The Toughest Psalm

Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost
Psalm 137
Lamentations 1:1-6

This week we read the Bible’s toughest, darkest Psalm–137. The lectionary scriptures from Lamentations 1 and Psalm 137 are poems of lament that look back to the same event…the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC at the hands of the Babylonian war machine.

Imagine the fear that gripped the people of Jerusalem when they heard that Nebuchadnezzar’s war machine was headed their way. Imagine hearing the city gates clang shut for the last time. Imagine how peoples’ stomachs knotted up as food, water, and supplies became more valuable than gold. Imagine the terror that gripped citizens hearts as the guards on the walls hurled stones, arrows, and fire at the attackers. Imagine the raw panic that broke out in the streets when the foreign army broke through the walls and there was nowhere to run. Imagine the sick hopelessness that overtook husbands and wives who knew what was about to happen to their spouses and children. Imagine the terror on the day the city burned to the ground and blood flowed in the gutters.

Our morning scripture from Lamentations looks back with sorrow at broken, ruined Jerusalem—she was left like a shattered widow…betrayed by her friends, her children scattered, her leaders dead, her people enslaved and carried off across the desert as slaves.

Psalm 137 tells the woeful tale. “By the rivers of Babylon–there we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion. There we hung our harps, there our captors asked us for songs… “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?…Oh Jerusalem, I shall not forget you. ….O 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 rocks.

My goodness, what is this psalm doing in the middle of an otherwise marvelous book of songs and prayers? Where were the editors in the land? Had “White-Out” not yet been invented? Was the “delete” key missing on their keyboard? For Pete’s sake, the Psalms are designed to “make us lie down in green pastures,” they’re written to help us “lift up our eyes unto the hills.” But bashing babies upon rocks? What is up with that?

It is important to remember that this psalm is the howl of a traumatized people who had just suffered the destruction of their beloved city, the murder of their families and neighbors, the loss of their freedom to a foreign power. It is a psalm filled with sorrow and tears, anger and hatred. This is the wail of a defeated people. This is not a boastful, “Make my day!” kind of curse, but the sob of a victim saying, “You have done unspeakable things against us. O that justice would come upon you. O that you would taste the same kind of destruction you unleash on others. If only you murderers of children could experience the loss of your own children, then you’d know how it feels.”

Why do you suppose the Church continues to read hard scriptures like this…I mean 2500 years is a long time to carry a grudge, isn’t it? What redeeming value can be found in reading, and not dodging, a psalm like the one we have before us today? This psalm tells us something very important about the Word of God. Scripture is a sacred text but it is also a very human product.

Some people get the idea that the Bible was written down by holy stenographers on the hotline to God. Some people think that God dictated the Bible verbatim. This text helps us see that the Bible is also a record of real, flesh and blood people who struggled to find their footing as the people of God. It gives me courage and confidence to realize that that Bible was not written by angels…not handed down from heaven on golden plates. This is a work of strain and sweat, love and hate. These prayers and songs were written by people who know what it feels like to have their prayers bounce off the ceiling…people who know what it is like to feel abandoned by God.

Allowing this Psalm to find a place among us helps us acknowledge the darkness around us…and the darkness within us. We do ok in the light, but are we a church that can survive in the dark? Are we a people who can face the darkness, stare into the abyss, absorb the blows of this present darkness and come through intact? We won’t be redeemed until we face the night. And this psalm reminds us that the darkness is not just “out there,” but it is “in here” as well. We shall not be redeemed until we face that darkness that is inside us.

That’s why I’m glad to see this darkness, this cry from the night, even this “bash their children on the rocks” business here in our own book of faith. It reminds us of who we are. What we are capable of becoming. And it reminds us that it is here, with the people of God, that we come before God to get it all out–all the pain, all the darkness, all the ugliness, all the negativity. God is not unaware of the darkness, not afraid of the darkness. Bring it out.

John O’Donohue reminds us that the darkness of our souls need not be our defining characteristic. We bury our darkness, our pain, our sin, our hatred, our negativity when we come into the community of Christ. We carry around dark secrets that are never brought out into the open, never confronted, never integrated, never healed. We live in darkness because of the things we have done and because of the things that have been done to us. We can’t escape the darkness, but we must pass through the darkness to come out into the light. O’Donohue says: “The negative is one of the closest friends of your destiny…Negativity is a precious force. No movement of consciousness goes forward on its journey without the motor of the negative driving it….many people view darkness as the enemy rather than the threshold, the invitation to become something more.”

Perhaps that’s what’s happening with the ugliness of this Psalm—darkness becomes the threshold to a better future. Talking openly about the darkness can get it out there in plain view of God and everyone. Those who sang these words long ago confessed: “Yes, That’s me!” And we, the people of God, still read it, and pray it, and sing it, and say “Yes! It’s in us too.”

But God invites us to change the way we think about the darkness: the darkness of abuse, the darkness of hatred, the darkness of unforgiven sin. God invites us to see that darkness as “the threshold…the invitation to become something more.”

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