I love words. Words have this amazing ability to paint pictures in our minds. All I have to say is “Tower Bridge” and there it is in your mind. Or The Shard, or a mountain top, the seaside, Bugs Bunny, love, hate, war, revenge and that feeling you have when you think you’ve left the house without your pants on.
Some things we all see the same – say, for example, my hand – but then, our imaginations and experiences can take a simple word like hand and transform it. If your last memory of this hand is that I hit you with it; or held your hand; or fed you; or pointed you in the right direction, then how you describe this hand will change. So words might look the same, but they can take us to very different places.
The Psalms use words to describe feelings, but more than feelings – they use words to describe their very being. The Psalms cover life and death and love and faith and faithlessness and doubt and when everything is fine and when everything has gone wrong. The Psalms are the song and lyric book of faith, they aren’t always pretty, but they are always honest. The Psalms are almost without fail addressed to ’you’, the ‘you’ being Yahweh, the God of Israel. You are this, you are that, we blame you, we love you, we worship you… they are nothing like the prayers of nations around them, always trying to appease and flatter their gods, but they are addressed to Yahweh who is trustworthy enough to be angry at and to be vulnerable with. They’re not just meditations on life, they are prayers to God; and not any old spiritual presence or vague hope, but Yahweh, the I Am, the God of Israel.
Psalm 137 is pretty honest. This has one of the most well-known first lines and least-liked last lines. ‘By the rivers of Babylon’ obviously brings to mind Boney M; and the less well-known ‘happy are those who seize your babies, and dash them against the rocks.’ That’s never taken off as a catchy line. Its awkward. It’s written from a different time and different place, a world of tribal warfare, of more immediate violence, and also a culture of directness of expression. It doesn’t mean they would actually go and dash babies heads; although it might mean they wouldn’t argue if someone else does it; and it certainly means that what they feel like.
The Psalm tells a story of a people who have been humiliated and captured and what we want now is revenge. Revenge on Babylon, revenge on everyone. Who hasn’t wanted revenge?
Harnessing our feelings, and pouring them out to God, is so important, so valuable, even the most unattractive ones. Worship and faith is about being real, not presenting a veneer of respectability whilst inside we seethe with unspoken rage. Once spoken, the feelings that need redeeming, changing, or taken away can have that done. God is thick-skinned. And, because he’s not a magic we can control he won’t go and do what we’ve asked just because we’ve said ava kadava and summoned a patronus.
God is not just God when everything is working out well. God is not absent when things have gone belly up. I struggle with the absence of God, the inaction of God. Like the Psalmist I can stand on a high mountain and be overawed by God’s creation and his wonderfulness; and I can be in the depths of sorrow or anger when I see injustice and poverty and loneliness and my own ineptitude and feel lonely in a crowd and want to crawl into a hole and everything to just stop.
Like the Psalmist, when we see people destroy what we love most – for them it was Jerusalem and the temple, for us it might be our families, ourselves, our homes, our safety – we are hurt and angry and want revenge.
That is where we come back to Jesus, who took on himself at the cross all that anger and those thoughts for revenge, who broke that cycle of revenge and violence with his grace, grace that gives the power to forgive, the power to hand over anger and revenge to him, him who took it to the cross. Otherwise it sticks to us, and when it sticks to us, it defines us. We become bitter and twisted and end up only singing this one Psalm.
Let’s be honest with God, and let’s be poetic, let’s express ourselves and be a bit less British and reserved and a bit more Middle-Eastern about it, and let’s trust that God can handle it, that it is good for us, and that he can take our sadness, disappointment, rage, and thirst for revenge and transform it into something beautiful.