Friday Psalm V: 137

Well, not the most uplifting psalm today; in fact, it contains one of the most disturbing verses in the entire Bible:

1 Alongside Babylon’s streams, there we sat down,
crying because we remembered Zion.
2 We hung our lyres up
in the trees there
3 because that’s where our captors asked us to sing;
our tormentors requested songs of joy:
“Sing us a song about Zion!” they said.
4 But how could we possibly sing
the LORD’s song on foreign soil?

5 Jerusalem! If I forget you,
let my strong hand wither!
6 Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth
if I don’t remember you,
if I don’t make Jerusalem
my greatest joy.

7 LORD, remember what the Edomites did
on Jerusalem’s dark day:
“Rip it down, rip it down!
All the way to its foundations!” they yelled.
8 Daughter Babylon, you destroyer,
a blessing on the one who pays you back
the very deed you did to us!
9 A blessing on the one who seizes your children
and smashes them against the rock!

Well, that’s wonderful. The NIV has Verse 9 as: “he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.”

Either way, it’s a troubling verse, but I think how troubling it is corresponds to how literally we’re willing to take the idea of the Bible being God-breathed or inspired. If the notion of divine inspiration means God whispered every word into the ears of the biblical authors, this is a deeply troubling passage. But if it means the Bible is written by humans with human motives and human ideas but guided in some way by God so that his ultimate message to us is clear through the text, then perhaps it’s not really disturbing at all.

If we can begin to recognize that God might not actually approve of everything he allowed to be written in the Bible, we might be well on our way to a better – and healthier – understanding of what exactly we should glean from its pages.

In Praying the Psalms, Walter Brueggemann devotes a chapter to the notions of vengeance they contain and how uncomfortable that seems to make us:

The cry for retaliation at one’s enemies at least surprises us. We do not expect to find such a note in “religious” literature. And it may offend us. It does not fit very well in our usual notions of faith, piety or spirituality.

But that’s because, I argue, many of us have grown up believing every word of the Bible is from God, forgetting that many of the words are written to God. From people. And, as such, these words reflect much more the experience of humanity.

Brueggemann again (all emphasis mine):

The Psalms explore the full gamut of human experience from rage to hope. Indeed, it would be very strange if such a robust spirituality lacked such a dimension of vengeance, for we would conclude that at just the crucial point, robustness had turned to cowardice and propriety. The vitality of the Psalms, if without a hunger for vengeance, would be a cop-out.

But, Brueggemann acknowledges, “that in no way diminishes its problematic character.”

The thrust of his point in this chapter is that to the extent we find vengeance in the Psalms troubling, it is because the human thirst for vengeance is troubling. But we can take that a step further: To the extent we find expressed notions vengeance in the Bible troubling is the extent to which we find vengeful action troubling.

I think there’s a fear among us current and former traditionalists that if it’s expressed in the Bible, and it doesn’t have a specific curse or admonition attached shortly after, then it’s approved by God. We probably need to adjust that a little bit.

For one, this verse doesn’t actually endorse any action at all. It’s an expression of pure, impotent angst: “Whoever can do to Babylon what they’ve done to us, that would be awesome.” As Brueggemann says, “this is not action. It is words, a flight of passion in imagination.”

The Psalms serve to legitimate and affirm these most intense elements of rage. In such speech, we discover that our words (and feelings) do not destroy the enemy, i.e., they are not as dangerous as we thought. Nor do our words bring judgment from heaven on us. The world (or God) is not as censorious as we feared. Such speech puts rage in perspective. Our feelings brought to speech are not as dangerous as we imagined, as we wished or as we feared. When they are unspoken, they loom too large, and we are condemned by them.

God allows this sort of speech because it is healthy – when emotions cannot be expressed, violent action is more likely to result. Rage and a desire for vengeance are intricate parts of the human experience, in part because they play some role in the divine expression, as well (a whole different subject we don’t have time to explore today), and we cannot pretend they go away simply because we worship a patient and loving God.

God is big enough to handle our anger and our vengeance. The real question is: Are we big enough to let him take them?

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