The last line of Psalm 137 is about as awful a Bible passage as you could find. Yeah, there’s the story of the king who gets a sword through his belly and has his guts spill out. And there’s another one about the woman who puts a tent stake through the temple of an enemy general. But they don’t come close to this Psalm when it comes to anger and violence: “Happy is the one who pays you back for what you have done to us, who takes your babies and smashes them against the rocks.” Most church hymnals include all the psalms along with church services and hymns, but some leave this one out because it seems so inappropriate for worship. Although Psalm 137 stands out like a thumb struck by a five-pound sledgehammer, the attention it draws to itself also reveals a God who’s not afraid of dealing with what it means to be human.
The very human despair and anger on display here are well-founded. The Israelites had been blessed by God to be a blessing to the world, but their kingdom had fallen apart, in spite of the warnings from the Old Testament prophets (most of whom, by the way, had righteous beards). The Assyrians had captured the northern half of the land once led by King David. And now the Babylonian armies of the most powerful kingdom of this new day had advanced on Jerusalem, the Israelite capital city that sat on Mount Zion. The psalm says the Babylonians shouted, “Tear it down! Tear it down! Down to its foundations,” (137:7) and they did just that. The worst part was that the destruction included the holy temple where the chosen people could always count on God being found. Steeped in hopelessness, anyone left after the invasion was carted off into exile in Babylon, far from the security of home, and even farther from any access to God.
The Psalm tells us what life in exile felt like. The Israelites remembered the joys that life in their homeland offered. They remembered having been chosen. They remembered what it was like to sing the great songs of faith. And, of course, they remembered everything that had happened. The psalmist says he’d rather have his right hand wither and have to eat with the left hand he wipes his backside with than forget what happened. The Israelites did indeed remember, and in the face of what had happened, they couldn’t imagine any future except for the path of desolation that those events had set up for them.
It’s akin to “Twilight of the Superheroes,” a short story Deborah Eisenberg wrote about a character whose New York apartment overlooks the World Trade Center’s destruction. She says, “While the sirens screamed, Lucien had walked against the tide of dazed, smoke-smeared people, down to the fuming cauldron, and when he finally reached the police cordon, his feet aching, he wandered along it for hours…among all the other people who were searching for family, friends, lovers.” Then she describes what 9/11 felt like: “Oh, that day! One kept waiting—as if a morning would arrive from before that day to take them all along a different track. One kept waiting for that shattering day to unhappen, so that the real—the intended—future, the one that had been implied by the past, could unfold. Hour after hour, month after month, waiting for that day not to have happened. But it had happened. And now it was always going to have happened.”
Now the Israelites were stuck in a foreign land, mocked by their captors who said, “Your God isn’t so powerful now, is he? Sing one of those songs about Mount Zion. Spin a melody about your God in his Temple on Jerusalem’s heights. It’s all been destroyed. It looks for all the world like you so-called chosen people were only chosen for slaughter. You’re nothing. And your God isn’t much either.” So the psalmist says the Israelites hung up their harps on the willows. Singing the Lord’s song was too painful. Sobbing will do that to you.
This Psalm reminds us that the utter helplessness of loss and the bottomless pit of grief are not just steps in Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s stages of loss. Instead, such loss is living with a Jerusalem-sized hole in the middle of your life. It’s the emptiness where your loved one used to be. It’s the void that invades every breath, every thought, every waking moment. There’s no territory of life beyond the hole, and you just keep falling into it. The grief comes over you in wave after wave after wave.
Whatever loss you’ve undergone, whatever grief resides in the hollow of your heart, however much it seems like God has abandoned you, God sees that void as the place he wants to fill with new life and mercy.
The psalmist remembers everything lost and his response is to move toward vengeance. He calls on God to remember the destruction of the Israelites’ entire way of life. And he calls down God’s wrath to echo the destruction in the most vivid way imaginable: smashing babies against the rocks. The psalmist wants God to end the Babylonians’ seed, their future generations, just as they had done to the Israelites.
Yet with all the talk of remembering in this Psalm, it’s a curious thing that the Israelites in exile began to think that God had forgotten them. God couldn’t be found in the Temple anymore. God had let the very people he had chosen be destroyed. But the Israelites’ God, the God of Jesus, and our own God, isn’t some divine Alzheimer’s patient who daily forgets the right words for things, who forgets who people are, who can’t remember what life is, to the point of even forgetting how to breathe or keep a heart beating. No, this God, your God, is a God who remembers.
The prophet Isaiah, who preached during the Treehouse of Horror that was the exile, spoke of the Israelites’ fear of God forgetting them. And he brought them a sweet promise that told them again of what they’d forgotten. Their God is a God who remembers. When the Israelites say, “The Lord has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me,” God says, “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. See, I have you carved in the palms of my hands” (Is. 49:14-16).
That’s a promise that stands true for you this day. Whatever loss you’ve undergone, whatever grief resides in the hollow of your heart, however much it seems like God has abandoned you, God sees that void as the place he wants to fill with new life and mercy. God’s own Son, Jesus, knows the hole of grief and destruction. His last words on the cross were, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” But the desolation of His death and the tomb became the birthing pangs of resurrection.
Smashed babies and a temple in ruins were not the last words on the Israelites in exile. Your loss, your grief, your own death are not the last word on you. Though you may not feel like singing a single glorious note about God on this dark day, God promises you something later in Isaiah. He says, “The ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away” (Is. 35:10).
It happened for the Israelites. They were brought home to Jerusalem. The temple was rebuilt. And the best thing yet, God came to them in a way that showed they would never be forgotten. He appeared in a manger in Bethlehem. He wandered Judea preaching about a kingdom of God that will last. He was crucified, died, and was risen. And no matter what else happens, He promised to remember you and be with you to the close of the age.
With a promise like that of a remembering God, we can use our opposable thumbs to grab our harps off the willows and sing our hearts out. We can tell the world about the New Jerusalem where there will be no more weeping or mourning. We can tell the story of a God and his people, of Jerusalem’s Temple, erected, destroyed, and rebuilt, of God’s Son raised up on a cross and risen from the tomb. God remembers you. All that’s left is to see your bitter fists loosed from their grip on eye-for-an-eye revenge and be opened to grasp God’s mercy for you. After all, you’ve been carved in the palms of his hands. Crucifixion nails have a way of doing that.