There is much of interest in each of our psalms for today. In Psalms 135 and 136, notice how easily the psalmist moves from praising God for his work in creation to praising God for his work in and through Israel. As C. S. Lewis says, “both are equally great deeds, great victories.” Sometimes I think it can be very spiritually healthy and fruitful to rehearse, as the psalmist does in both of these psalms, God’s great deeds in the past. For Catholics, this is part of the genius behind the devotion of the Rosary. However, not only is it helpful to remember God’s great deeds in creation and in biblical times, but also in our own lives. What would a psalm about God’s great deeds in your life, or in mine, look like and sound like? It might be a very creative and instructive exercise to write such a psalm, or at least to make a list of the many great things God has done for you, and then thank him for each one.
I know a number of people who do not like contemporary praise and worship music. One complaint I have often heard as a pastor is this: “There is too much repetition in the songs. Why do we have to sing one line over and over again?”
While we may not like the seeming monotony of some contemporary praise and worship music, this feature did not seem to bother the psalmists. In Psalm 136, the psalmist repeats this one line twenty-six times: “for his steadfast love endures forever.” As I suggested a few days ago, that would not be a bad line to repeat to ourselves throughout the day: “for his steadfast love endures forever,” or even “God’s steadfast love for me endures forever.” Truly, we need to steep ourselves in the love of God, a love which we will never discover the height, the depth, the breadth, or the end of (Ephesians 3:14-21).
Psalm 137 contains both tragic beauty and tragic anger….
By the rivers of Babylon—
There we sat down and there we wept
When we remembered Zion.
On the willows there we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
Asked us for songs,
And our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How could we sing the Lord’s song
In a foreign land?
What poetic inspiration! This psalm captures in a few words the essence of the exile experience for the Jews in Babylon.
However, the psalm quickly moves from a sad note to a mad one. We can understand, from a human perspective, both the sorrow and the anger of an oppressed people. However, this understanding does not justify or condone or make righteous such lines as these: “Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!” Such a desire, even for one’s enemies, is pure evil. There is no getting around it.
So what are we to make of such psalms? How are we to appropriate or use them today? Or do we simply push such lines to one side, as we do with bones when eating a delicious piece of fish? Here is C. S. Lewis’ answer….
Of the cursing Psalms I suppose most of us make our own moral allegories—well aware that these are personal and on a quite different level from the high matters I have been trying to handle. We know the proper object of utter hostility—wickedness, especially our own. Thus in 36, “My heart showeth me the wickedness of the ungodly,” each can reflect that his own heart is the specimen of that wickedness best known to him. After that, the upward plunge at verse 5 into the mercy high as heaven and the reighteousness solid as the mountains takes on even more force and beauty. From this point of view I can use even the horrible passage in 137 about dashing the Babylonian babies against the stones. I know things in the inner world which are like babies; the infantile beginnings of small indulgences, small resentments, which may one day become dipsomania or settled hatred, but which woo us and wheedle us with special pleadings and seem so tiny, so helpless that in resisting them we feel we are being cruel to animals. They begin whimpering to us “I don’t ask much, but,” or “I had at least hoped,” or “you owe yourself some consideration.” Against all such pretty infants (the dears have such winning ways) the advice of the Pslm is the best. Knock the little bastards’ brains out. And “blessed he who can, for it’s easier said than done.
If then the vengeful anger of the Jews against the Babylonians was not righteous, what are we to make of God’s destruction of foreign kings in Psalms 135 and 136. Does this not also display a wrong attitude towards one’s enemies? Perhaps Israel’s attitude was wrong, but God’s attitudes and actions are another matter. Notice how all the acts described in Psalm 136 are attributed to God’s love—even the destruction of Israel’s enemies. How can this be? How was God being loving towards Israel’s enemies by destroying them?
I think the answer is that God has his own dealings with each nation and each individual. And as C. S. Lewis suggests in one of his children’s stories, God tells no one any story but their own. However, I imagine that in the case of all those foreign nations that the Old Testament says God destroyed, if God indeed destroyed them, then we can only assume that God knows best. God, in his love, knows when enough is enough. He knows, far better than we do, when evil can no longer be allowed to continue. God knows when the day of judgment is due. As C. S. Lewis says somewhere, God is like a good teacher. God knows when giving his pupils one more chance to re-take a test will be helpful, and God also knows when it is no longer any use.
In Psalm 138, we return to a subject that we can understand better than we can understand God’s dealings with foreign nations in the Old Testament, namely, God’s dealings with us. Given that God’s judgment is approaching, how should we pray for ourselves? I believe the conclusion of Psalm 138 provides a good pattern….
The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me;
Your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever.
Do not forsake the work of your hands.