Two of the most infamous psalms in Scripture are 88 and 137, so it seemed like an especially brilliant idea to tackle them both in one go during the 35 minutes alloted for Sunday School (usually it’s more like 45 minutes, but the preacher went long…). Here are a few notes from our class’ wonderings and wanderings:
Though these two prayers have no particular relation to each other, put together, they have something specific to teach; Psalms 88 & 137 take God seriously in a way that we are often unwilling to consider. When a child is clearly upset but says, “No, nothing’s wrong!!” she’s distancing herself from you. She won’t allow herself to be made well or to be changed. Prayer, real talking to God in despair and in anger requires that you be ready for God to act, to transform you and the situation. To share your sadness and anger with God, you must admit that you are sad and angry, and to admit that you aren’t in control and aren’t able to help yourself means you are humbling yourself. It’s significant that in this depression and anger, these composers turn to God; they’re hurt and broken by the world, but they cling to God by continuing to offer prayers.
One woman said, “Whenever I want to pray about something that makes me angry or hurt or sad, I say to myself, ‘well, I should trust more. I should not let this get me down–then I can pray about it.’ But the truth is that these psalms show us that we should approach God just where we are.”
1 By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
2 On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
3 For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’
4 How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
6 Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy.
7 Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites
the day of Jerusalem’s fall,
how they said, ‘Tear it down! Tear it down!
Down to its foundations!’
8 O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall they be who pay you back
what you have done to us!
9 Happy shall they be who take your little ones
and dash them against the rock!
This shocking ending is both negative (rare in the psalms) and gruesome. It’s been composed after the fall of Jerusalem, during the Babylonian exile (v.1); the composer is ridiculed by his captors for his hope of restoration. The first section (vs.1-3) narrates the scene, the second bit (vs. 4-6) pledges loyalty to Jerusalem, and in the last section (vs. 7-9) the psalmist details to God exactly what he thinks is an appropriate payback. In the ancient world, it was a practical military policy (albeit an especially cruel and not-always-enforced one) to kill the babies and children of a people group in order to wipe out that nation’s existence and legacy. Pharoah did it to the Hebrew people in Egypt, which is why Moses was hidden as a baby and sent to sail down the Nile. The writer desires for all of the Babylonian culture, all its legacy and mark on the earth, to be wiped out.
Well, there’s no country called Babylon anymore, so maybe the psalmist got his wish. I think there’s more to be mined here than that: looking at the psalm again and thinking about it from a perspective of “good guys” and “bad guys” or perhaps even “God’s people” and “the Evil one,” what is the Scripture saying to us? We live now in the midst of evil, strangers in a strange land; this place is not our home. We endure violence and struggle against our sin. But someday, we will struggle no more, and we will endure no more evil; happy shall be the one who roots out the progeny of evil, killing off all hints of evil, burning away all darkness–rooting out its very babies, that it has no future.
A Song. A Psalm of the Korahites. To the leader: according to Mahalath Leannoth. A Maskil of Heman the Ezrahite.
1 O Lord, God of my salvation,
when, at night, I cry out in your presence,
2 let my prayer come before you;
incline your ear to my cry.
3 For my soul is full of troubles,
and my life draws near to Sheol.
4 I am counted among those who go down to the Pit;
I am like those who have no help,
5 like those forsaken among the dead,
like the slain that lie in the grave,
like those whom you remember no more,
for they are cut off from your hand.
6 You have put me in the depths of the Pit,
in the regions dark and deep.
7 Your wrath lies heavy upon me,
and you overwhelm me with all your waves.
8 You have caused my companions to shun me;
you have made me a thing of horror to them.
I am shut in so that I cannot escape;
9 my eye grows dim through sorrow.
Every day I call on you, O Lord;
I spread out my hands to you.
10 Do you work wonders for the dead?
Do the shades rise up to praise you?
11 Is your steadfast love declared in the grave,
or your faithfulness in Abaddon?
12 Are your wonders known in the darkness,
or your saving help in the land of forgetfulness?
13 But I, O Lord, cry out to you;
in the morning my prayer comes before you.
14 O Lord, why do you cast me off?
Why do you hide your face from me?
15 Wretched and close to death from my youth up,
I suffer your terrors; I am desperate.
16 Your wrath has swept over me;
your dread assaults destroy me.
17 They surround me like a flood all day long;
from all sides they close in on me.
18 You have caused friend and neighbour to shun me;
my companions are in darkness.
A pscyhologist was in the class and she observed, “This sounds like clinical depression. The words that are used, the way it’s described–it’s practically textbook.” She is exactly right; the psalmist wants to have hope, but can’t muster it. There is nothing but darkness. We have friends and loved ones who suffer depression, some of us have lost people to the illness. Here in Scripture is preserved one experience of depression, perhaps to let us know that this may be a part of life on earth. This sort of brokenness may not be solved on this side of Heaven. We must admit that not all will be made well in advance of the end. The psalmist reminds us of something very important in verses 10-12: “Do you work wonders for the dead?” he asks; “Is your steadfast love declared in the grave?” he challenges. In Jesus Christ, and in the salvation God offers us through him, yes–God does work wonders for the dead; indeed, his steadfast love is declared exactly in the grave. This does not provide a cure for depression, but we are given hope of healing, whether in this life, or the life to come.