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         Praying the Cursing Psalm 137

 

All the quotations below are from James W. Sire’s book, “Learning to Pray through the Psalms” published in 2005.

 

     We were living for a semester in Berkeley, my wife and I, when a phone call came from our daughter Ann, who had just begun college at Illinois Wesleyan, a two-hour drive from our permanent home in Downers Grove.

     We talked about how we were enjoying our time in California. Then in a sad, lamenting voice, Ann asked, "Are you going to move to Berkeley?" I explained that I didn't know yet, but we liked Berkeley and, yes, we might move there someday.

     "Are you going to sell the house?" she asked.

     "Of course, we couldn't afford to move unless we did that," I replied, demonstrating my fatherly wisdom.

     "Oh," she said, voice quivering, "it would be as if I'd never lived."

     Three years later Ann went to Peru as a student for the summer. One year later, now a college graduate, she returned to Peru on her own, checking out the possibility of teaching English and continuing a relationship with a young man she had met the previous summer. Then after fifteen months living on her own as an English teacher, she returned to the States to teach Spanish. Soon she married a local fellow teacher. Now she, her husband and her two children live in Downers Grove, only a few blocks from the childhood home where her parents still live.

            We are a people with a homing instinct. So were the Israelites in captivity in Babylon after the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem in 587 B.C. We can understand their plaintive lament as they look back from Israel on that time spent in exile.

     We have already seen how two psalmists (Psalms 5 and 7) have called for God not only to deliver them from their enemies but also to judge and punish the guilty. But we have not yet seen the full depth of anger and revenge that some express as prophecies and curses. As C. S. Lewis1 says, "In some of the Psalms the spirit of hatred which strikes us in the face is like the heat from a furnace mouth." In Psalm I37 we see this anger at its briefest but most fevered pitch.

     Wanting to pray the psalms by internalizing the profound spirituality of the psalms, we face a problem. Some parts of some psalms seem utterly inappropriate for Christians to pray. Here we will take up the challenge and deal with it head on. If we can appropriately pray Psalm 137, we can pray any other psalm, even those whose cursing is far more extensive.

 

INITIAL READING OF PSALM 137

 

Psalm 137 (NRSV)

By the rivers of Babylon

     there we sat down and there we wept

     when we remembered Zion.

0n 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, 0 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, 0 LORD, against the Edomites

     the day of Jerusalem's fall,

how they said, "Tear it down! Tear it down!

     Down to its foundations!"

0 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!

 

     Read and reread this psalm until the flow of the words and your sense of the psalmist's emotions blend; then continue to read it until your emotions and those of the psalmist come close to being one. Now link those emotions with the intellectual content of the psalm. Do they match?

 

GETTING AT THE MEANING OF PSALM 137

     Think back on your first reading of this psalm (not necessarily the first of the readings you've just finished). Do you recall your response to the final verse? If it was like mine, shock! would not be too strong to describe it. Even now I am horrified by the thought. Try as I might, I can't think that this brutal, vile slaughter of the innocent could ever be right. Then comes the immediate second thought. How could this verse be in the Bible? Is God actually commending such violence?

     I expect that you, dear reader, are with me on this. Well, we can take at least some comfort in the fact that most scholars are with us as well. "Every line of it [the psalm]," Derek Kidner2 writes, "is alive with pain, whose intensity grows with each strophe to the appalling climax." Speaking in general about vengeance in the Psalms, Dietrich Bonhoeffer3 says, "No section of the Psalter causes us greater difficulty today than the so-called imprecatory psalms. With shocking frequency their thoughts penetrate the entire Psalter (5, 7, 9, 10, 13, 16, 21, 23, 28, 31, 35, 36, 40, 41, 44, 52, 54, 55, 58, 59, 68, 69, 70, 71, 137, and others). Every attempt to pray these psalms seems doomed to failure." Though they don't all say so, it is clear from their response that in their heart of hearts almost every scholar I consulted feels the same way. Their problem has been to explain not only why the line is in the psalm but why the psalm should have remained a part of the Christian biblical canon.

     But we will not rush to answer this question. We should first be sure that we are responding not just to the final line but to the entire psalm.

 

Rational Structure

 

A situation remembered

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!"

 

Our response remembered

How could we sing the LORD'S song

     in a foreign land?

If I forget you, 0 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.

 

A plea to God to remember injustice

Remember, 0 LORD, against the Edomites

     the day of Jerusalem's fall,

how they said, "Tear it down! Tear it down!

     Down to its foundations!"

 

Prophecy (curse) addressed to Babylon

0 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!

 

     The flow of the argument is simple. A situation and response is remembered; a prophetic curse is delivered. There is little subtlety to the intellectual case against Babylon or to the punishment prophesied. There is, however, much more subtlety to the moral and emotional structure.

 

The Moral and Emotional Structure

     Rhetorically Psalm 137 is a marvel of emotional and moral structure. The psalmist opens with a beautiful tableau:

 

By the rivers of Babylon

     there we sat down .

 

     When I read this, I see a river flowing through a large oasis in the middle of a vast city. I see the ancient Israelites sitting like the picnickers in Georges Seurat's impressionist painting of elegant Parisians in the park on a Sunday afternoon. Then I am brought up short by the next few words:

 

... and there we wept

     when we remembered Zion.

On the willows there

     we hung up our harps.

 

The beauty of the picture is enhanced as I see the harps hung on the trees, but the emotion is changed from aesthetic appreciation to sympathy. These are Jews from mountainous Jerusalem. These are exiles. And when the psalmist goes on to explain why the harps are hung on the willows, the emotions of his contemporary readers---those perhaps singing them as lines in a liturgy---well up, as do mine, and my heart goes out to them:

 

For there our captors

     asked us for songs,

and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,

     "Sing us one of the songs of Zion!"

 

     Was this taunting? Or was this like a slavemaster asking his slaves, "Come up to the big house and sing your songs from Africa. Entertain us"? In any case, it was deeply offensive to the Hebrews.

 

How could we sing the LORD's song

     in a foreign land?

 

     Israel was their special home. They were God's people. The land of Israel was given to them by God. They were not supposed to be in Babylon. Jerusalem was Zion, the place where God dwelled. When this psalm was written the Israelites were back in Israel, to be sure, but the memory of their exile was still with them. They never, ever, ever wanted to forget Jerusalem, no matter what happened to them in the coming days and years.

 

If I forget you, 0 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.

 

 

     The power of the images---the withered hand, the parched tongue---helps me see their plight more clearly. As a reader I am ready for the charge against Babylon, perhaps even for its rhetorical power.

 

Remember, 0 LORD, against the Edomites

     the day of Jerusalem's fall,

how they said, "Tear it down! Tear it down!

     Down to its foundations!"

 

     Maybe the only readers who can appreciate the rising anger of the psalmist are those whose city or house has been devastated by war or terrorism. This is, of course, a huge and growing number of people, as violent conflicts increase in our own post-9/11 world. Think of our anger here in the United States after that catastrophic event. Think of the anger of the Palestinians as their homes are confiscated by the Israelis. Or the anger of the Iraqis as they see their country blown up by foreign armies.

     Of course the Hebrews thought the destruction of Jerusalem was unjust. It was not just their city but the temple of the one Living God. Naturally they called on God to right the wrong. Here the psalmist addresses the oppressor:

 

0 daughter Babylon, you devastator!

 

     Then he envisions the fortune of those who will return punishment for evil---lex talionis, payment in kind.

 

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!

 

     We can take the payment in kind. That appeals to our primal sense of justice. I think of Mel Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ and remember the growing glee with which the Roman soldiers beat Jesus. I can understand the desire to see these same soldiers under the whip of men like them. Whatever we might think, or think we ought to think, wouldn't we all in our heart say, It serves them right?

     But the final line is different. We can't pray that. We can hardly say it. Echoing in our mind are Jesus' words: "Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs" (Mark 10:14 NRSV). Then we recall as well that lex talionis is inappropriate. "Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing" (1 Peter 3:9 NRSV), wrote Peter, echoing his Master's words, "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" (Matthew 5:44 NRSV). In short, something seems to have gone wildly wrong for the psalmist to end his psalm at the peak of his anger with these awe-full, awful words.

 

IMPRECATION IN THE PSALMS

     As Bonhoeffer noted, the theme of imprecation---cursing, calling down God's vengeance on evildoers---permeates the Psalter. If we sweep it under the hermeneutic rug, we will trip over it every time we kneel to pray. We have already dealt with its presence in Psalms 5 and 7. But consider the following passages as well.

     The first, from Psalm 109, is a set of curses that David is either hurling against his enemies or, as the NRSV has it, quoting from his enemies against himself. In the latter case, David turns to God and says, in effect, Let all those curses on me be turned back on my enemies (v. 20). So they may just as well have been made by David in the first place:

 

... Appoint a wicked man against him:

     let an accuser stand on his right.

When he is tried, let him be found guilty;

     let his prayer be counted as sin.

May his days be few;

     may another seize his position.

May his children be orphans,

     and his wife a widow.

May his children wander about and beg;

     may they be driven out of the ruins they inhabit.

May the creditor seize all that he has;

     may strangers plunder the fruits of his toil.

May there be no one to do him a kindness,

     nor anyone to pity his orphaned children.

May his posterity be cut off;

     may his name be blotted out in the second generation.

 

The curses continue for six more verses! Here are other curses. From Psalm 10:

 

Break the arm of the wicked and evildoers;

     seek out their wickedness until you find none.

 

From Psalm 28:

 

Repay [the wicked] according to their work,

     and according to the evil of their deeds;

repay them according to the work of their hands;

     render them their due reward.

 

From Psalm 31:

 

. . .Let the wicked be put to shame;

     let them go dumbfounded to Sheol.

Let the lying lips be stilled

     that speak insolently against the righteous

     with pride and contempt.

 

From Psalm 58:

 

0 God, break the teeth in their mouths;

     tear out the fangs of the young lions, 0 LORD!

Let them vanish like water that runs away;

     like grass let them be trodden down and wither.

Let them be like the snail that dissolves into slime;

     like the untimely birth that never sees the sun.

Sooner than your pots can feel the heat of thorns,

     whether green or ablaze, may he sweep them away!

 

From Psalm 69:

 

Let their table be a trap for them,

     a snare for their allies.

Let their eyes be darkened so that they cannot see,

     and make their loins tremble continually.

Pour out your indignation upon them,

     and let your burning anger overtake them.

May their camp be a desolation;

     let no one live in their tents.

For they persecute those whom you have struck down,

     and those whom you have wounded, they attack still more.

Add guilt to their guilt;

     may they have no acquittal from you.

Let them be blotted out of the book of the living;

     let them not be enrolled among the righteous.

 

     Fellow prayers of the psalms, must we not find some way to deal with these passages so that the psalms in which they are embedded can still become our answering speech to God? "Houston," a Columbia astronaut said to ground control, "we have a problem." So do we.

 

WHAT THE SCHOLARS SAY

 

     Scholars who face this problem squarely offer a network of explanations, most of which dovetail, so that while the emotional problem does not go completely away, at least the rational problem is largely answered. Here in order of their priority and importance are six factors that enter into an answer.

 

The Holiness of God

     The most important factor is a notion foundational to Christian faith: God is holy utterly, absolutely, time-out-of mind holy. Christians constantly affirm this in private prayer, liturgy, preaching and teaching. But the fact is that most of us just don't get it. God is so holy, so set apart from us, that his nature is obscured and hidden, except where he wishes it to be revealed. Then whatever he reveals about the just, the true and the good is in fact the just, the true and the good. It is not that his character is whatever he declares it to be because he is free to be whatever he chooses. Rather, whatever he declares or reveals it to be is what it intrinsically is. From our standpoint, of course, we can never judge God. What we know of him is only what he reveals. The very categories (or criteria) we employ in our knowing are those he has given us. So is our ability to think and know. If our notion of what God should be is different from what he reveals himself to be in Scripture, we haven't a leg to stand on. God is God. Period.

     If vengeance is to be done against those who have dishonored God or have acted unjustly against his people or his natural creation, God will do it. The psalmists universally assume this. They do not ask God for permission to wreak vengeance themselves. "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord," says Paul (Romans 12:19), quoting Leviticus 19:18. The Old and New Testaments agree: vengeance is the business of God.

     In Psalm 137, in fact, the psalmist does not really curse the Babylonians; he only prophesies the way vengeance will be delivered. This, of course, does not solve our dilemma as modern readers, for now it is God who will be responsible for the brutal action of Psalm 137:9 should this prophecy be fulfilled. This actually heightens our horror. How this vengeance is finally administered becomes evident only on the cross.

 

The Wickedness of Humankind

     The corollary of God's holiness is our wickedness. This is everywhere assumed and often stated in Scripture, both the Old and New Testaments, as strikingly evident in Romans 3:9-18. In this section---a diatribe against human nature---Paul quotes from Psalms 5, 7, 14, 36 and 140 and from Isaiah 59. Paul universalizes these descriptions of the wicked, concluding: "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23). James echoes this universally negative take on human nature: "For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. For the one who said, `You shall not commit adultery; also said, `You shall not murder"' (James 2:10-11).

     Here is the crux of the matter. It is not just that a sinner has broken a law and thus stands abstractly guilty before that law. Rather, the crux of the matter is the violation of the proper relationship between the Lawgiver and the ones for whom the law was given. The sinner is not just a lawbreaker but a relationship breaker, a rebel.

 

The Justice of God's Judgment

     When the relationship breaker finds himself or herself apart from God, the judgment has already begun. The major effect of that broken relationship is the multiple broken relationships---the internal ones within each individual and the external ones between individual men and women and among different communities, societies and nations. Wickedness runs rampant in society, kept in restraint only by the grace of God. The broken relationship between any person and God is made permanent if the relationship is not restored, and that can be done only by God himself at the cost of the incarnate Son of God, who experienced for all time and for all people his own separation from the Father. "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Jesus cried from the cross, quoting the opening line of Psalm 22.

     Calls for God's vengeance, then, are set within the theological context of the holiness of God and the wickedness of human beings. They are calls to realize in the context of space and time God's just and eternal judgment on desperately sinful people.

 

The Context of Ancient Israel

     The historical context in which these imprecatory passages emerge can lessen the horror we feel when we read them today. First, for example, is the specific context of Psalm 137. The psalmist is remembering what took place when Israel was in exile. How did they get there? By the destruction of Jerusalem---a brutal invasion by the Babylonians with, it would seem, some collusion with the Edomites.

Dashing children against rocks was not at all unusual. It was, says Allen4, "a feature of ancient Near Eastern warfare:" For a poetic and emotional picture of the violence to the residents of Jerusalem, see Lamentations. Here, of course, God is seen as the one who is using Babylon to judge the Israelites for their sin. But this picture bears resemblance to the image in the last line of Psalm 137. For example, Lamentations 2:20-2I:

 

Look, 0 LORD, and consider!

     To whom have you done this?

Should women eat their offspring,

     the children they have borne?

Should priest and prophet be killed

     in the sanctuary of the Lord?

 

The young and the old are lying

     on the ground in the streets;

my young women and my young men

     have fallen by the sword;

in the day of your anger you have killed them,

     slaughtering without mercy.

 

            Jeremiah later prophesies5 that God will punish Babylon for its iniquity in much the same way as the psalmist envisions in Psalm 137 (Lamentation 3:55-63; Jeremiah 25:12). From this perspective, lex talionis would seem to justify the punishment of Babylon. Of course, lex talionis is rejected by the Bible as a justification.

     Second, also important for our grasp of the historical context of Psalm 137 is Israel's sense of its own destiny. The Israelites saw themselves as God's people. They were on a mission for God. Now they are in captivity. There is both the longing for home and the longing to fulfill their destiny. How can they do it here? How can they forget Zion? How can they sing the songs of Zion? How can they sing these6 utterly joyous songs, like Psalm 84, extolling the beauty and glory of the temple?

 

How lovely is your dwelling place,

     0 LORD of hosts!

My soul longs, indeed it faints

     for the courts of the LORD;

my heart and my flesh sing for joy

     to the living God.

 

Even the sparrow finds a home,

     and the swallow a nest for herself,

     where she may lay her young,

at your altars, 0 LORD of hosts,

     my King and my God.

Happy are those who live in your house,

     ever singing your praise.

 

     The psalmist of this song of Zion "would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than live in the tents of wickedness" (v. 10). And here the Israelites are in Babylon, living among, if not in, those very tents.

     The pain is too great. They hang up their harps. Anger rises up as they respond to their captors' taunts and calls for entertainment. Now years later, as the psalmist reflects on this scene, his anger rises, and out comes the prophetic curse: "Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!"

     But it isn't just the memory of captivity that forms the background of Psalm 137. After the fall of Jerusalem in 587 B.C., even after the return of the Jews to the Holy Land, Israel was never more than a vassal state. The psalmist has only hope for the return of Jerusalem to its high status. In some ways the vision of revenge looks an idle threat, given in the heat of the moment. Was the prophecy ever carried out? To be sure, Babylon is no more---it has not existed for a couple of millennia or more. In the first century it became for Christians a symbol for Rome and all that was evil in the religious and political realm. But by then the city and its state had long been laid to waste.

     Third, we need to remember that the psalmist did not know how God was going to solve the problem of evil and wickedness. Many of the psalmists may well have envisioned a messiah who would effect the final solution, but they had to look forward with vision, not backward with certainty. If all the psalmists could do was to call on God to avenge evil and to see this in brutal terms, it is at least a confirmation that they had not lost hope. God would bring justice. The question was only "How long, 0 Lord? How long?" The New Testament tells us.

 

A New Testament Perspective

     We first need to set the New Testament treatment of vengeance in the context of the Old Testament. As already mentioned, Jesus and the apostles are at one concerning loving and doing good for one's enemies, that is, returning good for evil: "You have heard that it was said, `You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy: But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.... Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matthew 5:43-45, 48).

     But this is not really a new teaching. Its root springs from the ancient Hebrew Scriptures.

    

You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself. (Leviticus 19:17-18)

 

Do not rejoice when your enemies fall,

     and do not let your heart be glad when they stumble,

or else the LORD will see it and be displeased,

     and turn away his anger from them. (Proverb 24:17-18)

 

     In other words, let God be the one to judge as he sees fit. Indeed there is vengeance, but it is God's business, not ours. We are not even to enjoy it.

     Then too, judgment and the working out of God's wrath against evil and evildoers is by no means missing from the New Testament. Jesus' parables often end with judgment, and as he prophesies his own second coming, he explicitly speaks of separating the sheep from the goats, vividly depicting God's judgment: "You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels" (Matthew 25:41). Not everyone will enter the kingdom of heaven, Jesus says, "only the one who does the will of my Father." The judgment is stern: "On that day many will say to me, `Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?' Then I will declare to them, `I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers"' (Matthew 7:22-23).

            To top it off, Revelation 18 pictures the violent judgment of apocalyptic Babylon, the city of Satan and evil humanity.

     Kidner7 sums up the "occasional equivalent of cursing in the New Testament":

 

The Lord Himself led the way with His acted and spoken oracles of judgment on the unfruitful Israel (Mark 11:14; 12:9) and on the unfaithful churches (Revelation 2f). In the age of the apostles, if the fate of Ananias and Sapphira was not actually invoked, the temporary blinding of Elymas was; so too was the handing over of the Corinthian offender to Satan (1 Corinthian 5:5).

 

     Still, in both the Old and especially the New Testaments, the overwhelming picture we get of God is not as Judge but as Redeemer. He is the One who through the Son stands in our place before the high and holy bar of God's Justice. God is both judge and sacrifice. The Son of God is dashed against the hard rock of Golgotha. He says, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Matthew 27:46). But when the Son is raised from the dead, we know the final conflict between good and evil is over: Righteousness and peace have kissed each other (Psalm 85:10). The rest of history is a mop-up action, a bloody one, but one for which the end is certain.

 

The Context of Human Nature

     Finally, let us note the profound realism of the psalms. From the joyous, exuberant praise of the glorious living God to the agonized frustration and fury of the unjustly accused; from the thankful spirit of the penitent sinner to the righteous indignation of the defender of God's people; from the quiet confidence of the sheep who love their Shepherd to the stinging vengeance of the one who desires the righting of all wrongs---the Psalter is realistic, sometimes it seems almost to a fault, as it leads us across the contours of human life.

     The curses that proceed from the mouth of the psalmist are painfully true to human nature. Even when we are horrified by the expressions we read, we know that, faced with the same situations, we could say the same thing, even in our guarded moments, and have probably done so. It is this utter realism about human nature that is, I think, the key to how we are to pray these psalms.

 

IMPLICATIONS FOR PRAYING THE IMPRECATORY PSALMS

     I have struggled with the imprecatory character of the psalms for many years. Off and on, I have come to terms with them, concluding that one or another way of understanding their place in the canon has solved their enigma. I believe that I have reached an understanding again, but I am not so certain I am correct as to urge my solution on you, my readers. Still, based on the six factors just discussed, I offer what I can.

     First, when we turn to prayer from our absorption and study of the psalm, we can trust the psalmist not to mislead us into a prayer that in the final analysis would be incorrect to pray. If we find ourselves in the position of the psalmist, what else should we do but pour out the agony of our heart to God? If it comes out as a curse, it does so because that is what is in us crying out to be expressed. If we hate our enemy---or even, God forbid, our neighbor---God already knows it. We will not shock him. Lewis8 may be theologically right when he says, "The reaction of the Psalmists to injury, though profoundly natural, is profoundly wrong." But I think he is pastorally wrong. If we bottle up what we feel, we pay the consequences of its coming out in personally and socially far more destructive ways than as curses expressed to God in prayer. As Eugene Peter son9 wisely says, "Our hate needs to be prayed, not suppressed:" It is safe to tell God absolutely anything. He already knows. And now we know: our hatred is now open to ourselves and God. And we can tell him what we think he ought to do---yes, be audacious. Plead with him as we will, he will never do what is wrong.

     In this process God may change our heart. He may show us on the nerve endings of our life that we are railing at the wrong people, that we will be a better person if we stop it. And the Holy Spirit may transform us so that our perspective and our heart's desire is more like that of Jesus.

     We must not glory in imprecation, trying to curse our and God's enemies with ever more clever language. Our spirit must be calmed and healed so that we do indeed return cursing with blessing, as did our Lord when he said, "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing" (Luke 23:34).

     So much for our prayers in private. Except as direct quotations from the psalms, I am far less sure that we should include curses in our communal prayers. To spread our anger to others, even others whose emotions are similar to ours, may raise temptations to take vengeance into our own hands. The community of faith is not so safe as God.

     And we must never ever speak them abroad! To stand in the marketplace---literally, or on radio or television or in print---and curse our enemies is disastrous. The reactions either with us or against us are likely to be socially destructive. If they are not violent, they still spread the venom of ill will and may lead to violence later.

     But true spirituality is true to our broken nature. It derives not from perfect prayer but from honest prayer. We dare not lie to God! He will deal with our imperfection and by the power of the Holy Spirit heal our broken soul and restore us to himself. In the midst of honest, angry prayer, we can be confident that there is running in the background the concomitant prayer.

            Second, we need intellectually to realize that Jesus put away all vengeance toward others when he died on the cross for their---for our---sin. Bonhoeffer10 captures the right way to proceed:

 

Only in the cross of Jesus Christ is the love of God to be found.

     Thus the imprecatory psalm leads to the cross of Jesus and to the love of God which forgives enemies. I cannot forgive the enemies of God out of my own resources. Only the crucified Christ can do that, and I through him. Thus the carrying out of vengeance becomes grace for all men in Jesus Christ.... I leave the vengeance to God and ask him to execute his righteousness to all his enemies, knowing that God has remained in his wrathful judgment on the cross, and that this wrath has become grace and joy for us. Jesus Christ himself requests the execution of the wrath of God on his body, and thus he leads me back daily to the gravity and the grace of his cross for me and all enemies of God.

     Even today I can believe the love of God and forgive my enemies only by going back to the cross of Christ, to the carrying out of the wrath of God. The cross of Jesus is valid for all men. Whoever opposes him, whoever corrupts the word of the cross of Jesus on which God's wrath must be executed, must bear the curse of God some time or another. The New Testament speaks with great clarity concerning this and does not distinguish itself at all in this respect from the Old Testament, but it also speaks of the joy of the church in that day on which God will execute his final judgment (Galatians L8f; 1 Corinthians 16:22; Revelation 18; 19; 20:11). In this way the crucified Jesus teaches us to pray the imprecatory psalms correctly.

 

     Finally, the bottom line. One of the most important conclusions we can reach is this: If we are honest with ourselves, we can say anything to God. He can take it. We can call on him to do whatever violent or mischievous thing we can imagine. Why? Because we can trust him not to do what is wrong, even if we ask it in all sincerity. He will not do evil. The vengeance that is his is utterly---absolutely, time out of mind---just.

 

ANALOGICAL READING

     When we read Psalm 137 we have no difficulty in understanding the situation out of which the psalm came nor the human emotions of the psalmist. Human nature has not changed. What is different, however, is that the specific events that triggered the psalm and its awe-full prophetic close are not ones that fit most of us today. We are indeed God's chosen people but not quite in the sense of the ancient Jews.

     Moreover, we find the specific imprecatory close to the psalm too brutal and too foreign to us. If we are to make the psalm our answering speech, we will have to make some adjustments. I suggest that there are two parts to this process. The first is to understand the psalm in its own context and enter empathically into that context that is, to understand it from the inside. This will, in my suggestion, mean praying the psalm as if we were the psalmist.

     The second part of the process is to have so absorbed the mindset of the psalmist, so put it in the larger context of the cross, and so grasped its inner soul that it begins to resonate with our own concerns and our problems. Every modern Christian reader's or Christian community's specific issues and problems are different. In the directed prayer below I have assumed a problem that I believe to be common to many Christians: the tension in our lives brought on by the clash between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world.

 

PRAYING PSALM 137

     Read through Psalm 137 again to refresh your memory of the flow of ideas. Read it again to re-sense its emotional flow.

     Praying Psalm 137 will from here on be somewhat different from praying the other psalms we have so far prayed. We cannot easily make the psalmist's words our own unless we have been political or religious exiles. We will need to pray our prayer by analogy---finding in the experience of the exiles and the memory of the psalmist analogies to our own experience. So our procedure will be in two stages.

 

Stage One

     Read through the entire psalm slowly, putting yourself imaginatively in the position of the psalmist and the Israelites in Babylon. Then pray:

Father, let me see and feel something of the plight of your chosen people away from the center of your plan for them, longing to return. Take me deeper into their experience through this distorted Song of Zion.

     Now pray the entire psalm (out loud may be very helpful) as if you were the psalmist. Absorb as best you can the experience he transmits through the psalm. One warning: Do not try to reach the fever pitch of the last line. But do try to feel the pain of the psalmist as he calls down vengeance on the unjust.

 

Stage Two

     Then with eyes open, pray through the psalm again section by section.

 

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!"

 

Respond: Lord, as I contemplate this scene and imaginatively feel the sorrow and yearning of the Israelites, I see myself and my community in the midst of our own hostile world. We Christians are like exiles, living in a country and a city that is foreign to our hearts when they are set on you. Of course we have never lived in Zion. We look forward to the time when we will, but we are not yet there. We have never lived in a city or worshiped in a church that fully met the ache in our heart for a final home. We have hymns to sing, and we have sung them with great gusto and great feeling. But the world wants entertainment, not worship of you, the one holy God. We cannot sing our songs of Zion for the titillation of those who are not your children. We would rather leave our organs unplayed, our piano shut, our guitars in their cases.

 

How could we sing the LORD's song

     in a foreign land?

If I forget you, 0 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.

 

Respond: We have not forgotten Zion; we have never really known it. We long for what we have never had. Never let us forget that we were made for another country---the kingdom of God, a kingdom of the Spirit that is more solid and real than the kingdom of this world. May life with you and your forever family be my deepest hope and my fondest joy.    

     In your own context, lay before God your most intimate and deep desires, those that you know will lead you to a deeper life with God and a greater service to your community and the world. List what is standing in your way. Name the "demons" that are keeping you from a fuller Christian life.

 

Remember, 0 LORD, against the Edomites

     the day of Jerusalem's fall,

how they said, "Tear it down! Tear it down!

     Down to its foundations!"

 

Respond: Lord, I hear the voices of the world: "Tear down the church! Tear it down to the ground! Buildup the kingdom of this world. Give us more money! Give us more stuff! Give me a bigger TV, a swimming pool, a water park in my own backyard! Take away the restraints on my freedom! Give me greater sex with more and more people! Give me ... Give me ... Give me more power, more control over others! Give me everything I want! ... Do it now! Now! NOW!" Name the barriers that keep you from living your life in light of the kingdom of God. If they were to speak, what would they say? Would they whisper or yell?

 

     0 daughter Babylon, you devastator!

 

Respond: 0 Satan, you destroyer! Renounce the challenges to your desire to live for God.

    

     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!

 

Respond: Blessed will be the day when you, 0 Satan, you great tempter, will be cast into utter darkness! Blessed will be the Lord in that great judgment day! And blessed will be your children, delivered from the kingdom of this world into the kingdom of your Son! Rejoice in the day when the "demons" that tyrannize you will be destroyed. [146-171]

 

Notes

1. C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (London: Fontana, 1961), p. 23

2. Derek Kidner, Psalms 73-150. A Commentary on Books III-V of the Psalms, Tyndale Old Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), p. 459.

3. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1974), p. 56.

4. Leslie C. Allen, Psalms 101-150, Word Biblical Commentary 21 (Warn, Tex.: Word, 1983), p. 237. Allen cites Nahum 3:10 and Isaiah 13:16; his reference to 2 Kings 8:2 should be 2 Kings 8:12. Lest we think humanity has progressed in moral sensitivity, we should note that in the twentieth century the Nazis used a similar method to exterminate Jewish children (see Kidner, Psalms 73-150, p. 460).

5. R. K. Harrison, Jeremiah and Lamentations: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale Old Testament Commentary (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1973), p. 223. "The sufferings of the people of Judah are described as though one man had experienced them" (ibid., p. 223). So likewise is the call for vengeance in Lamentations 3:55-63.

6. Psalm 122 is another song of Zion.

7. Derek Kidner, Psalms 1-72: A Commentary on Books I-II of the Psalms, Tyndale Old Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1973), p. 31.

8. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms, p. 27.

9. Eugene Peterson, Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1989), p. 98. 1 v p. 166

10. Bonhoeffer, Psalms, pp. 58-60.

 

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