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Psalm 137 The Anger Psalm March 24, 2019

 

About 40% of the psalms are called lament psalms. We have been learning about them in Sunday School. But, a few of these psalms are not just sad, they are angry, and, they are not just angry, they ask God to punish people by any means necessary. This may be the worst of those psalms. Let us listen for the Word of God…

 

By the waters[a] of Babylon,
there we sat down and wept,
when we remembered Zion.
2 On the willows[
b] there
we hung up our lyres.
3 For there our captors
required of us songs,
and our tormentors, mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

4 How shall 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 cleave 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 E′domites
the day of Jerusalem,
how they said, “Raze it, raze it!
Down to its foundations!”
8 O daughter of Babylon, you devastator![
c]
Happy shall he be who requites you
with what you have done to us!
9 Happy shall he be who takes your little ones
and dashes them against the rock!

 

SERMON

 

For St. Patrick’s Day last week, I happened upon an Irish quote. I am not sure if it was a blessing or a curse or both?

May those who love us, love us. May those who don’t love us, may God turn their hearts. If God can’t turn their hearts, may God turn their ankles so we can see them coming by their limp.

 

I thought I would begin with a little humor because that’s about the end of it. When it comes to Psalm 137, there’s simply nothing funny.

The last two verses are the worst, of course.

 

O daughter of Babylon, you devastator!

Happy shall he be who requites you

with what you have done to us!

Happy shall he be who takes your little ones

and dashes them against the rock!

 

I remember the first time I read this passage, I was stunned. I recall reading it more than once to see if I was getting it right? In the Good News version of the Bible, it says it more bluntly:

 

Happy are those who pay you back

for what you have done to us—

who take your babies,

and smash them against a rock.

 

I didn’t like it, but there it was. This passage, and others like it, are the reason some people revolt against religion. They read this and say, “This is an example of why religion is evil.” But, this passage, and others like it, bother us too. What do we make of them?

II Timothy 3 says, “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching the truth, rebuking error, correcting faults, and giving instruction for right living…”

When we read passages like this which are so violent and so vengeful, we wonder, “How is this scripture inspired by God and useful for right living?” Of course, it isn’t right living. This is an example of the wrong living.

 

Then, why is it in the Bible? If, as Timothy says, “All Scripture is inspired by God and useful for correcting faults, and teaching right living,” why not leave this one passage out?

When the early Church Mothers and Fathers chose what books went into the Bible (finalized in 363 – Council of Laodicea), you probably know that they left out some books. There were all kinds of books floating around in the second and third centuries, books like the Gospel of Peter and the Gospel of Mary. They read them and said, “No, that’s not right, we don’t want this in our Bible.”

You may have heard that Thomas Jefferson, the writer of the Declaration of Independence, created his own New Testament version of the Bible. He laid out several versions of the New Testament. Then he took scissors to them. He cut out the stuff he didn’t like and made his version of the Bible. Jefferson admired Jesus, but he didn’t like the healing stories and he didn’t believe in the miracles either. So, he removed them all, including any mention of the Resurrection.

Why didn’t the Early Church take their scissors and cut Psalm 137 out of the Bible? Or, why didn’t they, at least, snip off the last two verses of Psalm 137? It would have still been a beautiful hymn.

 

This is why: You see, the Bible is a conversation. Anytime we open up our Bible, it is like stepping into a room where people are already talking. So, it’s like any other conversation we might overhear. If you are in another room and you hear a conversation going on with your family in the other room, you usually know who’s talking, right? “Oh, that is my husband talking, I recognize his voice. Oh, that is my daughter talking, I can tell by her sing-songy voice.”

The same with the Bible, except the conversation we are hearing, is the conversation God and humanity have been having since the beginning of time. Open up a page, and we can hear the voices, and often, we can recognize the voice. “Oh, that is God talking. Oh, that is Moses talking. Oh, that is Jesus talking.” There are other times we really have to stop and listen and pay attention, because it may be hard to figure who is talking, right?

In Psalm 137, we can be sure the writer is talking. This is not God saying, “It will be a happy day when we can take the child of our adversary and bash them against the rocks.” No, that is the writer talking and the writer is angry.

 

We still might find that troubling. How can a person of faith have that kind of anger? Aren’t the writers of the Bible the cream of the crop? Before we are too hard on whoever wrote Psalm 137, we need to realize whoever wrote it, wrote it while in captivity in Babylon.

In the year 586 B.C., the Babylonians led by King Nebuchadrezzar, invaded Jerusalem. The Babylonians razed the Temple and destroyed the city. Then, after killing everyone who got in their way, they put the rest in chains and marched them back to Babylon. It became known as the Babylonian Exile. This was like the Trail of Tears, in which some 17,000 Native Americans were marched from Georgia to Oklahoma and along the way, about 4,000 died. This like the Bataan Death March in 1942. In which the Japanese marched some 70,000 American and Filipino soldiers about 70 miles in 100 degree heat. Of the 70,000 in the march, some 25,000 would die. This is like the Nazi’s marching Jews into Auschwitz, where 1 million Jews went in and only 10% came out.

So, if we want to know why the author of Psalm 137 was so angry, imagine these other events, because that’s what it is was like. Soldiers whipping your grandmother, beating your father, killing your brother and doing worse with your daughters. By the time they got to Babylon, they were seathing with anger and hatred.

And, then, as if to matters even worse, somewhere in Babylon, there were soldiers taunting the Jews in captivity, saying, “Hey, why don’t you sing and dance for us?” The writer of Psalm 137 wrote:

By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our lyres.

For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

 

As we open up the Bible today, the voice we are hearing in Psalm 137 is a man, most likely, whose family has been beaten, tortured and killed. If you have ever had a member of your family harmed by someone, you can probably relate to this kind of anger. When my daughter was in college, I found out a young man had hurt her. I went looking for him. I am glad I didn’t find him. I have never had Psalm 137 kind of anger, but, if we knew someone was harming someone we loved, we can at least imagine the fury it might unleash.

 

I think the reason this passage, and others like it, are in the Bible is because they are real. They show one side of this dialogue between God and humanity, except this time, humanity is talking. And, when humanity is talking, sometimes we talk with anger.

Remember that quote from II Timothy? “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching the truth, correcting faults, and giving instruction for right living…” Well, Psalm 137 is useful for teaching us the truth: human beings are capable of terrible anger and Psalm 137 can be a guide to what not to do.

 

One last thought: I know these words are so violent they are upsetting, but do keep this in mind, they are just words. I mean, have you ever had an angry thought? Have you ever said something you regretted? You may feel foolish and embarrassed, which is how I often feel these days, but there is a difference between saying something awful and doing something awful. It’s bad to ask God to do violence upon others, but just because the writer of Psalm 137 asked, doesn’t mean he actually did them, right? It sounds bad to rant and blow off steam, but in the end, saying something ugly in a moment of anger, is better than doing something in a moment of anger.

Maybe that is part of the point. We lay before God not just the best parts of ourselves. We also lay before God, we bring to God in prayer, and even say them in worship, like we are right now. We confess our very worse thoughts, and when we do this, in faith, we ask God to please take our worst inclinations, even our fury, please God, take all of this we bring before you, take them like you took the words of Psalm 137. Please take our violent thoughts and return to us a peaceful heart.

 

TO GOD BE THE GLORY FOREVER AND EVER. AMEN.