Not Afraid

Scripture: Psalm 129


Title: Not Afraid



  • Introduction
  • Remembering the past
  • Not afraid
  • Conclusion



Years ago I saw a real estate ad in the paper for a house I used to live in as a kid – they were having an open home to sell the house

–         I decided to go and check it out – not to buy it but just to take a trip down memory lane – I had a lot of happy times in that home


The house was built in the early 70’s and was pretty much the same as I remembered it only it seemed a lot smaller on the inside


I’m not sure why I went back to look at that house

–         Maybe I needed to remember where I had come from in order to figure out where I was going


This morning we continue our series on the Songs of Ascents

–         These songs were probably sung by Jewish pilgrims as they made their way to the temple in Jerusalem – they are songs about coming home

–         In particular, coming home to God

–         When we come home we are reminded of the past

–         And the past inevitably leads us to think about the future


Our focus today is psalm 129

–         In this song the psalmist remembers Israel’s past and finds courage to face the future. From the New Revised Standard Version, we read…


“Often have they attacked me from my youth”     —let Israel now say— “often have they attacked 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 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     that withers before it grows up, with which reapers do not fill their hands     or binders of sheaves their arms, while those who pass by do not say,     “The blessing of the Lord be upon you!     We bless you in the name of the Lord!”


May the Spirit of Jesus illuminate this song for us


Remembering the past:

When someone mentions the 5th November most people in our part of the world probably think of Guy Fawkes Day

–         Guy Fawkes Day remembers The “Gunpowder Plot” of 1605 when Guy Fawkes attempted to blow up the English Parliament

–         Fortunately for the members of Parliament and King James I, Guy Fawkes failed in his attempt and that’s why the English celebrate the 5th of November with fireworks – it’s a way of saying: ‘We are not afraid’


Sadly, as we’ve seen in the news this past week, attacks on the British parliament are still happening today


If you are familiar with New Zealand history then the 5th November may evoke different memories for you: ‘Remember Parihaka’


Parihaka is a Maori settlement in the Taranaki region

–         It is known as a peaceful community

–         In the latter part of the 19th Century the Maori of Parihaka identified strongly with the story of Israel and the Promised Land

–         When Maori land was confiscated by the government the leaders of Parihaka preached peaceful protest

–         Which meant they went and ploughed up the land that had been taken from them as a statement that it belonged to them


The growing level of Māori support for Parihaka was a concern to the establishment and so, on the 5th November 1881, the government sent troops to break up the community.

–         The people of Parihaka offered no resistance to the attack

–         They even welcomed the soldiers by sending children out with food

–         I suppose it was their way of saying: ‘We are not afraid’


Despite the friendly welcome, about 1,600 men, women & children were expelled and their homes destroyed

–         The remaining 600 residents were issued with government passes to control their movements

–         Their leaders, Te Whiti and Tohu, were arrested and spent months in prison awaiting trial before eventually being released

–         Much of central Taranaki then became European farmland


In 1889 some rebuilding took place at Parihaka and the community continued as a centre of non-violent resistance


Several Taranaki tribes were affected by the Parihaka incident

–         Between 2001 and 2006, the New Zealand government provided a formal apology to four of those tribes

–         Tens of millions of dollars were provided as compensation to the tribes in recognition of their losses at Parihaka and the land confiscations. [1]


Since 2006 there has been an annual peace festival held at Parihaka

–         A way of remembering the past and facing the future


Psalm 129 begins with the psalmist calling Israel to remember its past


Often have they attacked me from my youth,

yet they have not prevailed against me.  

The plowers plowed on my back; they made their furrows long.


Israel’s ‘youth’ refers to their time in slavery in Egypt, when they were oppressed and abused

–         Although the people of Israel have suffered much throughout their long history, they have survived


That’s interesting isn’t it. Many nations look back at what they have achieved

–         But Israel reflects on what they have survived [2]


Throughout the past 2000 years the Christian church has had a similar experience to Israel – surviving attack and abuse

–         In his letter to the Corinthians the apostle Paul put it like this…

–         We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; [3]


Later in history the 16th Century French reformer, Theodore Beza said to King Henry of Navarre:

–         ‘Sire, it is the lot of the Church of God to endure blows and not inflict them. But may it please you to remember that the Church is an anvil that has worn out many hammers’  [4]


Likewise, the sentiment of psalm 129 seems to be that Israel is an anvil that has worn out many hammers


The equally brutal metaphor, used in verse 3, is that of Israel’s enemies plowing on her back: Their furrows (or the scars) they leave are long

–         Perhaps meaning, these wounds we have suffered are not easily forgotten


When I was a baby (just a few weeks old) I had to have surgery on my stomach

–         It left a tiny scar – maybe a centimeter long

–         But as I grew the scar grew with me

–         Now the scar is the better part of 10 centimeters long

–         (I won’t show you. Some things are better left to the imagination)


The point is, when we are young we tend to bounce back relatively quickly from the trauma or losses we suffer (generally speaking)

–         But those losses (those wounds) have a way of catching up with us as we get older – they leave a long mark on us

–         Scars are good though – scars help us to remember our past


In thinking of someone whose back is cut open we are reminded of Jesus who was scourged before his crucifixion

–         “The history of Israel is one single passion narrative” [5]

–         Jesus represents both Israel and the Christian church

–         Just as Israel and the church have suffered, so Jesus suffers

–         But by his stripes we are healed [6]


You may wonder, why all this looking back to the hurts of the past?

–         What good does it do?

–         Well, yes it can be difficult to remember the past

–         But it is generally worse for us if we forget

–         When we forget we risk repeating the mistakes of the past

–         What we notice about Israel (here in this psalm) is that they don’t just remember their affliction – they also remember God’s deliverance


 The Lord is righteous;     he has cut the cords of the wicked.


God has set us free from tyranny and oppression in other words


The thing that saves Israel (and us) from self-pity and despair is the memory of the Lord’s intervention on our behalf

–         Our suffering needs to be acknowledged honestly

–         But focusing only on the hurts is not helpful – it leads to a victim mentality and robs us of the present

–         To get the benefit of reflecting on the past we must also remember the grace of God

–         When we are able to locate God’s hand for good in our lives then we begin to think like a survivor – and we find courage to face the future


Not afraid:

Once there was a boy – just your average 10 year old kiwi kid with big dreams and feet too small to fill the shoes of those dreams


He lived in a typical three bedroom weather board house with a corrugated iron roof

–         He loved the sound of the rain on that roof

–         Other roofs didn’t have the same tone

–         The rain on the roof comforted him


Being the only boy in the family he got his own room – it was small but he didn’t mind, his two sisters had to share a room

–         The boy’s dad worked in an office doing something or other

–         And his mum stayed at home – his father didn’t like her working


The boy’s mum was lovely – she made the best chocolate chip cookies you’ve ever tasted

–         She had wanted to become a teacher but his dad put a stop to that

–         Although they didn’t go to church that didn’t prevent his father misquoting the Bible when it suited him – a wife needed to obey her husband


As a family unit they kept to themselves most of the time – his parents didn’t really talk to their neighbours, they lived a long way away from extended family and his dad didn’t let him have friends over to play


One day one of his mates invited him to a game at the stadium – the Hurricanes were playing the Chiefs

–         The boy really wanted to go but he knew his dad would say ‘no’ so he asked his mum instead – begging her, ‘please mum please’

–         She let him go

–         It was a good game – the Hurricanes won – but it was close


The boy was happy when his friend’s parents dropped him off at the gate

–         But as he walked up the path to his house he heard yelling and crashing

–         He unlocked the front door and went inside slowly

–         When he came into the kitchen he noticed one of the cupboard doors was hanging by one hinge

–         His mother was slumped on the floor holding her hands over her head while his dad brought a cooking pot down on her back

–         Her blood contrasted sharply on the cream coloured lino

–         She looked up at the boy and gently told him to go to his room

–         But the boy was in shock – he couldn’t move, paralysed by fear


As his father walked out of the kitchen he said to his son, ‘See what you’ve done’

–         Apparently his dad was angry because his mum had let him go to the rugby


The next day his dad was sorry and promised it would never happen again – but it did happen again & again and probably would have kept on happening except for a small miracle – his father left and never came back

–         Life improved after that, even if his mother did live in fear of a sudden unexpected return


For years though the boy was angry

–         Angry at his father for abusing his mum

–         Angry at his mother for not telling anyone what was going on

–         Angry at God for letting this happen in the first place

–         But most of all angry at himself for going to that stupid match


For a long time he couldn’t see anything good in what he and his mother and sisters had lived through

–         Eventually though he made peace with his past

–         With time & experience he came to see some redemption in his suffering

–         Yes, the scars were long – he still couldn’t bring himself to go to a game at the Stadium

–         But in a strange way his father’s evil had strengthened his resolve to treat his own family with respect and tenderness

–         It had immunised him against violence

–         Not that he was the perfect husband and father – he probably let his kids get away with too much – but at least it was an improvement on his own childhood


The boy, now grown to be a man, made his peace with God too

–         As he remembered the good things in his past (and not just the bad things) he came to realise that God had been there the whole time, helping his family in quiet but significant ways

–         He was thankful to be a survivor and he was not afraid anymore


Following the terror attack in England a few days ago someone created this logo: ‘We are not afraid’

–         Others have been posting selfies with a similar message – ‘not afraid’


These are peaceful protests – words of courage and defiance

–         There seems to be a growing feeling of indignation in the West at these desperate and unfair acts of violence

–         Indignation (or anger) at injustice is not a bad thing – it is usually better than indifference or apathy

–         Indignation strengthens our resolve against evil


Having remembered Israel’s past and God’s role in that past, the psalmist now expresses his defiance and indignation at the wicked

–         In a way the wicked actually immunize the psalmist against evil, galvanizing his loyalty to God

–         Verses 5-8 of psalm 129 are another way of saying: ‘We are not afraid’


May all who hate Zion     be put to shame and turned backward.


‘Zion’ is the hill on which the temple in Jerusalem was built

–         Basically “Zion is the Lord’s chosen residence, the place that represents the Lord’s reign in the world.”  [7]

–         Therefore those who hate Zion are those who are opposed to God’s reign – they don’t want to see God’s will done

–         They are those who do not love their neighbour and do not practice justice & mercy. The psalmist continues (from verse 6)…

Let them be like the grass on the housetops     that withers before it grows up, with which reapers do not fill their hands     or binders of sheaves their arms, while those who pass by do not say,     “The blessing of the Lord be upon you!     We bless you in the name of the Lord!”


This is an agricultural image

–         In ancient Israel the roofs of houses were flat and a thin layer of dirt would gather on top of the roof

–         When windblown seeds settled in the dust on the roof they sprouted but didn’t come to much as the soil wasn’t deep enough

–         You sometimes see a similar thing these days with grass growing out of roof spouting


A tradition in ancient Israel was for people to say words of blessing to the workers who had gathered in a harvest

–         The harvesters would then reply with a blessing

–         We read about this is the book of Ruth when Boaz says to the reapers,

–         “The Lord be with you.”

–         And the reapers respond by saying, “The Lord bless you” [8]


The wish of the psalmist is that those who are opposed to God’s reign be like grass on the roof tops that withers and comes to nothing

–         That their efforts be fruitless in other words

–         And that instead of receiving a blessing they are ignored


This may seem to us to be a little uncharitable or unkind but it’s not – the psalmist is simply being honest

–         He is angry with those who oppose God

–         He is angry with those who commit injustice

–         His indignation is actually better than indifference

–         His anger at wrong doing is actually better than apathy


The fact that the psalmist is able to speak out against the wicked like this (even though he has suffered at the hands of the wicked in the past) shows that he is not afraid – he is facing the future with courage


Now some people might be thinking…

–         ‘What about Jesus and forgiveness, how does that fit with this?’

–         Well, psalm 129 isn’t about forgiveness (we’ll get to forgiveness next week when we look at psalm 130)

–         Psalm 129 is about judgment and it is consistent with Jesus


We don’t always like to think about God’s judgment, or his anger at injustice, but actually we need to think about it

–         If we don’t have a good theology of judgment then we will end up thinking God is not righteous (that he lets bad people get away with bad things) and, if you go down that track, it will undo your faith


Jesus was a wonderful exponent of God’s mercy and forgiveness – but he was also a spokesman for God’s righteous judgment as well

–         A big part of his message was ‘repent, because judgement is coming’

–         During the week before Jesus’ crucifixion, around the same time that Jesus got angry with the merchants in the temple, overturning their tables to make room for prayer, we find this little story, from Matthew 21:18


On his way back to the city early next morning, Jesus was hungry. He saw a fig-tree by the side of the road and went to it, but found nothing on it except leaves. So he said to the tree, “You will never again bear fruit!” At once the fig-tree dried up.


Jesus isn’t angry because he missed out breakfast that morning

–         This is an acted out parable of judgment

–         Jesus’ words here echo verses 5-8 of psalm 129


The fig-tree symbolizes the empty, fruitless religion of Jesus’ day

–         Yes, the temple & tradition and the pomp & ceremony all look good from a distance (like a leafy green tree)

–         But there is no substance to it – no real fruit

–         Instead of the fruit of righteousness Jesus had found thieves ripping people off in the temple

–         And instead of true faith Jesus had found a narrow, legalistic religion that refused to listen to his message [9]


God is hungry for true religion (true faith/ true worship) but his people haven’t produced it

–         Ironically the leaders in charge of the temple worship in Jerusalem had unwittingly become like those who hate Zion

–         By rejecting Jesus they were rejecting God’s reign – they were rejecting God’s kingdom

–         And so when Jesus says the fig-tree will never bear fruit again it’s like he is comparing the religious leaders to the wicked of psalm 129 – their efforts will be fruitless and they will remain unblessed


Rather sobering-ly, Jesus’ prophecy of judgment came true in AD70 when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and its temple



Psalm 129 is about not being afraid

–         The psalmist finds courage to face the future by remembering Israel’s past – not just the painful bits but also the God bits

–         Remembering where he has come from and the God of grace who has made him a survivor, galvanizes the psalmist’s loyalty to the Lord

–         He is not indifferent to injustice but voices his indignation (his anger) at wrong doing


During this season of Lent we remember Jesus’ journey to the cross

–         Jesus was not afraid nor was he indifferent

–         Jesus faced injustice with truth and he faced his own crucifixion with courage becoming the anvil upon which the hammer of death was broken


Let us pray…





Out takes:


Israel’s freedom (and the church’s freedom too) is grounded in who God is – in his righteous character

–         Israel’s survival (and the church’s survival) does not depend on the whim of our enemies

–         Nor does it depend on our skill or popularity or strength

–         Our corporate survival depends on God’s character


When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, “…Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven…”, we are praying for God’s reign on earth

–         To pray for God’s reign implies being against those who are opposed to God’s reign

–         If we are for God’s will being done then it naturally follows that we also wish the wicked to be fruitless and ignored


[2] Derek Kidner, Psalms 73-150, page 480.

[3] 2nd Corinthians 4:8-9.

[4] Cited in Alec Motyer’s commentary on Psalms 73-150, page 237.

[5] Kraus, Psalms 60-150, page 462.

[6] Isaiah 53

[7] James Mays, Psalms, page 404.

[8] Ruth 2:4

[9] Michael Green, BST Matthew, page 222.