Lots of people have a favorite Psalm or two. My hunch is that Psalm 137 isn’t on anyone’s favorites list. We think of the Psalms as inspiring or comforting texts and many of them are. But some, like psalm 137, are psalms of lament -unflinching looks at human suffering and anguish. Psalms of lament can be hard to read, especially if things are going well in your life. Seldom do we like being reminded of the suffering of others.
Psalm 137 is a lament of the exiles. The defeat of Israel and the destruction of the Temple by the Babylonian Empire was a devastating event.In those days people believed that nations had their own gods.Israel had its God and the Babylonians had their gods. They thought that events on earth reflected events in heaven (the home of the gods) and visa versa. So the defeat of Israel was a defeat of Israel’s god and the destruction of the Temple- the place where people went to meet God -cut Israel off from its God. After the defeat of Israel, the Babylonians took many of the people of Israel into exile in Babylon. Their nation was destroyed, their cities burned, and people killed. Some survivors were taken into exile to Babylon, while others, mostly poor folk, were left on the devastated land to try to survive.
This is the situation that provokes Psalm 137. Take moment and read the Psalm.
It’s a sad psalm and you can appreciate the depth of Israel’s lament. It’s moving, sad, and poetic right up until the last verse. Then it simply becomes horrifying. It makes me want to close my eyes, turn the page, move on to a more comforting psalm. The Bible doesn’t sanitize or ignore human emotion. It’s there in scripture in all it’s beauty and horror.
As I read this psalm I wonder, what sort of horrible event in my life could make me so bitter, so angry, so desperate that I could compose a psalm like this? How much pain would it take? This psalm helps me understand how devastating the defeat and exile was for Israel. I can feel a bit of the pain they felt. It’s not pretty but it is honest.
Often Psalms of lament end with an affirmation of God’s goodness and faithfulness. But not this one. The pain is too deep, too raw, too fresh. It is the agonized cry of wounded people to God. Other parts of the Bible tell the rest of the story. The prophet Jeremiah sends a letter to the exiles and tells them to get on with their lives, to build homes, to plant crops, to marry and raise children, to seek the good of the land where they are exiles. The people do and finally one day, the king of Babylon sends them home. Israel is restored to her land and begins to rebuild its’ life again.
But none of this makes it any easier to read this psalm. The emotion remains raw and ugly over all these centuries. It remains hard to read and even harder to pray. Monastic traditions pray through the psalms regularly. They don’t skip psalm 137 or the other psalms of lament. I had a Benedictine sister tell me once, that these psalms are very hard to pray. They can pray the psalms of praise with loud voices and glad hearts, but things get very quiet and subdued for the laments. Even so, they pray them. The sisters believe when they pray the psalms of lament they are praying for those whose lives are so difficult they cannot pray for themselves. The sisters believe they are giving voice to the voiceless, the oppressed, those who endure unimaginable hardships. And so they pray all 150 psalms faithfully, including 137.
Psalm 137 remains a stark reminder of how painful, how awful life can be. It reminds us that we can react to the pain of life in horrible ways. Psalm 137 also reminds us that we can bring all we feel to God, even when it is ugly and painful. God listens. God hears. God is present in our pain. The psalms of lament are human cries that are not answered by a logical response or a theologically cogent rational. Our cries are answered by presence, the presence of God. God is present even when our emotions are angry, visceral, and violent. Ugly emotions and ugly prayers that might drive other people way, won’t drive God away.
I’d like to know, what do you think?