I thank God for Psalm 137

I’m thankful for Psalm 137.

I thank God for its ugliness. I thank God for the anger, the pain, and the anguish.

I thank God for the barely contained rage that drips from every word.

The Bible has its fair share of troubling passages. Perhaps none are more troubling than these nine verses that end with a cry for infanticide. It begins with these words:

Alongside Babylon’s streams, there we sat down,

crying because we remembered Zion.

We hung our lyres up in the tree there

because that’s where our captors asked us to sing;

Our tormentors requested songs of joy:

“Sing us a song about Zion!” they said.

But how could we possibly sing the Lord’s song on foreign soil?

Ravaged by the exile, the writer of Psalm 137 feels pain that goes beyond mere homesickness. His home has been destroyed. He and his people have been uprooted and taken to a foreign soil. A once proud people have seen their monarchy collapse. The glory days of David and Solomon are a distant memory. The grand Temple, the house of God on earth and center of all commercial and cultural activity, is rubble. God, who delivered the people from slavery, who gave them the Law to be the sign of their special relationship, who gave them the Land in which to dwell and worship, who made a people out of no people, cannot be heard. Everything the people knew was gone. In the midst of this devastation they are asked to sing. This is where their tormentors asked them to sing a song of joy. Psalm 137 is the response.

It continues with a plea for Jerusalem. The song longs for the memory of the city, and promises to keep it fresh. The promise of remembering is an important one. Time and again God tells the people to remember. Remembering keeps the people alive. It keeps them God’s people, and at this point, memory is all they have. Memory not only of the city, but of God’s presence in their lives. And then the Psalm goes to a more recent, bitter memory:

Remember what the Edomites did on Jerusalem’s dark day:

“Rip it down, rip it down!

All the way to its foundayions!” they yelled.

The memory of the taunt is a dark one, and it leads finally to this:

Daughter Babylon, you destroyer,

a blessing on the one who pays you back the very deed you did to us!

A blessing on the one who seizes your children and smashes them against the rock.”

I thank God for Psalm 137.

It is a devastating plea made in the midst of a devastating time. It is easy to read these words and be horrified. How could anyone wish something such as this? How could this be in our Holy Book? How could this be in the same book that holds Jesus’ plea for love of enemy? It is easy to read these words and just slowly walk away. Instead, I invite you to sit with them. Sit with the devastation that must have come to the people. Sit with the vision of what they experienced. Sit with the defeat at the hands of the conquerors, and remember that the Psalmist asks for nothing more than what was done to them.

I thank God for Psalm 137 because it gives me a place for anger. It gives me a place for devastation. It gives me a place to cry out. It gives me permission to give God my worst. I love the gentle words of Jesus. I love to read about the Lord as my shepherd, leading me through the valley of the shadow of death. I love to hear the promise of the prophets looking forward to the time when swords will be bent into plows. Psalm 137 though, gives me a place for other emotions. It gives me a place for all my anger.

It gives me a chance to react to beheadings of healthcare workers. It gives me a way to react to school girls being kidnapped. It gives me space to want to exact my tooth from the one who abuses their spouse or child. It gives me permission to scream, because sometimes a light, well-thought-out, gentle prayer just doesn’t satisfy me. Psalm 137 gives me room to rage when grace still feels a long way off. A closer look though, reveals that grace is contained even within this poem.

This poem is about the desire for revenge. It is about the very human yearning to exact punishment for wrong doing. It is about a people looking to take an eye for an eye, or in this case, a child for a child. The people were destroyed. Their children were presumably murdered in front of them, and this poem contains within it the collective rage of a people not only destroyed, but tormented afterwards. “Sing us a song,” their captors say.

Remember though, that this is a poem about the yearning for revenge. It is not a story of revenge fulfilled. It is a plea for God to take out God’s wrath, but the pleas are left unanswered. The cries are left unheeded. God’s voice is not heard. There is no response, at least not here. Eventually Cyrus the Great of Persia overthrew Babylon, and allowed the people to return. Eventually the people were restored. Eventually the people were allowed to return home. The Temple was rebuilt. The walls of the city were remade.

Eventually a savior came.

In the face of injustice, oppression, and violence, I don’t often react like a gentle lamb. Revenge is a powerful impulse. Just ask Liam Neeson. We love the action hero going on a quest for vengeance. We love that delicious moment when the evil doers get what’s coming to them. This doesn’t happen here.

And this is another reason I love Psalm 137. God’s response to this call for vengeance goes unheeded. The people are restored, but not through vengeance. They are restored through the suffering servant. They are restored through the lamb. When I am ready to boil over, this is an important reminder.

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