Perseverance and Perfect Justice

A sermon preached at Covenant Presbyterian Church of Fort Smith, Arkansas on January 15, 2023.

            “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!” (Psalm 129).[1]

When Israel fled Egypt and approached the Red Sea, Pharaoh and his army were in hot pursuit. In that moment of distress, slavery sounded appealing to the former slaves of Egypt. In anger the children of Israel said to Moses, “Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness?” (Ex. 14:11). In the day of trouble, redemption can feel like anything but deliverance. But Moses steadied the people, and commanded them, “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the LORD, which he will work for you today. For the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again. The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to be silent” (Ex. 14:13-14). And they did, and he did, and you know the rest of the story: God released the walled-waters of the Red Sea down upon “all the host of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea, not one of them remained” (Ex. 14:28).

In that moment, I might have thought: I pity the fool that threatens my people and me! Who would mess with people whose deliverance had resulted in the defeat of Egypt and destruction of her army and king? Apparently, plenty starting with attacks from the Amalekites and continuing to this day. The church of God has been and is hated for our God and redeemer. Jesus said to his disciples, “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (Jn. 15:18-20a). And so the psalmist leads the congregation in lamentation, singing,

            “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” (129:1-2).

Such is the song of a persecuted yet persevering people.

Persecuted for Faith

Serving as cantor, the psalmist sings of lifelong affliction. And the congregation responds as one, “me” is we who have been persecuted for the Lord’s sake. And “they” who afflict “me” runs the gamut of “all who hate Zion,” a hatred that began in Israel’s “youth” and carries on to all of Abraham’s offspring.

The affliction is as varied as our enemies, but the psalmist highlights the physical suffering of the saints:

            The plowers plowed upon my back;

                        they made long their furrows (129:3).

Though delivered in the metaphor of agriculture, there is no gratitude for the grace of sunshine and rain (Mt. 5:45), only violence inflicted upon the chosen. Deep runs the furrows of plowed hatred, a hatred as old as Cain’s hatred of Abel, who simply sought to rightly worship the Lord (Gn. 4:1-8).

It should not surprise us then that he who came that we might rightly worship the Lord in spirit and truth (Jn. 4:24) was afflicted too (Is. 53:4). Upon his back were the furrows of Pontius Pilate’s whip, a plowing precursor to his cross. Having scourged him, Pilate said to the Jews, “Behold the man!” (Jn. 19:5). And many did, in mockery, but the apostle John confesses, “(and we beheld his glory, the glory of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth” (Jn. 1:14 KJV). For, neither Pilate nor death could prevail against him, nor we who abide in him.

Having beheld his glory in life, death, and resurrection, the apostles considered everything as loss compared to knowing Christ. As the apostle Paul could confess,

For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith—that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Php. 3:8-11).

Luke records evidence of this same sentiment when the Sanhedrin “summoned the apostles and had them beaten,” ordering them to stop preaching the gospel (Ac. 5:40 NET). The Jewish leaders plowed their “long furrows,” so to speak, in the backs of the apostles because of their hatred of “the name of Jesus.”

But the plowing did not stop their preaching. In fact, after their flogging, they rejoiced “that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name [of Jesus]” (Ac. 5:41). They knew that affliction is momentary, but life in Christ is eternal. But until the last day, persecution continues, in its varied ways and places, but we do not live as those without hope:                             

            The LORD is righteous;

                        he has cut the cords of the wicked (129:4).

Preserved by God

Continuing with his agricultural metaphor, the psalmist paints the picture of an ox in harness, plowing the furrows of affliction upon the children of God. But persecution will not prevail: The Lord has cut the harness loose. We can confidently say,

            The LORD is on my side; I will not fear.

                        What can man do to me? (Ps. 118:6).

Of course, this side of heaven we could cynically say: Actually, man can do quite a bit to me!

Indeed, those who hate us for Christ’s sake can afflict us, but can they take us from Christ or steal our inheritance of eternal life? Jesus said, “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand” (Jn 10:28). Can they revoke our calling or rob our gifts? Paul says, “For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Ro. 11:29). Can someone lead us to sin a sin that would negate God’s sovereign election and Christ’s atonement? Jude says that the Lord is “able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy” (Jude 1:24). Can anyone or anything in heaven or earth separate us from God’s love? Paul is certain “that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Ro. 8:38-39).

So, though we are afflicted for Christ’s sake, we do not fear those who persecute us, knowing that he who cuts the cords prevails. This of course requires that we must look beyond this “light momentary affliction,” as Paul puts it, knowing that this life is simply preparing for us “an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2 Co. 4:17-18). We are indeed preserved by God, being prepared for glory. Knowing this, we leave vengeance to the Lord, for he who is righteous will judge both the living and the dead.

Praying for Justice

We live in an age confused about justice, which makes interpreting this psalm that much harder.

The psalmist prays,

            May all who hate Zion

                        be put to shame and turned backward! (129:5).

Or, as one translator renders it,

                        Oh, let all those who hate Zion

                                    grovel in humiliation (MSG).

To modern ears, this sounds more like a vengeful vendetta than a prayerful petition, but the truth is everyone desires justice.

As every man and woman is made in the image of God (Ge. 1:27), we all share some of his attributes, albeit imperfectly (We refer to these shared attributes as communicable). This helps us understand then why we are bothered, even outraged, when we see people getting away with bad behavior. Our sense of justice is troubled when we see someone not getting the punishment they deserve, and we are glad when they do.

As justice is from God, it should not surprise us then that our sinful flesh should seek to manipulate this attribute in us, selfishly. Our sense of justice is never more incensed than when we are personally wronged, or when something we are passionate about is defiled. Often Christians and non-Christians cry for justice only when it carries the cultural cachet of their cause. Such is the social justice of our day, but what I don’t hear often are prayers that God act in his perfect justice for the sake of his righteousness.

Rightly did the adulterer and murderer and covenanted king of Israel confess to God,

            Against you, you only, have I sinned

                        and done what is evil in your sight,

            so that you may be justified in your words

                        and blameless in your judgment (Ps. 51:4).

David knew he had sinned against Bathsheba and Uriah, but this was secondary. First and foremost, he had sinned against the holy and just God, and this overwhelmed him. Oh, that God would overwhelm us with this same sense of justice! Because when he does, then we will understand the psalmist’s prayer:

            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 (129:5-6).

So, for whom and what is the psalmist praying? First, he is praying for “all who hate Zion.” It is a comprehensive request, “all.” It is a specific request, “all who hate.” It is a definitive request, “all who hate Zion.” Why Zion? It is the chosen place of the Lord’s presence. It is the chosen place of the Lord’s worship. So, to hate Zion, is to reject the Lord, to hate who he is (and those who worship him).

Second, the psalmist is praying indirectly for the persecuted, for Israel, for the church who loves the Lord and worships him. And in praying for the persecuted, he is praying for justice. He is praying that God will put to shame those who reject him. He is praying that they will be turned away, presumably from their persecution of the Lord’s people. And then, by way of lengthy analogy, he is praying that they will not prosper nor be praised in what they do.

Soil gathered on a housetop is surely shallow, where turf may grow but not thrive. You will not bale and bundle hay from your rooftop garden, nor will anyone regard its yield as the Lord’s bountiful blessing. What the wicked want is shallowly rooted in the soil of their sinful desires, yielding them nothing but stubble. The psalmist prays: Let those who hate Zion be like that!

Though the analogy sounds odd, the sentiment is not. The desire of the Lord’s people should be foremost for the glory of God, that he would be reverenced, honored, and worshiped by all, and that his will be the way of all. We pray, “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name,” in which, our Shorter Catechism says, “we pray that God would enable us, and others, to glorify him in all that whereby he maketh himself known; and that he would dispose all things to his own glory.”[2] We pray, “Thy kingdom come,” in which “we pray that Satan’s kingdom may be destroyed; and that the kingdom of grace may be advanced, ourselves and others brought into, and kept in it; and that the kingdom of glory may be hastened.”[3] In the simple petitions of the Lord’s Prayer, we are joining the psalmist in praying that God’s will be done “on earth, as it is in heaven,” and this includes his perfect justice. 

But until earth is heaven, there will continue to be persecution. Injustice will prevail in this present darkness, until there is no more darkness, until the only light is our eternal God. Until that day, we do not lose hope, obsessing on the injustices of this world but look to the greatest display of perfect justice in the world, the cross of Christ. In the cross of Christ, the Lord who is righteous gives us his righteousness by faith. We are

justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Ro. 3:21-26).

And so, in Christ we persevere, remembering that we have received the righteousness of God by his grace alone, and this same grace sustains us through this life. And we pray for those who persecute us, knowing the righteous Judge has justified us as righteous in Christ alone, and his gospel is freely offered to all who will believe.

[1] Unless referenced otherwise, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2001).

[2] “The Shorter Catechism” Q. 101, The Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms (Lawrenceville: PCA Christian Education and Publications, 2007), 402.

[3] “The Shorter Catechism” Q. 102, Ibid., 403.

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