God-Soaked World Bible Guide – Day 19
March 24, 2017
Friday, March 24 – Psalm 137
1 By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
2 On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
3 For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
4 How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
6 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.
7 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!”
8 O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall they be who pay you back
what you have done to us!
9 Happy shall they be who take your little ones
and dash them against the rock!
Points of Interest:
- This psalm contains some of the more famous poetry of the Bible, not for how it ends but how it begins. It’s a song and a poem about song and poetry. Like movies about Hollywood, art about art is a big hit with artists. So this psalm has been set to music many times.
- I suggest reading the psalm in three stanzas, each a mini-section of three verses.
- Picture the scene of first three verses. Hundreds of miles from home, living as exiles in Babylon, a few Jews lean their instruments against nearby trees, sit down by the riverside, and together weep for their lost home, dashed hopes, and displaced lives. Along come a couple of Babylonians who mock them, telling them to sing one of their zippy songs about their so-called great God.
- As with all oppressed people, direct engagement and violent resistance aren’t wise options in the moment. Likely the musicians politely decline the request to perform and grit their teeth in anger. In the middle three verses, they direct their rage inward, swearing loyalty to their homeland and vowing to not become comfortable amongst their captors.
- In the final three verses, they express their rage-fueled prayer, that God would bring vengeance on their enemies. They ask God to remember each taunt, each word and act of violence against them. And they bless the people who will enact God’s revenge. They pronounce luck and good fortune against whoever will bring their enemies harm and smash the skulls of their enemies’ children!
- This is jarring material to read in your Bible, is it not? How can we pray along with these words? Well, before we make them our own, we can start by recognizing that the Bible is sympathetic to all voices, and maybe especially to the voice of the disempowered. It may be the first work of history, for instance, that doesn’t simply tell the story of the victors. Over and over again, the Bible encourages all people to hear the voice of the marginalized, to listen and take seriously the lament of the disempowered. So there’s that.
- Beyond this, there are at least two ways we can embrace the spirituality of these psalms of violent rage, while still trying to honor Jesus’ ethic of love for enemy. One is to spiritualize the enemy, taking a cue from one of Jesus’ first century followers who famously said that the most important human battles are never ultimately against human enemies. So we can pray defeat on the spiritual evil behind human wickedness and oppression.
Another way to embrace these prayers is to honor the spiritual and psychological freedom they endorse. The psalms, for the most part, speak from the perspective of people, not God. So God is not planning to bash our enemies’ children’s heads against rocks, but God isn’t offended if that’s the prayer we have in our hearts today.
Rather than censor our language or clean up our act before talking to God, the Bible invites us to sing whatever song we have today. We’re invited to engage with God with whatever we’ve got. Disengagement, not unbecoming thoughts and language, will pull us away from God and from God’s goodness to us.
Prayer for your city – Pray for the powerless in your city, for people on the losing ends of economic scarcity, domestic disputes, bullying, racism, or violence. Pray that as God hears the voices of the less powerful, that he will honor their rights and humanity and achieve justice on their behalf.
Spiritual Exercise – This week, after each Psalm, we’re practicing a simplified version of the Jesuit examen: examining our own life and thoughts and feelings, and connecting with God over what we find there. Today, examine three to five ways you have been wronged, or have been harmed by others. Choose one or more of these experiences and express your frustrations to God. When you’re done, ask God if God has anything else to reveal to you, and pause for a moment of silence while you listen.