Before we wish that the downtrodden would temper their anger, or express it in a nuanced way, remember the words of Jesus: “first, take out the plank.”
I never know whether to be relieved or horrified every time I notice that the final three verses of Psalm 137 are omitted in the lectionary. Verses 1-6 are beautiful if also tragic:
“By the rivers of Babylon there we sat down and there we wept….
How could we sing the Lords song in a foreign land”
But to include the violent conclusion of the psalm, to say the words aloud together in the context of prayer, feels like an offense that surely rivals that of eliding parts of scripture from our liturgical use: “Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rocks.”
There is much violence in the Old Testament and in the New Testament for that matter. However, the violence of the psalms is particularly confronting because we say it aloud in our liturgy. We don’t simply read it or hear it, we say it, to each other and to God. Or, at least, we would if it wasn’t conveniently left out of the lectionary in the case of Psalm 137.
Having said this, there are other statements in the book of Psalms that we say together that we don’t shrink from, we don’t dread in the way that we should.
Psalm 7:8 reads:
“The LORD judges the peoples;
judge me, O LORD, according to my righteousness
and according to the integrity that is in me”
As an Old Testament scholar Gordon Wenham (in his book, Psalms as Torah) puts it: “it is a challenging and disturbing prayer: does every worshipper really want God to test his innermost motives I wonder?”
There are no easy answers to the interpretation of violence in the Psalms, or other parts of scripture for that matter, certainly none that can be captured in a short meditation. Moreover, I am sceptical of any reading of these verses that suggests answering violence with violence is justified.
However, these verses point to something that is often forgotten by modern readers of the Bible: Psalm 137, and much of Biblical literature, are the words of a community torn apart by the ravages of a foreign empire. These words reflect the sheer anguish and anger of those whose lives have been trodden on and discarded by the powerful. And perhaps, we have more in common with the empire, the treaders, in a position of economic and political power, than with the trodden on.
Before we wish that the downtrodden would temper their anger, or express it in a nuanced way, remember the words of Jesus: “first, take out the plank.” On whom have we trodden to ensure our own security and national prosperity? Have we truly heard the cries of our earth unpalatable as they are? And after hearing these cries, do we dare say to God, “judge me according to my righteousness, and according to the integrity that is in me”?
Rachelle Gilmour is Bromby Senior Lecturer in Old Testament at Trinity College. She completed her studies in Old Testament/Hebrew Bible at the University of Sydney (PhD), before undertaking postdoctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the University of Edinburgh. She has also held positions as Senior Lecturer in Biblical Studies at BBI: The Australian Institute of Theological Education, and research fellow at the Centre for Public and Contextual Theology, Charles Sturt University.