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When Songs to God Turn Bitter

San Williams

March 15, 2015
Psalm 137

Psalm 137

By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’

How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy.

Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites
the day of Jerusalem’s fall,
how they said, ‘Tear it down! Tear it down!
Down to its foundations!’
O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall they be who pay you back
what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones
and dash them against the rock!

During Lent we’re seeking to draw closer to God by focusing on the Psalms. Many of the psalms in the Psalter are songs of praise and thanksgiving. For example, Psalm 19, the psalm we considered last Sunday, was a psalm of praise celebrating the glory of God’s creation and the goodness of the Torah. However, not all psalms are uplifting. Psalm 137 is a case in point. This psalm is full of bitter memories and vehement pain. It ends with a cry of vengeance that is so horrific that it makes us cringe in discomfort. What do we do with a scripture like Psalm 137? Of course, the easy thing to do is to follow the lectionary’s suggestion, and stop the reading before we get to that cry for revenge at the end. Yet, while it’s disturbing to hear, let’s allow the psalmist’s rage to play out in full.

First, consider the depth and scope of the loss being voiced in this psalm. Psalm 137 is unique in that it addresses a specific historical event. In the year 587 B.C.E., Jerusalem was burned, its temple destroyed. The king was exiled and the leading citizens were deported to Babylon. Psalm 137 was written during this exile, or perhaps shortly after the exiles returned to Jerusalem only to find their city in total ruin and their temple burned to the ground.

From our vantage point, it’s hard to grasp how devastating the exile was to the spiritual and political life of Israel. It meant the end of their social fabric, their public and religious institutions. The composer of the psalm may have been one of the temple musicians who was carried into exile with his harp and a repertoire of temple music. He and his guild of Levitical singers would have been special targets of their captors’ cruel humor, as when their captors tormented them, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

Thankfully, such experiences of dislocation are foreign to our experience. It’s hard for us to imagine what it would be like to lose our home and everything familiar only to be re-located and held captive in a strange and foreign place. Yet as we know, dislocation, displacement, and incarceration are a reality for millions of people around the world today. In fact, according to the UN refugee agency the number of refugees, asylum-seekers, and internally displaced people worldwide has, for the first time in the post-World Word II era, exceeded 50 million people.

At Presbytery meeting this past weekend, we heard troubling reports about women and children immigrants from Latin America who are currently incarcerated in facilities in Karnes City and Hutto, towns only a short distance from Austin. The privately run facility at Karnes City currently has 532 beds occupied by women and children, and an effort is underway to expand the capacity to more 1,000 beds. So while the pain of exile, of dislocation, of captivity is largely outside our experience, it is all too common in the world around us.

In last Sunday’s New York Times, Nicholas Kristof wrote of his recent visit to Gaza. Six months after the latest war, he saw that thousands of Palestinians remain homeless and their children are dying of the cold. He noted that Gaza has been referred to as an open-air prison. Kristof observed how that description of Gaza is more accurate now than ever, because so many homes have been destroyed that thousands of Gazans today are literally left in the open air. Kristof interviewed a 14-year-old boy, Ahmed Jundiya, who aspires to grow up and massacre Israelis. Kristof asked him how he could possibly favor more warfare after all the bloodshed Gaza had endured. The boy shrugged. “Maybe we can kill all of them, and then it will get better,” he said. Kristof asked him if he really wanted to wipe out all of Israel, and the boy nodded, saying, “I will give my soul to kill all Israelis.”

Such an unfiltered call for the death of one’s enemies is chilling. But we hear it voiced today, much as the poet of ancient Israel voiced it in his day. Sometimes injustices are so great, and suffering is so intense, that the thought of wiping out one’s enemies—every man, woman and child—becomes inevitable.

You may be thinking, “Yes, but aren’t we called to reject such thoughts? After all, Jesus teaches us to love our enemies, turn the other cheek, pray for those who persecute us, to return no one evil for evil, but to overcome evil with good.” Thus cries for revenge—whether they rise from the pages of the Bible, from a desperate Palestinian boy, or from the family members of a murder victim sound antithetical to Jesus’ teachings. Shouldn’t we reject out of hand the call for revenge, whether it’s voiced in the Bible or elsewhere?

Well, in an essay on this topic, Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann contends that expressions of rage and anger have a place in the life of faith. For that reason, he encourages us not to dismiss such expressions too quickly. He points out that the psalmist addresses his rage to God, from whom no secret can be kept. Brueggemann believes that rage brought in honesty to God is a legitimate form of prayer, one that functions as a cathartic utterance. He writes, “Such cathartic utterances…give us a way to vent our rage at loss without letting it escalate into actions that will hurt our neighbors.” In other words, sometimes loss needs to be fully voiced, and honestly confessed, before reconciliation and forgiveness can be achieved.

Consider, for example, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that was formed in South Africa after apartheid was abolished. The goal of the Commission was to move the nation toward unity, reconciliation, and justice for all of South Africa’s people. But in order to get beyond the deep divisions and long history of oppression, the victims of gross human rights violations were given the opportunity to voice their rage and tell the truth about their suffering. Such truth-telling was an essential step on the road to reconciliation.

Friends, it’s hard to listen to voices of anger and sadness erupting from people who have suffered at the hands of another. But one of the lessons of Psalm 137 is that God allows honest speech, even when it includes expressions of rage generated by loss. By turning our most vengeful thoughts to God, we may be able to spare ourselves and our neighbor from further suffering, and thus open a path to healing.