Help for the Oppressed: A Meditation on Psalm 119:121-128

“I have done judgment and justice: leave me not to mine oppressors” (Psalm 119:121).

Oppression is the abuse of authority in trampling those underneath.  According to the apostle Peter, oppression often occurs within slavery, whenever slaves under a harsh master “endure grief, suffering wrongfully” (1 Peter 2:19).  Broadening this principle, oppression occurs whenever lawful authority turns into unlawful slavery, whether it be dictatorial heads of households or totalitarian governments, which treat citizens as slaves.  In all three arenas–family, government, and the workplace–we see elements of oppression.

What should we do when we are oppressed?  Or, how should we counsel and pray for those who are oppressed?

According to this stanza, there are three specific answers.

Fundamentally, we should stress our identity as slaves of God. After introducing the topic of oppression (vv. 121-122), the psalmist identifies himself three times as “thy servant” (vv. 122, 124, 125).  This self-identification has occurred several times in this psalm, but never in such a cluster, nor with such an assertion as “I am thy servant” (v. 125).  This assertion is the centerpiece of the stanza, highlighting the theme here as “The LORD is thy keeper” does within the eight verses of Psalm 121.  Therefore, the identification is self-consciously chosen and asserted: “I am thy servant.”  Why is this identity so important to assert within the context of oppression?

Before answering that question, it should first be noted that this identity is not often chosen and asserted by many American Christians.  If asked to identify themselves spiritually, most American Christians would probably say, “I am a Christian,” or “a believer,” or perhaps even “a disciple” or “a saint.”  How many would say, “I am a slave of God” or “a slave of Christ”?  Even though the apostle Paul often described himself as such (Romans 1:1; Philippians 1:1; Titus 1:1; cf. Galatians 1:10), and told others to regard him as such (1 Corinthians 3:5; 4:1), we American Christians rarely use such a designation in public for ourselves.  Interestingly, we often identify Jesus as “our Lord” (literally, “our Master”), but then do not identify ourselves as His slaves.  How ironic!  According to Paul, those of us called to Christ in the land of the free are truly Christ’s slaves, for we were “bought with a price” (1 Corinthians 7:22-23).  Peter also commands us to do good “as free [men], and not using your liberty for a cloke of maliciousness, but as servants of God” (1 Peter 2:16).  Truly, we are slaves of Christ and slaves of God.

For Paul, it was very important that earthly slaves thought of themselves as slaves of Christ, doing their work “as to the Lord [the Master!], and not unto men” (Colossians 3:23; cf. Ephesians 6:5-8).  Though men may not notice or repay, Master Jesus both notices and repays, to both “bond” and “free” (Ephesians 6:8).  The slave could work sincerely and heartily, knowing that he was serving (literally, “slaving”) “the Lord Christ” (Colossians 3:24).  Taking this principle, but making a different application, it is important for the oppressed believer to assert that he is not so much the slave of an earthly lord, but the slave of the Lord of lords.  While oppression may make a person feel hopelessly enslaved, as if the oppressor were saying, “You are mine and I am never letting you go,” the believer can assert in prayer, “I am Your servant, O God, and I know that it is only a matter of time before You hear my groaning and deliver me from this earthly Pharaoh.”

With this identity in place, the psalm models two specific actions for the oppressed: prayer and precision.

First, the oppressed should resort to prayer (vv. 121-124). Pray for a change of location (v. 121).  Pray for oppression to cease (v. 122).  Continue to look for deliverance (“thy salvation”), and to hope in the word of promise, even if it should delay in coming, for God’s lovingkindness (“thy mercy”) is the loyal love of a covenanted relationship (vv. 123-124).  You are His servant–His property. How could He let you go!

It seems to be on the basis of this relationship that the psalmist boldly asks God to become the collateral (“the surety”) that guarantees His own promise to do good to His servant (v. 122).  In other words, the psalmist is saying, “If good does not come, may You, O God, be held personally accountable.”  How bold!  How audacious!  What a reminder this is, that believing prayer should respectfully, yet boldly, reason with God on the basis of truth.  Even our relative merit should be brought forward (v. 121a).  As sinners, we have no absolute merit before God; but as human beings, we often do have rights, having done nothing to deserve such oppression (cf. Romans 4:2).  This relative merit should be argued as well.

In all, we should remember that prayer is our first recourse.  This stanza has no hint of retaliation, whether verbal or physical.  Granted, those with opportunity to become free should become free (1 Corinthians 7:21), and those who need to flee physical abuse should do so (cf. Matthew 10:23), but to repay evil with evil is something forbidden both by precept (Romans 12:19-21) and by our Lord’s very own example under the oppression of the cross (1 Peter 2:21-23).  As His slaves, we must not “strive,” but answer oppression with patience, kindness, and non-defensive words, knowing that the oppressor himself is a slave of the devil, and that God may use our response to grant this oppressor repentance unto freedom (2 Timothy 2:24-26).  Certainly God heard Stephen’s prayer and saved Saul.

For us under the New Covenant, we should remember that God has given us His very own Spirit as the collateral or pledge that He will make good on His promise to redeem us (Ephesians 1:14).  Moreover, our Judah, the Lord Jesus, became surety for us in Egypt, the Land of Oppression, when we, like Benjamin, were threatened with permanent slavery under Pharaoh (Genesis 43:9; 44:44:32).  How precious then, that we, like Simeon, can hold up the Lord Jesus by faith, and say to God above, “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word: for mine eyes have seen thy salvation” (Luke 2:29-30).  Instead of our eyes “finishing off” (a Hebrew idiom), in looking for the “consolation of Israel,” we can gladly say that we have “seen the Lord’s Christ” by faith, and that we will see Him soon face-to-face (cf. Psalm 119:81-82, 123; Luke 2:25, 26).

Second, the oppressed should resort to precision (vv. 125-128). Contrary to our intuitions, prayer for deliverance is not enough to counteract oppression.  As slaves of the Lord Jesus, we not only belong to Him, and thus expect deliverance, but we also must obey Him–not just in generalities, but in the kind of precision that requires divinely-given discernment (v. 125; cf. Philippians 1:9; Hebrews 5:14).  Moreover, as servants of such a gracious and good Master, we love His commandments more than money, finding His orders more precious and beautiful than 24-karat gold (v. 127).

This attitude stands in stark contrast to the autonomous proud, who oppress others under the guise of self-made law.  Like both the Pharisees, who nullified the commandments of God with man-made technicalities (cf. Matthew 15:6), and the chief priests, who justified the murder of Jesus on the basis of expedience (John 11:50), oppressors justify their oppression in their own eyes (cf. Proverbs 16:2; 21:2).  To us, who are servants of a perfect Lord, all His commands are perfectly straight (v. 128); and since we love them more than beautiful gold, we are loath to mar them with even a slight twist in order to justify our own disobedience.  Only love gives such attention!  May all the oppressed in Christ, who are His slaves more than they are men’s slaves, resort to such looking prayer and to such loving precision!  Amen.

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