Read Psalm 137
ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“Depart from evil, and do good; so you shall abide forever. For the LORD loves justice; he will not forsake his faithful ones. The righteous shall be kept safe forever, but the children of the wicked shall be cut off.” (Psalms 37:27-28 NRSV)
This is an incredibly hard text to deal with. I mean, what can be possible said to justify the words that we’ve just read. What can possible be said to defend the horrifying imagery that the psalmist has forever etched into our heads? What can possibly justify the killing of innocent babies and/or children? Why would that even be in the Bible? What constructive good could possibly come for such atrocious and violent rhetoric? What’s more, what can I possibly say about this text that will transform it into something relevant for our lives in today’s time?
First, I always think it is important to understand the historical context of the text before trying to understand the text itself. We are blessed with this Psalm because it actually dates itself, which gives us a really good place to start in understanding what was going on there. The psalmist opens the Psalm in the following way: “By the rivers of Babylon–there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion” (Psalms 137:1 NRSV). So we know where this Psalm takes place, “beside the rivers of Babylon”, which means that the Psalm was written by a Jew within Babylon.
What this ultimately means is that this is a Psalm that comes out of the Exilic Period in Jewish history. This period happened in three waves between 605 BCE and 538 BCE. The Exile of the Jews lasted until the Persian king, Cyrus II, decreed that the Jews could return to their homeland following the Persian takeover of Babylon a year earlier in October of 539 BCE. (NOTE: Before Common Era (BCE) years count backwards.) This means that the Psalm had to be written sometime between 605 and 539 BCE.
The dating of this Psalm is further evidenced by the fact that the psalmist is “remembering Zion, implying that it was laid to waste. What that means is that this psalmist was among those taken captive back to Babylon during the third exilic wave (July or August of 587 BCE), following the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple built by Solomon. Let’s put this into perspective. When Babylon came in and seiged Jerusalem for the third time (due to Judah rebelling against King Nebuchadnezzar), they were made a bloody example of for anyone else who would dare challenge and conspire against the Babylonian Empire who they were previously conquered by and subject to.
So, to be precise, at the time of the Babylonian attack on Judah, there was an estimated population of 75,000 people living in Judah, and Jerusalem was probably much of that population being that it was the main city. Of that population, 20,000 people were deported and brought back to Babylon in exile. That’s over 25% of the population. Now, we all remember what happened on 9/11, just imagine if, on top of the attacks, 25% of all Americans were taken to another country to live.
Just put that into perspective of how horrifying, how awful, and how humiliating that must have been. Twenty-five percent! The remaining 75% were either dead, or were left in Judah to watch their countryside, villages, and the city of Jerusalem smolder, literally. Jerusalem itself, destroyed and depopulated, lay largely in ruins for the next 150 years. Many of their men, women and children were dead, the rest exiled to a foreign land or left to rot in a smoldering land, and they were the utter and absolute laughing stock of an empire.
This psalmist is letting out his or her violent reaction, and getting it out in the open, and that is perfectly okay. Does God condone violence, or dashing infants’ heads on stone? No, I do not believe that God does. Nor does this psalmist even claim that God states that. The violence in this psalm is really a vehement prayer of anguish to God and God does understand the wounded heart of the anguished psalmist and of all people who suffer injustice and pain. God not only understands the oppressed, but stands in solidarity with them, working to bring about justice to those who are suffering under the weight of evil.
It is important for us to know that it is okay if we cry out vehemently to God when we are desperate for justice, for God knows our pain and is working to bring about justice in our situations and in the world. What’s more, we are also challenged to check to see where our own allegiances lie. Are we standing in solidarity with the oppressed, just as God is, or are we among the oppressors who are adding insult to injury? In the end, justice ALWAYS prevails. It did eventually in Babylon, and it will in our world too. Evaluate yourself. Which side are you on?
THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“Prayer is the tearing open of your rib cage so that your heart can breathe.” – Rob Bell
Lord, hear my own vehement prayers anguish and also lead me to become an answered prayer for those who suffer. Amen.