“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.
–Psalm 129:1,2 (ESV)
The careful reader will notice many similarities between Psalms 124 and 129. Both eight-verse songs open with “Let Israel now say” and a repeated line—a unique structure in the psalms. Both include a blessing at the end, although it is purposed differently. More importantly, though, Psalms 124 and 129 both focus on affliction and deliverance for God’s people.
Psalm 124 speaks of times “when people rose up against us,” referring in particular to the Israelites’ escape from Egypt and their passage through the Red Sea. Psalm 129 also hearkens back to this event as God’s people mourn, “Greatly have they afflicted me from my youth” (v. 2). Here the lament is not so specific; looking back over the centuries that have passed since the Exodus, Israel simply admits that “the plowers plowed upon my back” (v. 3). Yet the psalmist quickly transitions to praise as he declares, “The LORD is righteous; he has cut the cords of the wicked.” For the people of God, affliction is not hopeless, for one reason: it was “the LORD who was on our side” (Ps. 124:1).
As with so many other passages, Psalms 124 and 129 rest in the implicit confidence that the LORD will one day vindicate the righteous and destroy the wicked. Thus, the remainder of Psalm 129 paints vivid pictures of the sudden doom awaiting those who oppose Israel. In a powerful yet surprising finale, the last verse snatches away all hope of the LORD’s blessing from the wicked. Yet even this verse contains an implied blessing for God’s people, for it is based on the assurance that “our help is in the name of the LORD, who made heaven and earth” (Ps. 124:8).
271, “Through All the Years, May Israel Say”
Honestly, I was surprised to learn that “Through All the Years” is a 1912 Psalter setting; it certainly has many of the marks of an Isaac Watts paraphrase. The first two stanzas are fairly sound, although the vivid imagery of plows and furrows has been muted to “scars of conflict and distress.” The third stanza merges v. 5 with some completely extraneous material (“Their wicked plans shall come to nought/And all mankind forget their name”), while skipping vv. 6 and 7 completely. The final stanza, thankfully, ends on a better note. Depending on your church’s psalm-singing practices, you may be completely comfortable with number 271 as a loose paraphrase that reads much like a hymn. Or you could justifiably argue that a much better versification is needed in its place.
As to the tune HUMILITY, well…it’s humble. There’s not much else to say; it works just fine with this psalm, but a wide variety of long-meter tunes could be substituted in its place if desired.
Psalm 129 could fill a variety of roles in the Christian life. It could apply to the individual believer undergoing oppression from his sworn enemies, the devil, the world, and the flesh. However, I like to think of it more directly as a song of the church. When our congregations undergo suffering, fractures, or external pressure, we can turn again and again to these words of comfort:
Through all the years, may Israel say,
My bitter foes have oft assailed,
Have sought my hurt in fierce array,
Yet over me have not prevailed.