Psalm 137 Lynne McCarthy 11/30/22
Observe: A communal lament as the children of Israel recall their exile in Babylon. They missed their life in Zion and longed for Jerusalem, far out of their reach. Their captors mock them, demanding entertainment with their hymns praising the Lord of Zion, but the people will not, cannot do this.
And the depth of the captives’ desire to have the Lord repay their hurt takes the form of a prayer in the last stanza, against Edom that utterly destroyed Jerusalem (Obadiah 11 on) and Babylon’s violence to those in Jerusalem. The last verse makes us shudder, but it is so honest.
Interpret: Lex talionis, the law of punishment matching the crime (from where we get “retaliation”), is a central feature in this psalm. While the Exile was part of God’s purifying process for his people, and the prophet Jeremiah urged the exiles to live in Babylon and make the city flourish (Jer. 29:5-7), they now ask God to destroy their infants as the Babylonians had done to theirs in Jerusalem. In the ancient world, the practice of destroying infants of a conquered people was common, even recorded in the Hebrew Bible – 2 Kings8:12, Hosea 10:14 and 13:16, Nahum 3:10.
The psalm is not an approval of this horror but asks that the conquerors of Babylon would carry out God’s justice. Oppression of God’s people will be met with this very justice, and not out of human desire to hurt back. It’s hard to understand when Jesus has taught us to turn the other cheek, pray for those who oppress us and love our enemies, but God is Mystery, and this we must accept. We need more to pray for the repentance of those who do harm to us and others.
Apply: It’s so easy to want to strike back against someone who has hurt us, or to seethe in righteous anger at those who hurt others. We too live in a violent, Godless society, but while we aren’t part of it, we are too close for any comfort as we read, watch, and observe what’s going on around us.
Seething only raises the blood pressure, griping only becomes a tape loop. We have prayer to counteract these useless reactions, and how we need to exercise that gift! It’s not for lack of means; there are small groups (find one and join it if you’re not in one!), prayer teams at the end of the service, prayer warriors in our church, and we can even pray on the phone or via email. But that’s what we do, knowing the Lord is in complete charge of all things and knows what’s going on. He’ll give us our marching orders in His time. Meanwhile, we’re in prayer boot camp as we wait for Him.
Ask: Lord, will You help me to lift my eyes to You so that I constantly honour Your glory and power, and not become depressed or angry when I look at what’s happening around me?
Pray: Lord, thank you that we can come to you at all times with things that disturb, hurt, or militate against what is Your righteousness and goodness. This is not mere optimism or idealism, but rather a desire that You deepen our faith, that together with brothers and sisters who experience injustice and terror, we may always turn to You as the Giver of hope, healing and justice. This psalm was hard to read, but it is what is out there. And You are not ‘out there’ but are so very close to us in our sadness and need. Thank You, our great Lord of Life and Peace.
Sing: Psalm 137 - Poor Bishop Hooper
O Zion - Scottish Psalmist
Rivers of Babylon - Jason Silver
In 2023, each week's blog is a follow-up reflection written by the preceding Sunday’s preacher to dig deeper into the sermon topic and explore engaging discussion questions.