A few years ago, I preached on Psalm 137. In that church, just like here, there was an anthem between the scripture readings; we didn’t read them all at once. As a result, something happened there that also happened a few moments ago. Immediately after reading verse 9, “Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!” I said (I’ll admit, with a smile), “This is the word of the Lord.” And the congregation responded, “Thanks be to God!”
Yes, happy are those who beat Babylonian babies against the rock! Amen! Hallelujah!
Psalm 137 is in a group classified as “imprecatory” psalms, psalms in which curses are invoked, in which evil is invoked. They are not to be repeated in polite company! One of my favorite examples comes from Psalm 58. “The righteous will rejoice when they see vengeance done; they will bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked” (v. 10). And there’s a charming response: “People will say, ‘Surely there is a reward for the righteous; surely there is a God who judges on earth’” (v. 11).
Psalms like today’s text also create an embarrassing, uneasy feeling. Even as noteworthy a figure as C. S. Lewis suggested an alternative way to look at it. He, in effect, spiritualized it. He suggested seeing the Babylonian babies, not literally as children, but as temptations. He said they’re “the infantile beginnings of small indulgences, small resentments.” They “woo and wheedle us with special pleadings and seem so tiny, so helpless that in resisting them, we feel we are being cruel to animals.”
In other words, we shouldn’t think of them as actual babies, but as apparently harmless attractions—and not yielding to them would be like mistreating a little puppy!
I can understand the impulse that wants to soften the blow, to keep the raw emotion of our psalm at arm’s length. It’s like the feeling we get when, in the presence of someone gripped with pain and anguish, we hear all kinds of utterances that seem vile and even blasphemous.
When Banu and I lived in Philadelphia, we both worked for a while at a nursing home, Broomall Presbyterian Village. Banu was the chaplain, and I assisted the social services director, Pat. When I wasn’t helping her with paperwork, she would just have me go and visit the residents.
There was a variety of them, from people who were completely lucid—but couldn’t move very well because of various conditions—to those with advanced stages of Alzheimer’s disease. There was a particular woman who was still somewhat active, and who also had a very active vocabulary!
More often than not, upon entering her room, you could anticipate being greeted with quite colorful language, and by that I mean expecting a stream of expletives. “What the blankety-blank do you want? Who the blank are you?” (You may fill in those blanks as you wish.) I would tell her that I was working with Pat, and I was simply there to visit her for whatever reason. She might cut loose with another tirade.
Call me a masochist, but in a way, I actually looked forward to visiting her!
If it was evident that she really didn’t want me there, I would leave. Other times, after the initial salvo, she would welcome a visit. I wonder if that foul language was her way of dealing with the fear and pain, knowing she was slipping. And miraculously, once in a while, she would actually smile when she saw me.
Her demeanor made her a difficult person to deal with, to say the least. In a similar way, the language in our psalm makes it difficult to deal with.
I believe I’ve only heard one sermon on this psalm. It was when I was in my early twenties and not yet a Presbyterian. My impression was the fellow preaching didn’t want to deal with the tough language in it. He read the first verse, “By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.” As soon as he got to the phrase, “there we sat down,” he stopped and said, “That was their first mistake!”
He then launched into an entire sermon on the need to praise the Lord in all circumstances. It seemed to me that message could be used for any number of scriptures. It seemed he wasn’t really engaging with the word, and he wasn’t honoring those who had been exiled to Babylon.
As I’ve suggested, it is understandable if we’re reluctant to address the grief and pain in the psalm, especially because it involves curses! I will be the first to admit that trying to reconcile this talk of curses and blood and vengeance with the God I know as the God of love—as the God of Jesus Christ—is not something I readily embrace.
Reed Lessing, teacher at Concordia University in St. Paul, explains to us the vengeance of God “arises out of a cultural milieu in which cursing was an integral part of life. Ancient Near Eastern texts are filled with treaty curses, inscriptional curses, and incantations to undo curses. Often these blessings and curses were employed to ensure a vassal’s loyalty to his sovereign.” It was a way of ensuring fidelity and devotion to one’s leader. We see that in Deuteronomy 30. “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live” (v. 19).
Lessing adds that “it is out of this understanding that the imprecatory psalms are prayed. When psalmists call down curses, it is because enemies have been disloyal to Yahweh’s covenant.” When you live in a world where curses are as customary as the sun rising and setting, it doesn’t seem so unusual.
So, what good is Psalm 137 for us? Why should we bother with this psalm and others like it? We haven’t been sent into exile; we haven’t had to live like refugees.
Today’s psalm, to a large degree, is about identity. When things are taken away from us, when we’re called to “sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land,” there can be a powerful temptation to just give up (v. 4). We can forget who we are; we can lose our identity. Clearly, we don’t have to go into a literal exile for that to happen.
Psalm 137, and others like it, provides a common language for grief. Walter Bruggemann, in his article “Conversations among Exiles,” makes the observation, “From Israel the church can learn a better way to deal with grief and rage.” The Israelites had plenty of experience in that department.
He says that “the church can offer ways of speaking and acting that the dominant society regards as subversive, but without which we cannot for long stay human. It can express sadness, rage, and loss as an alternative to the denial that inevitably breeds brutality.” When we bottle things up, or pretend that they aren’t there, that stuff usually comes back with a vengeance!
The language of lament in the biblical tradition is a gift. Bruggemann concludes that the church “can be a voice of holiness that counters the trivial commodity-centered world by the practice of disciplines that make communion possible. It can be a voice of imaginative, neighborly transformation… And it can express new…possibilities, rooted in the truth of God’s good news.”
We do have that common, shared language for grief. Scriptures like today’s psalm provide it. It is a language for grief that is holy, even with the curses.
There’s something tricky about grieving—we’re not always aware that we’re doing it. Sometimes there can be an indefinable heaviness; sometimes there is no emotional content at all. Sometimes we have to plunge beneath layers of anxiety and anger and rage and sadness. Sometimes there may be the fear of the future.
It is important to recognize when we are grieving.
The late Charles Schultz, through his cartoon “Peanuts,” employed plenty of theological and psychological concepts. Linus, besides carrying his security blanket, was the biblical scholar. His sister Lucy was the judgmental figure. And poor Charlie Brown was the one who most frequently cried out, “Good grief!” He probably didn’t realize it, but there is wisdom in the idea of “good grief.” Or we can at least say: there is wisdom in recognizing our grief and working through it in a surprisingly good way.
When we aren’t aware of our grief, or when we aren’t able to name it, it can drive us in unhealthy ways. We have major difficulty in finding some kind of resolution.
So, what can we say about those primal urges of fear and fury in our psalm? By themselves, they’re neither good nor bad. The question is, “Can we channel that stuff in constructive ways?” Another way of looking at it would be: how do we take that stuff and honor Christ and Christ in each other?
I want to give one possible answer to that question by leaving us with a prayer request. This comes from our missionary friends in France. We can clearly see those urges of fear and fury at work. In this case, those forces are definitely bad. They are directed at servants of the Lord.
We are entreated, “Please pray for our brother ‘Gabriel’ and especially for his wife. Gabriel escaped terrible persecution and mistreatment in his home country and has been seeking a means for his wife to join him.
“He sent us a message that his wife, who was in hiding, has been found by the extremist group of another faith which group was the source of his persecution. She is now physically sick and emotionally at her ends. Her captors are threatening her.
“Gabriel himself is very discouraged and depressed. He is considering returning to his country, which would probably mean dire consequences, even death.
“Please pray for a miracle.”
Can we honor Christ and Christ in each other? We can join with our brothers and sisters in distress. We all can sing the Lord’s song, even if it is in a foreign land.
 C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1958), 136.