Psalm 137 — Words of Trauma — Reading the Psalms

1 By the rivers of Babylon,
There we sat down, yea, we wept,
When we remembered Zion.
2 Upon the willows in the midst thereof
We hanged up our harps
3 For there they that led us captive required of us songs,
And they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying,
Sing us one of the songs of Zion.
4 How shall we sing the LORD’s song
In a strange land?
5 If I forget thee, O Jerusalem,
Let my right hand forget her cunning.
6 Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth,
If I remember thee not;
If I prefer not Jerusalem
Above my chief joy.
7 Remember, O LORD, against the children of Edom
The day of Jerusalem;
Who said, Rase it, rase it,
Even to the foundation thereof.
8 O daughter of Babylon, that art to be destroyed;
Happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee
As thou hast served us.
9 Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones
Against the rock.

The words of this psalm explode off the page. It’s some of the most powerful verses in all the psalms. It often hurts the reader to read it. It hurts because you can feel the pain of the psalmist. It hurts because of the way it ends with vengeance.

Israel, by her foolish idolatry, left her Lord again and again. When God’s people align themselves with false ideas and idols, they welcome destruction into their lives. This psalm was written about such a time of destruction. Babylon destroyed Jerusalem and led her people captive. Neighbors offered no help but jeered her doom. Out in captivity, Israel suffered heartache and scornful laughter. The feelings and emotions in the psalm, the desire to see Jerusalem, though thousands of years old, feel fresh in my heart as I read.

The psalm evokes compassion and empathy. As we’re captured by its words we feel its feelings. We move through the psalm and then, at the end, we feel like we are the ones who utter the cry for vengeance on the helpless children of the enemy. We would never say such a thing, would we? Isn’t it wrong to think this way?

I can have a hard time knowing how to read & meditate on this psalm. I don’t want to condemn words written and preserved by God, but I don’t see where the teaching of Jesus commends such thoughts of vengeance. One idea worth pointing out is that the statements in vs. 8-9 do not call for vengeance, but simply state that judgment is due and the executioner will be happy. 

Another idea I keep in mind is that many of us will suffer great terrors ourselves. I’ve counseled many who suffered abuse at the hands of others – even loved ones. Psalms like these provide God given words for the sufferer to read and express their pain. They may use the psalm to vent their feelings, rather than letting loose what little control they have over their heart.

Don’t ignore or omit the hard words of the Bible. Pray for God’s help for clearer understanding. Pray also that you’ll never suffer a difficulty so great that his psalm becomes relatable. However, whatever comes your way, do not forget that God knows and understands our heartache. He’s even given us tough words of trauma to read.

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