Mourning with God: A Sermon based on Psalm 137
First of all, is there anything about this psalm that makes you uncomfortable? It’s pretty frank, isn’t it? Especially at the end. For some of us, if we heard someone praying like this, we might feel compelled to encourage them to do a bit of polite editing. We’re going to explore more of what the psalmist is expressing on those last verses later, but for now I want to recognize that this psalm is very honest about ugly emotions. I wanted to name that reality right from the get-go because this honesty about ugly realities is an incredibly important feature of the psalms, especially lament psalms. Like we talked about earlier, lament psalms bring before God what is ugly, unjust and painful and ask God to do something about it. Lament psalms honestly express very raw emotion out of those places.
I wonder if I can give you a question to sit with as we explore this psalm together: how honest do you allow yourself to be before God? Do you allow yourself to bring ugly emotions to God? What about sad or dark thoughts or feelings? I ask this because it’s my hunch is that many of us don’t. It’s a fairly common experience to feel the need to edit our prayers so that they fit our idea of what we perceive would be pleasing for God to hear. Or simply not to pray at all when we perceive God would not be pleased by what we are thinking or doing. Sometimes church culture can play into this. Some of us grew up in a particular church culture where they felt the impulse to dress up our looks and our emotional state to attend church or talk to God. Some church cultures can contain implicit pressure to be always smiling as a Christian or that if things aren’t right, it is from some fault of your own. Western culture can play into this too. Public mourning or suffering aren’t strongly encouraged and in fact, it can even feel shameful or embarrassing to express these kinds of emotions and experiences. The result is that we can be fooled into thinking that the suffering or anger we experience, though a regular part of being human and living in a broken world, doesn’t have a place before God or others.
The lament psalms remind us that’s just not true. Many of you know Chouim Sak. She was part of our church family for quite some time after our church sponsored her and her family to come to the valley as refugees. She and her family have stories of intense suffering and loss from their time in Cambodia. I remember one conversation where Joe and I asked Chouim how she and her husband came to be followers of Jesus. Chouim said her husband knew the Bible was true and it was for him because of the psalms--because they knew what he had felt and experienced. They gave him words express his pain and to beg God for help.
Likewise, Bob Ekblad talks about how the prison inmates he reads the Bible with are convinced that the Bible is for them too, and not just for people who have their lives together, when they read the raw, uncensored emotions and cries for help expressed in the psalms. The psalms invite us to tell God how we really feel and remind us that God doesn’t require that we have our problems solved and our hearts in a posture of thanksgiving and praise before we come to him. We can come to him just as we are and be honest about wherever that is.
That’s exactly what the author of Psalm 137 is doing. I want to spend some time here looking at the opening scene of the psalm so we can get a clearer picture of what’s being described. Babylon defeated Jerusalem in 587BC. Many Israelites would have been killed and many would also have been taken back to live in Babylon as exiles. Rivers were a big deal in Babylon because they are partly how they got to be so prosperous as a nation. Babylon was located in a river valley and Babylonians were experts at building canals and irrigation systems, which is a big deal when you live in lands prone to drought. Often, conqueror nations liked to view themselves as being the savior of nations they defeated. And in fact, if you found yourself as an exile in Babylon, things were not all that bad for you from a material point of view. You could do quite well if you settled there and made a life for yourself. It might be a bit like being exiled in Vancouver or the lower mainland or even here in the Bulkley valley. You could work, you wouldn’t have to worry about famine or drought, the land was green and lush. So the picture of this group sitting by the rivers of Babylon and weeping could appear from the outside like something doesn’t fit. Why would this group be weeping beside these beautiful rivers, these symbols of prosperity and wealth?
Then the author of the psalm goes on to say how the Babylonians asked them for songs of Zion. It could be that they did this out of spite, but it could also be that the inhabitants of Babylon really didn’t get why these newcomers would be expressing such distress at living there. “Cheer up, this is a great place to live. You should be grateful. Hey, how about you sing us one of those catchy songs from your land? How about ‘I’ve got the Joy, joy, joy down in my heart?’”
Look at how this group responds. The psalmist says in verse 2, “there on the poplars, we hung our harps”. This action is basically a refusal to play. They hang their instruments up on the branches of the tree as a protest. A protest to the pressure to forget and to move on. For the Israelites, Jerusalem wasn’t just a city. It wasn’t even just their home. It was the city of God. It was the symbol of God’s reign and their identity as God’s children. The temptation here for this group is to ignore the destruction of their city, the slaughter of their family, friends and children, the destruction of the symbol of their identity as belonging to God, and to put on a happy face and assimilate into the prosperous life of the Babylonians. And doesn’t that somehow sound like something you might be tempted to advise someone to do? Look on the bright side, you have your life, you have a chance for a new beginning. You should be thankful.
But the psalmist says he would rather that his tongue stick to the roof of his mouth, and his right hand forget its skill than to ever forget his identity in God. He says if he doesn’t continue to desire Jerusalem and long after her, he might as well lose his ability to speak and work. He wouldn’t even be himself anymore, his longing to be in Jerusalem is that central to his identity. For the psalmist being in Jerusalem is being in God’s presence.
However much pressure he might experience otherwise, the author of this psalm is right to hold onto his longing for God and to be with him. God has created humans with a desire and a longing for himself and for his reign, for the way things will be when he restores this world. This desire is a central part of who we are as humans because we are designed to be in fellowship with God and each other. Psalms like this, that protest and cry out that things are not the way they should be are incredibly important. It is right and necessary to be angry at injustice and express it. It is right and necessary to mourn and cry out at what causes us to suffer pain. It is right and necessary to name what is wrong with our world and to plead with God to act.
Lament expresses our longing for God to make things right. If we don’t express anger at injustice, if we don’t mourn for all the ways that we and our world suffer, if we don’t come to God with all these things, we are in danger of losing our identity. We are in danger of somehow losing hold of our desire and longing for God and the way he intends things to be. We’d be in danger of losing the vision that God has given his people for the way he intends his world to be and just settling instead for the way things are.
There is certainly a tension in all this because our world is broken and it is a regular part of our reality to know and experience that things aren’t the way they should be. In some ways we need to accept this reality so we can navigate through the roads that God has called us to travel instead of just giving up and stopping on the roadside. God often calls us to navigate through many situations that are broken and that cause a lot of pain. It’s true that eventually, these exiles will have to get up from where they’re sitting at the river and trust God to guide them in learning to live faithfully even though they are in Babylon. The book of Daniel spends some time describing how a group of Jews in exile in Babylon discern how to live faithfully in the midst of exile and know that they are still living in God’s presence there.
All that being said, an integral part of living in a broken world is naming what is not right and bringing that to God. There’s a time for acceptance and for asking for God’s guidance in living given things are the way they are. And God often does some of his most powerful work in working out his will in and through situations that are broken. But there is also a place for mourning that things are the way they are. There’s a place for expressing anger at what is not right. There’s a place for pleading with God to act. That means coming to God with big emotions, even outrage and hate.
Eugene Peterson says this, “our hate needs to be prayed, not suppressed. Hate is our emotional link with evil. It is the volcanic eruption of outrage when the holiness of being, ours or another’s, has been violated...hate is often the first sign that we care... 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... in prayer, not all is sweetness and light. The way of prayer is not to cover our unlovely emotions so they will appear respectable, but expose them so they can be enlisted into the work of [God’s] kingdom.”
This is really what the psalmist is doing in these last couple verses of the psalm. I’d like to take note of a number of things about this last verse. First of all, I think part of what makes this last verse especially so difficult to pray and to stomach is this image of violence towards babies. I’d like to note first that a perfectly legitimate way of understanding this verse would be to hear the author as saying blessed is the one who takes the inhabitants of Babylon and dashes them against the rocks. It’s very common biblical language to call the inhabitants of a nation, ‘children’. Very often the bible will refer to the children of Israel and not be referring only to the Israelites under the age of 12, but to the whole nation. So that is a very possible meaning here. It’s still very violent language, but it was helpful for me, anyway, to hear that it doesn’t necessarily refer only to infants.
Second, in hearing this cry it’s important to understand that the Old Testament view of justice was reciprocity. To have done to the offender what the offender did to you. At this time, this put more just boundaries on punishments so that people wouldn’t be killed for stealing a loaf of bread or that kind of thing. So, we should understand from this verse that the attack on Israel by Babylon was incredibly brutal and very likely included the slaughter of babies and children. This was common in ancient warfare and it’s likely the author of this psalm witnessed this kind of violence.
Third, notice that this is part of the prayer of the psalmist. The presence of these verses here don’t give permission or say it’s okay to enact this kind of violence. The psalmist is expressing his rage at what was done and his hatred towards those that did it. What’s important is that he’s expressing this rage to God. The psalmist isn’t vowing himself to take justice into his own hands. He’s bringing his request for justice to God. In doing this, he’s recognizing that vengeance is God’s. What is key here is that the psalmist is crying out to God and asking God to take responsibility for enemies. This is important because when we talk to God, he can teach and direct us, just like Jesus did with his disciples. We don’t have to have everything right and respectable before coming to him.
Let’s come to God now and ask him to teach us as we learn to come to him with the whole picture of who we are and all that is not the way it should be.
We bring to you ourselves. We bring all our sadness, all our anger, all our disappointment and all our hopelessness. Lord, things aren’t as they should be. Like the person who wrote this psalm, we cry too. We’re angry too. Thank you that these are qualities we share with you. Jesus, you cried when your friend died. You were angry at injustice. Help us to bring our anger and our tears to you. Take our anger and our tears. Take and transform them to work for your kingdom. We need you for this. Thank you that you came to make all things new again. Thank you for the way you suffered so we can have hope. Thank you also for your Holy Spirit to guide us in living in a broken world. In Jesus’ name. Amen.