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This psalm is entitled merely “A Song of Degrees.” Its author is unknown; and the occasion on which it was written cannot now be ascertained. It is a psalm which would be applicable to many periods of the Jewish history, and it is not of such a nature that it can with certainty be referred to any one of them. There is nothing in it which would forbid us to suppose that it was composed on the return from the Babylonian exile, but there is nothing to fix it definitely to that event. Why it was made one of the “Songs of Degrees” is equally unknown. It merely refers to the fact that Israel had often been roughly and severely treated; and it contains a prayer that those who were the enemies of Zion might be punished in a proper manner. It would seem probable that it was composed during a time of trouble, of war, or of persecution, and that the main purpose of the writer was to refer to the fact that the same thing had often occurred before, and to find consolation and support in that fact. The principle on which it is founded is, that there is nothing to be dreaded as the result of trial, if we have passed through the same form of trial before, and if we have not sunk but have been sustained under it. This furnishes an assurance that the same thing may occur again.
Many a time - Margin, as in Hebrew, “much.” Probably, however, the idea is, as expressed in our translation, “many a time;” “often.” So it is in the Latin Vulgate and the Septuagint; and this accords better with the connection.
Have they afflicted me from my youth - Have I been afflicted; have others dealt unjustly by me. The youth here is the beginning. of the history of that people: since we began to be a people; since the nation was founded.
May Israel now say - May the nation now say. It is clear from this that the psalm was not written at an early period of their history.
Many a time ... - This repetition is designed to fix the thoughts on the fact, and to impress it on the mind. The mind dwells on the fact as important in its bearing on the present occasion or emergency. The idea is, that it is no new thing to be thus afflicted. It has often occurred. It is a matter of long and almost constant experience. Our enemies have often attempted to destroy us, but in vain. What we experience now we have often experienced, and when thus tried we have been as often delivered, and have nothing now therefore to fear. We are not to regard it as a strange thing that we are now afflicted; and we are not to be discouraged or disheartened as if our enemies could overcome us, for they have often tried it in vain. He who has protected us heretofore can protect us still. He who defended us before can defend us now, and the past furnishes an assurance that be will defend us if it is best that we should be protected. It does much to support us in affliction if we can recall to mind the consolations which we had in former trials, and can avail ourselves of the result of past experience in supporting us now.
Yet they have not prevailed against me - They have never been able to overcome us. We were safe then in the divine hands; we shall be safe in the same hands now.
The plowers plowed upon my back - The comparison here is undoubtedly taken from the “plowing” of land, and the idea is that the sufferings which they had endured were such as would be well represented by a plow passing over a field, tearing up the sod; piercing deep; and producing long rows or furrows. The direct allusion would seem to be to stripes inflicted on the back, as if a plow had been made to pass over it; and the meaning is, that they had been subjected to sufferings as slaves or criminals were when the lash cut deep into the flesh. Probably the immediate thing in the mind of the psalmist was the hard bondage of the children of Israel in Egypt, when they were subjected to all the evils of servitude.
They made long their furrows - On my back. The word used here, and rendered “made long” - ארך 'ârak, means to make long, to prolong, to extend in a right line, and it may be used either in the sense of making long as to extent or space, or making long in regard to time, prolonging. The latter would seem to be the meaning here, as it is difficult to see in what sense it could be said that stripes inflicted on the back could be made long. They might, however, be continued and repeated; the sufferings might be prolonged sufferings as well as deep. It was a work of long-continued oppression and wrong.
The Lord is righteous - Righteous in permitting this; righteous in what he has done, and will do, in the treatment of those who inflict such wrongs. We may now safely commit our cause to him in view of what he has done in the past. He was not indifferent then to our sufferings, or deaf to the eries of his people; he interposed and punished the oppressors of his people, and we may trust him still.
He hath cut asunder the cords of the wicked - By which they bound us. He did this in our “youth;” when we were oppressed and beaten in Egypt. Then he interposed, and set us free.
Let them all be confounded and turned back ... - This might be rendered in the indicative, “they are ashamed,” but the connection seems to require the rendering in our version. It is a prayer that God would now interpose as he had done in former times, and that he would cause all the haters of Zion to be put to shame as formerly.
Let them be as the grass upon the housetops - The housetops, or roofs of houses, covered with sand or earth, in which seeds of grass may germinate and begin to grow, but where, as there is no depth of earth, and as the heat of the sun there would be intense, it would soon wither away. See the notes at Isaiah 37:27.
Which withereth afore it groweth up - This, even if it has any meaning, is not the meaning of the original. The idea in the Hebrew is - and it is so rendered in the Septuagint, the Latin Vulgate, and by Luther - “which before (one) pulls it, withers.” Grass would wither or dry up, of course, if it were pulled up or cut down, but the grass here spoken of withers even before this is done. It has no depth of earth to sustain it; having sprouted, and begun to grow, it soon dies - a perfect image of feebleness and desolation; of hopes begun only to be disappointed. “This morning” (says Dr. Thomson, “Land and the Book,” vol. ii., p. 574) “I saw a striking illustration of this most expressive figure. To obtain a good view of the Tyropean, my guide took me to the top of a house on the brow of Zion, and the grass which had grown over the roof during the rainy season was now entirely withered and perfectly dry.”
Wherewith the mower filleth not his hand - It cannot be gathered and laid up for the use of cattle, as grass can that grows in the field. It is valueless for any such purpose; or, is utterly worthless. The phrase “filleth not his hand” seems to be derived from the idea of reaping, where the reaper with one hand takes hold of the grain which he reaps, and cuts it off with the sickle in the other.
Nor he that bindeth sheaves - The man who gathers in the harvest. This was commonly performed by a different person from the reaper.
His bosom - This word would commonly refer to the bosom of the garment, in which tilings were carried; or that part above the girdle. It may be used here, however, in a larger sense - since it is incongruous to suppose that sheaves of grain would be carried thus - as meaning simply that one who gathered the sheaves would usually convey them in his arms, folding them to his bosom.
Neither do they which go by say, The blessing of the Lord,... - As in a harvest-field, where persons passing by express their joy and gratitude that their neighbors are reaping an abundant harvest. The phrase “The blessing of the Lord be upon you,” was expressive of good wishes; of pious congratulation; of a hope of success and prosperity; as when we say, “God be with you;” or, “God bless you.” The meaning here is, that such language would never be used in reference to the grass or grain growing on the house-top, since it would never justify a wish of that kind: it would be ridiculous and absurd to apply such language to anyone who should be found gathering up that dry; and withered, and worthless grass. So the psalmist prays that it may be in regard to all who hate Zion Psalms 129:5, that they may have no such prosperity as would be represented by a growth of luxuriant and abundant grain; no such prosperity as would be denoted by the reaper and the binder of sheaves gathering in such a harvest; no such prosperity as would be indicated by the cheerful greeting and congratulation of neighors who express their gratification and their joy at the rich and abundant harvest which has crowned the labors of their friend, by the prayer that God would bless him.
We bless you in the name of the Lord - Still the language of pious joy and gratification addressed by his neighbors to him who was reaping his harvest. All this is simply language drawn from common life, uttering a prayer that the enemies of Zion might be “confounded and turned back” Psalms 129:5; a prayer that they might not be successful in their endeavors to destroy the Church. Such a prayer cannot but be regarded as proper and right.
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Barnes, Albert. "Commentary on Psalms 129". "Barnes' Notes on the Whole Bible". https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 15 / Ordinary 20