This reflection is part of our 2022 “Doubt, Deconstruction & Redemption” Series. You can read my original piece laying out why it is fitting for Coracle to pick up this conversation at this moment HERE. If you are on a deconstruction journey or caring for someone who is, we hope these spaces, programs, and resources will be a blessing!
Some passages of scripture are easier to get behind than others. “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want…” “Seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God…” “I came that you may have life and have it abundantly…” When we read passages like these in church, it is easy to say, “Thanks be to God!”
Psalm 137 is different.
By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?
If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill.
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.
Remember, Lord, what the Edomites did on the day Jerusalem fell.
“Tear it down,” they cried, “tear it down to its foundations!”
Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction,
happy is the one who repays you according to what you have done to us.
Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.
Jeremiah 20 is similarly difficult. And yet, if we sit with these challenging passages and see how they are situated in the larger story of God in history, we can gain some crucial insights into the God we worship and the relationship he wants to have with us. In short, he wants us to pray honestly, to wrestle fiercely, and to walk closely.
I offered the following sermon back in 2020, and while it fits well into our “Doubt, Deconstruction & Redemption” series now, it has a much broader application for our present moment. How do we pray for our brothers and sisters in Ukraine? What do we do when the storms of life are so so intense we can hardly see six inches in front of us? I hope the thoughts below are a blessing to you, whatever season or storm you find yourself in.
Being “Honest to God”
It’s probably safe to say that few of us, if any, have ever heard all 9 verses of Psalm 137 sung in church, let alone sung them all ourselves, and that few of us, if any, have ever heard a sermon on it. Most of us have probably never even heard it read in its entirety on a Sunday morning. But it is likely that you’ve stumbled across it in your Bible reading, and maybe weren’t sure what to do with it, or maybe skipped it altogether. So, it’s a gift to look at this Psalm and passages like it and ask, “What’s that all about? What is that doing in the Bible? And what does it have to say to me?” Pausing on this Psalm is a deep affirmation that every word in the Bible has something to offer us, even the hard passages.
Psalm 137 raises some good questions. It’s easy to understand on one level, and at another level, it opens up a gorgeous invitation from God.
To locate it, there are a variety of types of Psalms, anywhere between 4 and 14 depending on how you slice it. There are worship Psalms, nature Psalms, royal Psalms, thanksgiving Psalms, wisdom Psalms, and a few others. However you organize these types, all commentators and preachers agree on this: there is a major category called Psalms of Lament. Psalms and songs of lament are written when something is deeply wrong, when there is sadness and discontent, when there’s an issue that isn’t getting resolved, or when there is anger.
Did you know that, of the various categories for the Psalms, by every count the Psalms of Lament are by far the majority of the 150 Psalms that we have? That says something about the human condition and the world we live in, and it affirms that the Bible is not unfamiliar with the fact that life can be hard.
Among the Psalms of Lament are the Imprecatory Psalms. To make an imprecation is to pray for the punishment of someone or some group, to call down judgment on them, to curse them, and invoke evil upon them. These Imprecatory Psalms—and there are roughly 14 of them—are the ones of which CS Lewis said, “Their spirit of hatred which strikes us in the face is like the heat of a furnace mouth.”
Psalm 137 is one of these. The reason for the hatred of this Psalmist towards his enemies is not hard to understand, given the historical context.
In 587 BC Jerusalem was sacked and destroyed by the Babylonian Empire who used the nearby tribe of the Edomites to do their fighting, destroying, and killing for them. Many Jewish people were killed, and the remainder were marched off across the desert hundreds and hundreds of miles away up through what is now Lebanon, and Syria, and across Iraq almost as far as the Persian Gulf. There they lived in exile. Sometime after they arrived–with homes burned, Temple destroyed, city destroyed, loved ones dead, uprooted from their land–they sat down and wept. We would too.
They had no joy, only grief. They couldn’t sing their songs of praise, and they hung up their instruments. But those who held them captive and tormented them wanted them to sing for their entertainment. “Sing us one of your songs,” they said. You can imagine how that would go over, and they could not sing. Nor did the Psalmist want to forget Jerusalem either, and committed to remember the City of God (vv 1-6). Then in verse 7, the Psalmist begins to pray and calls out for God to remember the evildoers, to punish them, and then, “O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed, blessed shall he be who repays you with what you have done to us! Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!” It is likely this is what they had witnessed happening to their own children.
This prayer is pretty harsh, but it’s not hard to understand those emotions.
Now, David didn’t write this Psalm, but he did write Psalm 109, where there are roughly 30 imprecations in one song—not directed at an oppressing country but at those who were surrounding him and in his midst. Of those he prayed,
“Let his prayer be counted as sin!
May his days be few;
May his children be fatherless and his wife a widow!
May his children wander about and beg, seeking food far from the ruins they inhabit!
Let there be none to extend kindness to him, nor any to pity his fatherless children!
May his posterity be cut off…” (vv 8-13)
Or here’s David in the much-beloved Psalm 139, one of the most comforting Psalms that there is. After one of the sweetest portraits we have of God’s loving presence and attentiveness to us, then this remarkable about-face in tone:
“Oh that you would slay the wicked, O God!
O men of blood, depart from me!
Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord?
And do I not loathe those who rise up against you?
I hate them with complete hatred;
I count them my enemies.” (vv 19-22)
These prayers and others like it in the Psalms or elsewhere are angry, they’re raw, they’re…honest. And they’re in the Bible. In other words, God saw fit to have these included in his Word to us, for one reason or another.
Here’s perhaps the deepest reason.
These Psalms model for us praying what is actually in our hearts and minds. They invite us to be honest in our prayers to God, to bring our feelings to him as they are, not as we think they should be—be they easier emotions like love and gladness or harder ones like disappointment, bitterness, even anger.
A trusted source when talking about worship is David Taylor, who wrote in Christianity Today,
“It’s deeply reassuring to discover in the psalms both permission and help to be angry at the right things… The extraordinary gift of the psalms is that they show us how to pray angry prayers without being overcome by our anger… It is instead a way to get us to talk to God.”
The Imprecatory Psalms for us are an invitation to be “Honest to God,” because honesty demonstrates intimacy. Honesty demonstrates intimacy.
This is why I love that throughout the whole Bible we see that those who are most intimate with God are also those who we see being most honest to God, be it about their anger at other people or nations, or sometimes even their anger at God himself!
This is why I love Jeremiah 20, literally one of my favorite chapters in the whole Bible, written just a few years before Psalm 137 and the Babylonian Exile. Jeremiah has been a faithful servant of the Lord for a long time, a very long time, and it’s only gotten him into trouble. Because Jeremiah was being a faithful messenger of God’s word, one of the leading priests of the Temple, Pashur, beat him up and put him in stocks overnight, and when Jeremiah is released he’s hopping mad at Pashur and calls down some curses and prophecies against him.
Then he turns his anger towards God, v7: “You have deceived me, and I was deceived. You are stronger than I, and you have prevailed.” He spends a couple of verses unpacking why he’s upset with God… right to God’s face!
There’s a beautiful book that I highly recommend, by a man named Don Postema and titled, Space for God: Study and Practice of Spirituality and Prayer. He spends a chapter titled “God-Wrestling” extolling the value of bringing our anger at God directly to God. The chapter is titled after the meaning of the word Israel, “one who wrestles with God.” This is the new name Jacob is given in Genesis 32 after he spends the night God-wrestling.
“Were those who wrestled with God far from God? Or does their struggling show how close to God they were?… The closer we are to God, the more we dare to say what’s going on in our hearts and guts. Surprisingly, our angry words can be a way of coming back to God rather than distancing ourselves from God.”
And like Jacob, we’ll find ourselves hugged back and perhaps even blessed.
Back to Jeremiah in chapter 20. In verses 11-13 he recovers his equilibrium a little bit, puts his faith and praise in God, and makes an imprecation against his enemies.
But he’s still upset, and now he vents his anger on the day that he was born, and on the guy who announced on that day to his father, “You have a son!” He calls down curses on that poor man because he didn’t kill Jeremiah when he was born.
Jeremiah is angry, he’s upset, he’s depressed… and he tells God all about it, with no varnish, with no religious language to hide what he was actually feeling. And Jeremiah was a friend of God! And it was precisely that intimacy that enabled his honesty.
And he’s not the only one… We’ve already been looking at David’s honesty in prayer, but we could easily add Jacob, Moses, Elijah, Hannah, Job, Peter, and many others. Those all trusted their relationship with God, that God could handle their honest emotions, and so that’s what they brought. Their honesty put their intimacy on display.
Jesus, the most intimate with his Father, models for us this honesty in prayer as well. From the cross he called out, praying the powerful words of Psalm 22— “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” That’s what Jesus was actually feeling–that he had been abandoned by God–and that’s exactly what he said to God.
Isn’t it interesting that the folks you’re most likely to be angry with and truly honest with are those you’re closest to, whether your kids, your spouse, your siblings, your parents, or sometimes a friend? Honesty demonstrates that the relationship is actually trustworthy enough to hold what we’re actually feeling. A wise friend of mine, David Bailey, once said, “I hold my friendships pretty loosely til I’ve been through conflict with them.”
We don’t show up with our full selves until we’re in the presence of another who we trust can handle our honest feelings and “stay in the room” with us.
This explains the conundrum of Psalm 139, that baby-sweet Psalm that takes such a violent turn near the end. There are 18 verses of David recalling to mind the true presence of God; then after finding his heart in that safe space, David pens four verses of an ugly spew. He knew God’s loving, near presence well enough to actually tell God how he was feeling, even if it wasn’t particularly pretty.
I love how Ruth Haley Barton helps us understand this, “In the safety that comes from knowing he is secure in God and has been lovingly formed by God, David is able to let the darker elements of himself emerge in God’s presence.”
Intimacy creates the space for honesty, and more honesty creates deeper intimacy.
The last two verses are David’s return to humble petition: “Search me, O God, and know my heart. See if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.”
Psalm 139, with its imprecations, follows the classic structure for many Psalms that Walter Brueggeman helps us see.
They begin with Orientation: God is great and good.
Then there’s Disorientation: I’m really upset about something, and I don’t know where God is.
And finally there’s Reorientation: Having gotten that off my chest, I once again put my faith in God.
That’s a good way to pray, and the Psalms teach us that.
Many, but not all, of the imprecatory Psalms find their way back to Reorientation. Psalm 137 isn’t one of them, but most of them do. Perhaps Psalm 137 gives us the freedom to pray to God what we’re feeling, and not have to tie it all up with neat little bow before we say “Amen.”
Most of the time, though, I think it’s good to wrestle our way back to reorientation, even if it takes a while and if it takes a choice. Faith, you know, is often a choice.
There are times when it’s appropriate to call out for God’s intervention, justice, and retribution. I think of the time not too many years ago when those dear 21 Egyptian men, Coptic Christians, were beheaded on the beach in Libya by ISIS. Something would be wrong with us if we didn’t feel righteous anger welling up in our hearts and we didn’t pray with some passion, “Dear God, do something! Stop them! Bring your justice down on their heads! Bring them to justice!” That would be natural.
What would be supernatural is to continue to pray for those members of ISIS, that God would forgive them, that God would convert their hearts and bring them to new life in Christ, that God would even go so far as to bless them, which of course would mean they’d quit doing things like that.
This is the instruction we get from Paul in Romans 12:14, “Bless those who persecute you, bless and do not curse them.” He got that from Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:44, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.” Yes, to bless and not curse, to respond to hate with love, to pray for instead of swear at—these responses demonstrate that we are children of God, followers of Jesus, and that there’s a whole other Spirit who lives in us.
I wonder how the imprecatory Psalms would read if they were written by God’s people after Jesus came, after he taught, and after he allowed himself to die even at the hands of his enemies with words of forgiveness on his lips.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who had a lot of enemies, wrote:
“The imprecatory psalm leads to the cross of Jesus and to the love of God which forgives enemies. I cannot forgive the enemies of God out of my own resources. Only the crucified Christ can do that, and I through him.”
Friends, there’s a lot of anger in our country right now, there’s a lot of raw and intense emotion on a lot of different sides of a lot of issues and events. I would assume that many of us walk around right now carrying quite a bit of intensity, maybe tamped down a bit just to make it through the day, but it is still there. And for some of us, there are things we’ve been through or are even going through now that generate some pretty dark emotions.
I would encourage each one of us this week to get in touch with what’s actually going on in our hearts–whatever that is, good or bad–and to actually get in touch with the loving, real presence of God right with us, and then start talking to him just like we would to an intimate friend, even a spouse.
Let’s be honest to God.
The Psalms give us permission, and God can handle it. In fact, I think he even likes it. It shows him that we know we’re actually in a real relationship, and want more.
On the Journey,