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Thursday, July 10, 2014

Psalm 137 – I Don’t Care if it’s Scripture; it’s Abominable

I have written about Psalm 137 a number of times before.(Here, here, and here)  I would rather leave it alone, but it has come up in our church’s weekly bible study through the psalms, so I am drawn to it again – though it repulses me. 

It is a horrible psalm, a powerful psalm. It is a curse disguised as a blessing wrapped up in a lament. 

And I am thinking about this brutal psalm as I’m watching the news reports come in from Gaza, where Israeli rockets are destroying homes and killing civilians (including many children.)

The Psalm begins in beauty; few passages of scripture are as lyric as the first six verses.  Written by one of the exiles recently returned from captivity in Babylon, it describes the emotional state of the Jewish people during their time in that foreign land.

By the rivers of Babylon,
there we sat,
sat and wept,
as we thought of Zion.
There on the poplars
we hung up our lyres,
for our captors asked us there for songs,
our tormentors, for amusement:
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion.
How can we sing a song of the LORD
on alien soil?

(Psalm 137: 1 – 4 JPS version [i])

They hung their harps and lyres upon the branches of the willows and poplars because they had no more use for them. They could not sing hymns and songs of praise.  For the dead cannot praise God.

For there is no praise of You among the dead;
in Sheol, who can acclaim You?

(Psalm 6: 6 JPS version)

For it is not Sheol that praises you,
not [the Land of ]Death that extols you;
nor do they who descend into the Pit
hope for Your grace.
The living, only the living
can give thanks to you…

(Isaiah 38: 18 – 19a JPS version)

They were dead – inwardly.  With no hope. No praise.  How could they sing?

And if the psalm were to end at verse 6, with the expression of the psalmist’s desire to never forget his homeland, I would consider psalm 137 to be just about the greatest psalm in the book.  But it doesn’t.  Good God! It doesn’t.

Verses 7 – 9 take turn this beautiful psalm into an expression of hate and brutal revenge. 

I recognize that I am reading it with modern eyes and evaluating it by contemporary standards.  This is somewhat inevitable.  I may appreciate in the abstract that in the ancient world this was the norm, but I cannot (and will not) accept it as the normative prescription for today.

The Psalmist calls upon God to remember the Edomites (perpetual enemies and feuding relatives to the Jewish people) and their participation in Jerusalem’s destruction.  Remember how they treated us.   And, though it’s left unspoken, the implication is – “do the same to them, God.”  Strip them bare and humiliate them.

Mitchell Dahood, in the Anchor Bible translation, suggests that because Jerusalem is addressed directly in verse 5, and Babylon is addressed directly in verse 8, that Edom should be addressed directly in verse 7.  Making this a warning to the sons of Edom (“Remember Yahweh, O sons of Edom…” (Dahood, 272) [ii] rather than a plea for God to exact revenge against them.

But the final two verses are clearly a curse against Babylon – a curse disguised as a blessing. 

Fair Babylon, you predator,
a blessing on him who repays you in kind
what you have inflicted on us;
a blessing on him who seizes your babies
and dashes them against the rocks!
(Psalm 137: 8 – 9 JPS version)

If verses 1 – 6 are among the greatest lines of scripture, these are among the worst- the ugliest, the most disgusting.  I don’t care that it’s scripture; it’s abominable. I understand the emotion. I understand the bitterness one may have toward someone who has wronged them.  I understand the need to express that emotion.  But I will not accept this as a valid prescription for modern living.

If we continue to pray for the children of our enemies to be killed, we will continue to live in a brutal hate filled world of violence.  Let us move beyond the psalms of hate into the words of Jesus: “Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you.”  (Matthew 5:44)

Bombing the homes and houses of your enemies is not love.  It is disgusting and abominable.

[i] The New JPS Translation – The Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia, PA, 1999.
[ii] Dahood, Mitchell, Psalms III 101 – 150: Introduction, Translation and Notes, Doubleday & Company, Inc. Garden City, NY, 1970.


  1. The bible is honest, if nothing else. It doesn't hide the frailty and ugliness of the human heart, nor does it clean up reality to fit into some neat narrative like an evangelical's witness story. It just puts it all out there the way it is; the good next to the bad next to the beautiful, tied together with the questionable. What happens when the human is laid side-by-side with the divine, though, is that the human starts to become clearer. It loses its luster. Eventually, as the divine works its magic on us, the human parts that we are well to be rid of start to stick out like a sore thumb. And as much as it pains us to see it there, it is only because it's out there in the open, not hiding somewhere in our hearts, that we can start to tell the difference between human honesty and Godly intentions.


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