Psalm 129:4: “Christ will cut their necks” – an Interpretation
It was eight weeks ago. My son came over to me and said, “Dad, I can’t chant this” (the second Antiphon of the Anavathmoi of Tone Plagal of the Fourth—8th Tone for the non-Greek Orthodox). I remember it was eight weeks ago because, as every chanter knows, there are eight Tones, so by chanting them in sequence we return to the same Tone every eight weeks. So, how does the Antiphon go in the rendering of Fr. Seraphim Dedes? “Let the haters of Zion become as the grass is before it is plucked up. For Christ will also cut their necks with the cutting sword of torments.”
I have to admit, at first reading the verse sounds horrible. It presents our good Lord as behaving worse than an ISIS terrorist: beheading His enemies and tormenting them in the process (definitely, against the Geneva Convention). What I told my son is that the Church does two things: first, she identifies Yahweh of the Old Testament with Jesus Christ; and second, she gives to those instances of violence a “spiritual” meaning.1 Whereas the Jews understood such expressions in a physical and historical setting, the Church views them in the timeless, eternal Kingdom of God, where the sinners will suffer for obstinately opposing the Christ of God. They inflict the punishment upon themselves, for they refuse to acknowledge their Redeemer.
Well, eight weeks later, not being satisfied with my own explanation, I gave the verse a more careful look. Here are my findings:
The Antiphon draws from Psalm 129:4 (128:4 according to the LXX), which reads, “The righteous Lord cut in pieces the necks of sinners” (The Orthodox Study Bible).2 But if we take a look at the various translations of the passage into English that are based on the original Hebrew (Masoretic) text a quite different meaning emerges. Thus the RSV renders it, “The LORD is righteous; he has cut the cords of the wicked.” In fact, ALL of the translations that I consulted essentially agree with this translation.
The contested word in the Septuagint version is αὐχένας, which means necks, whereas the Masoretic word is עֲב֣וֹת (‘ă·ḇōṯ), which means cords or ropes. So what is the meaning of Psalm 129, verse 4? Let us follow the verse in its context:
“Israel, tell us how your enemies have persecuted you ever since you were young.” “Ever since I was young, my enemies have persecuted me cruelly, but they have not overcome me. They cut deep wounds in my back and made it like a plowed field. But the LORD, the righteous one, has freed me from slavery.
As we see, the Good News Translation we have used makes the meaning quite plain. Israel, which is speaking here, has obtained release from its oppressors thanks to God, as the oxen fastened to the plow are freed when the cords that keep them tied to the plough are cut loose.3 God’s Word Translation marvelously explicates the meaning, while remaining faithful to the original: “The LORD is righteous. He has cut me loose from the ropes that wicked people tied around me.”
No one is just before the Lord. He alone is righteous and just. Because of our sins, the righteous Lord allows suffering and afflictions to befall us to help us to remember Him and turn to Him, and live. He is always merciful and compassionate, and comes to our rescue, to deliver us, because He will not test us more than we can handle. Thus after we had our measure of suffering, which is meant to humble us and to make us call upon Him, He comes and cuts the ropes with which our enemies (that is, our passions we cannot control and the devil that tempts us) entangle us, and keep us bound to sin—and frees us from their servitude.
Of course, the scripture is not limited to its historical setting. Beyond earthly Israel and earthly Jerusalem, its enemies and all the temporal vicissitudes to which we are subject, is Christ’s holy Church, against whom the powers of death shall not prevail (see Mt. 16:18). God will deliver His elect from the oppression and tyranny of the devil, and will set His people free from suffering and death. Interestingly, I. Kolitsara’s paraphrase into Modern Greek renders the line as follows: “[Our enemies] sat tyrannically over us, the impious idolatrous races pounded upon our backs, and for a long time they prolonged their iniquity. But the righteous Lord cut to pieces and humbled the prideful necks of the tyrant sinners.” This interpretation keeps the historical setting of an action that took place in the past, but with the words “humbled” and “prideful” understands it in an allegorical sense. This is also the interpretation of St. Augustine: “all are sinners and…all must fear the sword that hangs above their neck…but [only] proud sinners were meant to be understood, [as] all proud men carry lofty necks” (ad locum, NPNF-1, pp. 612).
This, then, seems to me, to be the meaning that comes through the original text. Although the Fathers in their writings as well as the hymnographer who composed the Antiphons had before them a translation that had misunderstood one Hebrew word, which means cords or ropes, and not necks, they did their best to give it an interpretation that made some sense. Thus St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite writes: “Christ will cut their necks with the sword of divine justice and with the cutting of torments, both eternal and temporal. For with such the Lord disciplines them with illnesses, suffering and misfortunes. By necks he means enigmatically haughtiness and pride, because the proud lift up their necks high…If you don’t walk humbly, but raise your necks high and your eyes and your head, most assuredly Christ our Master will cut your necks with the everlasting torments of hell.” (Nea Klimax, pp. 299-300)
Admirable as the patristic commentary is, I would like us to return to the original meaning, which happens to say the exact opposite of what the Septuagint text says. Far from cutting our necks, Christ cuts the ropes that wicked people tie around us, the noose that keeps us slaves to sin, Satan and death, and frees us from their yoke granting us life—His everlasting life.
- Another similar example is offered by the haunting Doxastikon of Holy Thursday’s Lauds: “They stripped Me of My garments and put upon Me a scarlet robe. They set a crown of thorns upon My head and put a reed into My right hand, so that I might smash them like a potter’s vessel.” In these hymns our “meek and humble” (Mt. 11:29) Lord appears violent.
- Sir Lancelot C. L. Brenton’s translation from the Septuagint is similar: “The righteous Lord has cut asunder the necks of sinners.”
- The same image is conveyed in Ps. 124:7, where we read, “We have escaped as a bird from the snare of the fowlers; the snare is broken and we have escaped” (RSV). Far from yoking us with commandments we cannot keep, the Lord came “to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke” (Is. 58:6).