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What Psalm 137 Does

This entry is part 5 of 9 in the series

"God's People in Exile"

You can read more posts from the series by using the Table of Contents in the right sidebar.

Over the past several weeks, we have been looking at Psalm 137 and its relevance for Christian today. I have presented the historical background of the psalm and argued that it has significant relevance for us since, like the author/audience of Psalm 137, Christians are exiles living among a pagan people.

Now let us consider once again the immediate context of Psalm 137. Imagine that you are a Hebrew. Your home has been destroyed, your Temple and capital city have been decimated, hundreds of your neighbors have been brutally murdered, including many women and children. In fact, the invading armies have smashed the skulls of your own infants. And now you have been taken into captivity in a foreign land, and you are attempting to gather for worship even though you are not in Jerusalem, you are not in the Temple, and you have none of the sacred implements of worship. How would you feel? What would you be thinking?

Thankfully, we do not have to simply wonder what we would be feeling. Psalm 137 does not simply tell us about the historical facts of worship in exile; it does not simply describe to us the thoughts and feelings of the Babylonian captives. No, this psalm actually enables us to experience for ourselves the thoughts and feelings of God’s people in exile.

You see, a psalm is not a dry statement of historical facts; a psalm is not even a carefully crafted narrative. A psalm is a work of art—it is a poem. And the purpose of a poem is not simply to tell us facts. The purpose of a psalm is to artistically embody more than simply bare information. A poem allows the author to express aspects of experience that are deeper than abstract words. A poem allows a reader to experience for himself the realities of the image the poet paints in a way that would not be possible if the poet had simply described an experience in a detached fashion.

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You see, when we read a poem, we enter the world that the poet created, we walk with him through the experience, and we are able to experience for ourselves what the poet intends for us to experience. With a poem that is fiction, we enter a fictional world and have an experience with that fictional world. But with many of the psalms that have specific historical contexts, like Psalm 137, the poet recreates for us artistically the historical event such that we can experience it for ourselves.

This is true, by the way, for all art; it is true for poetry, for music, for literature, and for painting. The artist creates a world into which we can enter and experience the message the artist has for us. This is why when we evaluate the meaning of art—like what we sing in worship, for example—we need to evaluate more than just what the art says; we also need to discern what the art does.

And so what does Psalm 137 do? Well, we also need to add one more consideration for what psalms do beyond what a normal poem does, and that is because we are dealing with inspired Scripture. These psalms are truly human compositions—they reflect the backgrounds of their authors and they are produced by the skills of their authors. But they are also divine compositions, and as such, the psalms give us what some describe as “God-centered interpretations of experience.”

So Psalm 137 is an artistic composition that allows us to enter experientially what the Hebrew exiles experienced as they attempted to worship God in a hostile land. Because it is God’s Word, however, it does so in such a way that what we experience in the art is a God-centered interpretation of that experience—it is exactly what God wants us to experience as his people in exile.

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In some ways, then, this may seem more disturbing. Does God want us to pray for the children of our enemies to be dashed upon the rocks? We read the final three verses of this psalm, and we are disgusted; we pull back in horror.

But that is exactly the point. That is exactly what God wants us to feel. We should feel horror and disgust at the notion of rebellion against God, adulteration of his worship, and destruction of his people. The author of Psalm 137 says what he does about infant’s skulls being smashed, not as an example of what we should literally pray against our enemies. Nor is this the author’s unbridled expression of rage and vengeance made in a moment of passion. This is a carefully crafted, complex poem. The author uses this language because it is exactly what the Babylonians did to Hebrew infants; he uses this language to artistically capture the emotions of the experience of injustice, violence, and exile. He uses this language as a way to say, as a people in exile, you should not feel comfortable and at ease in your worship, you should not feel at home, you should feel horror, grief, sadness, and disgust at the violence, immorality, and idolatry going on around you.

But also, keep in mind that what the psalmist prays in verses 7–8 is exactly what God promised he would do through the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 13-14). God promised that one day he would bring the people back to the land and he would utterly destroy Babylon. And so not only is this a prayer of horror and grief, but it is a prayer of trust in God’s promises.

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Scott Aniol

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is Chair of the Worship Ministry Department at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Cutlure, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and three children.

2 Responses to What Psalm 137 Does

  1. Wonderful! Wonderful! I just wanted to tell you that a little old lady in Rhode Island reads your articles. I don’t always fully buy into your conclusions, but your arguments are always compelling and fresh.

    The paragraph in this installment that describes what poetry does is great piece.

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