Much of my time over the last month has been spent marking assignments. A significant number of students chose to study Psalm 137. Popularised (in part) for anyone over 40-ish by Boney M.’s ‘By the rivers of Babylon’ (1978), the psalm is, in equal measure, notorious for its closing verses, which some lectionaries deem unfit for public use:
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!
The apparent vindictive violence of these verses is very hard to reconcile with a Christian theology of love for enemies and blessing those who curse you. It is probably the most extreme example in the Psalter of the graphic depiction of judgement or vengeance on a (seemingly) human level.
There is a great deal to be said about these verses and I am tempted to jump in to offering an apologetic for them. Perhaps I will do that another time. But right now I want to dwell in the rawness and the horror of them. Because being immersed in them for an extended period has thrown up some fascinating points of connection for me.
One question of interpretation is the identity of ‘daughter Babylon’. It is possible to construe this as ‘daughter of Babylon’ and thus as an epithet for the Edomites. In this reading the imprecation of the psalmist is directed not against the Babylonians but against the Edomites, Israel’s near neighbours and (distant) relations. I’m not quite sure that I can subscribe to such an interpretation (not least because of the parallel in Isa. 13.16), but engaging with it carried a haunting resonance in the period of the appointment of Philip North as Bishop of Sheffield and his subsequent withdrawal. I was particularly struck by the comment in his notice of withdrawal: ‘The highly individualised nature of the attacks upon me have been extremely hard to bear.’ There is propensity in humanity to reserve our deepest antipathy for those who are (relatively) close to us and similar to us. The response to his withdrawal (from some) expressed the shocked indignation, and perhaps even rage, that others had expressed following his appointment. Frankly, some of the comments I was reading on Twitter that week made me furious, and I felt myself gravitating towards the feelings of the psalmist. The rawness of my anger found an authentic resonance with his words, though I would not wish any actual harm on any of the people involved.
A couple of weeks later, a different kind of connection arose altogether, from the events at Westminster. A man drove recklessly across Westminster Bridge, killing and injuring bystanders, ran through the gates of the Palace of Westminster and killed a police officer who tried to stop him. The man was then shot by other officers. I was struck in listening to the commentators and news reports over subsequent days, how often concerns for ‘justice’ and the ‘innocence’ of the victims arose. There was no gloating over the unfortunate death of the attacker, but a recognition that it was necessary in light of what had happened. Again, I heard echoes of the voice of the psalmist, who cries out in desperation for justice, as a victim who has no one else to turn to.
But the connection that struck me most powerfully was with a BBC drama series, Apple Tree Yard, that had been broadcast in February. (NB. SPOILER ALERT! The following information will nullify the denouement of the series.) I will be as sparing as possible in the details of what was a very gritty story and (for me at any rate) quite an uncomfortable viewing. A woman who has been the victim of a horrific and humiliating attack, and of subsequent stalking by the same person, arranges for her lover to threaten the perpetrator of the attack and warn him off. Without her knowledge, her lover violently murders the perpetrator of the attack, and the second half of the series follows the court case where they are charged with murder and being an accomplice. The craft of the story-telling is to draw the viewer into the ambiguity and suspense of the hearing, by delaying until the very end the revelation of the vital conversation that had taken place between the two. By this point it has become apparent that the lover has a mild personality disorder that results in his taking ideas too literally. ‘What do you want me to do?’ he had asked her. ‘I want you to kill him. I want you to smash his face in.’
This final example illustrates perfectly the reality that Psalm 137 exposes: that victims experience feelings of vengeance, often fuelled by a yearning for justice, but that the enactment of them brings further tragedy and suffering. The vengeful feeling of the innocent victim is not the same as a genuine desire that it be put into effect.
I still have reservations about praying Psalm 137, or suggesting that anyone else should. But we cannot escape the reality of the feelings which it expresses and which arise from mistreatment by others, wherever that occurs on the spectrum from severe violence to the apparent betrayal of a friend. How much better to express those feelings to God, perhaps using Psalm 137, than to act on them.
P.S. For the avoidance of doubt, I believe that a Christian application of Psalm 137 does not endorse acting on any such feelings.