Psalm 129 – “Imprecation of Enemies”

china_gal04_oct07Hebrew-English Text

I. Summary

Psalm 129 speaks of the pain caused by enemies, specifically the “haters of Zion” (v. 5). It contains a wish for the enemies to wither away and to be ostracized.

II. Photo
V. 6 curses the enemy saying, “Let them be like grass on roofs that fades before it can be pulled up.”

III. Outline

1a. Superscription
1c. Call on community to participate
1b, 2-3. Complaint
4. Affirmation of confidence
5-8. Imprecation

IV. Comment
Psalm 129 is in the shir hama’alot section of the Psalter, possibly indicating its use by pilgrims on their journey to Jerusalem. Yet, if it was not used in that context, it might have been placed in the shir hama’alot section because of the mention of “Zion” in verse 5. It is interesting how Psalm 128 is a “blessing” and Psalm 129 is its polar opposite: not only is it an imprecation, it even negates possible blessings (v. 8 says “the passersby shall not say ‘“the blessing of the LORD be upon you’”).

The specific genre of Psalm 129 is the subject of scholarly debate. While it might be interpreted as a Thanksgiving (vv. 1-3 speaks of past trouble, and v. 2b speaks of a salvation of sorts), it might also be interpreted as a Complaint or Lament (vv. 1-3 speak of trouble, and the imprecation is somewhat similar to a petition). Yet, both genres usually open with an initial invocation (e.g. Ps 69:2a), a component lacking in our psalm. Also, there is no direct petition of thanksgiving formula. Others move beyond these genres and, based on the affirmation of confidence in v. 4, relegate Psalm 129 to the Trust genre. Yet, seeing that the imprecation is the major focus of the psalm, and the salvation of v. 2b is weak and muted, I have labeled Psalm 129 as an Imprecation, a genre closely related to the complaint/petition.

The psalm begins with individualistic language which is taken over by the community with the words “let Israel now declare.” These words are a call on the community to participate in the psalm’s recitation (cf. Ps. 118:2-4; 124:1). The metaphor “youth” is an individualistic term applied to the people of Israel, much as in Jer. 2:2: “Go proclaim to Jerusalem: Thus said the LORD: I accounted to your favor The devotion of your youth, Your love as a bride — How you followed Me in the wilderness, In a land not sown.”

The metaphorical complaint in v. 3, “Plowmen plowed across my back; they made long furrows” conjures up feelings of acute pain. Metaphors continue in vv. 4, 6-7 where the speaker describes God as one who “has snapped the cords of the wicked” and hopes for the enemy to fade away like grass in the hot sun.

The imprecation in v. 5, “Let all who hate Zion be frustrated and fall back in disgrace,” seems to have been a standard form of imprecation. Like our verse, Ps. 35:4, 40:15, and 70:3 all use the verbs yevoshu “be frustrated” and yissogu ‘achor “fall back in disgrace.” Yet, verse 5  is unique in specifying the enemies as “haters of Zion” while the other psalms speak of the mevaqshei nafshi “those who seek my life.”

V. Important Verses
vv. 5-6: Let all who hate Zion fall back in disgrace, let them be like grass on roofs that fades before it can be pulled up…