass on the roof.”

        The truth is that only a few things are eternal: God, His word, and the souls of men. All else in this creation, including the evil that pervades it, is like grass, and a day is coming when the grass will be burned. This is even true in our own lives. If we insist, as believers, on allowing evil into our lives, we’re building flammable stuff onto an eternal foundation, and that stuff will not last. Paul says this in 1st Corinthians 3: “No man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, Jesus Christ. If any man builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay or straw, each man's work will become evident; for the day will show it. It is to be revealed with fire, and the fire itself will test the quality of each man's work. If any man's work remains, he will receive a reward. If any man's work is burned up, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet as through fire.

        God is suppressing evil and it will have no ultimate fruit. You can count on that, because God is righteous. Satan is like the reaper in the last few verses of this psalm, who will reap nothing, as far as the people of God are concerned. God has freed us, and Satan has no way to win us back. The last verse is part of that same image. The grass withers on the roof and the reaper heads out with his basket, hoping to get a crop, but there is no crop. So no one gives him the harvest greeting “The blessing of the Lord be upon you.” And no one responds “we bless you in the name of the Lord.” This was the harvest custom. Ruth 2:4 “Now behold, Boaz came from Bethlehem and said to the reapers, "May the Lord be with you." And they said to him, "May the Lord bless you."” But that custom will never happen if the grass is grown on the roof. As one commentator said “The thought is ridiculous of housetop harvesting occasioning such blessings. Equally out of the question is it for the Church’s adversaries to be blessed by God.” It won’t happen. God suppresses evil: “though this world with devils filled should threaten to undo us, we will not fear for God has willed his truth to triumph through us.”

        So what have we said? That there is evil. It is out there and it is within, and the evil out there often calls forth an evil response within us. But God is righteous, and he breaks the cords that have bound us to evil. Through Jesus we are no longer slaves to sin. And for the sake of his people God will suppress evil and make it unfruitful, even as he promises a life to come in which evil is totally destroyed. That’s the promise of this Psalm. That’s the righteous God we worship.