As a “song of ascents,” this psalm may have been sung when the Israelites journeyed to Jerusalem (situated about 2,500 feet above sea level) to observe the annual festivals. By the time this psalm was composed, Israel, over a period of many years, had been subjected to frequent oppression.
Israel’s development into a nation started in Egypt, and its “youth” evidently is to be associated with its alien residence in that land. Harsh enslavement there was just the beginning of the periods of oppression that Israel experienced.
According to the Septuagint rendering, Israel had “often” been “warred against.” Numerous modern translations convey the same significance. “Often have they attacked me from my youth.” (NRSV) “Since my youth they have often assailed me.” (Tanakh) “Often since I was young have I been attacked.” (REB) The Hebrew word translated “often” can additionally mean “great,” “much,” or “enough,” and the Hebrew term for “warred against” may also denote “oppressed” or “afflicted.” For this reason, other modern translations read: “Much have they oppressed me from my youth.” (NAB) “They have greatly oppressed me from my youth.” (NIV) Despite repeatedly unleashing their hatred, the enemies had not succeeded in overcoming Israel. They did not prevail.
What the Israelites experienced from their foes could be likened to the labor of plowers as they make one long furrow after another with their plows. Thus, the “back” of the nation came to resemble a field with distinct furrows, or a man’s back with numerous long gashes from having been cruelly whipped.
YHWH, however, was fully aware of what was happening to his people. Being a righteous or just God, he did not countenance the merciless treatment that went far beyond the discipline of which Israel may have been deserving. Therefore, he cut the ropes to which the injury-producing implements (the plows) of the wicked assailers were attached, liberating his people from harm. Since, however, ropes were also attached to a yoke, cutting them could denote Israel’s release from the yoke of oppression. A number of translations convey this meaning. “Yahweh the upright has shattered the yoke of the wicked.” (NJB) “But the just LORD cut me free from the ropes of the yoke of the wicked.” (NAB)
On account of what YHWH had done for his people, the psalmist could make the petition that the haters of Zion (Zion being representative of all of God’s people by reason of its being the capital and the center for worship) experience disgrace and turn back in confusion. The psalmist’s prayer was that the enemies be like the grass that sprouts on earthen roofs but, because of having little soil for its roots, dries up quickly when subjected to the sun’s intense heat. Such grass has no value. No reaper could even get his hands around it for cutting purposes. Nor would a binder of sheaves place a bundle of it in the upper fold of his garment. Because there would never be any reaping of such grass, no one would greet the harvesters with the typical pronouncement of blessing: “The blessing of YHWH be upon you.” No reapers would respond with the words: “We bless you in the name of YHWH.” (Compare Ruth 2:4.)
Regarding YHWH, see Psalm 1.
In verse 3, the Septuagint conveys the thought of mistreatment but in a way that differs from the Masoretic Text. “The sinners have devised upon my back; they have prolonged their lawlessness.”