The Censored Psalm

Original Date: 
Sunday, February 19, 2012
Series: 

Psalm 137 Life Songs: The Censored Psalm

Sports Hate
I hate Montana.

More specifically, I hate the University of Montana.

More specifically still, I hate the University of Montana football team. The Grizzlies. The Griz. I can’t stand them.

Now, let me explain. Most of you know I am a big fan of the UNI Panthers. One of my bucket list dreams in life is to see the Panthers win a national football championship in their division. And UNI is traditionally a very good football team. In 2005 they actually made the championship game, and I was there, as they lost by 5 on a defensive fumble return in the fourth quarter.

But one of the real bugaboos for UNI has been the Montana Grizzlies. We’re 0 and 5 against them all time, and four times they’ve beaten us in the playoffs. I remember in 2001 I thought UNI had one of its best teams ever, but they had to go to Montana for a semi-final game. It was cold, there was snow on the ground, and about 20,000 farmhands and mountain men filled the stands. UNI got beat 38 to 0, got snowballs thrown at them, and had four players arrested after the game for getting into an altercation with fans. It’s not a fun place to play.

So this last fall, when UNI ended the season ranked number 2 in the country, but somehow, inexplicably, had to go out to Montana for its quarterfinal playoff game, I knew it wouldn’t be good. And it wasn’t. We got beat 41 to 10. And it wasn’t even that close. I hate Montana.

Now, I have to say, I mean that strictly in a sports sense. ESPN writer Bill Simmons calls it “sports hate.” When you’re a sports fan, a part of the fun is having teams that you enjoy rooting against. Teams that you hope do badly, or desperately want your team to get the better of. I’m pretty sure that when UNI finally does get its national championship, we’re going to have to beat Montana somewhere along the way, and if we do, it’ll make it that much sweeter.

But, of course, there’s a huge difference between sports hate and actual hate. The truth is: I don’t really hate Montana. I know some people from Montana, and they are pretty good people. One of my best friends, in fact, is from Montana. If I met a coach or a player for the Grizzlies, I wouldn’t try to key their car or anything. I’d shake their hand and say something like: “Boy, you guys really have our number.” In that sense, hate is a terribly strong word.

There are some things, though, for which hate is not too strong of a word. Take child abuse, for example. When I hear about defenseless, innocent children being exploited or beaten, I feel hatred for people who hurt kids. Or murder. When reports come out of some serial killer preying on people and torturing and mutilating them, I feel hate. Or genocide. When we hear about some dictator or political group seizing power and then going on a campaign to exterminate some rival tribe or ethnic group, my initial reaction is a feeling of hate. Not sports hate. Real hate. Real, blood-boiling-in-my-veins, I-want-to-see-justice-done, vindictive and angry, hate.

Hate is a real emotion. It happens to us. We feel it. And the question is: what does the Bible have to say about hate?

The Censored Psalm
The Psalm we are going to look at this morning is Psalm 137. It’s a Psalm that gives voice to hate. And I have to warn you, it’s not pretty. Here it is, Psalm 137:

1 By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
2 There on the poplars
we hung our harps,
3 for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
4 How can we sing the songs of the LORD
while in a foreign land?
5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
may my right hand forget its skill.
6 May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
if I do not remember you,
if I do not consider Jerusalem
my highest joy.
7 Remember, O LORD, what the Edomites did
on the day Jerusalem fell.
“Tear it down,” they cried,
“tear it down to its foundations!”
8 O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction,
happy is he who repays you
for what you have done to us—
9 he who seizes your infants
and dashes them against the rocks.

Like I said, this isn’t pretty. Those last lines are hard to swallow. It’s hard to believe that something like that made it into the Bible.

I’ve been calling this series of sermons from the Psalms Life Songs, and I’ve been saying that the Psalms deal with the real, nitty-gritty issues of life. The Psalms aren’t just pretty, sentimental poems about a lovely, idealistic life. They deal with real issues like fear, sadness, loss, joy, hope and anger.

And so, I chose Psalm 137 to demonstrate that. It’s probably not a Psalm you’ve ever heard preached on before. I know I’ve never preached on it before. But there it is, right on the pages of our Bibles.

This is what is known as an “imprecatory” Psalm. An “imprecation” is like a curse. It’s calling upon God for judgment against the wicked. At least 18 Psalms contain imprecations, and some are quite blood-thirsty; though none are quite as bone-chilling as Psalm 137.

And the question is: what do we (who follow a Man who told us to love our enemies) do with these passages which clamor for God to “break the teeth” of the wicked (58:6) and to render their children fatherless and turn their wives into widows? (109:9)

Psalms like this have been a sticky issue for the church over the years. Several Christian traditions regularly read or sing the Psalms in every worship service. But some have chosen to leave verses like Psalm 137:9 out of their hymnals. The Catholic Church, for example, has long provided the Liturgy of the Hours, a practice that allows believers to recite the entire Psalter in a four-week period.

In 1970, though, as the Liturgy of the Hours was being revised from Latin into vernacular languages, three Psalms were left out entirely and verses from several others—15% of the Psalter--were skipped. The Pope at the time explained: “Some few of the psalms and verses which are somewhat harsh in tone have been omitted, especially because of the difficulties that were foreseen from their use in vernacular celebration.” In other words, as the Catholic Church moved from doing everything in Latin, there was fear that people would be uncomfortable once they understood what they were actually praying. (Kevin Adams, 150, p. 188-189)

And I’m not picking on the Catholic Church here. Lots of hymnals have skipped over verses like this. One preacher calls them “psalm-ectomies”. It’s like performing amputation on the Bible. How, exactly, are you supposed to work a line like “dash their infants against the rocks” into a worship service?

Our tradition struggles with it as well. Some of you grew up in the Christian Reformed Church, and as such you would be familiar with the Blue Psalter Hymnal, which sets all 150 Psalms to music. I asked Mary to look up what they did with Psalm 137. To their credit, they included the Psalm, but they softened it up quite a bit. The last verse reads like this:

Remember Lord the dreadful day
Of Zion’s cruel overthrow
How happy he who shall repay
The bitter hatred of her foe

Not quite the same as calls for infanticide. But, again, Psalm 137:9 is pretty chilling for its white-hot rage. The Psalter Hymnal is doing its best to convey the meaning.

The fact is: Psalm 137 is in our Bibles, and we believe all scripture is God-breathed and profitable for our spiritual growth. So there must be something we can learn from these verses. What I’d like to do is walk through the Psalm with you, and then I’ll have some observations at the end.

By Babylon’s Streams
So start with verses 1-3. Here we get the setting and situation:

1 By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
2 There on the poplars
we hung our harps,
3 for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

In 586 BC the nation of Judah was destroyed. They went through a regressively worse list of kings and a deteriorating religious situation until God finally opened the door for King Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians to invade and destroy Jerusalem. You can read about it in 2 Chronicles 36:15-20. The Babylonians slaughtered men in the temple, burned it, tore down Jerusalem’s walls, and carried those who survived into exile.

So that’s the setting for this Psalm: deported Jews—who’ve seen their friends and family put to the sword—sitting along the riverbanks of a foreign land; mourning for the beloved city that they’ve seen destroyed.

And they’re being tormented. The Babylonians, flush with their victory, goad them and tease them. They know that the Jews are a musical people. So they taunt them and demand songs for their entertainment. Archaeologists have actually found pieces from this era showing prisoners carrying lyres under the watchful eyes of a soldier.

To me, the image that comes to mind is the western movie staple where the bandit rides into town, overpowers the good guy, then points his six-shooter at the good guy’s boots and demands that he “Dance!” This is a bully seeking entertainment out of the humiliation of his victim. The winning team rubbing it in by forcing the losers to sing their fight song.

In verse 3, when the Babylonians say: “Sing us a song of Zion!” they might just as well be asking: “Where is your God now?” It is a vicious taunt.

How Can We Sing?
In verses 4-6, though, the Psalmist gives voice to his commitment to God.

4 How can we sing the songs of the LORD
while in a foreign land?
5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
may my right hand forget its skill.
6 May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
if I do not remember you,
if I do not consider Jerusalem
my highest joy.

The Psalmist understands that the Babylonians are mocking God. They are treating what is sacred as though it were common. The Jews are not about to reduce the sacred songs of God to the entertainment of godless enemies.

But there is a bigger point being made here as well. The Psalmist has not given up on Jerusalem.

Jerusalem—or Zion—is not just a physical city that now lies in smoldering ruins. Jerusalem is also symbolic for Judah’s relationship with God. Jerusalem is the place where God’s name is exalted. It represents God’s reign and rule over the world. And the Psalmist is saying that even though things are bad right now—even though he is in exile and being taunted by Babylonian bullies—he is not ready to abandon his faith in God.

And so, he calls down imprecations on himself. Do you see that? He actually curses himself. He says that if he starts singing the songs of the Lord the way the Babylonians are asking—if he diminishes the Lord like that—then he’d rather his right hand forget how to play the harp, he’d rather his tongue cling to the roof of his mouth. He is not going to forget Jerusalem.

Repay
Which leads to the final three verses, and the curses against the enemies.

7 Remember, O LORD, what the Edomites did
on the day Jerusalem fell.
“Tear it down,” they cried,
“tear it down to its foundations!”
8 O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction,
happy is he who repays you
for what you have done to us—
9 he who seizes your infants
and dashes them against the rocks.

This is a terrible image. But we need to understand some of the context. The Edomites were the descendants of Essau, Jacob’s brother. They were relatives of the Jews. And yet, the book of Obadiah tells us that when the Babylonians invaded, the Edomites were cheering them on. They actually followed the Babylonians into the looted city and carried off whatever spoil they could find. When the Jews tried to flee, the Edomites stood at the crossroads and cut them down (Obadiah 11-14).

And the Babylonians too, were bloodthirsty and cruel. When verse 8 talks about repaying them for what they have done, it is a way of invoking the Old Testament rule of “an eye for an eye.”

Some people think that is a primitive and barbaric rule. That it justifies an endless cycle of retribution. But really, an “eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” is all about proportionality. The point is: you don’t punish a parking violation with the death penalty, and you don’t punish murder with a $10 dollar fine. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. The punishment should fit the crime.

So what the Psalmist is asking is for God to pay back the Babylonians in accordance to what the Babylonians have done. In other words, the whole idea of bashing babies against the rocks came to the Psalmist because that is exactly what the Babylonians have done to Jewish babies.

I know it still sounds appalling to us, but we have to remember that this song is being sung by people who have experienced true evil. Not many of us have endured the kind of evil the exiled Jews underwent. Maybe some of us who have endured an abusive relationship or experienced the horror of rape can relate; but for most of us, we simply haven’t experienced this level of evil.

Surviving
The movie documentary Shoah tells the story of Simon Srebnik. Srebnik was one of two survivors of the Nazi death-camp Chelmno, where 400,000 people were killed in gas vans. Srebnik was 13, and he had a good singing voice. So, several times a week SS guards would force him to row a flat-bottomed boat along the river bank and sing to entertain the troops and the German settlers of the conquered Polish territory.

The documentary—again, it’s called Shoah, and I found it on YouTube—follows him at the age of 47 as he returns to the site of the death camp. Elderly villagers are interviewed and remember how the Germans made him sing—a toy for their amusement.

Srebnik walks by the empty space where the death camp once stood and says:

It’s hard to recognize, but it was here. They burned people here. A lot of people where burned here. Yes, this is the place. No one ever left here again. The gas vans came here and afterwards the bodies were thrown into these ovens and the flames reached to the sky… It was terrible… No one can describe it. No one can recreate what happened here. Impossible. And no one can understand it.

I mentioned that Simon Srebnik was one of only 2 survivors of Chelmno. When the Russians were closing in, the Germans reacted by executing all the prisoners who remained. They also put a bullet in Srebnik’s head, but it didn’t kill him, and he crawled to a nearby farm where he hid in a pigsty until a Russian doctor could nurse him back to health.

“The stinging poetry of Psalm 137 carries an eyewitness account of an atrocity. A powerful nation bullies a smaller one; when a much-loved and besieged capital falls, soldiers loot and kill, and they carry survivors into exile. All the while, Israel’s ancient antagonists, the Edomites, cheer on the looters. Soldiers tear babies from their mothers’ arms…” (Adams, p. 193)

Is it any surprise, then, that this Psalm is filled with such anger? Are we surprised at the level of hate it expresses? C.S. Lewis writes: “The ferocious parts of the Psalms serve as a reminder that there is in the world such a thing as wickedness and that it…is hateful to God.” (Reflections on the Psalms, p. 148)

I actually think there is a subversive quality to this Psalm. I’d like to think that when the Babylonians demanded that the Jews sing, this is the song that they composed.

So as the Babylonians nodded their heads approvingly at the beautiful melodies and smirked at their ability to make these miserable Jews sing; the Jews were in fact strumming their harps and pronouncing a bloodcurdling curse on their captors in a Hebrew language which, fortunately, the Babylonians did not understand.

In their own, quietly defiant way, they were announcing that they were not quitting on God.

Lessons
So, what can we learn from this Psalm? I have three brief observations.

1) First, something needs to be said for the honesty of this Psalm. The angry images the imprecations present are not pretty, but they are an honest portrayal of how the Psalmist is feeling. To the Bible’s credit, it does not gloss over or try to pretty this stuff up.

C.S. Lewis notes that anger over evil is actually a good sign that we care. He writes:

The absence of anger, especially that sort of anger which we call indignation, can, in my opinion, be a most alarming symptom. And the presence of indignation may be a good one…If the Jews cursed more bitterly than the Pagans this was, I think, at least in part because they took right and wrong more seriously. (pg. 146-147)

In a world where we are constantly exposed to reports of travesties from all over the world—and yet they always seem to remain distant and remote through our TVs and computer screens—it is easy to grow calloused to pain and suffering. Hate—indignation—can sometimes be the only emotion tough enough to work through our protective padding.

Kevin Adams writes:

The psalms don’t stir up or legitimize hate, they simply acknowledge it and use it to get us on our feet, ready to work against oppression…Psalm 137 forces us to experience evil directly, to grow beyond our appetite for the kind of overly romantic prayer we mistakenly imagine is symbolized in the psalm’s opening lines…As [Eugene] Peterson reminds us, “It is easy to be honest before God with our hallelujahs; it is somewhat more difficult to be honest in our hurts; it is nearly impossible to be honest before God in the dark emotions of our hate…The way of prayer is not to cover our unlovely emotions so that they will appear respectable, but expose them so that they can be enlisted in the work of the kingdom.” It takes a great deal of faith to entrust our deepest needs to God. It takes even more to entrust to him our deepest hatreds.

Adams goes on:

Far too honest to settle for a sanitized version of faith, the psalms allow us to pray life as it is, not as we wish it to be. They teach us how to grapple with evil, to hate the malice we see or experience. They coach us to understand that a spiritually alive person feels anger on behalf of the oppressed. Thank God that the Psalter’s original Hebrew editors dared to take us to a deeply honest place where evil is more twisted and tangled into the fabric of life than we might have ever feared, or guessed. (pgs. 195-196)

2) Second, we need to think about the God-centeredness of this Psalm. The Psalmist’s loyalty is to Jerusalem, and what Jerusalem represents. There have been horrible crimes committed against the Jewish people, but what really angers the Psalmist is that these are affronts against God.

And so, more than simply a prayer for personal revenge, what Psalm 137 represents is a cry for the triumph of God’s kingdom. The Psalmist’s longing is that God will come and set things right. That evil will be vanquished, and God’s rule established.

That’s why this Psalm doesn’t contradict what Jesus says about loving our enemies or turning the other cheek. Rather than seeking vengeance himself, the Psalmist is entrusting it to God to do what is right.

3) Third, and finally then, this Psalm reminds us that judgment is coming. The bitter cry at the end of Psalm 137 reminds us that God is a righteous judge and one day all wickedness and evil is going to be wiped out.

In fact, in the book of Revelation Babylon becomes a cipher for all the evil systems of the world. “Home for demons and a haunt for every evil spirit” (Rev. 18:2) Babylon is the symbol for all that is wrong in our world. And in the end, Babylon comes down with a fiery crash. Revelation 18:10 pictures her destruction:

Woe! Woe, O great city,
O Babylon, city of power!
In one hour your doom has come!

We need to remember that our God is a God of justice. And we shouldn’t apologize for it, as though God’s anger towards sin was God’s dark side or something. God doesn’t have a dark side. His justice and righteousness are a part of what makes Him great, exactly the kind of God we want and need. A judge who knowingly and willingly sets free a guilty person is in fact making himself an accomplice to the crime. We wouldn’t want a God who looks away from evil.

We need to know that some day, every wickedness will be repaid. Every sin will be paid for. Every evil deed will be judged by God. Either our sins will be pardoned by Christ on the cross, or they will punished in Hell. But God will not let wickedness go.

And for that, we should praise our righteous and just God.