Monday, August 24, 2009

Psalm 137: Honesty in Prayer

dejected man surrounded by ravens

Psalm 137:9 “Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock.”

Understandably, this verse is a problem for a lot of people. I have heard it cited as one reason that people want nothing to do with the Bible. I have also heard of it being used literally to justify infanticide. I want to explain why I’m glad it’s in the Bible.

First, this verse is a shining example of why taking the Bible literally is not helpful. All it does is make people turn away from something that otherwise could bring comfort and relief. Take the Bible seriously but not literally. I can’t say that enough. So how do we take something like this seriously without heaving the Bible through a window?

Well, the Psalms are prayers…they are the prayers sung by God’s people for at least 3,000 years. Some are attributed to King David, some to several others. This is one of the others. The collection of prayers known as The Psalms are not written as examples of how God’s people should pray. They are written as the prayers that the people of God do pray. Across the 150 Psalms we find expressions of every human emotion, and in that sense they are a model for prayer. Our prayers should be honest. God knows what we’re thinking and feeling, whether it is pretty and proper or not. The Psalms (along with much of Job and Lamentations and other passages) show us that God is big enough to handle our darkest most irreverent thoughts, our deepest doubts and despair.

The subtitle for Psalm 137 says, “Lament over the destruction of Jerusalem.” Read the history of the destruction of Jersualem by Babylon. There was an awful siege that starved the people and resulted in cannibalism within the city. It was, simply, horrific. For those who survived, having watched their own children die, wishing the same for their enemies may not embody the principle of forgiveness, but it was a prayer of honest emotion before God. I actually used this text at a candlelight vigil the week of September 11, 2001. It wasn’t an example of how we should feel—simply an expression of how many did feel. That is one purpose of liturgy and prayer—to provide a safe place for the inexpressible to be expressed.

I was glad in that moment for the improper and unpretty parts of the Bible—the parts that, when taken seriously but not literally, can help us look at the shadow side of ourselves and see that such thoughts make us normal rather than evil. And if we can take that consolation from the Bible, rather than tossing it out because the words are ugly, we will keep reading as the text guides us in transforming our grief and anger into grace.

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