Psalm 137 – By the River


And so we come to Psalm 137, one of the R-rated sections of the Bible. This Psalm is an absolutely heartbreaking lament. It is filled with hurt, anger, and a desire for the worst kind of vengeance. It begins with the heartbreaking statement about sitting down by the rivers and weeping, with the lament about hanging up the harps and not being able to sing for their grief was too great and their anger so very present. (Rob Bell did a powerful podcast about this passage a few weeks ago – click here to listen) . The Psalm continues in that spirit of hurt and woundedness and slowly shifts to anger and a desire for vengeance. The Psalmist recalls the ways that their attackers called for the destruction of Jerusalem and then finally we come to the final verse, which if it were part of a movie would quickly give it an R rating…

Happy shall they be who pay you back
what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones
and dash them against the rock!

Psalm 137

Yup, that is exactly what it is saying…bashing the babies of their captors. Other translations put it even more bluntly than the one above. It is very easy to read this and get really uncomfortable but it is important to try to put yourself in the position of those who were crafting this lament. They had been ripped from their homeland. They were taken in chains to a new land. They were forced to labor as slaves in that new land. They did not see hope for returning. This song recalls their enslavers and oppressors asking them to cheerfully sing their songs as they slaved away. When we really stop to try to put ourselves in their place, it becomes easier to understand why their would feel as they do here, why they would express their grief and their anger in this way, and why this is as faithful an expression of prayer as anything else. Because it is absolutely real. It is not covering up the pain. It is not trying to make it feel better or go away. It is saying, this is where we are. This is us.

Here, by this river we weep.
Here, by this river we hurt.
Here, by this river we lament.
Here, by this river we speak out.
Here, by this river we sing our anger.
Here, by this river we cry out.

I took this picture on a hike Saturday morning with one of my sons. It is a dried riverbed that we discovered and we walked for quite a while. We wondered when water last flowed through there and we noted the ways that the water had shaped the rocky bed over some period of time. We noted places where it was smoothed out and places where it was rough like pictured here. As I re-read Psalm 137, I thought of this place and I remembered the words of Amos 5 where the prophet speaks of a time for justice to roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. While that was in the context of a judgment against God’s people who had walked away, it still speaks of what the ultimate hope was for those on the banks of that Babylonian river – that God’s justice would flow for them and they would be able to drink of the waters of freedom.

I imagine that these are words echoed today by those whose personal and ancestral lives mirror those who cried out to the Lord by that ancient river…

Categories: PsalmsTags: , , , , , , ,

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