Psalm 137: A Psalm of Anger

Do me a favor and please read Psalm 137.

Now that you’ve read this psalm – let’s look at Lamentations 1:1-6 as it helps us with context and understanding:

  • How deserted lies the city, once so full of people! How like a widow is she, who once was great among the nations! She who was queen among the provinces has now become a slave. Bitterly she weeps at night, tears are on her cheeks. Among all her lovers there is no one to comfort her. All her friends have betrayed her; they have become her enemies. After affliction and harsh labor, Judah has gone into exile. She dwells among the nations; she finds no resting place. All who pursue her have overtaken her in the midst of her distress. The roads to Zion mourn, for no one comes to her appointed festivals. All her gateways are desolate, her priests groan, her young women grieve, and she is in bitter anguish. Her foes have become her masters; her enemies are at ease. The Lord has brought her grief because of her many sins. Her children have gone into exile, captive before the foe. All the splendor has departed from Daughter Zion. Her princes are like deer that find no pasture; in weakness they have fled before the pursuer.

So, the city of God is in ruins, the people have been taken captive and are feeling abandoned by God, and now they are sitting by the rivers of Babylon, weeping, with their captors mocking them and kind of chiding them to “entertain” them. And in response to this there is not only this feeling of “What!? Are you kidding!?” But there is a desire to “dash” their captor’s infants against the rocks? AND THIS IS IN THE BIBLE!?

Yes, and yes. The truth is that there is a ton of violent imagery throughout scripture and it doesn’t end there. We have people who get angry, become murderous, are deceptive, and then there are many with scheming hearts. So what are we to do with them and those situations? Well, as one author writes, “Do we say it shouldn’t be there, or they didn’t really mean it, or we need to clean it up? Plenty of editing went on, but violent outrage remains firmly a part of the text. Violence remains firmly a part of the world.” And if scripture is to give us not only Jesus but our need FOR him then we have to be honest with not only our feelings and emotions but the truth that even followers of God were broken (hence the need for Jesus).

Now let’s take that “remembrance” and put it into context for this psalm. The people of God were put in exile. Their temple was destroyed, Jerusalem was in ruin, and the people are thus completely broken. All their hope is dashed. All their emotions are raw. And they simply cannot sing about their home that once was. They cannot get their fingers to play their once melodious harps. Their tongues are stuck and they cannot move to bring forth the words to sing. Nor are their memories coming like a flood in a way that they would like. There’s just too much that has and is happening in this moment.

Our memories are strong and this psalm speaks clearly of the psalmist’s memories (each stanza (1-4, 5-6, 7-9) gives us a form of the word “to remember” in Hebrew), with nearly every word in this psalm being in the past tense except the very end where they wish that what happened to THEM from the Babylonians be repaid. Their pain and memories are real and WE must acknowledge it. We need to understand not only where the people were but the feelings they had. And for them, and many people today, violence can only be answered with more violence.

So what does that mean for you and me? First off, I would be lying if I said that I would never say the very wishes that the people had upon their captors. I cannot imagine anyone harming, beating, or killing any one of my family. And I think my heart and feelings would, if I were honest, follow that same path towards repayment. We are all sinners and brokenness hits even us.

Secondly, we need to remember that the psalms are not a list of commands and followings that we must do – they are written emotions and thoughts from real people experiencing real life events (remember, it’s almost like we’re reading a diary). The psalms are about who we really are deep down inside. Sometimes psalms are joyful while other times they reflect anger. Sometimes they are praise-worthy for what God has done while other times they are filled with confusion and angst. I’ll say it again: ALL PEOPLE ARE BROKEN. I appreciate what one author writes in that, “The psalms are not our personal Hallmark cards to God. They are the cry to God of humanity as a whole.”

And lastly, I’m glad God doesn’t listen to his broken-children’s wishes. God doesn’t play by our desires of violence-for-violence. We’re ever-thankful that while we may proclaim that “happy is the one who repays you according to what you have done to us” that that simply isn’t in the DNA of heaven. God responds to violence with love. God responds to anger with peace. God responds to death with his own death…which then brings life. And so what becomes important is that we need to recognize our own feelings and brokenness…all the while holding firmly to God’s work of love, peace, harmony, and redemption.

2 thoughts on “Psalm 137: A Psalm of Anger

  1. As one who loves singing Psalms in worship Psalm 137, especially that last verse, is particularly difficult. Yet, there it is. One approach that I’ve found helpful is to see these imprecations as voicing the judgment of God against evil-doers at the final judgment. It’s not the personal vengeance of the Psalmist, but one calling for holy justice. Some have called them an “intrusion” of the final judgment in the here and now. As you rightly say, Christ’s death on the cross is God’s bearing that wrath himself for His people. As dastardly as dashing the Babylonian’s little ones against the rocks seems to us, the crucifixion of the innocent Son of God as judgment for our sins is infinitely worse. The sinner who comes to God through Christ experiences that same divine wrath, but not in himself or herself, thank God, but in Christ our substitute. When we pray for our enemies and preach the Gospel, we are seeking that their sins too be punished in Christ on the cross and that they experience the salvation of our God.

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