“They have greatly oppressed me from my youth, but have not gained the victory over me”1
It is common for abuse victims to have to deal with the impact of abuse every day. Even when they have successfully escaped the direct relationship. There are still memories and triggers: mental and emotional injury. There is a need for ongoing vigilance and the complicated, exhausting world of hypervigilance.2
Abuse has a wide-ranging impact
Many abuse victims suffer the daily practical impact of abuse. If the abuse has taken place at a workplace, that means a probable change in employment, sometimes meaning a step-down or similar career disruption. If at a church, it most likely means the need to find a new church and community. Often there are significant changes in friendships, especially where the abuser has managed to deny the abuse and win recruits. Hopefully, that’s accompanied by the strengthening of other friendships, or creation of new ones, but that can take time.
If the abuse has taken place in a marriage or similar partnership, and especially if children are involved, the victim is likely to now have added pressures of single parenting, financial stress, and some need to continue to relate to the abusive party over co-parenting issues. Probably added to that are legal battles, mediation, and financial negotiations, any or all of which are likely to be threaded with abuse tactics. Likewise for those who face systemic abuse, such as relating to gender or race, finding true places of sanctuary can be extremely difficult.
It’s a nightmare. And it is vital that we support people who have been through so much, and have so much still to deal with. A safe, helpful community can bring so much hope and relief.
They have greatly oppressed me from my youth
Many victims of abuse have been suffering from a young age, but far from all. Abuse can affect people of any age and stage. But one of the triumphs expressed in this psalm is that despite the harm done, the abusers have not won.
So many abuse victims go on to be astounding, empathic, sensitive, safe people. Even when they don’t have support. It’s astonishing. Even though their abuser has delighted in trying to undermine the victim’s basic humanity, these people have a deep dedication to alignment with the character of God. And that’s not to exclude those who don’t identify as Christian – more to say that if it is true that all people are made with the potential for great goodness, and I firmly believe so, then many victims respond to the harm of abuse by digging ever deeper foundations for that impressive character. Regardless of their faith or not.
I don’t want to romanticise all victims of abuse either. Abuse is a vile evil, no matter who the victims are. Many victims go on to be deeply ethical people. It’s like they draw some firm internal boundary to never treat people the way they have been treated themselves. Others don’t make the same choices and go on to become perpetrators. It’s interesting that here in this psalm, as elsewhere in the Bible, there is empathy for those who have been harmed, but a clear boundary that delighting in harming others is not ok, no matter who the perpetrator is.
May those who come to this place intent on causing harm be turned back in shame.
There are strong words in this psalm. Words that pilgrims would have sung together at least once a year. It’s clear there are those who hate the places of sanctuary, and who love to hurt people. For those people, this song ends with what sounds like a curse: may they be turned back in shame, may they wither and die, and receive no blessing from God.
These words are in stark contrast with some of the messages many victims are given in the Christian community. This psalm does not create space for wolves. It does not call us to welcome unsafe people with open arms. It does not call for victims to forgive their oppressors. Instead, perhaps shockingly for some, there are boundaries.
“They have greatly oppressed me from my youth,”
let Israel say;
“they have greatly oppressed me from my youth,
but they have not gained the victory over me.
Plowmen have plowed my back
and made their furrows long.
But the LORD is righteous;
he has cut me free from the cords of the wicked.”
May all who hate Zion
be turned back in shame.
May they be like grass on the roof,
which withers before it can grow;
a reaper cannot fill his hands with it,
nor one who gathers fill his arms.
May those who pass by not say to them,
“The blessing of the LORD be on you;
we bless you in the name of the LORD.”3
Steve WadePsalm 129 does not create space for wolves or call us to welcome unsafe people with open arms. It does not call for victims to forgive their oppressors. Instead, perhaps shockingly for some, there are boundaries. Click To Tweet
- Psalm 129:1
- Hypervigilance: “extreme or excessive vigilance: the state of being highly or abnormally alert to potential danger or threat” – Merriam-Webster Dictionary
- Psalm 129