Sometimes the thoughts one has about a Bible verse has a lot to do with context and situation. This weekend I have been engaged in a conversation with friends about the sort of treatment one has for those who are enemies who have spoken lies and acted in personal hatred. Since I have a biblical hermeneutic that the Bible does not contradict itself and that any apparent contradictions only reflect a situational difference requiring discernment (see Proverbs 26:4-5) or a distinguishing between between shades of meaning (such as between our responsibility to judge and our prohibition against condemning others (see 1 Corinthians 6:5 for the one, and James 4:11 and Matthew 7:1-5 on the other).
With that in mind I would like to deal with the question of Psalm 129 and its apparent contradiction with a much quoted but seldom practiced Christian responsibility towards our enemies. We will examine this issue in due time. First, though, I would like to present the context of Psalm 129 as a way of understanding its (seemingly harsh) message a little better. Psalm 129 is one of the Psalms of Ascents, a collection of Psalms between Psalm 120 and Psalm 134 that was traditionally sung by pilgrims to the three feasts of Passover, Pentecost, and the Feast of Tabernacles when believers were to travel to Jerusalem and worship at the temple there. Therefore we may strongly expect these hymns to praise Jerusalem as the place where God set his name. This is generally a reasonable expectation to make concerning the material of these psalms, including Psalm 129.
Psalm 129 is a fairly short psalm, and reads as follows: “ “Many a time they have afflicted me from my youth,” Let Israel now say–”Many a time they have afflicted me from my youth; yet they have not prevailed against me. The plowers plowed on my back; they made their furrows long.” The Lord is righteous; He has cut in pieces the cords of the wicked. Let all those who hate Zion be put to shame and turned back. Let them be as the grass on the housetops, which whithers before it grows up, with which the reaper does not fill his hand, nor he who binds sheaves, his arms. Neither let those who pass by say, “The blessing of the Lord be upon you; we bless you in the name of the Lord!”
This psalm has two sections, both of which are highly intriguing. The first half of the song deals with a lament from the mouth of Israel which could apply to many people personally (myself included) about how we have been afflicted from our youth, with the metaphorical (or literal, in some cases) scars of beatings cut deep into our back like the plow marks of those who consider human beings to be mere cattle. But Psalm 129 (an anonymous psalm) then praises God for freeing the righteous from the oppression of the wicked. Psalm 129 may thus strongly be taken as an anti-slavery song, referring to God’s deliverance from either literal slavery or the slavery of sin through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Either way, Psalm 129 speaks eloquently about God’s hostility to oppression, a frequent theme of scripture.
The second section is equally interesting. Who are those who hate Zion? We might take this in several ways. For one, we might take it to mean those who are the literal enemies of physical Israel, whose anti-Semitism leads them to oppress the Jews, or to hate the descendants of Israel. We might take the reference another way to refer to those who are enemies of God’s church, either because they oppose the truth of the Bible or because they lie against and slander God’s people. We might also take this reference about the enemies of Zion to mean anyone who practices oppression and tyrannical behavior, who make themselves an opponent of the Lord of Hosts, who has come to bring liberty to the captives, not to enslave the righteous. To engage in oppression is to make one’s self an enemy of God. I choose to take this psalm as referring to all three groups of enemies of Zion—those who hate Israel, those who hate the Church, and those who oppress others, whoever they may be.
At this point we must deal with an issue, though, and that is the need to reconcile this passage’s prohibition from blessing the enemies of Zion in the name of God with the command from God to love our enemies and bless those who curse us (see Matthew 5:43-48). Is there a contradiction between these two passages? I believe not, but it is something that needs to be addressed. We know that we are not to avenge ourselves, but to let God avenge us (see Romans 12:9-21), and we are to love our enemies by showing charity to them. Nonetheless, those who are the enemies of God are not to be blessed as if they were God’s friends and followers. Those who slander the truth, oppress others, and behave wickedly are to be shown love by being called to repent of their sins, in the knowledge both that God is merciful to those who repent, not wishing to condemn anyone, but also that He is a just judge and will avenge oppression and sin against those who are hardened in rebellion against Him.
Therefore, Psalm 129 gives us clear warning against considering ourselves to be friends of the world—of those who hate God’s people (either physically or spiritually), or who oppress and exploit others. To be friends with such people is to be the enemy of God, who is just and fair and desires freedom and honor to be shown to all human beings—all of whom are created in His image. So, Psalm 129 not only shows itself to be a strong friend of liberty, as so many of the sayings of the prophets and writings are, but also to provide us advice in how to deal with God’s enemies—show them love, call on them to repent, but not to bless them in the Lord’s name, knowing that God does not bless slander and oppression or those who practice such wicked and ungodly deeds.