Praying the Psalms: The Censored Psalm
February 14, 2016
Today is the first Sunday in Lent, and we are setting off together with the Book of Psalms on a journey of discovery – theological, spiritual, personal discovery. If you haven’t yet picked up a copy of Praying the Psalms, please do so after the service. (Also available on the church website.) You’ll find in here six weeks of six suggested prayer practices per week, most of them connected to the psalms that you heard in worship the Sunday prior.
In worship we’ll be using the psalms in our Call to Worship, our Opening Prayer of Confession and our Pastoral Prayer after the sermon. The sermons during Lent will focus on some of the best known psalms in the Bible. Psalm 32:, the Lord is my Shepherd; Psalm 46: God is our refuge and strength; Psalm 42: As a deer longs for flowing streams….; Psalm 22: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Just that short list might give you a sense for how often the psalms are put to music. We sing them in our hymns without even realizing that’s what we’re singing. And the library of choral anthems that use the psalms is enormous.
Today’s psalm, #137, is no exception. “By the rivers of Babylon, where we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.”
- There are settings by Franz Liszt and JS Bach.
- Verdi put it in an opera, and it became an anthem for Italian revolutionaries.
- Don McLean sang it as “Babylon” on his American Pie album
- and Stephen Schwartz turned it into “On the Willows” for his Broadway musical Godspell.
I first learned Psalm 137 in the Rastafarian version, through the soundtrack of the movie The Harder They Come, about a Jamaican reggae singer. “By the Rivers of Babylon” was practically a theme song for those of us in college in the late 70s, even though very few of us knew that the song was quoting the Bible.
(play audio clip)
It is ironic that this psalm, put to so much music, is actually about not singing. The exiled former-citizens of Judah and Jerusalem are saying that they will not take up their instruments to entertain their captors, the Babylonians. Instead they hang their harps in the willows, and pledge never to forget what their enemies have done to their people and their homeland.
How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither! Let me tongue cling to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy.
Better to lose my right hand, my playing hand, sings the psalmist, and have my tongue cling to the roof of their mouth so I cannot sing at all, than forget Jerusalem, or accommodate to these oppressors, or detach from my community or my faith.
The exiles are so angry, so seething with the pain of their loss, that the last lines of the psalm express a desperate wish for revenge.
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!’ O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!
That final verse is so violent that we usually don’t even hear it read. Psalm 137 might be called “The Censored Psalm,” because so many versions, including even the reggae version of my college days, omit the last horrible verse.
Many parts of the Bible are emotional and violent; the psalms in particular could never be described as restrained or detached. “Reading them,” Rev. Debbie Blue says, “you begin to sense that there’s this weepy, confused, sometimes barbaric landscape just under the surface of apparent composure. Vile cursing, violent ranting, is juxtaposed with quiet, calm moments of reaching toward some sort of piety or comfort.”
There’s a lot of violent imagery splayed across the pages of scripture. The Bible expresses a lot of unfettered anger. And not just in the Old Testament, let me make clear.
In Luke 19:42-44 Jesus laments over Jerusalem, perhaps quoting a version of Psalm 137, “For the days shall come upon you, when your enemies will cast up a bank about you and surround you, and hem you in on every side, and dash you to the ground, you and your children within you…” One chapter later he tells a parable about wicked tenants, destroyed by the owner of the vineyard they are supposed to be tending. “What then does this text mean,” Jesus asks: ‘The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone’? Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces; and it will crush anyone on whom it falls.”
What do we do with all this blood and anger? Do we say it shouldn’t be there? That the biblical writers didn’t really mean it? We need to clean it up?
John Bell, a contemporary hymn writer omitted the final verse from his version of Psalm 137. “Its seemingly outrageous curse is better dealt with in preaching or group conversation,” he said. “[But] it should not be forgotten, especially by those who have never known exile, dispossession or the rape of people and land."
Maybe this psalm seems out of place only for those of us lucky enough never to have seen our children dashed against rocks.
- Maybe this expression of anger makes sense to the Syrian refugee whose toddler’s body has washed up on the shores of Greece after the overcrowded rowboat in which they were fleeing to safety sank.
- Maybe this taste for revenge rings true to the parent in Flint whose child may be permanently brain damaged by drinking the water that came out of their kitchen faucet.
It’s a horrible image. But it is not just an evil fantasy. Infants and little ones are dashed against the rocks even now, even here.
So perhaps you do know this kind of anger. Maybe for you it is grief, or disappointment, or shame, or hurt. With whom do you share those feelings? Sometimes they are too fierce, even to speak out loud. Sometime you cannot imagine burdening a loved one with the knowledge of the depth of your anger or shame. Most of us keep the depth of our feelings hidden from others, even from those we love, even from ourselves.
We could offer those feelings up to God, but we have been trained – us good, church-going, law-abiding, polite Christians, to believe that we must always turn our best face to God. We think of prayer as something packaged and polished, grammatically correct and carefully edited. And deep, powerful, even frightening feelings do not lend themselves to careful editing.
Besides, prayer takes time and that means that many of us have not done much praying. Life is busy and demanding, and if we are not emailing or texting, we are talking on our phones. Prayer means being quiet and reflective; it means recognizing and admitting to our thoughts and feelings; it means putting to one side all the activity of the day and spending time alone with God.
The truth is, most of us are more comfortable talking about God than talking with God. Prayer requires that we move to an intimate place; a place that can be uncomfortable, confronting; a place where our outward identity – what we do; what educational or economic status we maintain; who we associate with – counts for nothing, and we are alone with God.
Despite all those barriers we sense that being alone with God in prayer is a good thing. We’re just not sure how to proceed. All those eloquent, King James Version prayers that we hear from pulpits and podiums don’t help either.
Here’s a good way to think about it: what God wants is not eloquence, but your desire to know and be known by God…intimately.
Eugene Peterson, the author of The Message version of the Bible, says this:
“Suppose yourself sharing dinner with a person whom you very much want to be with a friend, a person important to you. The dinner is in a fine restaurant where everything is arranged to give you a sense of privacy. There is adequate lighting at your table with everything else in shadow. You are aware of other persons and other activity in the room, but they do not intrude on your intimacy.
There is talking and listening. There are moments of silence, full of meaning. From time to time a waiter comes to your table. You ask questions of him; you place your order with him; you ask to have your glass refilled; you send the broccoli back because it arrived cold; you thank him for his attentive service and leave a tip. You depart, still in companionship with the person with whom you dined.
One hopes that God is your dinner partner in this analogy. But it’s often the case that God is the waiter, hovering on the side lines. This waiter-God is essential but peripheral. You can’t have the diner without him, but he is not an intimate participant in it. He is someone to whom you give order, make complaints, and maybe at the end, give thanks.
The person across the table with whom you are so absorbed, is a copy of yourself. You’re talking to yourself, articulating your moods, your ideas, your interests, your satisfactions or lack of them. When you leave the restaurant you forget about the waiter until the next time. If it is a place to which you go regularly – every Sunday, say - you might remember the waiter’s name.”
The Psalms were written by people who had dinner with God every night – no waiter needed. They were written by people who felt free to laugh, cry, beg, bargain and shake their fists at God. They were written by people who knew that God was a steadfast, utterly reliable companion, who was glad to receive their deepest woes and most passionate celebrations.
Our goal in Lent is to sit down for an intimate conversation with God more frequently and more honestly than we did before. You can use the Praying the Psalms book to help you do that, alone or in groups. And we’re going to practice in Sunday worship. By practice I mean you’re going to do the praying, not just listen to the worship leaders pray.
This morning we’re going to practice with Psalm 32, the psalm we read with Pam for the Prayer of Confession. Hear it again in Peterson’s Message translation and ask yourself “Where is God speaking to me in this text?”
Count yourself lucky, how happy you must be—
you get a fresh start,
your slate’s wiped clean.
2 Count yourself lucky—
God holds nothing against you
and you’re holding nothing back from him.
3 When I kept it all inside,
my bones turned to powder,
my words became daylong groans.
4 The pressure never let up;
all the juices of my life dried up.
5 Then I let it all out;
I said, “I’ll make a clean breast of my failures to God.”
Suddenly the pressure was gone—
my guilt dissolved,
my sin disappeared.
6 These things add up. Every one of us needs to pray;
when all hell breaks loose and the dam bursts
we’ll be on high ground, untouched.
7 God’s my island hideaway,
keeps danger far from the shore,
throws garlands of hosannas around my neck.
8 Let me give you some good advice;
I’m looking you in the eye
and giving it to you straight:
9 “Don’t be ornery like a horse or mule
that needs bit and bridle
to stay on track.”
10 God-defiers are always in trouble;
God-affirmers find themselves loved
every time they turn around.
11 Celebrate God.
All you honest hearts, raise the roof!
(time of silence)
Now hear it again, and ask yourself “What is God’s invitation to me through these words?”
[Psalm 32 repeated, at a slower pace.]
(time of silence)
Prayer is about “being” rather than “getting”. It is about being in a proper relationship with God. Being one of God’s children. Children who are more concerned about growing in our relationship with our heavenly Creator than having God answer our prayers the way we want them answered.
God longs to interact with you, to be in a place and time of intimacy and sharing, to watch you grow in love and trust and forgiveness. God would like to have dinner with you, often.
Debbie Blue. “The Babylonian Shitstem; How Does the Empire Fall?” Posted October 3, 2010 on HouseOfMercy.org. http://www.houseofmercy.org/10310-the-babylonian-shitstem-how-does-the-empire-fall-rev-debbie-blue/
Eugene Peterson reference from “Investigate” – Luke throughout Lent. Fourth Sunday in Lent – 18th March 2007. http://www.churchofscotland.org.uk/councils/missiondisciple/downloads/mdresourceslent4.doc