Psalm 129: The human condition

‘God, the righteous one, has cut the cords of the wicked’ (4)

This psalm is another song of ascent (psalms 120 to 134). It’s also the sixth of seven penitential psalms. The song is a statement of the mystery not only of the human condition, with all its faults and frustrations, but also of our access to grace. The psalm asks for forgiveness and redemption for Israel, though in modern context it clearly has a wider application.

Antiphon to Ps. 129 in the Howard Psalter, BL Arundel MS 83, 14th c.

The tenth of the Psalms of Ascent regrets the oppression of the people of God. The psalmist recognises that God is the source of goodness but seeks shame on oppressors.

It’s easy to suggest sniffily that he or she should have been more forgiving of Israel’s enemies. However, the psalm was probably written in the midst of dire threats to the very survival of the nation and the people. The poet then turns from the past and asks for future oppressors to be ‘turned back’. In poetic mood, the singer imagines the unjust as withered grass on the housetops:

… which does not fill the hand of the reaper, so that passers by do not say so much as “God prosper you. We wish you well in the name of God” (7)

This final blessing, Benediximus vobis in nomine Domini, is repeated in the antiphon in the early manuscript of Psalm 129 illustrated above. (The last phrase of the antiphon appears to be a shorthand reference to the incipit of the next psalm 130: De profundis / Out of the depths.)

The blessing quoted here seems to have been a customary greeting between workers in the fields, as Augustine points out in his commentary on the psalms:

For ye know, brethren, when men pass by others at work, it is customary to address them, “The blessing of the Lord be upon you.” And this was especially the custom in the Jewish nation. No one passed by and saw any one doing any work in the field, or in the vineyard, or in harvest… without a blessing.

The two sentences in the psalm may have been a type of call and response, as when Ruth met Boaz:

Just then Boaz came from Bethlehem. He said to the reapers, “God be with you.” They answered, “The God bless you.”

1Ruth 2:4


Psalm 129 does not appear in the Lectionary so is not likely to be often sung. If it is, that reapers’ blessing should surely be the focus of the song, as it is in The Emergent Psalter. Sung as a reciprocal blessing of the people by the people it would grace any gathering.

Otherwise, this psalm is something of a musical orphan that has attracted little compositional interest. An extended baritone solo by Franz Liszt is one of the few classical compositions online; none appear on CPDL but a few list on IMSLP. A short trio on Psalm 129 by Josquin des Prez looks attractive save that is is not in English.