“Plowmen have plowed my back and made their furrows long.”
There were no clouds, the sun was going down in a limpid, gold-washed sky. Just as the lower edge of the red disk rested on the high fields against the horizon, a great black figure suddenly appeared on the face of the sun. We sprang to our feet, straining our eyes toward it. In a moment we realized what it was. On some upland farm, a plough had been left standing in the field. The sun was sinking just behind it. Magnified across the distance by the horizontal light, it stood out against the sun, was exactly contained within the circle of the disk; the handles, the tongue, the share--black against the molten red. There it was, heroic in size, a picture writing on the sun. Willa Cather, My Antonia
If you drive south from Red Cloud, Nebraska, the hometown of Willa Cather, and look up along the hill to your left as you enter Kansas, you’ll spot an ancient walk-behind plow thoughtfully set along a fence row. I’ve never been on that road at dawn; but at a certain time of year, you likely see the vision Jim Burton notes in My Antonia, which is likely why that old plow stands there. After all, very little in the neighborhood of slowly dying Red Cloud, Nebraska, is unrelated, today, to its famous native novelist, Willa Cather.
On any of the blue highways that line the rural Upper Midwest today, you’re likely to find a half-dozen old plow lawn ornaments on any hour’s drive. And rightly so. Nothing within human memory changed the landscape of great America prairies more fully than the moment that rich layer of centuries-old top soil was opened to furrows, to wheat, barley, corn, soybeans and what not else.
I wouldn’t be sitting here had someone, 150 years ago or so, not drawn that first blade through virgin prairie. All around me, the landscape looks nothing at all like it did when tall-grass prairie swayed in the wind. When Jim, Cather’s narrator, sees the plough, “heroic in size, a picture writing on the sun,” he knows no single weapon was more instrumental in bringing him to the place he loved, as did Cather, than that valiant agricultural tool.
Some might call it rape, what happened when that blade was thrust into virgin prairie. Some do, in fact. Today, the ecological world of tall-grass prairie is almost as extinct as the do-do bird, altered forever into a immense garden of commodities.
There may be no more profoundly painful metaphor in all of the psalms than this one, in Psalm 129. The plowman enemy, scourge in hand, still dripping, has left furrows across his back, the poet says. Thousands of years later, we still grimace, the image of that weapon slashing through flesh and muscle, leaving furrows welling with blood.
“Persecution is the heirloom of the church,” Spurgeon says, in reference to 129. He’s not wrong, but it seems to me that he’s only half right. Persecution is an heirloom, but not the only display in the museum. Like the plow, the historic suffering of the Christian people can be manipulated and misused all to easily. Much of Fox’s Book of Martyrs is the story of Christians torturing other Christians, after all.
But that’s not the lesson of the psalm. The lesson is one of perseverance, of steadfastness. The lesson is all about moving on, holding on, knowing our only comfort, even when our backs are flush with blood.
The lesson is simple: here as it is so often in scripture, the lesson is “fear not.”