Journey through the Psalms 2: Psalm 137

Last week, we began a series from the Psalms, one of my favorite
sections of Scripture. In the Psalms, we learn about the spiritual life
from these incredible conversations with God. BTW, the Psalms are
commonly referred to as the Psalms of David. It’s true that David was
the most prolific writer of the Psalms, but only about half of the
Psalms are attributed to him; the others are believed to have been
written by a number of other writers.

We began this series by talking about "psalms of orientation," where
God is known and reliable. We looked at Psalm 19, and mentioned some
other examples, too. But I’m glad that not all the Psalms are like
Psalm 19 where everything is in order, because life is not like that,
is it?

While it’s certainly good to know that that there is a firm
foundation upon which we can build our lives, it’s also good to observe
the lives of the faithful when their world came crashing down. And we
see that in the "psalms of disorientation" (or, "psalms of darkness").

Psalms of Disorientation
The Psalmists don’t hold anything back in their language. That’s
especially true in psalms of disorientation. Among these types of
psalms, there are personal laments (13, 35, 86) and communal laments
(74, 79, 137).

I love what Walter Brueggemann says about these kinds of psalms in his book, The Message of the Psalms

  • “I think that serious religious use of lament psalms has been
    minimal because we have believed that faith does not mean to
    acknowledge and embrace negativity. We have thought that
    acknowledgment of negativity was somehow an act of unfaith, as though
    the very speech around it conceded too much about God’s ‘loss of
    control.’”
  • “The use of the ‘psalms of darkness’ … for the trusting community …
    is an act of bold faith … a transformed faith … because it insists that
    the world must be experienced as it really is and not in some pretended
    way. There is nothing out of bounds, nothing precluded or
    inappropriate. Everything properly begins in the conversation of the
    heart. … everything must be brought to speech, and everything brought
    to speech must be address to God, who is the final reference for all of
    life.”
  • “Life is transformed. Now life is understood to be a pilgrimage or
    process through the darkness that belongs properly to humanness. … in
    such deathly places as presented in these psalms new life is given by
    God.”

There is a certain order found in most psalms of disorientation …

Plea

  • Address to God
  • Complaint
  • Petition
  • Motivation
  • Imprecation

Praise

  • Assurance of being heard
  • Payment of vows
  • Doxology and praise
  • The action that led to praise

As I said, that’s the normal order in many psalms of disorientation, but the psalm we’re looking at today (Psalm 137, a
community lament) follows a pattern of its own. Derek Kidner calls it
“an impassioned protest, beyond all ignoring or toning down."

Read Psalm 137.
This is one of the few psalms with a specific historical reference. It
comes out of the exiled community in Babylon after the destruction of
587 bc.

In the opening scene (vv. 1-3), there is a sense of
abandonment and grief, which is compounded by torment (the Israelites
were forced to sing and dance of their Jewishness). It’s an attempt to
humiliate them and rob them of their identity.

The second scene (vv. 4-6) shows an unwavering resolve, a resolve to not forget who they are and where they came from.

The final scene (vv. 7-9) shows a strong passion and faithful tenacity, although it’s not exactly a noble prayer!

Brueggemann says this Psalm “asks about our capacity to endure, to
maintain identity, to embrace a calling in situation of sell-out.” It
shows a “faithful tenacity.”

Letting go of the past
"Alongside Babylon’s rivers we sat on the banks; we cried and cried, remembering the good old days in Zion." (Psalm 137.1, The Message)

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, in her book, On Death and Dying, identified five stages that a dying patient experiences when informed of their terminal prognosis:

  1. Denial (this isn’t happening to me!)
  2. Anger (why is this happening to me?)
  3. Bargaining (I promise I’ll be a better person if…)
  4. Depression (I don’t care anymore)
  5. Acceptance (I’m ready for whatever comes)

When we embrace reality, that’s when we can do whatever it takes. We
must let go of the past, and claim God’s frontiers in our Valley and
beyond!

But we must also realize that everyone progresses through the stages
at different paces, so we need to show grace to one another. And we
must help each other at each stage of the journey.

Following God in a strange land
We are strangers and
pilgrims! Repeatedly, the Bible compares life on earth to temporarily
living in a foreign country. This world is not our home! We’re just
passing through. To describe our brief stay on earth, the Bible uses
terms like: alien, pilgrim, foreigner, stranger, visitor, and traveler.

"I’m a stranger in these parts; give me clear directions." (Psalm 119.19, The Message)

How do you sing the Lord’s songs in a strange land?
It may
be tough, but it’s not impossible. It takes passion and an unwavering
resolve to honor God (not stubbornness about one’s own preferences).

When
I think of people in the Scriptures who had to leave something behind
to embrace the future God planned, I think of people like Abraham. But
most of the people I think of, unfortunately, were forced to leave
against their will: Joseph, Jacob, and Jonah.

And I especially think of Moses and the Israelites. After several
generations of living in Egypt, the time finally came for them to leave
Egypt. It was a bold, radical step of faith. They were scared to death,
but somehow they mustered enough courage to venture out into the
unknown.

When they got to the edge of the wilderness and were surrounded by
an army on one side and a sea on the other, they regretted leaving.
They longed for the familiar place they knew!

Instead of going back, however (which was not an option anyway),
they crossed the Red Sea, but out there in the wilderness they failed
to trust and follow God by not entering the land God promised them.

Sending the spies
Before Moses and the Israelites entered
the promised land, they sent out a group of spies to check out the
land. The whole team saw how incredible the land was, but the majority
of them focused on the risks and challenges instead of God’s power to
deliver.

But two of them, Joshua and Caleb, were men of faith. They not only
saw the greatness of the land and the formidableness of the enemy, but
they also sensed that God was able to lead them into the future with
victory.

Unfortunately, Joshua and Caleb were not able to convince the
Israelites to act with faith on God’s promise. As result, they wandered
in the wilderness for 40 years. It was a whole generation later before
God’s people were able to act with faith.

What about us? What about now?
Will we act with faith? Will we enter the place God is leading us? Will we be like Joshua and Caleb?

I don’t know what the future holds for us, but whatever it is, I
hope we will act with faith, a passion to honor God, and a courage that
equals that of Joshua and Caleb’s.

We’re sending out our own group of "spies," to spy out God’s
frontiers. It’s scary. Some are holding onto the past; its all we’ve
known. It’s relatively safe and comfortable here. But what does God
have for us? Where is God leading us? That’s where we must go!

As for me, I’m going to follow God, wherever he leads. If that means
crossing the Jordan, I want to cross the Jordan, and I hope you follow
God, too. The alternative, it seems to me, is to die here in the
wilderness!

“But as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.” (Joshua 24.14)

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