The Psalm of Vengeance and How I Learned to Forgive My Mother’s Abuser
The passage we are going to reflect on today is not your typical Bible passage. It is apart of the group of Psalms called the Imprecatory Psalms. These Psalms are angry sounding and vengeful.
Why is this in the Bible? What is God trying to tell us in these? These are the questions we are going to take up today.
By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
2 There on the poplars
we hung our harps,
3 for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
4 How can we sing the songs of the Lord
while in a foreign land?
5 If I forget you, Jerusalem,
may my right hand forget its skill.
6 May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
if I do not remember you,
if I do not consider Jerusalem
my highest joy.
7 Remember, Lord, what the Edomites did
on the day Jerusalem fell.
“Tear it down,” they cried,
“tear it down to its foundations!”
8 Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction,
happy is the one who repays you
according to what you have done to us.
9 Happy is the one who seizes your infants
and dashes them against the rocks.
As we have been saying, the Psalms retell the story of God’s people. The earlier Psalms speak of the life of David the first king. Later ones lament the failure of human kingship, looking to God as the true King.
This one, located towards the end of the Psalms was written around the time of the exile. God’s people were oppressed, enslaved, carried off into exile while their homes are burned. Their children were slaughtered and their neighbors, like the Edomites, the brothers of Israel, cheered on the Babylonians as they pillaged.
Israel watched the brutal Babylonian army murder their children by dashing them against rocks. Then the Babylonians mock them telling them to sing songs of Zion.
This is a song of a people that have been hurt, frustrated, demeaned, and are in terrible despair. As the Israelites consider what happened to them, they cry out for vengeance, for God to do to the Edomites and the Babylonians what they did to them: dash their children against rocks.
The bitterness in their words is bone-chilling.
How can a Psalm of such anger and vengeance and brutality be in the Bible? Is this giving us license to be angry and vengeful?
I would not normally preach on passage so dark and easily misunderstood, but in doing a series on the Psalms and getting people to read through the Psalms, these Imprecatory Psalms inevitable come up. People come to me saying, “Pastor I love praying through the Psalms, but what about this one?” And they don’t know what to do with it.
In fact, I know a person who read one of these passage, and were so disturbed and scared that it turned her off of reading the Bible for many years.
Many of us have similar experiences reading other parts of Scripture. Why are they in there? How can they be in there? What could God possibly be trying to say in these words?
Does God want vengeance like this? Vengeance does not sound like the heart of God, so why is this in the Bible?
Well, I suspect that this passage does have something to say about God, but before I walk you thought that, can we just admit that sometimes the Bible is not easy to understand?
I talk to some Christians that think the Bible is always clear on everything. That all you have to do is pray, crack your knuckles and the answer will just pop into your head. To which I want to ask: Are we reading the same book? Yes, there are lots of passages that are beautifully clear, but others that are not.
Listening to any voice in any relationship takes work. You cannot passively listen to your wife while the TV is on. Trust me, it does not work. You have to work to listen. Same goes with God and listening to him in the Bible.
Brian Zahnd once said the Bible is like a vast terrain with mountains and valleys. All the land is God’s Word, but if you get stuck in a valley, you can’t see what is going on. If you look from one of the peaks of the mountains, you see the whole land clearly. The Gospels’ are the peaks. John 3:16 is a peak. This passage can be a valley.
As we will see, this is just one of many passages that we need to read through Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of scripture. Jesus is the summit of Scripture.
Another way of saying it is that we believe that all Scripture is inspired and thus able to teach us salvation and righteousness. Yes, but that does not mean all Scripture is inspired the same way and teaches us our salvation the same way either.
This Psalm teaches us something profound about God and profound about ourselves, just not in the same way other passage of the Bible do that.
John Calvin called the Psalms the “mirror of the soul.” One purpose of the Psalms is to help us express what is in our souls, help us realize what we got going on inside.
The Psalms are unique in that they are the Word of God by first being our words to God.
This Psalm helps us be honest with ourselves. In being honest with ourselves, naming what is going on within us, we can then be honest with God. God is listening.
1. God is listening
Do believers ever feel crushed with hurt? These do. Do believers feel like their faith has been shattered? These did. Can believers feel incredible pain, frustration, even bitter anger over it? Yes they can. Does that make them evil? No. It makes them human.
This might sound obvious but the only way we relate to God is in our humanity, full honesty, laid bare.
The Jews in this passage are angry because they just lost their homes. Their land was conquered. Their safety and security was gone. Their temple was destroyed, so their way of related to God was compromised. And they had to watched their own children get killed.
Here they cry out to God in all the anger they are feeling.
This psalm does not condone anger, but does say God is listening to us when we are angry.
We worship God Immanuel, God with us. God with us, finding us, listening to us, wherever we are at, including times of anguish.
God does not wait to be with us after we get over our hurt; he meets us in our hurt.
The question is not whether it is appropriate to pray this way, longing for vengeance, but rather it is appropriate to share what is on your heart with God, no matter where you are.
Let me reassure you: Where you are at, what ever you are feeling, God is listening. God never stopped listening.
This Psalm, like all the other Psalms, invites us to share what is on our heart with God, allowing all of our lives to be seen from God’s standpoint. Don’t be ashamed of your emotions. That does not help. They are real and need to be dealt with. Voice them, tell them, express them.
Angry at others? Tell God. Angry at God? Tell him that too. He is listening.
He listened to the anger in Israel’s heart. He is listening to you now.
I am reminded of a time when I coordinated a soup kitchen in Toronto. There was an man that came in. He had a lot of problems. Homeless and alcoholic, his life was completely self-destructive. So, I asked around: What is this guy’s story?
The man had been abused terribly. One other coordinator of a drop in a few blocks from ours told this story:
During an open mic night, where anyone could come up and offer a prayer for the community, this man decided to come forward. People prayed blessing on their communities and thanked God and praised Jesus. People were surprised to see him come up.
As this man took the mic, he began to scream curse words at God for what had happened to him, cursing all the people that had hurt him.
“Did you stop him?” I asked. “No, we let him say his piece like everyone else,” said my colleague. “Why did you do that?” I asked. “Because, Spencer, at the end of the day, this was still a prayer, it was directed at God, and I have to believe that God was listening. He had something to get off his chest.”
There was a noticeable change in this man after his blow up. I think in order for that man to start healing, he had to name his hurt in all the raw anger it entailed, which he did not know how to process.
God loves the hurt and the broken, and for that reason, I have to believe God was listening to that angry rant of a prayer. Not because there was something moral about that prayer, but because God listens to us.
What are your hurts? How has someone hurt you? Can you remember the most angry you have ever been in your life?
If you remember how you feel in that moment, you probably aren’t too far off from the anger of this Psalm.
God knows what you utter in the bitterness of your soul. You can either keep it in, feel shame and have it destroy you, or let it out, and begin healing.
2. When we realize that God is listening, we entrust God with our anger
Expressing our hurts to God means placing our hurt in his hands.
As several commentators have pointed out, venting our anger to God disarms our anger towards others. When we vent it at God, we restrain our vengeance towards others.
Thus, it is not so much what Psalm 137 is saying – for many of us its language is not our language of hurt – it is what is able to do in us. It permits us to release our anger to the true Judge.
Notice in Psalm 137, the Psalmist does not ever imply that he wants to take vengeance.
When we do this we find that when we place our anger at others in his hands, we are freed from our anger to even do good to our enemies. Consider Romans 12:
Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary:“If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink…Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
When we entrust our anger to God, we focus on God. Which means we are able to focus on his goodness again. Notice, for Israel who prayed these Psalms, the next few Psalms move from vengeance to focusing on love. The prayer continues.The process continues.
When we pray though our anger, we are able to heal our anger.
This is where the next stage of healing happens. When we entrust our anger with God, we turn to God and his goodness. When we entrust God with our vengeance, we have to turn to God and ask, what does justice look like for God, not us.
3. When we trust God with our justice, we realize God’s justice is mercy
Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount:
You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.
You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous…Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
The end is important. Jesus has been talking about the true character of God: God is perfect. How? Not in punishment, but love, not is moral indignation, but mercy. God is not perfect in vengeance, but perfect in mercy.
“If Justice is an eye for an eye, the whole world will end up blind,” says Martin Luther King.
Are we willing to see?
From Sinai to Zion, from Zion to Golgotha, the Bible is trying to teach us that God’s justice is not retribution, not even restitution, but restoration.
How does God repay his enemies? When we turn to God for justice, we realize we have done wrong. We are all sinners. We all deserve punishment, and yet God has chosen to bear that judgment on himself.
When God’s people prays in vengeful anger to kill the children of the those that kill theirs, God offers his only son to stop the cycle of violence.
When we are angry and in despair, this Psalm allows us to vent our anger knowing God always listens.
When we realize God is listening, we start focusing on God and trusting him with our anger, restraining our wrath.
When we trust God with our vengeance, we then have to ask, what is justice like for God? “Vengeance is mine, I will repay.” But how did God in his sovereignty choose to repay?
He repaid the death of his son with forgiveness.
God listened to the hurt Israelites. He listens to all of us in our anger. But did he obliterate the Babylonians? Babylon did eventually fall, but that was just God saying, “Have it your way,” and letting history run its course. Sin is often its own punishment. No. he did not bash their babies against rocks. In Jesus he died for them.
God’s plan was not vengeance but reconciliation.
Far from racial genocide, God’s plan was for one day Babylonian and Jew (and us, Gentiles, too) to embrace as family in Jesus Christ.
That is God’s plan in our broken hurting world. He listens then he heals.
God is listen to the hurt of Syrian refugees, who have watched their homes get bombed.
God is listening to the cries of children who work in sweat shops.
God is listening to the cries of enslaved sex workers
He is listening to the worries of cancer patients
He is listening to the broken, hurt, disenfranchised, abandoned…
He is listening to you. Whatever it is that you are going through. He is listening to you.
When we realize he is listening, we become open to how he is working in us.
That brings us to now.
Who has hurt you? Who makes your blood boil? Who in your life has done things that the only think you can think of that they deserve is punishment?
Can you vent that anger to God?
Have you been discouraged. Have you experienced a moment where life just stopped making sense, and your only response is anger and confusion.
Can we realize that God is listening?
You might not think that this process works, but trust me it does.
I have spoken before about how my mother was abused. Not physically, but emotionally.
She remarried a man with a mal-formed conscience. He would verbally threaten her and demean her to get his way. He was a big man, and very intimidating. I remember being down in my room as a kid in high school, listening to the arguing. I heard his voice boom from the ceiling in my basement room:
“You’re just a stupid woman, Susan.”
“Don’t you dare, or I’ll break your arm.”
When my mother developed cancer, and he began holding money away from her, so that she would not use it on medical needs. He was banking on her dying and him being “taken care of” after she was gone.
My mom eventually split from him. It was difficult and police were called on occasion.
I hated my step-father. I used to fantasize about beating him up. I used to pray, “God give him what he deserves.” Of course, I had a few ideas about what he deserved.
Years when on. I learned from my step-father’s brother, that he had been abused. He had been treated the worst out of all the siblings by a father that was a bigot just like what he was now. After that, I did not see my step-father in the same way. It humanized him, and I remember praying, “God just stop him from hurting other people. Help him to realized what he has done and change.”
The last I saw my step-father was at my mother’s funeral. He came into the visitation, and my family and I kicked up a fuss. We did not want him there, and we wanted the funeral attendant to remove him. But, I believe it was my sister that said, “Just let him morn and go.” We realized we would be doing something terribly indecent if we refused a person to morn. We watched him come to the casket, give flowers that simply said, “Thank-you for all the good memories,” and he left. I never saw him after that.
I realized that day that he did love my mother, albeit with a broken distorted love. I also realized that to include him in the funeral was just a small but very significant act of forgiving him, choosing to end the cycle of hurt and anger, embracing peace. I remember praying after that, “God bless him. Care for him. Heal him….and heal me too.” For me to say that prayer, authentically, began with my praying those original vengeful prayers. It took ten years or so. Healing takes time. God had a few things to teach me. God was listening to all of those, answering those prayers. I trust he still is. But that answer I think is not what I wanted originally, thank goodness.
i suspect it is like what Jesus told the disciples who betrayed him: “Peace to you.”
“Peace to you, Spencer”
Peace to you, Dave, where ever you are.
Powerful. Forgiveness is not easy, but so worth it. Thank you for sharing.
PAX. While searching for reviews of Berkhouwer’s “Studies in Systematic Theology”, I came across your blog! In light of a new FACEBOOK profile picture (and commentary) that I posted yesterday, your post served as a salve of healing for my wounds! MERCY! The power and wonder of our God! Thank you!
You are welcome, Scott.