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Tuesday, September 13, 2005

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?]