Content warning: This Psalm is about people killing babies, and I am going to talk about that a lot.
Psalm 137 is one of my favorite psalms in the whole Bible. This is unusual, I think, because unlike most people’s favorite psalms, 137 ends with a wish for the death of the children of the psalmist’s enemies:
[God] bless those who take your babies
and shatter them against the rock.
I like it partly because of the impossible challenge it poses to the silliness of “taking the Bible literally,” but since I wrote a paper on it for an exegesis class in seminary, I came to love it even more. (A version of that paper is attached for your reading pleasure; a synopsis follows).
In Christiamericanity, there’s a strong emphasis on only focusing on the positive. One of the most popular Christian music stations, K-Love, has “Positive and Encouraging” as its tagline. It seems like the writers of most Christian songs, even those that start sad and depressing, feel morally obligated to end on a high note.
Psalm 137 doesn’t do that.
Psalm 137 starts sad, gets more depressing, and centers with commitment to never forget the sad thing that happened. Then, where a modern Christian song would start blathering about how Jesus is going to make everything okay, Psalm 137 gets angry. It ends with a middle finger to the people responsible: “I hope somebody rips your children from your arms and kills them.”
I love that.
I love that because precisely as inspired scripture it kiboshes the idea that there’s only a certain range of emotion the people of God are allowed to feel. It crushes the nonsense that in every situation Christians are supposed to be Pollyanna and feel like everything’s fine within a ridiculously short period of time.
And that’s only the beginning of why I like Psalm 137. The efficiency of language – “By the rivers of Babyon” – in three Hebrew words, the author collapses the entire history of his country up until the point of the Babylonian captivity. Then pun (I think) of “hanging” harps, which I argue is a pun on “hanging up” and the kind of hanging involved in an execution.
The heartbreak: “How can we sing the Lord’s songs in a foreign land?” One could no more sing “our song” after a romantic breakup.
I love how Augustine treated the whole thing: Jerusalem is the city of God, Babylon the city of Satan, “the babes of Babylon” as “little sins,” …”And the rock was Christ.”
We moderns tend to think of ourselves as “above” this kind of cruelty and vengeful thinking, but are we? After 9/11, country singer/songwriter Toby Keith wrote a song called “courtesy of the red white and blue” with these lovely lines.
`Cause we`ll put a boot in your ass
It`s the American way
Hey Uncle Sam put your name
At the top of his list
And the Statue of Liberty
Started shakin’ her fist
And the eagle will fly
And it’s gonna be hell
When you hear Mother Freedom
Start ringin’ her bell
And it feels like the whole wide world is raining down on you
Brought to you Courtesy of the Red White and Blue.
This song peaked at #1 in the Billboard Country Music Top 25 chart.
Toby Keith lived in a country that could do these vengeful things, but the ancient Israelites did not.
In my paper, I suggest that one of the things Psalm 137 means is that God has space for the voices of the powerless to wish horrible things on their oppressors. I suggest a Black Lives Matter rally in which the protestors said some particularly negative things about the police as a more recent example of people who feel powerless wishing evil on those they see as oppressors.
(This is not to suggest that all who feel powerless actually are, only that recent history shows a number of law enforcement officers have killed unarmed black men and often gone unpunished – indeed, some have even gone without trials, which is not remotely the sort of thing that happens when a black man kills a police officer. Justice is served, and swiftly.)
When describing this section, I have suggested that if people don’t like that sort of statements, perhaps they should rip Psalm 137 out of their Bibles because, as I wrote,
[We must recognize] God created a space for an oppressed people to wish death upon the children of their enemies, and that future generations, for thousands of years, preserved those horrible words in sacred scripture, announcing for all the world that the words of the oppressed matter, and that God is listening and thinks they are important.
I also stole an observation from Peter Rollins – that leaving this space allows people to deal with their negative emotions rather than shoving them down, where they will eventually boil up and result in something awful. I close,
“Oh, that we would curse our enemies with our words instead of our weapons.”
This is most of the meat of the paper. If you want to read the whole thing, click the link below:
David M Schell
I am a doubter and a believer. I have a Master's in Divinity from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, but because faith grows and changes, I don't necessarily stand by everything I've ever written, so if you see something troubling further back, please ask! Read More.
One thought on “Finding God in Psalm 137”
I love psalm 137, since it is liturgically used to mark the Septuagesima-tide (the 70 days to Easter are a figure of the 70 years of Babylon captivity). And the quotation of Augustin, that you mention, represents the mind of the Church about this and many other Bible texts.