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Tuesday, September 13, 2005

The Strange and Exclusive Claims of Christ

The Exclusivity of Christianity: The Best and the Worst Thing Going

It would seem that the exclusive nature of Christianity would be a very unpopular subject these days. By “exclusive” I simply mean that Christianity is founded upon the exclusive claims of Jesus Christ. There is probably no better example of these exclusive claims that the “Exclusive Manifesto,” if you will, found in John 14:6, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No man comes to the Father but by me.”

But the Postmodern denies such absolutes and such universals. How can we speak of “one common path to salvation” or of “a universal human need.” To do so would be to deny the uniqueness of the individual as he is molded and is in the process of molding his particular cultural or social setting. Hence religion is not a statement of beliefs that is judged in terms of its truth or falsity for all people at all times. Rather, it is the narrative of a particular group of people at a particular time dealing with very specific challenges and opportunities, or, conversely, a lack of challenges or a lack of opportunities. Hence, any claim that a man can provide for all people at all times the one and true way of life and the only way to be reconciled to God seems very strange indeed.

The exclusive claims of Christianity are based upon a universal need…But is there really such a universal need? In Modernity there was a fight for the “universal.” But perhaps that is a fight best surrendered. Perhaps we should be focusing upon those with whom our horizons collide. This is in line with the claims of Postmodernity that truth is found in the intersection of the subject, the object, and the narrative. Since we cannot conceive of the subject or object apart from the narrative, then maybe Christianity should focus less upon the “universal need” or the “exclusive Christ” and more upon the Salvation story. Those who would join the community of faith would be those who find within themselves a compelling need to enter into the narrative of personal redemption and restoration, individual and community worship, and the fellowship of likeminded believers to which the writers of Scripture, in various ways, all attest to.
The point made here, then, is to be exclusive in claims and philosophy, but not to the extent that we try to fit all of humanity into the same mold. Each person is different – mentally, emotionally, psychologically, and even spiritually – can we really say that every person has a “God shaped hole”? Does Scripture, itself, say that everyone has a “God shaped hole”? Or does Scripture merely call all of those who would come to Christ to surrender their lives (Luke 9:23-26), lay their burdens down (Matthew 11:28-30), and join the Church of Christ (Galatians 6:3). Those who would not come to Christ have exercised their prerogative to reject Him. It seems the Scriptures seem to repeatedly emphasize the responsibility that each person has to either accept or reject the strange and exclusive claims of Christ.

Nonetheless, the truth-claims of Christ are still strange and cut across the grain of our culture. Yet, my suggestion is that the starting point must not be to compromise them for sake of their strangeness, but that somehow within their very strangeness there is power: power to heal, power to restore, power to hope, and newness of life. The strange and exclusive truth-claims of Christianity really are the best and worst thing going for us. The apostle Paul clearly recognized the strangeness of Christ’s claims within the cultural, theological and philosophical setting of his day and speaks of the “foolishness” of the message of Christ crucified in I Corinthians chapter one and two. Yet he seems to come back to the point that it is this message – the living and breathing faith in this message – that holds Divine power:

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but
to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

In other words, the message strange, but it is through struggling through the fog of this message that we encounter God and his church. And when we encounter God and his church we find a life changing power for authentic existence.

But this does not alleviate the difficulty we encounter in communicating this message. Through all this we must translate this strange message to a world that increasingly finds it harder and harder to even take seriously an exclusive truth claim so outrageous so as to say, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me.” What reference point does the postmodern “purist” have to even begin to process an exclusive truth claim of this magnitude? The Modernist would establish “criteria” and “tests” for truth. But what do you say to those who reject tests of truth almost entirely and do not seek to pass any judgment on the “truth,” “falsity,” or the “rightness” or “wrongness” of any religion?

To this I have no easy answer. Nor do I have a list of “good suggestions” in the fashion of the Modern era where, perhaps, I develop a nifty acronym or memorable catch phrase. But I do think that God is calling people to newness of life. And I do think that God is building his kingdom. Further, I know from first-hand experience that God is still using the community of the church to reach the lives of people in need. And, yes, I do think that there are people with deeply spiritual needs. And, yes, I still think that Jesus is the answer. But how this looks for each person; that is the thing that I do not know. And neither can I reveal the magic formula for evangelism. I think a lot of it takes place at the grass roots level – it is the hard work of building a church community that seeks to ask hard questions of themselves and reaches both inward and outward to display the genuine love of Christ. After all, “they will know that we are Christians by our love.” (John 13:34-35)

Problematic Theology

A First Step Towards a Problematic Theology

At first blush, it might seem as though the phrase “Problematic Theology” is an oxymoron. Or perhaps even a contradiction. After all, isn’t the whole point of theology to solve problems? Well, it will be the goal of this piece to call for a refocus of theology – away from a mode of problem-solving. It may make some cringe to hear the term “Problematic Theology,” but in some ways that is the point!

I would like to land on a particular question for a few paragraphs or so. The question centers on the overall goal of theology and the theologian: Why do we feel that theology must reconcile and bring coherence to the Scripture or to Christian doctrine? Or, more simply put: Why does theology seek to solve problems? A great deal of theologians over the centuries – particularly in the resent past – have set about the task of theology by seeking to make the doctrines of Christianity more coherent. For example, when dealing with the problem of free will and the doctrine of election, the first move of most theologians will be to “solve the problem.” So, all attention and focus will be given to some sort of “reconciliation” of the free choice that men make in choosing salvation with God’s predetermining work, before the creation of the world, to actually choose those who will be saved. We then go about the task of reconciliation by defining these doctrines in exhaustive detail for the purpose of bringing some sort of logical coherence between two doctrines that seem, on the surface, to be incoherent.

Problem Solving in the Modernist Tradition

I take issue with this approach, right at the start. I think that one of the marks of theology in the Modern era was an obsession with coherence and systematic consistency. This came quite naturally because the philosophical underpinnings of Modernism was the epistemology of foundationalism. Here the general thought was that we must first identify the foundation of our belief system. These were considered “basic” beliefs that were essentially “undeniable.” The task of Descartes as he defines in his Meditations was to undergo a methodology of doubt whereby he would call into question all things that he did not know with absolute certainty. He would then have a secure foundation of beliefs from which to construct a right and true view of the world. Others took a very similar course, which has led us to label the whole Herculean project as the search for Cartesian Certainty.

And we would be remiss, of course, if we did not mention that one of the key tenants to this whole idea of Cartesian Certainty had to do with what epistemologists term “Internalism” – the idea that these foundations of knowledge must be something to which the believer had special access, had a certain obligation to search for the foundations of knowledge (i.e. beliefs must be “justified”).

There was, of course, a great deal of disagreement amongst philosophers as to what beliefs were foundational and how to go about “building” a belief structure, but the one thing that was very rarely called into dispute is that once our foundational beliefs were established, we must then proceed with logical consistency and coherence. Again, there was debate as to what exactly we should consider “logical consistency” or “coherence,” but who was going to argue that we should abandon the whole project of having a coherent belief structure? Well, let me be the first…
That is, of course, not entirely the truth. Many have questioned the philosophical aims of the Modern era, and I do not want to get sidetracked with the philosophical side of the coin when my concern is more theological. So, I will ask the question in a theological way: Why are we so focused upon coherence when defining Christian doctrines or doing Christian theology? What this amounts to is a sort of “theological obsessive-compulsive disorder” that develops such an intense preoccupation with coherence that all it can do when approaching theological doctrines is to approach them in order to solve the logical problem or eliminate the logical tensions. Once this is accomplished – or, at least, it is accomplished in the eyes of the theologian who is working on the “problem” – then a theological sigh of relief is breathed and we can all rest easy knowing that our doctrines are safe from the secular charge of “Inconsistency!”

Towards a More Problematic Theology

I admit that solving the logical problem is a very sexy thing for a theologian to do. What a great amount of respect and outpouring of praise goes to the theological giant who has climbed the Mount Everest of Theological Problems and has planted the flag of Logical Consistency upon its peak! What a challenge! And what a thrill!

The point I am driving at here is not to say that logical consistency has no place in theological or doctrinal discourse. I think coherence has a very important role in theology. We, as human beings, have an innate and instinctive desire and drive to order our beliefs in a coherent and consistent way. This is important and certainly must never be completely lost. What I am arguing against, rather, is the seeming obsession with coherence; the highly exalted status it has been given and the esteemed merit it has been awarded. I simply feel that it has been granted a status that it was never meant to attain and that the authors of Scripture, itself, do not award it. How often do the authors of Scripture attempt to define doctrines for the purpose of logical consistency or systematic coherence?

The issue then, as I see it, is not in defining these doctrines, but the issue is why are we defining them. Is it for the purpose of coherence? If the answer is “yes,” then I think that we have smuggled in an incorrect philosophical bias – which isn’t so bad because, after all, we all have philosophical biases. What I suggest, however, is that we need to wrestle with the question of why we are defining these doctrines and for what purpose are we doing theology. Perhaps it is simplistic, but I would suggest we should be doing theology and defining doctrines for the purpose of correctly defining the doctrine – not for the purpose of making it cohere with the rest of our belief structure.

But perhaps, you might argue, we must have some sort of more specific purpose in mind when we define doctrines. Perhaps it is unavoidable that we have some philosophical or theological axe to grind. For after all, you might argue, no one can do theology simply to define the doctrines – we all have a bias and purpose that is more specific to what we are doing. And you might site one of the major faults of philosophy and theology of the modern era, which sought to elevate the status of the “autonomous subject.” But, you chime, the concept of an autonomous subject was a fallacy! We all have motivations for thinking and doing theology. We must discuss, you would argue, our specific purposes in defining doctrines; we cannot define doctrines simply for the purpose of defining the doctrines.

Well, to that highly articulate response I would voice agreement. It does seem true that we must be more introspective and not so naïve as to think we can define doctrines or do theology without defining a more specific purpose. But perhaps the purposes of doing theology can be defined on a doctrine-by-doctrine basis. Is it possible that we develop a somewhat eclectic approach that evaluates a doctrine on the basis of what it, itself is trying to accomplish?
For the remainder, I would like to evaluate the doctrine of free will and that of election. In this discussion I will evaluate the doctrines in regard to their function within the experience of the individual and the community. In doing so, I hope it will become clear that these doctrines were not given to us for the purpose of internal coherence, but rather have a crucial role to play in the experience of the church as she relates to God both corporately and individually. If we are seeking as our primary goal to bring coherence and systematic consistency to these doctrines that seem to conflict, then we typically risk losing or minimizing some crucial aspect of the doctrine.

Free Will and Predestination - An Example of A Problematic Theology

Let us look at a specific example; a question really, How do we resolve the tension between free will and election. On the surface, it appears that if we hold to both free will and predestination, then we are basically saying, “God chooses me, but I choose God.” Although I simplify the discussion to the point that I seem to be a mere theological child – which, in many respects I am – the point is that if we are to bring coherence to our belief system, we cannot say “God chooses me, but I choose God.” To say this is to lose the precious commodity of coherence, which, of course, we cannot do if we are problem-solving theologians. So, what we must do (as good problem solvers!) is specifically define what we mean by “God chooses me” and “I choose God” so that we do not use the word “choose” in the exact same sense in both instances. If we use the word “choose” in precisely the same way, then we have treaded upon the sacred ground of coherence and our theological belief system is in danger of the cry “Inconsistent!” that we fear so much.

But here is the whole problem: once we begin to define the words “choice” in such a way so as to eliminate the tension and become “consistent” theologians – the very minute we do this - then we are defining our doctrines so as to eliminate tensions. At that instance we have become theologians who are focused on problem-solving. That is, we are engaging in theology for the express purpose of bringing logical consistency and coherence: problem-solving.

This approach is great, as far as it goes (i.e. in solving the problem). However, when we begin to define these terms so that they reconcile with each other and thus alleviate the dreaded tensions we fear, we then risk losing the experiential relevance of one or the other doctrines. For example, we can eliminate the tension by saying that when man chooses, he does not actually make a real “choice.” God is the main operative in this scenario and man is more in the position of ratifying the choice of God. Or, conversely, we can say that humanity possesses Libertarian Freewill and therefore when God “chooses” this choice is more in the line of ratifying the choice of mankind. The operative concept being that we must “dumb down” the word “choose” at it applies to either God or to mankind.

With this move, however, I fear that we do injustice to an aspect of Christian experience, not to mention doing damage to the biblical themes of freedom and predestination. On the one hand we deny the responsible choice that each person must make to repent and ask for God’s grace: an actual choice-act, and we also deny the personal responsibility clearly taught in Scripture. We deny the reality of the experience of denying the self, taking up our cross, and following our Savior. On the other hand, if we deny the predestination of God, then we deny the powerful existential comfort, as well as the clear data of Scripture that reveals a God who loved us in such depth and had such mercy on us that he elected us for the gift of redemption and restoration even before the history of the universe has begun to unfold. I think we could explore this in much more depth and realize that at each point where we seek logical consistency and alter the meaning of “choose” we find there is a very, very high experiential price to be paid. The cost, I would assert is too great for the acquisition of a little bit of coherence. And, as mentioned previously, I do not see the authors of Scripture seeking to solve the logical problems we have found to be so important. Rather, the focus, I believe, is much more existential.

Now, I would hasten to say that I am not asserting that there is anything really wrong with problem-solving theology. As I mentioned before, there is great intellectual appeal to these approached, and a great service to the church is rendered in so doing. Some of the problem-solving theologians of the past centuries in the church were some of the most brilliant intellectuals to have walked the earth; certainly more brilliant than this theological webblogger! The literature written and the concepts developed have only served to drive Christianity to greater intellectual heights, and I would not want to take anything away from the importance of this project.


My point here is that in this “post” modern era, perhaps the theological considerations have gone beyond the Modern obsession with coherence. Hence, I think we should take the fist steps toward a more problematic theology that seeks to define and articulate doctrines for what they are – and for the life changing and community building power that they possess – rather than allow our concern to solve problems dictate the direction we allow a doctrine to develop. All Christians are guilty of this “crime” (if I may call it that!), and this Christian is no less so than anyone else. However, by placing coherence a little lower down on the list of theological considerations, we will relieve a great deal of “stress” that we have piled on ourselves in being so concerned with coherence. This will then free our available energies to focus upon other doctrinal considerations that will, perhaps, bridge the gaps between theology and real life change. It will also allow a “post” modern generation of both Christians and non-Christians alike to tune in to the messages of the Church of Christ. With every day that passes, our world and culture is becoming less and less obsessed with consistency and coherence and more aware of the spiritual void and vacuum of the human soul. If Christianity believes its out-of-date claims of exclusivity can fill the void of humanity, then perhaps it is appropriate that our theological reflection attend to this task with more energy.

That is why I call for a more “problematic” theology – and do so with no shame! When we release the angst for solving the problem, then I believe our doctrine will begin to take on greater existential relevance and unleash the power of the Gospel to save and to sanctify.

Philosophy and Hermeneutics

Hermeneutics and Epistemology
If the church has learned anything over the past two thousand years we have certainly learned that the interpretation of Scripture is no small task. There have been bitter quarrels, factions, divisions, and even countless killings – all in the name of a certain approach to interpreting Scripture. And yet the interpretation of Scripture is central to the Church of Christ and always must be.
One of the problems, I believe, is that we have approached the interpretation of Scripture with a sort of naïve optimism. We viewed the Scripture as a matter of method (to borrow Gadamer’s phrase), and we have failed to recognize that there are a myriad of other complex factors that interact with each other and make the interpretation of the Bible difficult. In his book Canon and Criterion in Christian Theology William Abraham calls this “exegetical optimism.” The point he makes, that I would echo here, is that in the past the church has failed to recognize the philosophical roots of biblical interpretation.
This paper is an attempt to recognize (as many already are recognizing) the need to dig deep in our philosophical roots to examine what presuppositions we have that our driving our biblical interpretation. In the process, then, we will all exercise a little more grace and humility as we approach our own interpretation and the interpretations of our brothers and sisters in Christ.
In the following brief sentences, I wish to discuss the relationship that epistemology has to biblical interpretation and how a rejection of the epistemology of the past will lead us to a more accurate and appropriate hermeneutic. I hope to accomplish this by briefly defining the epistemological internalism of the past several hundred years or so that has been foundational to the modernist philosophical thought process. I will then show how the nature of internalism has molded the way biblical interpreters have approached hermeneutics and how this is not tenable or even desirable in light of current philosophical and hermeneutical developments. In the last part of the paper I would like to begin to wrestle with the consequences of abandoning some of the internalist’s presuppositions and evaluate how this will affect our view of biblical interpretation.
I would also like to pose a few suggestions for viewing hermeneutics if internalism is no longer acceptable. Specifically, my suggestion is that hermeneutics is more a matter of what happens to us and is not restricted to our own interpretive efforts. Some of the results may be a bit unsettling and uncertain, but I believe that they put us on the path to a more faithful and realistic biblical interpretation. I believe that this also allows the Christian to recognize and incorporate, in a more real way, the divine element and the illumination of the Holy Spirit as an integral part of the hermeneutical process.
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The Imprecatory Psalms - A Summary

Q&A on the Imprecatory Psalms

Was the imprecation of Psalm 137 wrong?
1 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, O 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, O LORD, what the Edomites did on the day Jerusalem fell. "Tear it down," they cried, "tear it down to its foundations!"8 O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us-9 he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.

Was the imprecation of Psalm 137 wrong? “Happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us – he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.” My response at this point is to say “no.” The imprecation was made within a specific covenant between God and Israel that brought the Israelites under an umbrella of blessings and curses: Those who would trouble Israel would be dealt with harshly by God. Hence, the Israelites were perfectly justified in calling down destruction on Babylon because God himself had promised that this would happen. God did not specify that infants would be dashed to the rocks, but this phrase “dashing the infants to the rock” in the ancient Hebrew world is most likely a reference to the defeat of a nation. This brutality in warfare is difficult for us to grasp in a day and age when we bomb our enemies with both weapons and humanitarian aid! But the reference to infants likely meant a total destruction of Babylon – of the same level of brutality that had been meted out to Israel. In light of God’s promise to curse those who curse Israel, this imprecation seems to be justified.

Yet even if we consider the imprecation “wrong,” saying, instead, that it is always and forever wrong to call down curses upon someone; then I am still inclined to think that the imprecatory Psalms have a great deal of value. I see one of the primary functions of Psalm 137 as being therapeutic. This is a deeply expressive Psalm that is packed with emotion. When individuals and nations face such intense trauma, it is absolutely essential to express all the feelings of rage, hate and anger that come very naturally to us. In the past, the church has tended to view these emotions as “wrong.” I am inclined to think that this thinking is incorrect and foreign to the biblical writers. Jesus himself was a very emotionally expressive person. I believe the imprecatory Psalms should not be neglected any longer by contemporary Christians, but should be explored for their insight into the human response to suffering. I suggest, therefore, that the imprecatory Psalms hold within their disturbing words the power to lead us toward healing, redemption and even forgiveness. So, even if the imprecation was wrong, then it was still not wrong!

Should Christians Imprecate Today?

This is, perhaps, the hottest question of them all. Stated a different way, “If we are not operating under the same umbrella of “blessings and cursings” that the Israelites were operating under, then does that exclude us from being able to make the same imprecation?”

I would answer first by saying that we have the right to express our anger and even hatred when we are wrongfully abused. Even if we do not call down an imprecation or a curse upon those who have wronged us, at a minimum we would have to say that it is essential to express the natural feelings we find ourselves experiencing – regardless of how ugly these emotions may be. It is simply an essential aspect of human existence that we need to find an outlet for traumatic feelings, particularly when our anger and hate may be the result of wrongful abuse by others. This is one of the key reasons why the imprecatory passages in Scripture are so important: They teach us that it is ok to express our pain.

Secondly, and more controversially, I believe we may even have the right to call down an imprecation. We must understand that human beings are created in the image of God. Hence, when anyone acts wrongly towards another human being they have not just harmed and hurt the person, they have in some way violated the law of God. There is a record being kept and God takes our treatment of others very seriously. So, in this sense, we have a right to call down curses upon those who have wronged us of no fault of our own because the laws of justice (the “eye for an eye” idea – Leviticus 24:20) apply in a universal sense to anyone who is wronged.

Don’t the Imprecatory Passages Contradict the teachings of Jesus?

The imprecatory Psalms, of course, seem to create a bit of a dilemma for the follower of Christ who encounters the words of Jesus “bless those who curse you” and “turn the other cheek.” (see particularly Matthew 5:38-48) Did Jesus come to overturn the rights of human beings who, because they were made in the image of God, were entitled to respect and fair treatment? Did Jesus come to overturn basic human rights and dignity? To say that God no longer respected the rights of the violated and the abused? That they must simply turn the other cheek with no thought to the pain suffered or the rights that were violated?

My suggestion is that what Jesus is doing here is emphasizing the end of a process of forgiveness. For the Christian the goal is always forgiveness, restoration and the healing of the individual and relationships. This is not only ideal in a theoretical sense, but it is also the most healthy place for the spiritual and psychological well-being of the person. And yet we know from observation and experience that true forgiveness can only be granted by a person who has truly explored the ramifications of the pain that has been caused. For example, if an individual is abused or violated in some way and they live in a state of denial about the actual abuse or the pain that it has caused, then this person cannot, in my opinion, truly forgive. True forgiveness only occurs when we have truly acknowledge the depth to which a violation or abuse has occurred. Hence, forgiveness will only occur at the end of a process of dealing with the consequences and severity of being wronged.

Conclusion and Summary

To conclude and summarize, it seems that the imprecatory Psalms reveal to us the depth of emotion that is associated with being abused and wronged. We are people who suffer when we are unjustly violated, and God is a God of justice who will upholds the rights of individuals and does not deal lightly with those who violate the legitimate rights of other people. The expression of these feelings and the recognition that we have the right to curse those who wrong us is often a necessary element as we move through the process of forgiveness and personal healing and restoration. Hence, Jesus’ ideal of forgiveness does not, in any way conflict with the imprecatory Psalms; rather, it compliments the Psalms and leads us to real and genuine forgiveness. Because, as the imprecatory Psalms demonstrate in a very vivid way, sometimes the ultimate goal of forgiveness takes us down a road that makes us confront and express the ugliest of emotions.

The Imprecatory Psalms Sermon Series: An Introduction - Sermon 1

The Imprecatory Psalms – Some Introductory Issues

I would like to share with you this morning the first of a three part sermon series addressing the Imprecatory Psalms. The Imprecatory Psalms are those, how shall we say, those “troublesome” Psalms. They are the Psalms that say things like “Pour out your wrath on them; let your fierce anger overtake them” (Ps. 69:24) or “If only you would slay the wicked” (Ps. 139:19) and “happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us – he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks” (Ps. 137:8-9)….These aren’t exactly the verses we like to meditate upon in our devotions are they??? No, not at all. In fact, if those of us who are Christians are honest with ourselves, we tend to slide over these pesky verses. After all, isn’t Christianity about the love of Christ and the mercy of God? Didn’t Jesus tell us to pray for our enemies and to bless those who curse us? For those of us who are not Christians, these verses may seem to represent a contradiction and an irreconcilable difference within the Bible. For those of us who claim to be Christians, these verses present us with what seems to be a conflict in the Scripture and in our experience as followers and believers in Jesus Christ.
How, then, are we to understand these difficult Psalms? I would like to suggest that these Psalms are built upon some very fundamental truths and that these truths have the power to bring healing to those of us who have experienced heartache, brokenness and abuse. So, far from being passages to avoid, these Scriptures can become a source of sincere expression and insightful into some of the most real aspects of human experience.
The first thing I would like to suggest is that the imprecatory Psalms are built upon a foundation. Now, think about a building. If a building does not have a foundation, the entire structure is shaky, at best, and simply cannot stand; it crumbles and crashes to the ground. I believe that a similar fact is at work with the imprecatory Psalms. There are certain foundational truths, which, if not properly understood, will result in our understanding of these Psalms to crumble and crash – leading to confusion and misunderstanding.
The first of these truths is that God is just. (pause) This phrase, to me, is very interesting. In the past it would have been a “no brainer.” By “the past,” I’m referring to a days gone by when pretty much everyone had pretty much the same concept of both God and morality. Now, that is not to say there was ever a time when everyone agreed with each other – heaven’s no! – it was just that the disagreements were about much different things. In other words, your common “man-on-the-street” would probably agree that there was a God and that given such a God there were certain things that were definitely right and definitely wrong. The burden of proof, if you will, rested upon the individuals who would say, “There is no god.” That is, there was a general assumption that the evidence, by and large, pointed us to the fact that there was a God, and further, that this God was The One who would uphold what is right and wrong. All this is to say that in days-gone-by saying something like “God is just” would have been a good starting point for discussion.
However, today, I think, things are a bit different. You see the whole concept of a “god” is, basically, all up in the air. That is, your common “man-on-the-street” will no longer be so confident to say either “God exists,” or “There is truly things that are right and truly things that are wrong.” The technical term for this general outlook on life is called “Relativism.” Relativism simply means that what is right or what is wrong is relative to each person. That is, what is right has to do, mostly, with what I believe is right. And what is wrong has to do, for the most part, with what I believe is wrong. And it is not so much that people do not have personal beliefs about God and about right and wrong; it is just that there is a lack of certainty about such things and a general idea that these beliefs can not be imposed upon anyone else.
Now, I am not going to spend my time saying what I believe is good or bad about such ideas. What I want to do today is simply bring out the contrast between the Bible and the prevailing views of the day; and I believe that as we follow through on the philosophy of the Bible the contrast will become more clear and even compelling. Not so much because I hope that the Bible will razzle you with rationality – it very rarely attempts to do that – but because I hope that you will be compelled by how the Bible speaks to a certain intuitive understanding of reality and human experience.
So, what are these foundational issues that are so key to understanding the imprecatory Psalms. Well, the Bible demonstrates first, that there is real evil in the world, and that this evil has real consequences. Consider Psalm 94:
“Who will rise up for me against the wicked? Who will take a stand for me against the evildoers? But the Lord has become my fortress, and my God the rock in whom I take refuge. He will repay them for their sins and destroy them for their wickedness; the LORD our God will destroy them.”

Notice the language and the tone of this passage. The Scriptures are almost militant as they speak of the “wicked.” But why this militancy? Why such harsh language? I would like to suggest two things. The first is that evil has consequences towards others. We as human beings have been built – designed, if you will - in such a way that the actions of others have profound impact upon us. This is particularly true when we are young; but the impact of others remains upon our lives all throughout our living years. The result of this is that if someone chooses to hurt or abuse you, this choice will have a profound impact upon your life. This is because we were not created to be isolated from others. Your actions affect mine, which in turn affect others, which in turn affects others and so on. And this is what makes these statements from Scripture so profound: God is deeply concerned with how you and I are treated – and with how we treat others. This is the first reason, I would say, for the militant terms used by God in the Bible.
I am not sure that I can philosophically establish this point, but I believe that if a lesson is taught to us through cartoons, then this lesson is more than likely true. Let’s consider this issue in light of those two famous character figures: Sylvester the Cat and Tweety Bird. Sylvester, being a cat is always on the prowl for Tweety Bird because Tweety, after all, is a Bird. Hence, whenever Grandma wanders from the house Sylvester chases Tweety Bird around in circles until finally Sylvester is forced to conclude that his chase is futile.
But what does this teach us? Surely, even the smallest of children realizes that Sylvester is wrong. That is, there is something built within us that instinctively and intuitively recognizes that no one has the right to try to chase down and devour an innocent little tweety bird. I believe this illustrates in a very simple way the profound truth that we all can recognize that each person is valuable, and that when we are abused or molested that something has gone wrong in the world. This is the truth to which the Scriptures, and particularly the book of Psalms, point to.
Another reason for strong language in regards to the “wicked” is that there really are things that are evil and wrong in this universe. More than just being an invasion of who we are as people, evil comes about when we violate the laws of the universe. But more than simply violating an impersonal “law,” we are violating the very essence of goodness and purity; and when we violate the essence of goodness and purity, we violate the very person of God; for God is, at the core of his nature, good, pure, righteous and holy.
But we can boil all of this philosophy and theology down to a simple point today: God takes it very personally when we, as people, are sinned against. This is what we mean when we say that God is just, and this is the point that is foundational to understanding the imprecatory Psalms. These Psalms, and the whole of Scripture, reveal a God who is deeply concerned with you and how you are treated. When someone messes with you they are doing more than meddling or pestering you, they are violating the laws of the universe and, by default, they are violating the very person of God.
You see we cannot read and study the Bible, and the Psalms in particular, without realizing that the events of this earth are all related and ultimately trace back to God Himself. Back-of-it-all is a God who upholds what is right and works against what is wrong. This is a job that he takes very personally; so personally that Psalm 89:14 says, “Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne.” Do you hear this word - the “foundation” – the “foundation” of the throne of God is righteousness and justice. As a house without a foundation is merely a pile of wood and rabble, so it is that God without justice is no god at all. God is just and He is here to account for the evil in this world. Understanding this will take us a long way to understanding, appreciating, and learning from the imprecatory Psalms.

[Next Sermon: Cries of the Heart]

The Imprecatory Psalms - Sermon 2 - The Cries of the Heart

The Imprecatory Psalms and The Cries of the Heart
This first sermon has been more philosophical and theological. As we continue in the next sermon to develop our thoughts on the imprecatory Psalms, we will shift our focus to a more existential level. That is, we will examine the emotional side of these Psalms. The Bible is much more than simply a handbook on how to live or a list of rules and regulations. Rather, it records some of the deepest emotional and spiritual moments that we as human beings experience. In fact, a great deal of the Bible is simply the stories of the lives of individuals and their reactions to the situations that life presents. In short, Scripture is real. And as proof of this we have the imprecatory Psalms.
Today I would like to zero in on one of these imprecatory Psalms; a Psalm that in my opinion is one of the most emotionally energized of all the Psalms and perhaps the most controversial. If you have a copy of the Bible with you, you can turn with me, if you like, to Psalm 137. You may prefer to simply listen to the Psalm. I am going to read it rather deliberately so as to try to begin to capture the deep emotion that is expressed in these few words:
By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. There on the poplars we hung our harps, for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, "Sing us one of the songs of Zion!" How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill. 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. Remember, O LORD, what the Edomites did on the day Jerusalem fell. "Tear it down," they cried, "tear it down to its foundations!" O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us- he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.

There is certainly a great deal here, in only a few words. As a starting point, then, it would be good to ask who wrote this particular Psalm. The exact author of this Psalm, which in its original form was probably a song, is unknown. It seems likely that it was one of the Israelite musicians. The Israelites were living in a region of land in what we now know as the Middle East. In fact, it was roughly a similar area to that which the Jews hold today. Yet in about 600 BC something went terribly wrong. The Babylonian Kingdom invaded their land, conquered the people, and took many of them away, as exiles, into the Babylonian country. The Israelites were in this exiled state for about 70 years after which they were allowed to begin returning home and start rebuilding their land. The land, by that point, lay in ruins both because it had been unkept by the people and, more importantly, because it had been decimated by the Babylonians.
The conquest of a nation was very different back in those days than it is today. The United States, in going to war against Afghanistan and Iraq, not only do all that they can to keep casualties and injuries down, but they actually seek to rebuild the nation once the war is complete. Not only has the U.S. dropped bombs, but they have also dropped food, medicine, and humanitarian aid. Yet even with all of these efforts to run a “safe” war, we still see that war is still a terrible thing.
What I would like you to do now is take what you know about war in our era and turn up the “horrific monitor” about 100 times. [pause] Take what you know about the horrors of war and multiply it times a hundred. This is what the conquest of a nation meant to the Israelites. The Babylonians in conquering Israel were not seeking to keep casualties as low as possible, or to spare injury. Rather, in ancient warfare there was a deliberate attempt to increase the death, pain, suffering and humiliation of the conquered nation. Thus, the soldiers would rape the women, destroy the towns and seek to plunder and pillage the cities of their wealth. The point of ancient warfare was not simply conquest, it was total destruction. The Babylonians were no exceptions to this. Their objective in warfare was to decimate Israel. And this is exactly what had happened.
Imagine, if you will, watching your village or city burn. Seeing all of your valuable possessions and treasures – even those keepsakes that have only a high-amount of sentimental value – go up in smoke. Or imagine seeing women and girls that you know suffering at the hands of soldiers. Or watching your brothers and fathers slain by the oppressing army. Even witnessing little children and infants brutally thrown to the earth and dashed against the rocks. These are horrors that we really have a difficult time really understanding. But the exiles would have been no strangers to the brutality of war. They would have been only about one generation removed from those who had actually witnessed the events, first-hand. And the author of this Psalm, itself, had likely either witnessed such events first-hand, or was only one or two generations removed.
This Psalm was likely written very soon after the Israelites were permitted to return to their land. Now, I want us to think, for just a moment, about what it meant for this people, not just to suffer the brutality of war, but to be exiled away from their home-land. Now, for you and I it is difficult to ever fully understand the trauma of being displaced. You see for the Israelites at this time their land was special – even sacred. Their possession of their land was their link to the promises and blessings given to them by God. God had promised them this land and had delivered it to them in a miraculous fashion. Even their worship practices were associated with the land, for their temple was located in Jerusalem and it was their that many of them went to worship. That is one of the reasons why the author of the Psalm says in verse four, “How can we sing the songs of the LORD in a foreign land?” Because he is associating his home-land with his worship of God.
Notice the language of the Psalm: “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.” There is a deeply rooted sadness associated with exile. The Israelites truly longed for their home that they call here “Zion,” which is also the name of their capital city, Jerusalem.
Notice also that in the midst of their deep melancholy their captors, the Babylonians begin to taunt and ridicule their pitiful condition. They say things like, “Hey, why don’t you sing those happy songs that talk about how good things are in Jerusalem!” Or we can imagine them saying, “Sing about how great Jerusalem is and how strong your “god” is.” You see the Babylonians, in conquering Israel, assumed that they had destroyed, conquered and overcome the God of the Israelites. And so the Babylonians were mocking the physical, mental, and even spiritual misery of the people – taunting and decimating them at every level of human experience.
This is the setting for the imprecation made by the Psalmist in verses eight and nine: “O Daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us – he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.”
Let’s take a break and step back for a moment….sometimes this world is a very messed up place. We learned in the previous sermon that there is real evil in our world. Recounting the experiences of these people in Psalm 137 this fact just resonates all the more. Perhaps you, yourself, have suffered some terrible things in your life. Maybe you have never had your home-land decimated by ancient warfare, but maybe you have suffered at the hands of verbal, emotional, or even physical abuse that have left scars similar to the ones spoken of in this Psalm. If so, then you know what a terrible toll that life can take on a person who has to really and truly suffer.
But I am here to tell you that through it all God is still there. And the Bible itself does not simply present a fair-tale world for perfect fairy-tale people. The Bible is written for real life – for people who really suffer and really hurt. It does not shy away from even the most difficult and dirty issues of life. But presents it all – all dimensions of life. Did you realize that? Did you realize that the Bible speaks to all dimensions of human experience? Even the deepest and darkest parts of human emotions and experiences.
Sometimes, people in the church shy away from discussing these things. We have been hesitant to bring to the surface the deepest and darkest emotions that we experience. But the Bible itself does not do so, and neither should God’s people. After all, God did not have to inspire Psalm 137, or any of the other imprecatory Psalms. But he did. And why? Because we have a record in the Holy Scriptures of the deepest and darkest of human emotions. We have it. Right there. In the Bible itself. On display so that we can never truly engage the Scriptures without coming face to face with the deepest levels of human emotions. And the darkest.
This, I believe is the key point to take away: The Scriptures want us to acknowledge and deal with the dark side of human existence. Many people, after becoming victims of abuse will tend to ignore or repress the problem. But this was not the approach of the exiles in Psalm 137. Rather, they confronted the worst of their emotions and they expressed them. Yes, they expressed them. They poured out their hearts and I do not believe that anyone who finds themselves a victim of suffering should do any less. We as people were not made to bottle all of our hurt, fear and anger inside. In fact, we were made to express our hurts and pain. And often times the deeper the wound is, the more ugly the emotions become. We don’t necessarily ask to be misused and abused in this world – but many of us are. And we don’t ask for ugly emotions – but many of us have them. We find ourselves struggling and grappling with a very ugly side of life. And we find ourselves crying out to express our rage, anger and even our hate. I would like to suggest to you that one of the reasons we have Psalm 137 and other imprecatory Psalms is to show us that that’s ok. God knows you. And he knows all of the emotions you carry. As difficult as it is to be real with ourselves and with others, God is calling us to do this. To be real.

[Final Sermon: Imprecatory Psalms - What does it all mean?]

The Imprecatory Psalms - Sermon 3 - What does it all mean?

Imprecations and Application
Well we have certainly done a lot of thinking and feeling in these past two sermons. And there is certainly much to think about. And much to feel. But I would now like to move towards application. That is, what can we actually take away from these Imprecatory Psalms.
In the fist sermon we discussed the issue of justice, and how there is real evil in this world and that God takes this very personally. He is concerned with what goes on here on earth and particularly when the evil done on earth affects others. The Bible says in Psalm 89 that righteousness and justice are the foundations of God’s throne. We see that foundational to everything God does is to make sure that all the wrongs are righted and that no evil deed goes unnoticed or unpunished. There are things in this world that are really wrong and one of them is when people violate and abuse others. This is a real evil, and the Imprecatory Psalms are written with an understanding that when you or I are violated, then this is not just a violation of our rights as people, but that this violates the laws of the universe and greatly disturbs the God of our universe. For He cares about this world – and you and I!
In the second sermon we saw that the Imprecatory Psalms are a real life expression of the real life pain and hurt in this world. They are the cries of the human heart; the expressions of a troubled soul. The Bible is not a fairy-tale book written for plastic people who do not feel. It is written for all dimensions of human existence – particularly the deepest and darkest hours of our lives. When we experience the deepest levels of emotional pain, betrayal and suffering, we can open the texts of Scripture and listen to the cries of people who have suffered the deepest levels of emotional pain. In short, the Bible is real.
But now we are asking the question, “What do we do with all this?” How do we actually live our lives in light of the truths that we have just made? You may even be thinking to yourselves, “Man, what you are saying may be true, but didn’t Jesus call us to forgive others who have hurt us? And what about praying for our enemies? Didn’t Jesus call us to do that, too?” These are good questions. In fact, let’s discuss them now. How do the Imprecatory Psalms relate to the teachings of Jesus?
There is one passage that I think provide the main thrust of Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness and love for one’s enemies. That is Matthew 5 verses 3 through 48. A few verses out of this passage read as follows – please listen along as I read:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.”

So, Jesus clearly teaches love and forgiveness. But what does it mean to truly forgive a person? And, perhaps the more important question, how do we forgive a person who has sinned against us? Abused us? Betrayed us? May I suggest today that real and genuine forgiveness is a process. [pause] A process. That is, it is not an instantaneous or magical moment when we are zapped with a lightning bolt and all-of-a-sudden we find ourselves with no negative emotions and only have a light and fluffy feeling towards the one who has hurt us. But this is what we have somehow been taught to believe in many circles. To be frank, it seems wrong.
Rather, I think that the road to real forgiveness and even to possible reconciliation – this road to the place of forgiveness often runs through some very dark and disturbing forests where we have to deal with a lot of hurt. This, in my opinion, is when forgiveness become genuine. Not when we try to ignore the pain, shame and hurt inside of us; but when we are able to face ourselves – the deepest and darkest feelings – and say to the one who has cause us pain, “I still forgive you.” [pause] You see when we do not acknowledge the way that we have been abused we risk living in a state of denial. When we deny the reality of our hurt, then there exists nothing to forgive. In other words, when we seek to simply forget, then we have not forgiven. We have simply turned a blind eye towards the reality of our lives.
And I would go one step further. If we do not express the emotions we feel towards the person or people who have hurt us, then we have not been honest with ourselves or with the reality of what has been done to us. But you see that is the beauty – if I can use such a word – of the Imprecatory Psalms. They do not hide from us the most ugly emotions that we feel. May I suggest to you that if the Bible itself doesn’t hide from the most traumatic of feelings, then neither should we.
But then the next step is crucial. You see some would stop with these emotions and allow them to control and consume them. The result? Hate and anger. Fear and paranoia. A life that becomes self-absorbed and mistrusting. Resentful and closed. That’s no way to live our lives. We weren’t made for that. It destroys us. We must move through the emotions and towards the place of forgiveness, healing, and ultimately restoration. When we see things in this way, then the teachings of Jesus do not even need to be reconciled with the Imprecatory Psalms. Because they work hand-in-hand.
How can we sum this all up? How can we bring it all together? Well, first, I wouldn’t want to over simply these issues that we are dealing with because we are dealing with a deeply personal and subjective issue. How the teachings of Scripture work out for you in your individual situation will be different than what they mean for me. But nevertheless I think that we can say that the Imprecatory Psalms are often a part of the journey that moves us from hurt to healing. Viewing the Imprecations in this way allows us to be true to the life-changing teachings of Jesus on forgiveness and love, while at the same time being real with ourselves and dealing with many of the issues that arise from being abused, violated, betrayed, and battered by the evil in this world.
Now, this whole discussion brings us to a decision point in our lives; a fork in the road. If you are here and you are a Christian, I would ask you a very simple question: Are being real with yourself? You see there is a very dangerous theology in some Christian circles. This theology says that no matter how much you have suffered, you are not allowed to truly and genuinely have negative emotions. And, of course, you are never supposed to express them. I would like to suggest that this is very misleading, at best, and at worst it can absolutely mess you up.
It is no coincidence that Christians who encourage this kind of thinking have a difficult time reading the Imprecatory Psalms with any amount of honesty with the texts. But God created us. And he understands the complexity that is involved in our lives when we live through trauma and abuse. For some of us the road to wholeness and forgiveness is long. But it is a journey that we must travel. And through it all – through all of the hell that you might experience – God is still there. And he cares for you. [pause]
Perhaps you are here and you do not consider yourself a Christian. I don’t know what your background is, but maybe this is the first time you have seen the Bible as more than an interesting religious book or a set of religious rules. Perhaps you have always viewed the Bible as a set of out-dated instructions. I would like to suggest to you that the Bible connects with reality like to other book that you will ever read. It is more than just theology or religious jargon. It is about a real God who wants to connect with you. And at the end of the day; when everything is said and done – that is what life is all about. It is about connecting with our Creator.
I would encourage you to seek out this God. I would encourage you to begin to read the Bible. Just start reading. Some parts of the Bible are difficult to understand, but you may be amazed at how much truth there is. And through all this there is our community of faith here at this church who are here to discuss issues related to your life and your relationships with other and with God. If you would like to talk with someone today, there are people waiting here at the front after the service to talk with you. If you would like someone in the church to call you, you can fill out the invitation card in your bulletin.
God is calling us all to live real lives in the real world; through the power of a relationship with Him and through the power of real relationships with each other. Let’s close with prayer.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Psalm 137 - Exegetical Research

Psalm 137 – Exegetical Research

Research Paper Completed in Partial Fulfillment
Hebrew Poetry
Dr. John J. Davis

Jonathan Erdman
Grace Theological Seminary
November 20, 2002

Note: Footnotes are temporarily unavailable...Hope to resolve this soon!

Introductory Material


In terms of structure and form-critical analysis, Psalm 137 in truly unique. Despite their differences on interpretation, one thing that scholars and commentators nearly all agree upon is the inability to categorically stereotype this poem. Says Anderson, "The brief but difficult Psalm does not fit easily into any of the common psalm-types."1 Leslie C. Allen in the Word Biblical Commentary states, "Psalm 137 defies straightforward classification in form-critical terms."2

Despite the fact that this psalm does not fit neatly into a predetermined category, the composition does show an identifiable structure. Specifically, it seems to contain three strophes. The last strophe is verses 7-9. The other two are either 1-3 and 4-6 or the first strophe is lengthened through verse four: 1-4 and 5-6.

Verses 7-9 are clearly set apart in terms of language, but particularly in meaning. The imprecations against Edom and Babylon flow logically from the first six verse, but carry a very distinct tone. The psalmist turns his attention from the mourning and memory of Zion (verses 1-6) to specifically address those who destroyed the city and separated the exiles from her. (Some (Dahood, J. Magne3) would separate verse seven into a separate strophe, thereby creating four divisions.)

Thus the question centers on the division of the first six verses. Allen comments, "It is noteworthy that v 4 in a "we" sequence appears to cap the narrative of vv 1-3 with a differently structured sentence. Something similar occurs in the course of v 6: after the tightly bound ABB'A' patterning of vv 5-6, there is an extra line which breaks the pattern and changes to a third person reference to Jerusalem, while maintaining the first person singular subject and developing further the conditional clause of v 6a."2

An additional consideration is the parallelism of verses five and six. As mentioned above, they are follow an ABB'A' pattern in the form of a self-imprecating oath. ("may my right hand lose its skill....let my tongue stick to
the roof of my mouth") Verses five and six also set themselves apart from the poem by their incorporation of the conditional clause (if...then...then....if). These factors considered, verses five and six seem to operate as a unit with a specified purpose.

The discussion, it seems would center on whether verse four functions more as an introduction to verses five and six, or as a conclusion to verses one through three. While is certainly provides a transition into these verses, its theme corresponds most closely with verse three. The rhetorical question of verse four ("How can we sing the song of the LORD in the land of a foreigner?") provides the answer to the request of the "captors" when they ask them to sing a song of Zion (verse three).

Upon which strophe should the emphasis be placed? Scholars disagree. The emphasis is likely found in how one determines the theme.


The three themes that the three strophes represent are mourning, remembering Zion, and imprecating Edom and Babylon.

Hengstenberg prefers that the main theme occurs in the final strophe. "The proper sentiment of the Psalm lies in the last strophe. The two first were only intended to introduce the third and assign the motive for the wishes and prayers expressed in it." p. 478

Others would suggest that this is a community lament, and, as such, the theme lies in the act of mourning found in the first strophe. That the expression of love for Zion and the imprecations in verses 7-9 flow out of the grief of the first verses.

Another view is that the middle strophe, that which focuses on remembrance is the main theme. "Verses 1-4 express the exiles' grief. Verses 7-9 express the exiles' rage and desire for revenge. In between, the literary and conceptual heart of the poem, verses 5-6 focus the hearer's attention on the crucial activity of remembering. The chiastic structure (abba pattern) of the lines provides further emphasis..." 5

A final main theme is focus upon Zion as the theme of the Psalm and that it is love for Jerusalem that inspires all of the thoughts of the Psalm.

While each vantage point shows certain legitimacies, it is difficult to pinpoint a "main" theme, as such. Rather, it seems most appropriate to understand this Psalm in terms of several themes (mourning, remembrance of Zion, and imprecation) flowing out of unique experiences and significant theology.

Poetic Beauty

One of the literary fascinations with this Psalm centers on its beautiful poetry. The psalmist calls upon a variety of images and emotions to paint a very expressive picture of the hearts and souls of the exiles. The poem is not lengthy, yet conveys a great deal of feeling in addition to theology.

Dahood expresses the unique literary character of Psalm 137: "The language of this sixth-century lament is marked by originality and vividness. One encounters assonance (vss. 1-6), alliteration (vss. 3, 8), two wordplays (vss. 5, 9), vocative lamedh (vs. 7), double-duty suffix (vs. 7), the use of the independent personal pronoun as the direct object (vss. 1-6), and a word with double entendre (v. 7b)." 6

Date and Historical Context

Nebuchadnezzar invaded Palestine in approximately 606 B.C. and began deporting the Jews. In 538 B.C. Babylon was captured by the Persians. Seventy years after the deportation, in 536 B.C., Cyrus gave the decree that gave the Jews freedom to return to their homeland. This is the historical context for the writing of Psalm 137. It is written (verses 8 and 9) from the perspective of the exiles, and may have been written by one who had been exiled in Babylon.

Further historical context is the barbaric treatment of the Babylonians in their conquest of Jerusalem. Nahum 3:10 references their cruelty, "...also her small children were dashed to pieces at the head of every street; they cast lots for her honorable men, and all her great men were bound with fetters." (NAS)

There is a very convincing argument to favor dating this psalm as post-exilic. The linguistic characteristics argue for this point. The use of shom (~v) in verse 3 indicates that they are referencing a geographic location. Also, the use of the perfect tense implies that the experiences were complete, that is, in the past. It seems most likely that the psalmist is referencing the geographic location of the captivity as a whole whose experience was completed. See the commentary on verses one and three for the expanded argument.

Though the writing took place following the exile, it is most likely that the authorship was soon thereafter. The evidence for this claim is gained from the sheer emotion expressed. Only one personally familiar with these events could write a poem with such strength of feeling. The hearer/reader feels the deep pain of the exiles and their courageous loyalty to Zion, and then feels the anger in the imprecation against Babylon.

Additionally, Hengstenberg has noted that the use of the phrase "we dwelt" and "we wept" in verse one suggest personal involvement. 7

Most scholars agree that this psalm can be reliably dated as either exilic or post-exilic. Kraus makes the claim, "Psalm 137 is the only psalm in the psalter that can be dated reliably." 8


The LXX inscription is meant to say, "a Davidic song coming from the heart of Jeremiah" This, as Delitzsch states, is "erroneous," for a few reasons, not the least of which is that Jeremiah was never one of the Babylonian exiles.9

The psalm is, in fact, anonymous. No inscription is provided in other manuscripts, and there are no other evidences that credit any specific individual for the composition. On textual grounds, it is likely that one close to the exilic situation composed the psalm, but outside of this knowledge, nothing can be discerned.

Exegetical Commentary and Theological Application

Verse 1

lb,ªB' ŸtAr’h]n: l[; - By the rivers of Babylon

This reference is to introduce the colony of exiles in Babylon and their setting. The tAr’h]n: ("rivers") could be taken as the Euphrates, the Tigris, or the Chebar river mentioned in Ezekiel (1:1, 3:15). In 3:15, Ezekiel mentions a group that met at Tel Abib in Babylon.

Apart from these actual rivers there were many tributaries as well as an extensive irrigation system which produced many canals across the flat plains of the country.

The literal interpretation and most frequent usage of l[ is "on" or "upon". In this instance, however, it carries the idea of "by" or "beside", referring to the shore of the river.

lb,ªB refers to the literal kingdom of Babylon that had taken captives from the Israelite people after the initial conquest of Palestine in approx. 606 B.C. Some would take Babylon in the spiritual and allegorical sense in addition to the literal meaning. However, there is nothing textual within this passage or elsewhere in the cannon of Scripture to indicate that the author of Psalm 137 intended that Babylon should be taken in any other manner than the literal kingdom of conquerors.

According to Neale these gatherings may have taken place by the rivers for the practical purpose of the ceremonial washings required by Mosaic Law.1

Wnb.v;y"â ~v'ä - there we dwelt

The use of ~v in this verse but particularly in verse three, is an indicator as to the date of the dwelling. The primary function of the word is to indicate a particular place, most typically used to indicate an actual geographic setting.
This is the function in verse one: to indicate that the spatial location was by the rivers of Babylon, and it is in that location that they dwelt.

Wnb.v;y most usually deals with "dwelling" and carries the idea of remaining in a particular location. In this context it is also quite possible the idea of sitting is in focus; that these Jews maintained the posture of a seated position. Dahood mentions that, "It was a widespread custom among Semitic peoples to mourn seated upon the ground."2 (Dahood references Old Testament passages (Num. 11:4, Deut. 1:45, Jon. 3:6, Job 2:12-13, Lam. 2:10, and Neh. 1:4) as well as UT, 67:VI:13-16 "He (El) sat upon the ground. He poured ashes of grief upon his head, dust of wallowing upon his skull".)

Additionally, Anderson mentions the idea of being "settled down."3 The main focus of this word is that they gathered and "dwelt" by the rivers for the purpose of mourning and reflecting. The use of Wnb.v;y indicates that this gathering was not a hasty process without true purpose.

Another alternative understanding of this "dwelling" is that the author is referring to the place where the community actually lived. And that the mourning was not, necessarily, a formal gathering, but that grief was the general mindset of the exiles as they remembered their homeland of Zion.

This viewpoint is possible, however it is rather unlikely. Most scholars see this as a planned and/or formal gathering for the purpose of expressing their grief as a community.

If this was, indeed, a community gathering, this raises the question of the nature of this "dwelling" by the river. Some, in the tradition of Gunkel and Mowinkle would suggest cultic symbolism behind the communal gatherings. That these gatherings inferred cultic significance in the performing of rituals - particularly the use of songs and the reminiscence of Zion. Anderson, however, states, "it is not imperative, however, to assume that the author was speaking of religious gatherings of the captives and that 'weeping' and the 'remembering of Zion' must refer to cultic activities."

The gatherings may also have been as simple as that of reminiscence about the land from which the Jews were exiled.

"In connection with Psalm 137 the question has often come up how the worship meetings of the exiled Jews can be understood. We can hardly think of the birth of a synagogue in the time of the exile. Much rather, it is fully conceivable that the exiles gathered at specified places (e.g., in the houses of the elders or at the canals). These gatherings would have pursued two aims: (1) lamentation over the ruined sanctuary in Jerusalem and prayer for a change of fortunes; (2) a look toward prophetic proclamation about future events. From 1 Kings 8:46ff. we can deduce that the praying assembly at such occasions assumed the "direction of prayer" (Kibla) facing toward Jerusalem" 4

Whatever the exact purpose for this gathering, whether formal or informal, the author, at the very least, expresses that the exiles mourned and grieved together at the rivers edge.

Wnyki_B'-~G: - moreover, we wept

The choice of the word ~G is an interesting one, and its purpose in this passage is disputed. The first view is that it is used as a particle conjunction connecting the clauses and introducing a new idea (the new idea being that of weeping). This is the standard lexical categorization for this context.

Dahood and others have suggested that ~G is actually an adverb to indicate the intensity of the weeping, "loudly we wept." 5

Additionally, we could interpret ~G as an emphasizing particle introducing a climax. This would invoke the usage of "yea" or "moreover" to indicate the climactic nature of the clause.

!AY*ci-ta, Wnreªk.z"B.÷ - when we remembered of Zion

It is interesting to note the usage of the suffix Wn in the first three verses. The suffix occurs nine times and emphasizes the focus of the author upon the exiles and their community. Linguistically, the repetition of "our" and "we" trains the mind upon exiled Jews. This exclusive focus of the author is due to the nature of the cruelty and the efforts of the group to express their
lament. Textually, this focus on the nation's grieving process will then translate into a national curse against Edom and Babylon.

The object (marked by the particle -ta) of remembrance is !AY*ci "Zion." Mentioned initially in verse one, Zion remains a focus of the Psalm, and is the focus of the gatherings at the rivers.

Verse 2

Wnyte(ArNOKi WnyliªT Hk'_AtB. ~ybiîr'[]-l[;( - on willows, in their midst, we hung our harps

It does not seem reasonable to suggest that the exiles literally "hung their harps upon the willows." Rather, it seems more rational to view this as metaphor that further describes their mourning. It is a poetic expression of the cessation of their music and, thereby, their joy. This verse builds upon the preceding verses' proclamation of sorrow. Hanging their instruments upon the willows forms creates a vivid image of their sorrow. This would have had a particularly profound effect upon those exiles who were familiar with the geography and could visualize, in their minds eye, the stringed instruments and trees of which the psalmist speaks.

Says Lange, "This expression, if not exactly a proverbial one (Geier, Michaelis) is, at all events, a poetical method of referring to the hushing of their joyful and festal songs, especially those in which the harp was employed, and whose silencer indicated public misfortune and national grief." 6

~ybiîr'[ refers to the willow or poplar tree. "The willow and viburnum, those trees which are associated with flowing water in hot low-lying districts, are indigenous in the richly watered lowlands of Babylon."7 Faussett further describes the Babylonian willow: "The willow of Babylon has long, pointed, lance-shaped leaves, and finely serrated, smooth, slender, drooping branches."8

Interesting to note is the change of the use of the willow as a metaphor in the Old Testament. "Before the date of the Babylonian captivity the willow was associated with joy, after it with sorrow, probably owing to Ps. 137." 9

The "harps" (rANKi) refer to stringed instruments that could also mean the lyre. "The harp was the earliest of all musical instruments, and the national instrument of the Hebrews. They used it, not as the Greeks, for expressing sorrow, but on occasions of joy and praise (Gen. 31:27; 2 Chr. 20:28; Ps. 33:2); therefore, it was hung on the willows in the Babylonian captivity (137:2; Job 30:31)."9 This further illustrates that the hanging of the harp symbolized the setting aside of their joy.

The imagery used in verses one and two is a powerful expression of the grief and pain that the nation felt while in exile. Their longing remained for their homeland.

Verse 3

~v'’ yKiÛ - For there

These particles are important because they connect and expound on the experiences of the first two verses.

yK is best to be understood as a particle connecting a causal clause with verses one and two. Lexically speaking, this word is "A particle expressing a temporal, causal, or objective relationship among clauses expressed or unexpressed."10 In this context, the only appropriate usage is to translate the particle as "for" to show that verses three and following are a (or the) reason for the grief expressed in verses one through two. This is important in understanding the meaning of the text, because it connects several thoughts.

First, it connects the mourning of the exiles with the taunts/requests of the captors. They mourn because they are taunted. Second, it connects the reason for the cessation of music with the requests of the captors for songs. They cease their musical expression (at least to a limited degree) because their captors are tormenting them. Lastly, it continues the focus upon Zion as the object of music and joy.

As mentioned previously, the word "there" provides an opportunity to speculate upon the time period in which this psalm was composed. ~v is used to identify a particular place - usually spatial or geographic. Verse three is no exception. A particular geographic place is being identified. Is the author specifically referring to the river bank, or is he referring to the exiled country of Babylon?

If he is referring to Babylon, then it becomes clear that this Psalm can be dated post-exilic. In this case the expression "For in Babylon, our captors asked us...." would adequately express the idea of the author. It is also possible that the author is still referring to the rivers edge, meaning, "For upon the rivers of Babylon, our captors asked us...." In this case, the psalmist is referring back to verse one when he stated "upon the rivers of Babylon, there we dwelt..." Yet, even with this interpretation, it still becomes most plausible to view the poet as looking back into the exile from his homeland. The word tAr’h]n ("rivers") is plural, giving one the idea that he is referring to all the rivers where the exiles gathered; that the whole nation of Babylon is in view. This would be rather strange language to use if the psalmist were still within the nation of Babylon. In other words, why would he reference himself within the nation of Babylon if he were residing in Babylon? (In this case, "For here we dwell" would be preferred to "For there we dwelt.")

Another strong indicator, in regards to a post-exilic authorship, is the verbal use of the perfect tenses. The wording would be a bit awkward to express the ideas of someone who is currently in Babylon describing the conditions that he is currently experiencing. The Hebraic use of the perfect tense is that of perfection. It carries the idea of completeness. When this is applied to verse three, the idea is that the exile is completed.

"Most scholars understand from the perfect verbs and repeated adverb ~v
'there' the psalmist's distance in time and space from exilic conditions."11

`!AY*ci ryViîmi Wnl'÷ª Wryviî hx'_m.fi Wnyleäl'Atw> ryviâ-yreb.DI Wnybe‡Av WnWláaev.( - our captors asked us the words of a song, and our tormentors, joy, saying "sing us a song of Zion"

These clauses are best viewed as a parallelism:

Captors asking for the words of a song

our tormentors asking "sing us a song of Zion"

The words Wnybe‡Av and Wnyleäl'At should be examined in conjunction with one another based on their complimenting function within the structure of the text. The first of these words (Wnybe‡Av) is straightforward in its meaning "to take captive," or when used as a participle and combined with a suffix, "our captors." The second word is less forthcoming. In fact, this is its only usage in the Old Testament and the meaning is uncertain. The typical treatment is to use Wnyleäl'At as "tormentor" or "spoiler," following the parallelism of these clauses and following the general context of the passage. If it is related to the word ll;y' (y¹lal), then it would carry the idea of "to howl" or "howling". Dahood has suggested the usage of "to make a fool of, to mock."12

The second group of terms completing the parallelism is ryviâ-yreb.D and !AY*ci ryViîmi. The first term ryv is simply to be interpreted as "song." There does not seem to be any particularly special nuance to the root. It is used in a variety of ways in the psalter including usage in the titles.

Some have suggested (Gunkel, Freedman) that the usage in this passage has a collective idea. That we are dealing with a collection of songs. This finds support when reference is made to a "song of Zion."13

The phrase !AY*ci ryViîmi "song of Zion" completes the parallelism. It is interesting to note the second reference to Zion. In this poem Zion becomes synonymous with joy and is further expounded upon by the poet in verses 5 and 6. The exiles' separation from Zion is the source of their grief in verse one, and the captors capitalize on this by suggesting that the exiles sing of Zion.

Are the songs of Zion a specific work or collection? Hermann Gunkel lists the "songs of Zion" as a class of hymns and describes them as follows, "In several of these poems this praise of the holy place appears especially strong, meaning that we call these poems "Zion songs" (Pss 84; 87; 122), according to Ps 137:3. One can also compare Jer 17:12f where God and sanctuary are addressed and magnified simultaneously in the introduction to a complaint song. Egyptian literature also contains songs that praise the
sanctuary....One may well imagine that this kind of poem was sung at particular occasions that celebrated Jerusalem's majesty...."14

The reference to hx'_m.fi "joy" made by the captors indicates that they intentionally requested songs of mirth and joy. The Hebrew word used here has many usages in the psalter and the Old Testament. The TWOT states, "The root denotes being glad or joyful with the whole disposition as indicated by its association with the heart (cf. Exo 4:14; Psa 19:8 [H 9]; Psa 104:15; Psa 105:3), the soul (Psa 86:4); and with the lighting up of the eyes (Pro 15:30)."15 Additional uses involve both the righteous and wicked in both sacred and secular contexts.

One view of this passage is that of Anderson who suggests that this was simply a new framing of the age old taunt, "Where is your god?" "The request may be tinged with sarcasm: 'sing about that indestructible Jerusalem and its so-called Almighty God'." Anderson p. 898 This was, undoubtedly, a part of the taunt. The defeat of Israel, in the minds of the Babylonians, was also a defeat of their God.

An interesting observation is made by Hengstenberg. Were the Babylonians merely wanting the Israelites to settle in to their captivity and forget about their native land? "The desire rather proceeds from the wish, that the Israelites might reconcile themselves to their lot, that they would forget the old and true Zion....and would in their imaginations find a new one in Babylon"16

This also seems possible in light of the way captives were treated by ancient civilizations. Additionally, it may be that this is why the psalmist chooses the language used in verses 5 and 6 regarding the curse to the right hand. Saying, "If I were ever to sing the songs of Zion (and thereby forget Jerusalem) may my right hand no longer have the skill to play these songs. This observation would also tie in the image of the harp in verse two.

While this view is very interesting and important to note, it seems less likely given the language of this particular text and other considerations.

First, the Babylonians did not, necessarily have a reputation for graciousness towards their conquered nations. As discussed in verse nine, their form of conquest was often brutal and devastating, in every sense of the word.
Secondly, they requested songs of Zion. It would seem odd to suggest that the captives sing a song of the homeland if it was the homeland that they were to put out of their minds. Lastly, the words chosen to describe the Babylonians ("captors" and "tormentors, mockers") do not suggest a sympathetic crowd in this particular context.

Although Hengstenberg's explanation does not entirely suffice, it does, however, add an additional dimension. The Babylonians, in addition to taunting the exiles desired to dash their glorification of the city of Zion. This seems the most plausible meaning of the text; that the captor's taunts had the dual purpose of mockery and degradation of the city of Zion. This most adequately considers both the context of the verse and the terminology used.

Verse 4

rk")nE tm;îd>a; l[;÷ª hw"+hy>-ryvi-ta, ryviîn" %yae - how can we sing the song of the LORD in the land of a foreigner?

Verse four is a source of disagreement amongst scholars. The dissention centers on the simple question, "Why could they not sing the song of YHWH in a foreign land?"

One answer is suggested by Kraus, "...but such Yahweh hymns cannot be sung in a foreign land. Cultic practice is not possible here (cf. 1 Sam 26:19; Hos. 9:3). The land is unclean (cf. Ex. 4:13). And yet, this explanation in verse 4 does not preclude having a service of lamentation in a foreign land (cf. 1 Kng. 8:46)."17 The idea being that the cultic ceremonies were prohibited according to the references listed. There is certainly a good measure of accuracy to this point. There were, indeed, aspects of cultic activity that were not possible while in exile, particularly in regard to the temple. However, these specific references, and others similar, do not, explicitly forbid the songs of YHWH, or categorically forbid cultic practices of worship.

Perhaps the focus then, is upon the unclean soil of the foreign land. "A foreign land is essentially an unclean land (Amos 7:17) and even its food is unclean (Exodus 4:13, Hosea 9:3, crf. Jeremiah 29:5). Perhaps the meaning of verse 4 is, 'How can we who are unclean (in that we are punished) sing
Yahweh's praises to an unclean people in an unclean land?'"18

It is legitimate and correct to observe that the soil of a foreign land was unclean. There is also textual support for this view in the use of tm;îd>a; l[;÷ª , which, literally means "upon the ground (or soil)". So, there is legitimacy in emphasizing the land. However, there is not, necessarily a logical connection between the unclean nature of the foreign land and the prohibition of the songs of YHWH. There is no connection mentioned in the text or in other portions of the Mosaic Law.

A key question to ask in answering the question of why the sons of YHWH could not be sung is to ask what hw"+hy>-ryvi ("song of the LORD") signifies. The context would seem to connect the phrase !AY*ci ryViîmi ("song of Zion") with hw"+hy>-ryvi. That is, in response to the captors request for a song of Zion the psalmist references the song of YHWH. This seems to make them somewhat synonymous in the mind of the author. Apart from this textual evidence, there does not remain anything to suggest that the "song of YHWH" had any particular significance other than the use as a poet expression in responding to the captors request for a "song of Zion."

What seems to emerge as an important factor in examining verse four is to emphasize the emotional context and the flow of the text. There is no textual indication in Psalm 137 that the reason for cessation of these songs was due to a prohibition by the Law of Moses. On the contrary, verses one and two indicate that singing, in a general sense, as well as joy, had ceased because of the extreme sorrow of the exiles as they reminisced about Zion. However, in this reminiscence of Zion an important point emerges: a full and true worship of YHWH was not possible outside of Jerusalem. This is what scholars and commentators all emphasize. Zion was significant to the Israelites. Their worship and joy centered on the land that was given to them by YHWH. The fullness of joy and thanksgiving was not possible until the exiles were geographically present in the land.

It is for this reason that Zion is the primary focus of the first six verses. The Law did not prohibit the songs of YHWH, nor did the unclean nature of foreign soil demand an total absolution of these songs. However, the full expression of worship was not possible except in Zion. Although they were free to sing the songs of YHWH/Zion, they were not inspired to do so because they were separated from the land of their blessing.

The land, then, is an important factor. It was only in the land of Israel that the exiles would feel the full effects of YHWH's blessing and could thus be inspired to sing the song of Zion and of YHWH.

Delitzsch reinforces this line of thought, "The meaning of the interrogatory exclamation is not that the singing of sacred songs in a foreign land is contrary to the law, for the Psalms continued to be sung even during the Exile, and were also enriched by new ones. But the shir had an end during the Exile, in so far as that it was obliged to retire from publicity into the quiet of the family worship and of the houses of prayer..."19

A further observation is that their absence from Zion was a constant reminder of the reason for their deporture and their unfavorable status before YHWH. The exiles were exiled for a reason, and that reason was punishment for their wickedness and unfaithfulness to the LORD's covenant. The covenantal blessing, again, was closely associated with dwelling in the land God had promised to give them.

Verse 5

ynI¥ymiy> xK;îv.Ti ~÷Il'ªv'Wry>) %xEïK'v.a,-~ai - If I would forget you, O Jerusalem, my right hand would forget

Verses 5 and 6 introduce a self-imprecation with the intention of affirming love and loyalty for Jerusalem. The psalmist uses two conditional clauses to show the condition of not honoring Jerusalem with a consequence of physical harm. In addition, a parallelism is created between the two verses to further clarify their meanings.

These two verses are, to some degree, an expansion of the response to the request for a song of Zion. As Kraus says, "Thus vv. 5 and 6 would intend to say: To be sure, in a strange land I cannot sing joyful sons of Zion, but I will never forget Jerusalem, for me it is the best of all my joys!"20

Verse five utilizes wordplay between %xEïK'v.a and xK;îv.T, essentially creating a pun, "if I forget, then my right hand will forget." This type of play on words is used in verse nine as well.

The root word xkv simply carries the meaning "to forget" or "to ignore." It can mean both a loss of cognitive memory as well as a deliberate effort to suppress. This would be the case when Israel "forgot" the laws of the LORD. In this particular context, the first usage of this word, "If I would forget you, O Jerusalem" probably refers to a lack of honor given to Jerusalem resulting in a view that is less than magnificent. This is reinforced in the parallelism of verse 6. The "forgetting" of Jerusalem is not, necessarily, a loss of memory over the existence of the city, rather, it is a failure to have the city remain the focal point of joy.

The first conditional clause in verse 5 is introduced by the word ~a, the most common word used to introduce such clauses. This sets up the condition of forgetting Jerusalem. The psalmist then lays out the condition of forgetfulness which is that his right hand would forget.

This consequence (xK;îv.T) can be interpreted in different ways. Most translations supply an ending "forget its skill" (NIV) or "forget her cunning" (KJV). Dahood, as well as others, would use the word "wither" rather than "forget" which would read "may my right hand wither."21 Hengstenberg references the harp of verse two and notes a connection made between the hanging of the harps and the curse to the right hand if Jerusalem should be "forgotten."22 The skill of the right hand should be rendered useless if it is used to sing the joyful songs of Zion.

Verse 6

yti¥x'm.fi varoå l[;÷ª ~÷Il;_v'Wry>-ta, hl,[]a;â al{å-~ai ykireîK.z>a,ñ al{á-~ai éyKixil. ŸynI“Avl.-qB;îd>T - let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you; if I do not exalt Jerusalem above my chief joy

Verse six is the 2nd part of the parallelism started in verse five. It involves the use of a conditional clause that establishes two conditions.

The consequence "let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth" seems to further support Hengstenberg's thought that the psalmist would rather lose the capacity to sing the songs of Zion than to sing them, and, in so doing, forget Jerusalem.

The word qB;îd>T refers to "cleaving to" or "sticking to" something, whether that be a physical part of the body, to another person (eg. "cleave to his wife"), or to God and His commands. Additionally, the phrase "cleave to the roof of the mouth" has interesting uses in Hebrew. "The expression, 'tongue cleaving to mouth,' apart from denoting thirst, is an idiom in the Hebrew for being speechless. Ezekiel's dumbness may indicate the gravity of the impending destruction of Jerusalem or perhaps the importance of waiting to speak Yahweh's word only. The idiom was used in imprecations and oaths (cf. Psa 137:6)."23 The idea of being speechless is perhaps the metaphor that the psalmist is using.

In this particular case, the conditions of this imperative oath follow the consequence. The first follows the use of the word "forget" from verse five, "if I do not remember." As was mentioned, to not remember does not exactly mean that memory of Jerusalem would be erased form the mind. Rather, context dictates that this "not remembering" concerns the disposition and exaltation of Jerusalem in the hierarchy of the thoughts of the psalmist. Interesting to note is that rkz is also used in verse one in reference to Zion. In this usage, the meaning is found more in terms of internal reflection and actually deals more specifically with the cognitive aspect of memory; the exiles were "bringing to mind" memories of Zion.

The phrase yti¥x'm.fi varoå l[;÷ª ~÷Il;_v'Wry>-ta, hl,[]a;â al{å-~ai ("if I do not exalt Jerusalem above my chief joy") sheds the greatest light upon the meaning that the psalmist wishes to convey in verses five and six. The author does not simply wish to maintain the cognitive memory of Jerusalem, he is expressly intent on maintaining Jerusalem as his highest joy.

This phrase is somewhat unique. Dahood translates as "upon my head of celebration!"24

The use of the root l[ twice in this clause is interesting. The first usage is as a verb, while the second use is as a participle preposition. It seems to add force to the psalmists idea of priority. Jerusalem is "exalted" and is "above" all other joys. The root carries the meaning "to go up" or "to ascend."

The noun hx'm.fi used here for "joy" is the same used in verse three when the tormentors were calling for joy. There is some irony to the fact that the songs of joy would not be sung, but Jerusalem was to remain the "highest"

or "chief" (var) of the exiles' joy. This irony communicates the importance of actually residing and worshiping in the Holy City.

Verse 7

HB'( dAsïy>h; d[;÷ª Wr["+ ŸWr["Ü ~yrIm.aoåh'â ~÷Il'îv'ñWry>) ~AyÝ étae ~Adªa/ ynEíb.li Ÿhw"“hy> rkoÝz> - Remember, O LORD the sons of Edom on the day of Jerusalem, saying, "Lay it bare! Lay it bare to its foundation!"

Regardless of how scholars divide the strophes of the first six verses, most all are in agreement that verse seven begins the last strophe of the psalm.

The first of two imprecations begins with the Edom and focuses upon a specific historical situation - the Edomites reaction to the fall of Jerusalem. In 587, when Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians, the Edomites not only refused to aid "her brother," but actually participated in the looting of the city and the killing of her fugitives. The book of Obadiah shed light upon the event: "On the day you stood aloof while strangers carried off his wealth and foreigners entered his gates...You should not look down on your brother in the day of his misfortune nor rejoice over the people of Judah in the day of their destruction...You should not march through the gates of my people...nor seize their wealth in the day of their disaster. You should not wait at the crossroads to cut down their fugitives, nor hand over their survivors in the day of their trouble." (NIV)

A form of the root rkz is once again used. This reference, as in verse six is not concerned with cognitive memory. In this case, the context dictates that it is a remembrance that leads to an action. In fact, the act of recalling to the mind is not even in view in this case due to the fact that the appeal is to the omniscient God. Rather, the use of the word "remember" is to a course of action. To "remember" is to avenge. This idea is reinforced by Ezekiel 25:12-14 and 35:5-15. In these passages God's judgment against Edom is promised.

"The day" (~AyÝ) is most certainly a reference to the historical event of the fall of Jerusalem and Edom's role in it. The reference to Edom's reaction in this verse ("lay it bare, lay it bare!") along with the above mentioned Ezekiel references is weighty evidence to support this conclusion.

The mention of Jerusalem (~÷Il'îv'ñWry>)) continues to develop the focus upon the city and its importance, not only in the destiny of the Israelites and their prosperity, but also in the destiny of Edom and Babylon.

There are some interesting points to be made regarding the phrase Wr["+ ŸWr["Ü ("lay it bare, lay it bare"). First it is primarily used in the intensitive stems; piel in this case. Second, in this verse the term is used twice; probably to emphasize the point.

One of the nuances of the term is that of nakedness. Many translations use the word "raze." This is probably to agree with the word dAsïy>h; ("foundation") which has obvious reference to a physical structure such as a building. Dahood, on the other hand, prefers the idea of nakedness or "strip." As he says, "Here Jerusalem is depicted as a woman being despoiled of her clothing; compare Isaiah 47:2-3; Ezekiel 16:37; Lamentations 1:8. The traditional version of "Rase it, rase it!" (RSV) is not sustained by collateral texts." Dahood also explains that dAsïy> has a "double sense, namely 'buttocks,' and 'foundation.'"25

An additional Biblical reference to note is that, according to Numbers 20:14 and Deuteronomy 23:7-8, Israel was to treat Edom as a brother. Yet it was with very "un-brotherlike" hostility that Edom repayed Israel.

Verse 8

hd'îWdñV.h; lb,ªB'-tB; - Daughter of Babylon, who is destroyed

The reference to lb,ªB'-tB "Daughter of Babylon" is a reference to Babylon itself. There is little controversy surrounding this term. Dahood, however, provides a very interesting analysis. He dismisses the traditional "Daughter of Babylon" preferring the translation "Daughter Babylon." "The 'genitives' which follow the construct bat, 'daughter,' are explanatory or appositional."25 Regardless, Babylon is in view here and is the object of the imprecations of verses eight and nine.

The phrase hd'îWdñV.h "the destroyer" is less clear. The question revolves around whether Babylon is "the destroyer" or "destroyed one." The verb is a
passive participle and is typically rendered "destroyed one" or "to be destroyed" by most translators. However, many scholars prefer to designate as "the destroyer," as Allen comments, "An active form is favored by most scholars. The context seems to require a ground of punishment, as a counterpart to 'those who said' in the second line of verse 7."26 In this light, then, the psalmist used the verb in the active sense to law down the premise for his imprecation of Babylon. Babylon the destroyer would, themselves, be destroyed.

The TWOT comments on the usage of ddv in relation to Babylon, "The verb sh¹dad has an interesting usage. In one sense it is applied to Babylon (in the Jeremiah passages obviously) as the 'destroyer' of Jerusalem (Jer 6:26; Jer 12:12, inter alia). This militaristic world power, far from being an independent entity, is an actor chosen for the cast by God. Its function is to be the medium through which God's holy anger is outpoured on his own covenant children. Babylon itself will subsequently become the object of equal devastation (Jer 51:48, 53, 55, 56; Psa 137:8). The ferocity of shadad is indicated by its coupling with the activities of a wolf (Jer 5:6) who pursues, attacks, and mauls its victim."27

In addition, the uses of the word in relation to Babylon are used in the active descriptive sense, which is yet another reason that scholars prefer the use "the destroyer." This is the typical function of the word when used of Babylon. However, the form of the word used in 137:8 is unique to the Old Testament. For this reason, it may require a unique usage.

If used strictly as a passive participle ("destroyed one"), the question arises as to whether Babylon was actually yet devastated. Even when Persia captured Babylon in 538 B.C., the city was not destroyed, certainly not in the usage of the word ddv. If used in this sense, it would most certainly be a prophetic reference. "The coming doom of Babylon had been declared by the prophet long before the event, and there can be little doubt that this psalm, albeit composed after the ruin of the imperial city, records a real expression of the exile's confidence in the speedy fulfillment of her doom..."28 For this reason, some translators use the term "to be destroyed."

Regardless of whether the term is translated as "the destroyer" or "to be destroyed" does not, necessarily, hold theological significance. The prophets make clear that Babylon was a "destroyer" who would themselves
"be destroyed." Additionally, the translation does not add or subtract from the imprecations of verses eight and nine.

yreîv.a; - happy is the one

The word yreîv.a; seems very curious in this passage. It is used both in verse eight and nine to describe the person committing acts of cruelty of a most barbaric form. A closer examination is imperative to understanding this term's role in these imprecatory verses.

yreîv.a occurs most frequently in the psalms. It is typically translated as "blessed" or "happy." Although it is a word of "blessing," it is to be distinguished from the typical term for blessing. The TWOT notes the difference between the blessing and happiness:

"There are two verbs in Hebrew meaning "to bless." One is b¹rak and the other °¹shar. Can any differences between them be tabulated? For one thing b¹rak is used by God when he "blesses" somebody. But there is no instance where °¹shar is ever on God's lips. When one "blesses" God the verb is b¹rak, never °¹shar. One suggestion to explain this sharp distinction, i.e. that °¹shar is reserved for man, is that °¹shar is a word of envious desire, "to be envied with desire is the man who trusts in the Lord." God is not man and therefore there are no grounds for aspiring to his state even in a wishful way. Similarly God does not envy man, never desires something man is or has, which he does not have, but would like to have. Therefore God never pronounces man "blessed" (°ashrê) (Janzen). It should also be pointed out that when b¹rak is used the initiative comes from God. God can bestow his blessing even when man doesn't deserve it. On the other hand, to be blessed (°ashrê), man has to do something. Finally, b¹rak is a benediction, °¹shar more of a congratulation. The former is rendered by eulog¢tos in the LXX and the latter bymakarios."29

At first, the context of yreîv.a does not appear to be typical. In many instances it is used in reference to those who are doing righteous or "good" acts ("not walking in the counsel of the wicked" Ps. 1:1, "taking refuge" in God 34:9, "dwell" in God's house 84:4, "trusts" in the LORD 84:13, "maintain justice" 106:3, "keep his statutes" 119:2), not for those committing the heinous deeds
described in verses eight and nine. However, a closer examination of the word reveals that the purpose of the word is not so much to describe the action that the person is currently performing, but to describe the consequential state of being of that person.

Leslie Allen very accurately maintains, "It describes a state to be emulated."30 A few examples in the Psalm further demonstrate this usage: "Blessed is the man you discipline" (94:12) "Blessed is the man to whom the LORD does not count iniquity" (32:2) "Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them [children]" (127:5). The person who is yreîv.a stands in an enviable position. The focus is not upon the action being carried out, but upon the resultant consequence.

It is clear, then, that in 137:8-9 the usage is not abnormal. Rather, it is consistent with usages in the Old Testament and particularly the Psalms. From a textual standpoint, this meaning must not be lost or diminished in this passage. The decision to use the word twice (verses eight and nine) further demonstrates the psalmists very deliberate choice of the term. "The one who performs this act will be in a favored and maintain an enviable state of being." Theologically speaking, the phrase may or may not be preferred, but from a strictly textual point of view, the meaning is clear.

Wnl'( T.l.m;îG"v %leªWmG>÷-ta, %l"+-~L,v;y>v, - who will pay to you the recompense you dealt out to us

Lex talionis (Latin for "law of retaliation") is clearly in view in this verse. This is the same concept that is in view in verse seven, but in verse eight it is stated more explicitly. The law of retaliation, as such, has its Old Testament roots in Ex. 21:23-25 and Leviticus 24:17-22.

~lv is the root of %l"+-~L,v;y>v. This root word carries the idea of completion and completeness. It appears here in the intensive stem to indicate vindictive vengeance. In other stems, the term can mean "peace." This is interesting, because it is carrying different ideas. The one meaning that remains present, however, is that of a fulfilled (or in the process of fulfilling a) relationship. "The apparent diversity of meanings between the two stems can be accounted for in terms of the concept of peace being restored through payment (of tribute to a conqueror, Josh 10:1), restitution (to one wronged, Exo 21:36), or simple payment and completion (of a business transaction,
2Kings 4:7)."31 The idea of payment is very interesting, adding to the psalmists thought that Babylon must be "paid" what was due to them.

The author gives more force to the idea of restitution by the dual use of the root word lmG. It is first used as a noun. In this form, it is used in the Old Testament to speak of God's repayment of evil. The usage here, then, is very normative and speaks to the psalmists desire for vengeance.

The second form is that of a verb in the qal stem, and carries a very similar meaning in that something positive or negative is done towards someone.

Together, these words show that the psalmist is calling down on Babylon exactly what Babylon had done to Israel. The use of the same word makes this case very strong. In English the same word is not used. The typical translation is to say "happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us--" (NIV). Therefore, a bit of the force seems to be lost. In the Hebrew, however, the same root word would actually be spoken twice and would reinforce the idea of "an eye for an eye." This is why lex talionis is so clearly seen in this passage.

An important contrast should be drawn between verses seven and eight. In verse seven the psalmist merely calls God to "remember" Edom, thus he leaves judgment in the hands of God. In verses eight and nine, the author does not make utilize the same strategy. For this reason, it is important to note the moral authority that the psalmist assumes.

The psalmist has chosen both the punishment ("do to them what was done to us") and the means ("anyone"). This is done without referencing the LORD or citing the word of a prophet. The moral authority is assumed. This does not mean that the psalmist believes he has the authority in and of himself. It is simply that the poet believes that this is the right and sure judgment. That leaving this situation in the hands of God or quoting is not necessary, rather, the rightness of this judgment is assumed.

The author goes further to say that anyone who carries out this judgment will be happy. That is, they are to be envied! This feature of Psalm 137 makes it unique among the Imprecatory Psalms. The typical Imprecatory Psalm calls upon YHWH to intervene. Psalm 137 as well as 109 differ in that they call on others to dole out punishment. Yet the tone of Psalm 137 remains unique and exceptionally strong. In Psalm 109, David is addressing
God and asks God to "appoint" one to carry out punishment - there remains the sense of God's involvement. In 137, however, the tone is more independent, and the author not only calls down judgment but declares that the one who performs this judgment will be "happy."

In mentioning the independence of tone in verses eight and nine, it is important to note that the poet likely felt that the matter was so clear and that the punishment so deserved, that leaving the matter in the hands of God's judgment was unnecessary. The authority of the psalmist need not be independent of the moral absolutes of God's judgment. Rather, it is likely that this independence in attitude comes from the fact that the author believed that God's judgment upon Babylon was a certainty; so certain, in fact, that the psalmist need not even specifically address God, or cite YHWH's authority. The matter was settled, and the imprecation right and just. Thus, the one who carried it out would be happy.

Verse 9

[l;S'(h;-la, %yIl;ªl'[o÷-ta,( #PeìnIw> zxe¦aYOv, ŸyreÛv.a; - blessed is he who seizes your infants and dashes them to the rock

Another unique attribute of Psalm 137 is the intense degree of the imprecation. It is, literally speaking, horrific. Dashing a baby against a rock is an unspeakable act of terror. Is this, however, the proper understanding of this text? Does the author mean that the recompensor should literally perform this brutal act?

The word zxe¦aYOv simply means "to take hold of" or "to grasp." It is usually seen with the qal stem, which is how it appears in this verse.

#pn is also straight-forward, meaning "to shatter." It is important to note the use of the intensive stem (piel) which carries the idea of "shattering to pieces." There is no mistaking the meaning that the psalmist conveys with this verb.

It is clear that the root used (ll'A[) refers to children. The context seems to dictate that infants/babes are in view simply due to the practical difficulty of dashing an older child to the rocks. However, the usage of the noun form
refers, not infrequently, to older children.32 Dahood chooses "infants," and most translators prefer to use this term or "little ones."33

[l;S'(h;-la, ("to the rock") is an interesting term. Though it is used to describe the actual physical object, it is expanded by other Scriptures to allegorically teach a truth. In the New Testament, the rock is used to speak metaphorically of Christ. However, in the form used here, the only Old Testament references are to the actual physical object of a rock (or in some cases, a cliff). This is the form's only occurrence in the Psalms, though the root occurs in eight other instances (Ps. 18:3; 31:4; 40:3; 42:10; 71:3; 78:16; 104:18; 141:6).

Dahood makes an interesting observation about this term ([l;S'(h;-la), "Just as the psalmist played on words in v. 5, so here he resorts to punning on sela, "rock," but also a place name in Edom (some identify sela with Petra), and vs. 8, "Edom."33

Sela was the capital of Edom, and was a very rocky region. The possible reference here to Edom has led some to speculate on whether the author is eluding to Edom and if they are, in some way, connected with the imprecations of verses eight and nine. This speculation is even more curious when one considers that the geography of Babylon was more of a flat plain compared to the rock lands of Sela.

If there is an elusion to Edom, the reason for this reference is not clear. In other words, the text does not give a clear indication as to why Edom is referenced in verse nine and what this implies. The language not allow us to derive any further meaning that would be theologically relevant. To claim that Edom is being imprecated in verses eight and nine would be to stretch the point. It may simply be a form of a pun used by the psalmist to poetically remind the reader of Edom's imprecation in verse seven. Or, it is possible, that the author did not intend to pun with the word sela.

Another important textual note is that verse nine is a poetical extension of verse eight. In verse eight the judgment is that the Babylonians should suffer the same measure of pain that they had inflicted upon Israel. Verse nine expands that thought by mentioning a specific way in which they should be recompensed. The Psalm takes on even greater emotional depth when one realizes that the "dashing of the little ones to the rocks" is exactly
what the nation of Israel had suffered. It is likely that either the author lived through the conquest or (more likely) had spoken to those who had witnessed the Babylonian cruelty first-hand. The "recompense" demanded by the psalmist is precisely what his nation had suffered.

Interpreting Verse 9

Regarding the meaning of this text ("blessed is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them to the rock"), some would take this as being a metaphor for the spiritual struggle, "...and who takes the children of the flesh, the first motions of evil thoughts, while they are still new and weak, and dashes them against the Rock which is Christ."34

To do this, however, would be to present an interpretation of the text that empties it of any literal strength based solely upon a previous a theological bias. In this case, Scripture is not interpreting theology, it is simply used as a metaphor for theological ideas which, by definition, are not based upon Scripture. Thus, authority ultimately rests in the individual, rather than upon revelation.

Interpreting this only as a metaphor for a spiritual or mystical truth does not satisfy the context of the text itself. That is, it does not bring forth the meaning set forth by the psalmist. The author has provided context for verses eight and nine, and nothing within the context would suggest to the reader that verses eight and nine should be treated as a spiritual metaphor. Rather the flow of the text, indicates quite the opposite.

Another suggestion is that this is metaphorical for the conquest of Babylon. That the psalmist is not actually wishing this extreme horror (the slaughter or babies) upon Babylon, but is simply speaking poetically in regards to Babylon, as a nation, being conquered. This theory recognizes many very valid points.

First, it is true that "dashing infants against the rocks," i.e. destroying even the young was typical of ancient warfare. The modern concept of being "civil" to the conquered and providing generous terms of surrender was not the common practice of antiquity. We see this both Biblically and historically. (For Biblical examples, see Nahum 3:10, 2 Kings 15:16, 2

Chronicles 25:12. Dahood comments, "The practice of Oriental warfare spared neither women nor children in a war of extermination."35)

It is implied, then, that rather than taking the full impact of verse nine, the reader is allowed to think of the synonym ("conquer the nation") rather than the brutal poetic expression, which is given only as a metaphor for conquest. It is thought that this fact softens the force of verse nine. In all actuality, it does not accomplish its goal.

Although it is true, that "dashing little ones to the rock" is synonymous with ancient conquest, the use of the synonym does not take away from the meaning of the phrase itself. Even if the wording were changed to say, "Conquer the Babylonians according to the customs of ancient warfare," this would still mean "dashing the little ones to the rock." (Because ancient warfare involved the slaughter of children.) The reason is that the two are synonymous and usage of one does not diminish the meaning of the other. How much more that the author chose to use the expression that conveyed the maximum amount of cruelty! Using this phrase as a metaphor for conquest is certainly appropriate, but it still does not take away from the literal meaning of the actual phrase ([l;S'(h;-la, %yIl;ªl'[o÷-ta,( #PeìnIw> zxe¦aYOv,).

It remains, then, that a literal approach to verse nine is the consistent and appropriate way to view the imprecation. That the psalmist literally meant that the one who recompenses Israel by "dashing their infants" against the rocks would be blessed, in every sense that Hebrew word yreÛv.a is used. To use this verse in a less than literal way is to do injustice to the language and customs of the time. As disturbing as this fact may be, from a literary point of view, the verse must be received as it was given.

In developing an interpretation of verse nine, as well as the entire psalm, two factors must be considered. First, the emotional force of the psalm must be recognized, and, second, a serious inquiry must be made into the theological point made by this psalm.

It is important not to minimalize the emotional tone of Psalm 137. The poet is not simply a stoic theologian who is imparting the most logical imprecations. It is important to allow the emotion to come through and bring it's rich meaning to the text. The images of weeping, discarding instruments of joy, taunting, self-imprecating oaths, and violence all come
together in only a few lines. It is, literally, packed with emotion. Even the verbal character speaks to its emotional intensity. As Delitzsch says, "…the language is classic; and the rhythm, at the beginning softly elegiac, then more and more excited, and abounding in guttural and sibilant sounds, is so expressive that scarcely any Psalm is so easily impressed on the memory as this, which is so pictorial even in sound."36

This emotion is an intrical part of the meaning of the text. The psalmist uses the vivid pictures to illustrate to the hearer/reader the deep sorrow of the exiles, their fierce loyalty towards Jerusalem, and their intense anger and desire for vindication. This all brings meaning to the text. These emotions are all bound up in the concluding imprecations and cannot be separated from their meaning. Humanity is on display in Psalm 137. The many dimensions of suffering are seen, and there is much to learn from these feelings.

"Grief is a more acceptable emotion than rage and the desire for revenge, which accompanies anger. But what Psalm 137 teaches is that grief and anger are inseparable, and it does so in an artistic way. The structure and vocabulary of the poem make the point..."37

A Theology of Psalm 137

Despite the important role that emotions play, it is imperative that the psalm's theological meaning is not diminished. The theological message of the Psalm should not be dismissed out of hand simply because it is emotional in nature. Kidner suggests this general line of thought. He describes the "New Testament view" which entrusts all judgment to God and then comments, "This, we may feel, is what the psalmist would have said in a cooler moment. But we are not given it in that form: it comes to us white-hot."38

Psalm 137 makes a very crucial theological point, and this theological point should not be discarded simply because the experiences of the sufferer were dramatic. The strong emotion involved does not, ipso fact, make it theologically inconsistent or unprofitable.

Also, it is crucial not to disregard Psalm 137 because it does not fit a pre-existing theological mold. If this is the case, then it is appropriate to question how the mold was created. If one does not allow the whole of Scripture to speak, then one's theology has been formed based upon extra-Biblical philosophy, and is, by definition, un-Biblical.

The theological point made by Psalm 137 (specifically verses 8 and 9) is simple: It is that a specific imprecation was made against a specific people in regards to specific crimes against a specific nation. The imprecation was the brutal and horrific conquest of Babylon in regards to Babylon's brutal and horrific conquest of Israel. It reveals that an imprecation is, not only acceptable, but also appropriate given the appropriate circumstances.

It is important to note, that the theology of this imprecation is not Biblically contradicted. Rather, it is supported. It is prophetically justified in that the doom of Babylon was foretold by God's prophets. Therefore, the psalmist calls down and imprecation that has the full support of the Prophetic Word of God.

Secondly, the imprecation is supported by God's covenantal promise to Israel. That is, the Abrahamic promise of "I will bless those who bless you" (Gen. 12:2-3) was repeated throughout God's establishment of his covenant.

The New Testament reference most typically cited is in Jesus' Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:38-48). The argument is that Jesus is overturning the principle of lex talionis. However, it is questionable whether Jesus is, indeed, overturning the Old Testament principle or if he is simply questioning its understanding and application. The overturning of any Old Testament theological point seems odd in light of Jesus' words in the same sermon, "Do not think I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets." (Matthew 5:17 (NIV))

An interesting New Testament passage that reflects the tone of Psalm 137 is Revelation 6:10 where the martyred saints cry to God, "How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?" (NIV)

And, even if the principle of lex talionis was overturned by Jesus, the imprecations of Psalm 137 still stand upon God's prophetic promise to avenge those who had brutal abused God's covenantal people. The imprecations are still justified according to God's own Word.


To conclude, then, Psalm 137 holds a very significant position in the Psalms and in the Scriptures as a whole. It is a beautiful expression of poetry that vividly captures the deep suffering of the exilic Israelites, while, at the same time, teaching deep theological truths about imprecation.


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Allen, Leslie C. Word Biblical Commentary. Waco, Texas: Word Books, 1983.

Dahood, Mitchell. The Anchor Bible - Psalms. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1970.

Delitzsch, Franz. Biblical Commentary on the Psalms. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1898.

Faussett. Faussett Bible Dictionary. HERMENEUTIKA Bible Research Software: International Bible Translators, Inc., 1998.

Gunkel, Hermann. An Introduction to the Psalms. Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 1998.

Harris, R. Laird, Archer, Gleason L., Jr., Waltke, Bruce K. The Theological Workbook of the Old Testament. HERMENEUTIKA Bible Research Software: Moody Press, 1980.

Hengstenberg, E.W. Commentary on the Psalms. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1854.

Kidner, Derek. Psalms: A Commentary. London: Inter-Varsity Press, 1973.

Kraus, Hans-Joachim. Psalms - A Commentary. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1989.

Lange, John Peter. Commentary on the Holy Scriptures. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House.

McCann, J. Clinton. A Theological Introduction to the Book of Psalms. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993

Neale, J.M. A Commentary on the Psalms. London: Joseph Masters & Co., 1888.