Sunday, August 02, 2009

Sermon: Psalm 129 The LORD is Righteous

As we come to the Bible, and particularly the Psalms, we’re always tempted to ‘put ourselves in it’ - challenged to dare to be a Daniel, standing for God, or being a David fighting against our Goliaths. If we only ever use the Scriptures in this way, then our reading of them becomes very us-centred. Where do I fit? We’re always looking for ourselves in the text.

So as we come to Psalm 129 tonight, it would be easy for me to ask you - who are the people who afflict you? Who is it that torments you? Well, let’s move straight to verses 5-8 and pray this curse on them! Problem solved, and we all go home happy.

But is that what Psalm 129 is all about? Is this the reason that God caused it to be written, sung, and preserved in the Scriptures? Is the Bible nothing but a self-help manual to help you be a wee bit better by yourself and give you a smile until next week?

Perhaps a better way to approach the Bible is to see what it teaches us about God, fitting it into God’s big picture from creation to new creation, and then seeing how what that says will affect us. As we use this approach, we read the Psalm, and notice that verse 4 stands out - the LORD is righteous. Now, we could spend our whole time on just those four words. What a great statement in and of themselves. The LORD is righteous, just, pure, holy, there is no evil in him, just goodness and what we used to call ‘uprightness’.

As we explore the Psalm closer, though, we see that verse 4 is the turning point and the pinnacle. As we see it in context, the surrounding verses explain a bit more about God’s righteousness, and what that means for us. So as we look at the psalm, we’ll see God is righteous in Israel’s history; God is righteous in his saving acts; and God is righteous in his judgement.

The LORD is righteous in Israel’s history. We’re still continuing in our summer series in the songs of Ascents, the songs sung by the pilgrims as they journey towards Jerusalem for the feasts and festivals. As they journey together in groups, they recall the history of the people of God, the people of Israel, as we’ve seen previously in 124. In many ways, Psalm 124 and 129 sit together as companion Psalms, following a similar theme. Even the structure is in many ways similar, with the cantor leading and calling for the people to join in ‘let Israel now say.’

What is it Israel is to say? ‘Greatly have they afflicted me from my youth.’ On first sight this appears to be a personal confession of each individual Israelite, but it is rather the cry of Israel as a nation. The ‘they’ is vague - no particular enemy is named, and yet as we read through the Old Testament, we see the repeated truth of this witness - the people of Israel have been greatly afflicted: by Pharaoh and Egypt, by the surrounding nations as they moved into the land, by the Assyrians and Babylonians as they faced exile and disaster.

Verse 3 gives us the picture of the affliction - like ploughers ploughing on the back of Israel, making long furrows. The rod of affliction, or the whip of affliction was never far away. It’s painful just to think about, never mind experiencing the painful trials of being God’s people as the people of Israel experienced.

Yet, because, as the Psalm reminds us, the LORD is righteous, Israel can declare out of the midst of the trials the triumphant words of verse 2. ‘Greatly have they afflicted me from my youth, yet they have not prevailed against me.’ As Paul would put it, ‘we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.’ (2 Corinthians 4:8-9). Let’s be clear here - this is not some form of Jewish or Christian masochism, that we enjoy the pain and keep going, nor is it some superhuman strength of Paul or the people of Israel. When Israel says this, and when Paul adds his testimony, they’re not saying - look at us, aren’t we so great!

Rather, as Paul says in connection with those verses, ‘But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.’ (2 Cor 4:7). Or as our Psalm declares it: The LORD is righteous. Having called the people to himself, he preserves them so they can persevere, so that they can declare their testimony and praise the LORD who keeps them.

So also, as we look back on our testimony, our story, it shouldn’t lead people to think, what a great person, but what a great God! When you go home, have a think over your story, and see how God has kept you through your trials - and praise him for that!

The LORD is righteous in Israel’s history. The first point looked at the general keeping of Israel, but this comes into full view, even more glorious vision when we consider that the LORD is righteous in his salvation. Look again at verse 4. The LORD is righteous; he has cut the cords of the wicked.

Those cords are the ropes that bind the oxen to the plough. So for the LORD to cut the cords of the wicked, it means he has stopped them from ploughing up the back of Israel. Again, it’s not that Israel has won the victory themselves, but that the LORD has gained the victory through his saving acts. What a great God!

Here again we see his righteousness. The people of Israel were called by his name, his possession, and so as he acts to save them, he acts for his own name’s sake, to give himself the glory. Otherwise the surrounding nations would have said - the LORD isn’t up to much if he can’t even save his own people, if our people can defeat his people, then our gods must be stronger than him.

Just as in Psalm 124, the LORD has saved his people, and so shows that he is righteous. The LORD is righteous in Israel’s history, as well as in his saving acts. As we move to the final section of the Psalm, we see that the LORD is also righteous in his judgement, because this is what the Psalm is calling for, in one of the imprecatory sections.

I don’t know how you feel about this type of verses - flip over to Psalm 137:9 ‘Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!’ These are the type of verses that are left out of readings and Lectionaries for use in church... It’s just not really Church of Ireland, is it - we’re much more refined and mature than this seeming barbarism.

But please don’t ignore these verses - they are the earnest prayer of the people of God as they witness the rise of evil. Indeed, they are a cry to God to act in judgement, to fulfil his righteousness and display his glory.

Verse 5 gives us the people in question: ‘May all who hate Zion be put to shame and turned backward!’ You know the way you have a favourite place to visit, maybe Donaghadee, or Portstewart, and then you have some cities that you don’t like visiting, maybe Dublin (because of the traffic and crazy drivers) or Paris (because of the French people) - you might even say that you hate them? Well, this isn’t what’s being talked about here. It’s not talking about tourists who give Jerusalem one star on the visitor ratings board.

Zion, in the Psalms, is the city of God (48:1), the place of the temple (122:9). To hate the city of God is to hate God himself. As the Psalm prays for the shame and reversal of those who hate Zion, we can be sure that it will indeed happen - that the LORD will show himself righteous in his judgements.

To hate Zion, to hate God, is to, in the word that was on the streets of our city yesterday, to have ‘pride’ - pride in oneself and one’s achievements, and to despise God. (We’re back to what a great person I am - I have no need of God). The prayer is that they will be turned from pride to shame, from advancing against the city to being turned backward.

The reversal is then portrayed in a vivid simile. ‘Let them be like the grass on the housetops, which withers before it grows up.’ They look promising, they look prosperous, grass growing on the flat roofs (or is it rooves) of the dwellings, but with little soil and no nourishment / water, it quickly withers again. Looks good, fails quickly, so that the reaper can’t even get a handful of the stuff, nor can it be bound up. If you were wanting to store up grass for fodder, you wouldn’t expect it from the cracks in the patio - it’s small and insignificant, and withers quickly. There’s no harvest prosperity, and no blessing, as verse 8 points to the harvest greeting blessing (as we find something similar in Ruth 2:4).

The Psalm calls for God to act in judgement by withering the wicked, so that even others can pronounce that there is no blessing on them.

As Derek Kidner writes: ‘they are not only choosing the way of hate, which is soul-destroying, but setting themselves against God, which is suicide.’ (p. 445) Indeed, if the new Jerusalem is the place where the river of the water of life flows from the throne through the middle of the street of the city (Rev 22:1), then those who exclude themselves must wither, without that water of life.

The prayer will, indeed must come into fulfilment precisely because of the key theme of the psalm - that the LORD is righteous, in history, in salvation, and in judgement. To focus in even further, for a moment, though, the psalm points us to the righteous character of the Lord Jesus - he who was truly kept by the LORD in his afflictions, the man of sorrows, whose back was indeed ploughed by the rod of the wicked: ‘I gave my back to those who strike, and my cheeks to those who pull out the beard.’ (Isaiah 50:6), indeed, ‘he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed.’ (Isaiah 53:5). The Lord Jesus is righteous in this his saving act, and in how he was released from the cords of death, resurrected to live forevermore. Further, the Lord Jesus is righteous in his judgement, when he will return, and those who have not loved his appearing (2 Tim 4:8) will wither like grass.

As we come to a close, I’m going to propose a minute or two of quiet, as we think (in terms of the Psalm), how God’s character has been displayed in his dealings with us - his keeping, his saving, and his judging, and then invite you to share, if you would like to. But first, let me pray...

This sermon was preached in St Elizabeth's Dundonald on Sunday evening 2nd August 2009.

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