It’s day 28, Evening Prayer… almost finished with the month, we’re zipping through all these short Psalms near the end of the Psalter, and then suddenly BAM! you slam into Psalm 137.
Oh it starts normally enough. The lament of the community in exile in Babylon over the loss of Jerusalem is a sad thing; this month it is especially timely with the book of Lamentations at the same time. How can God be worshiped away from His (destroyed) House, in the midst of a heathen land? What will become of us if (and when!) memory fades of that glorious Temple? Translated into Christian experience today, we see a world around us steeped in sin and ask similar questions: how long until the music of worship fades in our own hearts? How much will we succumb to the paganizing forces in natural human culture? Will churches and denominations continue to decline into obscurity?
Blessed shall he be who takes your children * and throws them against the stones
Wait, what? Where did that come from? I thought this was a sad psalm, but all of a sudden it takes such and angry and sadistic turn at the end. And it just stops there, like that’s a perfectly okay last word to have. What does a Christian do with this? This angry and vengeful rebuke of the Edomites who were complicit in the destruction of Jerusalem as they basically cheered the Babylonians on feels a little too extreme. As the popular meme goes, “that escalated quickly!”
As Anglicans, we pray through the Psalter every month at least, so we really need to know how to tackle with this, lest we have a crisis of faith and biblical fidelity every month.
Reminder #1 – Vengeance is the Lord’s
Prayers for vengeance can be found in many places throughout the Bible, especially the Old Testament. This does not conflict with the also-biblical teaching that God is the one who avenges evil; indeed, such prayers reinforce the doctrine, putting our desire for revenge into the hands of the Just One.
In the New Testament, a new pattern emerges: prayers for mercy upon the evildoers, even as they kill the faithful. Jesus prayed for those who arrested him and those who crucified him. Saint Stephen prayed the same as he was stoned to death. The readings for the Communion service on St. Stephen’s Day, by the way, highlight this interesting contrast between Old and New Testament tendencies regarding vengeance. Regardless of whether the victim is praying for mercy or not, however, the New Testament upholds the doctrine that God will judge and avenge wrongdoing.
Reminder #2 – You can bring your anger to God
One of the frequent shortcomings in modern piety is the misunderstanding that you have to (or even just should) come to church happy. Jesus is our lover and our joy, and therefore we must be happy in his presence. Such an attitude can be very damaging for those who are hurting! Thankfully there has been some popular movement toward recovering a sense of common lament before God, recognizing the pain and brokenness and drear of our lives. But anger, I suspect, is probably not quite as readily accepted. Wrath quickly turns to sin, as the Bible teaches, so perhaps it is understandable that we don’t have many examples of anger in the Psalms. Psalm 109 is one of the angriest psalms besides this one.
So what about those babies dashed against the rocks?
Frankly, I hope this verse will always make you uncomfortable. It takes a very deep and profound anger to wish such a curse on anyone. The trauma the Judean exiles experienced – the trauma of many refugees to this day – is not an experience that most people have, and I hope you and I never do. This verse is coming from that place of extreme pain. It may not come from your own place of brokenness and hurt, but it does come from someone’s brokenness and hurt, and you and I are offering that pain to God with them.
Just as we pray the happy Psalms like 98, 99, and 100 whether we’re feeling joyful or not, just as we pray the penitential Psalm 51 whether we’re actually in a contrite mood or not, also do we pray Psalm 137’s profound anger regardless of the state of our own heart.
Ultimately, this psalm is one of the most helpful case studies in liturgical worship, as it puts into the mouth of the worshiping community words that likely none of us in a given church would ever say in our own extemporaneous prayers! As rough ’round the edges as this psalm is, I thank God that it’s in the Bible. It teaches us that we can pray even at our angriest. It teaches how to pray with others at their angriest. And it shows us anger that still faithfully conforms itself to the ultimate judgment of God.