Psalm 137 is one of the most disturbing passages in the whole Bible. Its closing line is what bothers me most: “Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!” An outburst like that seems out of place in the same book where Jesus teaches us to bless those who persecute us and forgive those who have sinned against us.
Some have suggested that the psalm, so full of anger and hatred, shouldn’t really have a place in the Bible now that Jesus has come, that it’s made obsolete by Jesus’ gospel of love and forgiveness. The problem is that God reveals himself to us through the entire Bible, not just those parts that suit our taste. II Timothy 3:16 says, “All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness…” There are certain practices in the Old Testament that we’re no longer bound to do now that Jesus has come. In the New Testament the Apostle Paul said that women should keep quiet in church, but we no longer have to refrain from eating certain foods like pork or shellfish. Those restrictions were one way the Israelites set themselves apart from other nations, and now all nations are one in Christ. We no longer prevent women from speaking in church. Those restrictions were accommodations to social norms of the time. But the anger that the psalmist expresses is as real today as it was 3000 years ago. The only difference is that now instead of having to resort to rocks and spears to avenge anger, there are missiles and tanks and car bombs to use against enemies.
One thing that can help us understand this psalm is to remember that although the Bible is inspired by God, it was written by and for human beings. One characteristic of the Bible that makes it so valuable is that it deals with every human emotion, from lust to greed to pity to romance. The Bible has been called “the book that reads us.” It not only tells us about God, it also tells us about ourselves. As we learn about who we are from the Bible, we can also learn something about the way God relates to us.
Psalm 137 shows us what kinds of things we can bring to God in prayer. Many of us think of prayer as something we can only do when we’re in the right frame of mind – our souls have to be fresh and scrubbed and filled with pure, clean thoughts. Maybe that’s why many of us pray so little: we’re rarely in the right frame of mind. We try to put away all our anger and hatred and pettiness before we come to God so God can see us at our best, and we find that so often, when we sit down to pray, we’re just not ready.
Now, that’s a noble goal, to try to be our best before the Lord. But one wonderful thing about God is that God invites us to come before him just as we are. We don’t have to have our spiritual house in perfect order before we can pray.
In the 137th psalm the psalmist makes no pretense that he has any kind thoughts toward those who burned his home, raped his sisters, and carried his nation into exile. He doesn’t pretend to keep his sense of humor when his captors make fun of his most deeply held beliefs by forcing him to sing sacred songs intended for God as light entertainment to help them wile away the evening. No, the psalmist doesn’t try to put a pleasant face on his feelings. He’s totally honest with God. He would love to see the things most precious to the Babylonians, even their children, thrown headlong against a rock.
Sometimes we have to voice our rage before we’re able to forgive. As one writer put it, “Grief and sorrow that go unspoken may break the heart that hugs them tight.” (Herbert Anderson, All Our Sorrows, All Our Griefs) And where better to take that rage than to Almighty God? God allows us to bare our meanest, most vicious side to him. After all, God created us and knows our deepest feelings. We can bring God our most human emotions confident that God doesn’t reject us. God doesn’t turn us away because we’re made of flesh and blood and not perfect angels.
It’s important to note that the psalmist didn’t actually go out and organize a posse to murder Babylonian babies. He told God how he felt, but didn’t act on that bitter feeling. He cried out to God for vindication, and left it in God’s hands. About 100 years later God did deliver the Jews from captivity. The Persians conquered the Babylonians and let the Jews go home to Jerusalem. But Cyrus, King of Persia, was a relatively gentle conqueror by the standards of the time. He didn’t murder babies. He didn’t ravage Babylon like the psalmist wanted. God did deliver the Jews from captivity, but in God’s own way.
Another thing this psalm tells us about ourselves is that forgiveness isn’t something that can be forced too quickly. It would be a lot easier to accept if the psalm ended on a note of forgiveness, if we could see some peaceful resolution in the heart of the one who wrote it. But it doesn’t resolve itself that way. It ends on a note of bitterness and resentment. Sometimes anger has to run its course before we’re able to forgive. And this psalm stops before it ever gets to the point of forgiveness.
To those who have never lived in exile, who have never felt the cold grip of the oppressor, who have never felt completely powerless over our destiny, such unresolved anger may be hard to understand. I find the bitterness of the psalm, well, embarrassing because it’s just not proper to be so angry. But not everyone in the world has the luxury of forgiving easily. This psalm is a link with those who live in situations that seem hopeless, those whose only relief in suffering is to cry out their complaint to God who hears. Although these cries of an exile may sound harsh to us, they resonate in the ears of a Palestinian who has been deprived of her homeland and is rearing a fifth generation of children in a refugee camp. The words of the psalm may be the words of an Honduran father whose child was killed by in a gang war. These words could be those of a woman in Syria who has been enslaved by ISIS and forced to be the wife of someone who has murdered her family. These could even be the words someone in your neighborhood who is held emotionally captive by an abusive spouse.
Most of us have so many things that preoccupy us that it’s easy to overlook the kind of suffering and oppression that goes on in the lives of others, especially those who are separated from us by an ocean. When you have a job to hold down, a family to rear, bills to pay, there’s not much time or emotional energy left to give much thought to people whose situation is very different from yours. This psalm is our link with those whose only hope is in raising their cries of anger to a just God. It’s one way that we who are free from oppression keep from seeing our freedom as something to take for granted. It does something to our prayers to realize that they’re heard by the same God who hears the anguished cries of those who have been abused, that our prayers are mingled in the ears of God with those who have been put down and degraded.
In Christ we have the assurance that he will come to make all things right, to deliver this world from all pain and suffering and oppression. We know that in him there is nothing that can overcome us. But God doesn’t expect us always to have a smile. There are times when smiles aren’t appropriate. It’s comforting to know that between the promise of the resurrection and its fulfillment on the day of judgment, we can come to God with our most human emotions, even our most precious hatreds, and God will hear us. God meets us where we are. That’s not always where we want to be, but not even our anger, our grief, our hatred can keep God away. He hears us and draws us to this table, where we partake of his healing grace along with all who have ever called on God’s name. Come. God meets us here.