Dec 2, 2018  Psalm 137: “The Scandal Psalm”*

“Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!” (Psalm 137:9). This verse comes to us as a shock when we first read it—read it out of certain assumptions about what should be in the Bible and especially in the Psalms, the prayer book of the Bible. Psalm 137 is sometimes called “the scandal psalm,” and is one of the most “offensive passages” in the Bible. (Just to note, for those of you who have been reading through the Bible you should have come across a number of “offensive passages”). We would question why the verse was not edited out of the Psalm and whether we could actually pray it. And if we use this verse in our prayer, how should we pray it in light of what Christ has said about our call to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44)?

The cry of Psalm 137:9 is the cry for justice to be served upon those who have abused and killed the children of Israel. Still, the words calling for retributive execution of children shock us. The words may simply reflect the idioms of warfare language from ancient times, or may be the expression of unrepressed anger and agony from the heart of one who has been victimized by such cruelty. This is raw hate. We commonly neither admit or pray our hate; we deny it and suppress it. But when we pray the Psalms, these classic prayers of God’s people, we find that will not do. We must pray who we actually are, not who we think we should be. Our hate needs to be prayed, not suppressed. If it is not prayed, we have lost an essential insight and energy in doing battle with evil.

The Psalms train us to grapple with evil. Their praying insights have identified an enemy and they respond in outrage. They hate what they see. This hate arises in a context of holiness: meditating on the holy word of God (Psalm 1), expecting the holy messiah of God (Psalm 2).  Hate is the first sign that we care. If we are far gone in complacency, it is often the only emotion with enough velocity to penetrate our protective smugness and draw red blood. That does not mean that prayer legitimizes hate—it uses it. Human hate is not a very promising first step to the establishment of righteousness. But, when prayed, they are steps, first steps into the presence of God where we learn that he has ways of dealing with what we bring him that are both other and better than what we had in mind. But until we are in prayer, we are not teachable. It is better to pray badly than not to pray at all.

Our hate is used by God to bring the enemies of life and salvation to notice, and then involve us in active compassion for the victims. Once involved we find that while hate provides the necessary spark for ignition, it is the wrong fuel for the engines of judgement; only love is adequate to sustain these passions. But we must not imagine that loving and praying for our enemies in love is a strategy that will turn them into good friends. Love is the last thing that our enemies want from us. Love requires vulnerability, forgiveness, and response; the enemies want power and control and dominion. The enemies that Jesus love and prayed for killed him.

The last word on the enemies is with Jesus, who captured the Psalms: “Love your enemies and pray for them that persecute you.” But loving enemies presupposes that we know that they are there, whether many or few, and have begun to identify them. Enemies, especially for those who live by faith, are a fact of life. If we don’t know we have them or who they are, we live in a dangerous naïveté, witless when we pray “deliver us from evil.” As the end approached Jesus took the cruelest verb in Psalm 137 and used it against Babylon, alias Jerusalem, as the enemies of God prepared to murder the messiah of God (Luke 19:44).

Yet before we would ever utter such words, we should take careful notice that this verse in Psalm 137 comes in the context of an appeal for God to bring about a just sentence upon Israel’s oppressors (see v. 8). As Jesus, who “when he was reviled, . . . did not revile in return; when he suffered, . . . did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1 Pet. 2:23), so God’s people may call upon God to enact the justice he knows is right. But we leave this in his hands to enact, in his way, in his time, and by authorities of his appointment.

* Adapted from Eugene Peterson’s Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer.

 

This Week’s Bible Reading Schedule:

Monday: Psalm 140 Thursday: Psalm 143
Tuesday: Psalm 141 Friday: Psalm 144
Wednesday: Psalm 142 Saturday: Psalm 145