A sermon preached at Acadia Divinity College Chapel
The passage we are going to reflect on today is not your typical Bible passage. It is a part of the group of Psalms called the imprecatory Psalms. These Psalms are angry and vengeful. Why are such Psalms in the Bible? What is God trying to tell us in them? These are the questions we will take up today. First, please give your attention to a reading of Psalm 137:
By the rivers of Babylon, we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
2 There on the poplars
we hung our harps,
3 for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
4 How can we sing the songs of the Lord
while in a foreign land?
5 If I forget you, Jerusalem,
may my right hand forget its skill.
6 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.
7 Remember, Lord, what the Edomites did
on the day Jerusalem fell.
“Tear it down,” they cried,
“tear it down to its foundations!”
8 Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction,
happy is the one who repays you
according to what you have done to us.
9 Happy is the one who seizes your infants
and dashes them against the rocks. (NIV)
The Psalms retell the story of God’s people. The earlier Psalms speak of the life of King David. Later ones lament the failure of human kingship, looking to God as the true King.
This one, located towards the end of the Psalms, was written around the time of the Babylonian exile. God’s people were oppressed, enslaved, carried off into exile while their homes were burned. Their children were slaughtered, and their neighbours—like the Edomites, the cousins of Israel—cheered on the Babylonians as they pillaged.1
Israel had watched the brutal Babylonian army murder their children by dashing them against rocks. Later, the Babylonians mocked them, telling them to sing songs of Zion. This is a song of a people that has been hurt, frustrated, demeaned, and is in terrible despair. As the Israelites consider what happened to them, they cry out for vengeance, for God to do to the Edomites and the Babylonians what those peoples had done to them: dash their children against rocks.
The bitterness in their words is bone-chilling. How can a Psalm of such anger and vengeance and brutality be in the Bible? Does it give us license to be angry and vengeful?
I’m not naturally inclined to preach on a passage so bleak and easily misunderstood, but these imprecatory Psalms inevitably come up. People come to me saying, “Pastor, I love praying through the Psalms, but what about this one?” They don’t know what to do with it. In fact, I know a person who read one of these passages and was so disturbed and scared that it turned her away from reading the Bible for many years.
Many of us have similar experiences reading other parts of Scripture. Why are they in there? How can they be in there? What could God possibly be trying to say in these words? Does God want vengeance like this? Vengeance does not sound like the heart of God, so why is this in the Bible?
Well, I suspect this passage does have something to say about God, but before I walk you through that, can we just admit that sometimes the Bible is not easy to understand?
I talk to some Christians who think the Bible is always clear on everything. That all you have to do is pray, crack your knuckles, open to a page, and the answer will just pop into your head. To which I want to ask: Are we reading the same book? Yes, lots of passages are beautifully clear, but others are not.
I have learned it simply is not that easy. Listening to any voice in any relationship takes work. You cannot passively listen to your spouse while the TV is on. Trust me; it does not work. You have to work to listen. The same is true with God and listening to God in the Bible.
Brian Zahnd has said the Bible is like a vast terrain with mountains and valleys.2 All the land is God’s Word, but if you get stuck in a valley, you can’t see what is going on. If you look from one of the peaks of the mountains, you see the whole land clearly. The Gospels are the peaks. John 3:16 is a peak. This passage, Psalm 137, can be a valley.
As we will see, this is one of many passages we need to read through the lens of Jesus Christ being the fulfillment of Scripture. Jesus is the summit of Scripture. Jesus is that peak by which we see the whole terrain of the Bible clearly. It is only there that we can appreciate the beauty of those valleys.
Another way of saying this is that we believe all Scripture is inspired and thus able to teach us about salvation and righteousness. Yes, but salvation and righteousness are vast topics, and not all Scripture teaches us in the same way. In its own atypical way, this Psalm teaches us something profound about God and about ourselves.
John Calvin called the Psalms the mirror of the soul.3 One purpose of the Psalms is to help us express what is in our souls, to help us realize what we’ve got going on inside. The Psalms are unique in that they are the Word of God by first being our words to God. This Psalm helps us be honest with ourselves. By being honest with ourselves, naming what is going on within us, we can then be honest with God. We can have God’s honesty at work in us. This begins with understanding that God is always listening. The Psalms show God is listening to our words. That is why, I believe, they are in the Bible.
God Is Listening
Do believers ever feel crushed with hurt? Yes. Do believers feel like their faith has been shattered? Yes, of course. Can believers feel incredible pain, frustration, even bitter anger over it? Yes, they can. Does that make them evil? No. It makes them human.
This might sound obvious, but the only way we relate to God is in our humanity, full honesty laid bare. You can’t relate to God with anything other than you, the real you, not some masked or filtered you.
The Jews in this passage are angry because they lost their homes. Their land was conquered. Their safety and security were gone. Their temple was destroyed, so their way of relating to God was compromised. And they had to watch their own children be killed! Here they cry out to God in all the anger they are feeling.
This Psalm does not promote anger but does say God is listening to us when we are angry. We worship Immanuel, God with us: God with us, finding us, listening to us, wherever we are, including in times of anger or anguish. God does not wait to be with us until after we get over our hurt; he meets us in our hurt.
The question is not whether it is appropriate to pray this way, longing for vengeance, but whether it is appropriate to share what is on your heart with God, no matter what that looks like. Let me reassure you: Wherever you are, whatever you are feeling, God is listening. God is always listening, always ready to listen, and even when it seems like God isn’t, God never stops listening.
This Psalm, like all the other Psalms, invites us to share what is on our hearts with God, allowing our whole lives to be seen from God’s standpoint. Don’t be ashamed of your emotions. That does not help. They are real and need to be dealt with. Voice them, tell them, express them.
Angry at others? Tell God. Angry at God? Tell God that too. God is listening. God listened to the anger in Israel’s heart. God is listening to you now.
I am reminded of a time when I coordinated a soup kitchen in Toronto. A man came in. Homeless and alcoholic, his life was completely self-destructive. So, I asked around: What is this guy’s story? The man had been abused terribly. He was an indigenous man who had gone through horrific residential schools.
The drop-in centre a few blocks from ours told this story: During an open mic night, where anyone could come up and offer praise or a prayer for the community, this man decided to come forward. People were surprised to see him come up. As this man took the mic, he began to scream curse words at God for what had happened to him, cursing the people, including a priest, who had hurt him and his sister. He spewed hatred at God.
“Did you stop him?” I asked. “No, we let him say his piece like everyone else,” said my colleague. “Why did you do that?” I asked. “Because, Spencer, at the end of the day, this was still a prayer; it was directed at God, and I have to believe that God was listening. He had something to get off his chest.”
There was a noticeable change in this man after his blow up. In order for him to start healing, he had to name his hurt in all the raw anger it entailed, which he did not know how to process. God loves the broken, and for that reason, I have to believe God was listening to that angry rant of a prayer. Not because there was something moral about that prayer, but because God cared about him.
What are your hurts? How has someone hurt you? Can you remember the angriest you have ever been in your life? If you remember how you felt at that moment, you probably aren’t too far off from the anger of this Psalm.
God knows what you utter in the bitterness of your soul. You can either keep it in, feel shame and have it destroy you, or let it out and begin healing. That is the choice this Psalm presents us with: Healing or hate. When we realize that God is listening, we entrust God with our anger. Expressing our hurts to God means placing our hurt in God’s hands.
Restraining Vengeance toward Others
As several commentators have pointed out, venting our anger to God disarms our anger towards others. When we vent anger at God, we restrain our vengeance towards others. Thus, it is not so much what Psalm 137 is saying—for many of us, its language is not our language of hurt—it is what is able to do in us. It permits us to release our anger to the true Judge.
Notice in Psalm 137, the Psalmist does not imply that he wants to take vengeance himself. When we do this, we find that when we place our anger at others in God’s hands, we are freed from our anger to even do good to our enemies. Consider Romans 12:17–21:
Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. . . . Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (NIV)
When we entrust our anger to God, we focus on God. Which means we are able to focus on his goodness again. Notice, for Israel who prayed these Psalms, the next few Psalms move from vengeance to focusing on love. The prayer continues. The process continues. When we pray through our anger, we are able to heal our anger.
This is where the next stage of healing happens. When we entrust our anger with God, we turn to God and his goodness. When we entrust God with our vengeance, we have to turn to God and ask, what does justice look like for God, not for us?
When we trust God with our justice, we realize God’s justice is mercy. Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount:
You have heard that it was said, “Eye for eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. . . . Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matt 5:38–45, 48 NIV)
The end of this quotation is important. Jesus has been talking about the true character of God: God is perfect. How? Not in punishment, but love, not in moral indignation, but mercy. God is not perfect in vengeance but perfect in mercy.
“The old law of an eye for an eye leaves everybody blind,” says Martin Luther King Jr.4 Are we willing to see?
Looking Forward, to Christ
From Sinai to Zion, from Zion to Golgotha, the Bible is trying to teach us that God’s justice is not retribution, not even restitution, but restoration and reconciliation. How does God repay his enemies? When we turn to God for justice, we realize we too have done wrong. We are all sinners. We all have fallen short, and yet God has chosen to bear the consequences of sin on himself in Christ.
When God’s people pray in vengeful anger to kill the children of those who kill theirs, that is not the end of the Psalter nor the end of the Bible. It points forward to Christ and his kingdom, where God offers his only Son, his very self, to stop the cycle of violence.
When we are angry and in despair, this Psalm allows us to vent our anger, knowing God saw bitterness and despair in Christ’s cries on the cross: “My God, why have you forsaken me?”
When we realize God is listening, we start focusing on God and trusting Christ with our anger, restraining our wrath. When we trust God with our vengeance, we then have to ask, what is justice like for God? “Vengeance is mine. I will repay.” But how did God in his sovereignty choose to repay?
He repaid the death of his son with forgiveness: “Father forgive them, they know not what they do.” Being a strong believer in the Trinity, I strongly suspect the Son’s prayer was granted by the Father.
God listened to the hurt Israelites. God listens to all of us in our anger. But did God obliterate the Babylonians? Babylon did eventually fall, but that was just God saying, “Have it your way,” and letting history run its course. Sin is often its own punishment. No. God did not bash their babies against rocks. In Jesus, he died for them.
God’s plan was not vengeance but reconciliation. Far from racial genocide, God’s plan was for one day Babylonian and Jew (and us too) to embrace as a family in Jesus Christ. That is God’s plan in our broken, hurting world. He listens, then he heals.
God is listening to the hurt of Syrian refugees, who have watched their homes bombed.
God is listening to the cries of children who work in sweatshops.
God is listening to the cries of enslaved sex workers.
God is listening to the worries of cancer patients.
God is listening to the broken, hurt, disenfranchised, abandoned. . . .
God is listening to you. Whatever it is that you are going through, God is listening to you.
When we realize Christ is listening, we become open to how he is working in us. That brings us to now.
Who has hurt you? Who makes your blood boil? Who in your life has done something that you believe deserves punishment? Can you vent that anger to God?
Have you been discouraged? Have you experienced a moment where life just stopped making sense, and your only response is anger and confusion? Can we realize that God is listening? You might not think that this process works, but trust me, it does.
The Path to Forgiveness
My mother was abused. My stepfather had a malformed conscience. He would verbally threaten her and demean her to get his way. He was a big man and very intimidating. I remember being down in my room as a kid in high school, listening to the arguing. I heard his voice boom from the ceiling in my basement room: “You’re just a stupid woman, Susan!” “Don’t you dare, or I’ll break your arm.”
When my mother developed cancer, he began withholding money from her so she would not use it for medical needs. He was banking on her dying and him being “taken care of” after she was gone.
It was difficult, and police were called several times. I hated my stepfather. I used to fantasize about beating him up. I used to pray, “God give him what he deserves.” Of course, I had a few ideas about what he deserved.
My mom eventually separated from him. Years went on. I learned from my stepfather’s brother that they had been abused. My stepfather had been treated the worst out of all the siblings by a father who was a bigot, just like what he had become. After that, I did not see this man in the same way. It humanized him, and I remember praying, “God, just stop him from hurting other people. Help him to realize what he has done and change.”
The last I saw my stepfather was at my mother’s funeral. Her body did eventually succumb to cancer. He came into the visitation, and my family and I kicked up a fuss. We did not want him there, and we wanted the funeral attendant to remove him. I believe it was my sister who said, “Just let him mourn and go.” We let him stay. Perhaps we would be doing something indecent if we refused a person a chance to mourn. We watched him come to the casket, give flowers that simply said, “Thank you for all the good memories,” and leave. I never saw him after that.
I realized that day that he did love my mother, albeit with broken, distorted love. I also realized that to include him in the funeral was a small but significant act of forgiving him, choosing to end the cycle of hurt and anger, embracing peace. I remember praying after that, “God, take care of him. Heal him . . . and heal me too.” For me to say that prayer, authentically, began with my praying those original vengeful prayers. It took ten years or so. Healing takes time. God had a few things to teach me. God was listening to all of those, answering those prayers, thank goodness. I trust he still is. But that answer, I think, is not what I wanted originally.
I looked him up on the internet as I penned this sermon. He passed away a few years ago, and our family was understandably never contacted. When I read that, my immediate sense was sadness, sad that I could never tell him that I did not feel any ill will against him. Brothers and sisters, do not wait till tomorrow to step onto the path toward forgiveness, for you do not know what tomorrow will bring.
May you know that God is with you, near you, and for you. God is always listening. God has never stopped listening. God is waiting in expectation to hear the burdens of your heart.
May today be a new day to embrace healing, to embrace forgiveness, to see reconciliation. As we go from here, may our lives be a reflection of God’s restoration of all things. Amen.
1. Cf., for example, Lam 4:21–22.
2. Brian Zahnd, “God is Love. God is Love.” (March 16, 2017).
3. John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Psalms, trans. James Anderson: “There is not an emotion of which any one can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror.”
4. Martin Luther King Jr., Stride toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story (Harper, 1958).
Photo by Patricia Prudente on Unsplash.