God's Heart for Suffering

Chiasm in Psalm 129

Psalm 129 - 5 minute read
If we're honest, this Psalm might make us a little uncomfortable. It is the song of a tired people pleading for justice against and rest from constant violent oppression; but it is also their testimony of their confidence in God’s constant loving faithfulness.

Let’s take a look at the literary structure of Psalm 129 to see what it reveals about God’s heart for His people.

What is a chiasm?

It's important to remember that — like Jesus, the Word of God — Scripture, also the Word of God, is equally human and divine. While it is faithful and true, and gives divine wisdom about what it means to be a person, it is also literary art. This doesn't detract from Scripture though, it makes it that much more remarkable! Because the Bible is an ancient piece of literature, some of the techniques it uses to tell stories can seem foreign to us. Whether it's phrases, words, story structure, repetition, or even ideas, being familiar with these literary devices can be helpful when we are trying to discern the meaning from a tricky-to-understand piece of Scripture.

There is one particular literary device commonly used in the Bible that can help us understand the meaning of Psalm 129 a little more clearly — the chiasm.

A chiasm is a poetic device that uses a precise repetition of words, phrases, and ideas to highlight the writer’s main point and to make comparisons and connections. The repeated ideas can serve to emphasize each other, or contrast each other. The center of the chiasm is often the most significant part.
Here is an example of how the entire story of the Bible is a chiasm to help visualize the structure:

   A: Genesis (original Creation)
            B: Law and Prophets (prediction of renewal
                 and new covenant)
                   X: Gospels (life of Christ, new
                        covenant enacted, most important)
             B’: Epistles (description of renewal and
                   new covenant)
   A’: Revelation (New Creation fulfilled)

These chiastic structures can be found all throughout the Bible, but it will take some practice to spot them. Eventually, as you practice years of reading and re-reading Scripture, you'll become more familiar with the way it tells stories and you'll be able to spot these things on your own! Let's take a swing at one together.

The Structure of Psalm 129

If you read closely and carefully, you can see that Psalm 129 has lots of repeated words, phrases, and ideas that are structured around a center point. Let’s break it down:
Okay, so what's going on here?

A - v1-2: Israel's enemies attempt to withhold the blessing from the people of God through oppression, violence, and subjection.
B - v3: Farming analogy (plowing) to illustrate the means by which Israel's enemies try to violently sow their own culture into Israel in order to reap wealth and power and to provide an artistic (and honest) interpretation of how "all who hate Zion" treat the downcast.
X - v4: "The LORD is righteous, he has cut me free from the cords of the wicked" — the central, most important point of the Psalm is that God has not abandoned His people to suffering.
B’ - v5-7: Farming analogy (useless planting of crops, a reaper gathering a withered harvest) to illustrate that those who seek power and glory apart from God through violent oppression will not have a bountiful harvest and to provide an artistic (and honest) representation of what "all who hate Zion" will receive in justice.
A' - v8: Israel's enemies who attempted to violently withhold God's blessing from His people will not receive blessing themselves.
The Flight of the Prisoners, c. 1896-1902, James Tissot, 22.7 x 29.7 cm
Jewish Museum, New York, NY.