Can We Learn to Be the Change in the World?
A foray back into the Psalms of Ascent.
Prayer for the Overthrow of Zion’s Enemies
A Song of Ascents.
“Many times they have persecuted me from my youth up,”
Let Israel now say,
“Many times they have persecuted me from my youth up;
Yet they have not prevailed against me.
“The plowers plowed upon my back;
They lengthened their furrows.”
The Lord is righteous;
He has cut in two the cords of the wicked.
May all who hate Zion
Be put to shame and turned backward;
Let them be like grass upon the housetops,
Which withers before it grows up;
With which the reaper does not fill his hand,
Or the binder of sheaves his bosom;
Nor do those who pass by say,
“The blessing of the Lord be upon you;
We bless you in the name of the Lord.”
As I read the above Psalm this morning, I was reminded of the centuries-old struggle for the little piece of land in the Middle East we know as Israel. Has it ever occurred to you how strange it is that so many have fought for possession of this tiny area of the world for so long? And there’s no end in sight – it is enough to boggle the mind.
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It’s been a little while since I returned to this project, so let’s dive right in!
Just a reminder, it helps to interpret this entire section (Psalm 120-134) as progressive steps on a journey towards God. These Psalms comprised the special songs that the Israelites sang on their way to Jerusalem for festivals throughout the year. The micro-progression of Psalm 127-129 illustrates children growing up into young adults who are just beginning to venture out into the wider world.
The Psalmist begins by complaining about persecution, but he does it in the context of his nation (‘let Israel say’). He declares that Israel’s persecution has been life-long, yet unsuccessful. The description of the persecution is both familiar and vivid: plowers readying the field for planting, ‘lengthening their furrows’ upon Israel’s back, as if to say that they used Israel them for their own gain, the way we talk about people stepping on others to ‘climb the corporate ladder’. But plowing can also indicate breaking up fallow ground so that something healthy and alive can grow.
Over and over again God told Israel that His relationship with them had a global purpose: to bless all the other nations. Yet Israel, to this day, persists in an egoistic nationality that divides others from rather than uniting them to God.
Next, the Psalmist acknowledged God’s work of deliverance in cutting the ropes that bound the plow oxen together – a metaphor for stopping the persecutors. The implication is that God will use violence to end Israel’s suffering. Finally, the focus shifts to God’s city, Zion, a metaphor for God’s presence. I often hear Americans make a similar claim: that the United States is God’s nation (our own modern-day version of Zion) – implying that God dwells here (only here?), blesses us (only us?), and many also support the idea that God will one day smite Israel’s enemies and restore all that the Bible seems to promise to the Jews in the O.T.
In light of the Psalmist’s belief that God will do violence to those who harm His people or hate His city, the Psalm culminates in a three-fold curse:
- ‘Put to shame and turned backwards’ – shame is the very thing that separates us from God’s presence; i.e., our deep-down core belief that God is angry with us (He is not, by the way). This is circular reasoning both in word and metaphor: our hatred for God results in shame which turns us ‘backward’ away from God, which results in hatred for God, which results in shame … a cycle without end.
- ‘Like grass upon the housetops’ – events on a housetop in the Bible often meant ‘open to public view’, but the reference to grass brings in the idea of impermanence. Grass doesn’t grow very well that far from dirt and exposed to the elements. The next two lines further clarify this part of the curse: a. lack of roots indicates instability (short life cycle); and b. a low yield faisl to benefit the reaper.
- The absence of blessing – those who love Zion will withhold their blessing in God’s name from those who hate Zion.
Wait, didn’t Jesus tell us to bless our enemies?
In the progression of the Songs of Ascents, this one falls a little over midway through Israel’s journey to worship. It reminds me a lot of the attitude of an immature, older teenager, who hopes his enemies ‘get what’s coming to them.’ This was a time in Israel’s history when the Law held supreme place, and the Jews saw God as someone who required perfect obedience … or else. The nation has not heard that God blesses people who hate Him every single day (“the rain falls on the just and the unjust”). The Psalmist has not yet come to understand grace.
Maybe there are times for us to rant and rave against those who persecute us – certainly solitary prayer would be the most appropriate place and time – but to truly follow the way of Christ, the ultimate goal must be forgiveness. Perhaps cursing our enemies is a necessary step in our journey to maturity (as history shows us), but I am thankful it is not where the journey will end!
In light of our current situation, this Psalm saddens me, for several reasons.
- It is a glaring picture of the dog-eat-dog world in which we live today (you hurt mine, I’ll hurt yours, an eye for an eye, and so forth). A tragic example happened this very week in Paris. You’d better believe that the people who attacked innocent French men and women were retaliating against a perceived enemy (real or imagined) for some persecution they believe was committed against them. Their theology drives them to murder, just as the theology of the Psalmist drove him to cursing. But Jesus brought the act of murder to a heart level when He said, “If you hate in your heart, you have committed murder”, leaving no discernible difference between the curse and the action.
- It is easy to imagine many people today interpreting this Psalm as good advice, encouraging us to support the obliteration of the enemies of the Western world through sanctions or all-out war, as if God endorses cursing others – Jesus proved, by word and deed, He does not. I guarantee you there will be an outcry asking God to punish the people responsible for the attack – the equivalent to a curse – the very thing ISIS was doing when they ordered the attack. More of the same, but when will it end? Who will end it, and how?
- It makes me wonder when (or if) people – particularly the people of God – will ever realize that violence begets violence, retaliation begets retaliation, and only love and forgiveness can ever hope to bring about peace.
Many years of studying history, the Bible, and life in general has taught me that you reap what you sow. What we think about, fear, and put our attention upon comes to fruition. If I let anger and bitterness grow in me, these are the things that will return to me; if I harm another, you can be sure that harm will come to me; the things I fear will find me; and if I offer forgiveness and love, blessings will return to me.
Wait, did I hear you say that things don’t work that way, that the world is unfair? That people who do the right thing, more often than not, suffer for it?
Agreed. Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Jesus are but a small trio of examples of people who suffered and died for doing what is right. It could be said that the love and forgiveness they gave never came back to them; but it could also be said that their commitment to love and forgiveness – to a life of non-violence at the highest cost to themselves – served to plant the seeds of change in every one of us. Consider that their names are known throughout the world today. Consider how much good their actions accomplished – even after they were dead – through the people they inspired to adopt their cause(s). Imagine if they had never lived. What would our world look like if these and so many others had not taken a stand for love? I shudder to think.
Conversely, what would our world look like if people like you and me stopped listening to the talking heads intent on fueling the flames of ignorance, bias, hatred, blame, competition, nationality, and racism for one purpose: P-O-W-E-R? How might we begin to influence and bring the right kind of change to this world system if we understood that human beings are human beings, all in this thing together – that there is no ‘us’ and ‘them’, only ‘we’? What if you and I ever seriously made the commitment to love at any cost? I am willing to bet that many of you are thinking right now, “This person is nuts! We have to destroy ISIS or they will kill us all!” Hmm. Kill or be killed. I suppose that is what we have come to in the world. Is there no one left who would rather die than give in to the cycle of violence? Forget me, for a moment, and ask yourself:
How would Ghandi, MLK, or Jesus respond to ISIS? Somehow I just cannot imagine any of them telling us to blow anyone to kingdom come.
Contrary to the Jewish, Islamic, Tea Party – and others’ – beliefs, God is not found in a particular place, nation, or faith system. Rather, God lives inside the hearts of men and women of every race, creed, and nationality – every human being who has ever existed in all of history has carried the spark of God’s image within his or her heart. God’s presence is only ever displayed through love – because God IS Love – and love alone has the power to turn the world on its head. If we could learn to bless those who curse us and kill us, to love those who walk all over us, we, too, would become the change in the world.
The true warrior lays down his worldly weapons and takes up his cross, knowing that only grace can bring change, and that, one heart at a time.