I’m reading the Psalms at the moment and this can lead to some quite strong mood swings from one day to the next. One day I read Psalm 136 which is an exciting hymn of praise to God for his mighty acts of creation and salvation for Israel, with the re-occuring theme “his love endures forever”. I think the best way to read this Psalm is in a group, with a leader the first part of each verse, and then the congregation responding with “his love endures forever”, and this should definitely get louder each time, until the refrain is being shouted out with abandonment (rather like the crowds on Palm Sunday)
The next day I read Psalm 137 – which forms something of a contrast – beginning with the Jewish exiles weeping by the rivers of Babylon, whilst being taunted by their captors. The haunting question comes “How can we sing the LORD’s song in a strange land?” How can Psalm 136 be their song anymore? At this point the Psalm takes on a darker tone, as the Psalmist remembers how Judah was betrayed by Edom. Suddenly blessing is invoked for the one who takes vengence on them; blessing for the one who dashes their infants against the rocks.
There is cursing language in many of the Psalms, but this has to be one of the most brutal passages amongs them. What can be said about such prayers?
I think the first thing to remember is the raw emotion this represents. This is sung by people hundreds of miles from home, cut off from all they love, taunted to sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land. Part of me wonders if this was part of their quiet revenge – singing songs cursing their captors in a language their captors would not know – a kind of bittersweet irony. That is pure speculation, but what I do know is that I do not have much chance of fully appreciating how this Psalmist feels from a (reasonably) comfortable sofa, in a pleasant house in a leafy English village (small town). I do not know what it is to be a captive of war, and I do not know how I would pray in that situation. As part of this it may be that “infants” or “babies” here is simply used to denote the city or people in general, or indeed those who follow its ways – which makes it marginally less bloodthirsty, although still fairly violent language.
The second thing to remember is that this is not what the Jewish exiles actually go and do. They do not go and dash anyone’s babies against the rocks. They get on with life in Babylon, they marry, build homes, and pray for their city (see Jeremiah 29). I think this is similar to the Psalms of David regarding his life on the run from Saul. He prays for his enemy to be destroyed, but he does not lift a hand against the LORD’s annointed. Sometimes we have very raw, very messy emotions, and the safest place to take this raw mess is to God. He can handle it. We come broken. We are broken people. Sometimes we want nasty things to happen to other people, and the safest place to deal with this is before God. To let him hear the anger. He can deal with it.
And this is because of the third thing. Psalm 137 is followed by Psalm 138 (that’s the kind of thing you spot when you’re studying for a PhD…). Psalm 138 praises God for answering the Psalmist’s cry for help. Psalm 138 speaks of how God sees those who are bowed low, who are not haughty and self-confident. It speaks of how God preserves the Psalmist in the midst of trouble. The psalm has the flavour of being one of praise in the midst of a difficult life, but one in which God is at work. It doesn’t have Psalm 136’s exhuberance, but neither does it have the raw violence of Psalm 137 – but you sense that just maybe Psalm 137 isn’t far off the memory of the Psalmist. On the other hand there is one link back to Psalm 136 – the phrase “your love endures forever” – the same phrase as the refrain of Psalm 136 is echoed in Psalm 138’s song of praise for God’s work in the midst of trouble.
The 3 psalms together actually form a great example of a 3 stage pattern or movement within many psalms that OT theologian Walter Brueggemann identifies as Orientation, Dis-orientation and Re-orientation. Psalm 136 is a song of orientation – praising God for his work of creation and salvation as it should be praised – this is the song of the faith of the believing people – this is what we know and believe to be true, and in our best moments live from. Psalm 137 is the song of disorentation – all this has gone wrong. We do not live with any evidence that Psalm 136 is actually true for us. This is where many of the psalms of lament fit, in that they express the mess of life as it is. Then Psalm 138 expresses the reorientation stage where we move back to knowing God’s work – but with a deeper sense of gratitude, and an awareness that even while life is not all as it should be God is at work. There is a joy that is somehow deeper, and a gratitude that is somehow larger because we have seen God at work in the midst of pain.
Here is Psalm 138 – a great Psalm of praise to God for his work – and especially for his name – his character of steadfast love and faithfulness in all of life, a great Psalm to pray through and into our lives.
“I give you thanks, O LORD, with my whole heart; before the gods I sing your praise;
I bow down toward your holy temple and give thanks to your name
for your steadfast love and your faithfulness,
for you have exalted above all things your name and your word.
On the day I called, you answered me; my strength of soul you increased.
All the kings of the earth shall give you thanks,
O LORD, for they have heard the words of your mouth,
and they shall sing of the ways of the LORD, for great is the glory of the LORD.
For though the LORD is high, he regards the lowly,
but the haughty he knows from afar.
Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you preserve my life;
you stretch out your hand against the wrath of my enemies,
and your right hand delivers me.
The LORD will fulfill his purpose for me;
your steadfast love, O LORD, endures forever.
Do not forsake the work of your hands.”
(Psalms 138:1–8 ESV)