Regular nibbles from the Bible. . .come for a bite, leave with an appetite

May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight. (Psalm 19:14, MSG)

Sunday, September 1, 2013

A Very Uncomfortable Psalm (Psalm 137)

            I recently read an excellent article on the discipline of singing, “Love the Lord with All Your Voice” by Steven R. Guthrie. He writes, “For Athanasius, the first virtue of the Psalms is not that they allow me to express my emotions. Rather, singing the Psalms makes it possible for me to express Moses' or David's emotions as my own…”

            I love the Psalms because I can match my emotions, however positive or negative, with the emotions of the psalmists and gain hope and perspective. However, is it possible to go too far? Is Psalm 137 in anybody’s hymnal?

            This despondent lament ends with a cry of revenge, “Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.” How do we reconcile the raw hatred of that phrase with the forgiveness urged and practiced by Jesus in the Gospels? We have his words in Matthew 5:44, “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” 

            Do we believe the same Holy Spirit inspired both sentences?

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
    when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars
    we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs,
    our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
    they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

            These are the lucky ones, the ones who went into exile in Babylon earlier or those who survived Nebuchadnezzar’s destruction of Jerusalem to join them. I can’t identify with loss of everything but my own life, but I imagine the world’s refugees can. I imagine Europe’s Jewish musicians, “playing for time” in Nazi death camps, could.

            In a fractionally tiny way, the actions of a bully might compare:  Someone hurts you physically and/or otherwise and then gloats and taunts you.

If I forget you, Jerusalem,
    may my right hand forget its skill.
May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
    if I do not remember you,
if I do not consider Jerusalem
    my highest joy.

            Occasionally, nostalgia for people and places, past or lost, turns to overwhelming sadness. My mom died at the young age of 57. I mourn not only her, but also my college, which closed its doors, trivial as that grief may seem. I am pulled out of that sadness by hopeful, joyful relationships with other people and places. The psalmist had no joy other than the memory of lost Jerusalem. He had no hope, other than the desire for brutal retaliation against the destroyers and their cheerleaders, seen in the final stanza of Psalm 137.

Remember, Lord, what the Edomites did
    on the day Jerusalem fell.
“Tear it down,” they cried,
    “tear it down to its foundations!”
Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction,
    happy is the one who repays you
    according to what you have done to us.
Happy is the one who seizes your infants

    and dashes them against the rocks

            I only find encouragement, just the slightest wisp, in verse 7, “Remember, LORD…” The psalmist is praying. Having suffered the loss of all things, experiencing ridicule from his captors, holding no hope, the psalmist is praying.

            He is still praying.


  1. Thank you, for words of wisdom and hope.
    I may not have lost "everything" but have suffered a strong blow in the loss of my marriage, and lately the grief has been heavy. I needed this reminder.

  2. Thanks, Roberta, for talking about a difficult topic. The Psalmist usually comes back to a place of hope--but not this time. However, I do take comfort in knowing (from the N.T.) that Jesus paid for the wrongs done to me in His pain and death. Justice has been served.

  3. It is a hard psalm Even in losing everything we still have Our Lord, that gives me great hope
    Chris Granville