Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
2nd of October 2022
‘Her foes have become the masters, her enemies prosper, because the Lord has made her suffer for the multitude of her transgressions; her children have gone away, captives before the foe.’
‘O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!’
I have recently talked about my biblical comfort zone: news of God’s astounding, overwhelming, inclusive love. Today’s two readings from the Hebrew Scriptures are as far from my comfort zone as it is possible to be. Do we worship a God who punishes God’s people for their sins with the complete destruction of their city and nation? Do we want words of hatred and revenge to be part of our liturgy? My answer to both those questions is an immediate and fervent NO!, but today’s readings are not only in the Bible, they are part of our lectionary. Why?
I have spoken before about the Book of Lamentations, the collection of five mourning poems written in response to the destruction of the city of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 587 BC. These are poems written in response to a real, historical, tragedy and they make no attempt to hide the horrors of what has occurred. In today’s reading, the poet compares Jerusalem to a weeping widow, and those of you who have been widowed after long and loving marriages will know the utter devastation that this metaphor implies. Everything that gave the people of God their identity has been destroyed: ‘The roads to Zion mourn, for no one comes to the festivals; all her gates are desolate, her priests groan; her young girls grieve, and her lot is bitter.’ Lamentations is written by someone sitting in the ruins watching the people starve, and the poet knows that the people on whose behalf they are writing will not find comfort in a pretence that things are anything other than tragic. There are aspects of the poems that I am not even going to mention aloud because they are so awful, but what they describe is no worse than what we know happens in cities even today when they are overrun. Such destruction of places and peoples has happened repeatedly throughout human history, so in Jewish synagogues today Lamentations is read in memory not only of the sixth century BC fall of Jerusalem, but of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, and of the Shoah, the twentieth-century Holocaust. The cry of the poet of Lamentations can be used to give words to the grieving of all times and all places.
In today’s reading it is said that Jerusalem has fallen because ‘the Lord has made her suffer for the multitude of her transgressions’. The people had a covenant with their God; they have failed to live up to their promises and so the Lord is punishing them. The poet writes ‘Why should any who draw breath complain about the punishment of their sins?’ (Lamentations 3:39) but the Book of Lamentations is filled with complaints. ‘The Lord is in the right, for I have rebelled against his word’ says the poet, and then immediately adds, ‘but hear, all you peoples, and behold my suffering; my young women and young men have gone into captivity’. (Lamentations 1:18) Even if we believe our suffering to be deserved, even if it arises from our own actions, the author of Lamentations reminds us that we can still express all our anger and pain and horror to God. I absolutely do not believe in a god who imposes punishments upon people for their sins, and the entire Book of Job is an argument against the belief that all suffering is deserved, but the Book of Lamentations tells us that even if we have contributed to our own suffering, even if our lifestyle has led to our illness, or our behaviour has caused our estrangement from our family, we can still cry out to God in our pain. ‘We have transgressed and rebelled,’ (Lamentations 3:42) says the poet to God, but then they continue their expression of outrage and horror and agony and sorrow. They have faith that God will sympathise with their sorrow, even if some of it is self-inflicted.
The lectionary gives us two possible responses to today’s reading from the Book of Lamentations, so it is up to the preacher to decide whether to take the congregation to a place of hope, or to journey with them deeper into darkness. The hopeful response comes from the very centre of the Book of Lamentations, with the beautiful words: ‘But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I will hope in him.”’ (Lamentations 3:21-24) But I have preached on those words before, and as I said then: after the brief excursion into hope the poet returns to his grief. After moving from lament to praise the poet returns to lament. Hope has been declared only to be contradicted. The movement from lament to praise to lament reminds us that lament is honest, but it is not simple. Lament allows multiple responses to suffering, both outrage and anger at what God has done, and faith in God’s continuing mercy, and it does not believe that reaching the latter means that the former is over. So today I want us to stay with the lament rather than move too quickly to the hope, for us to take the second option the lectionary offers us and listen to Psalm 137.
The Book of Lamentations was written by someone left behind in the ruins of Jerusalem, Psalm 137 by someone who has been taken into exile in Babylon, but both are responding to the same horror. Both the poet and the psalmist beseech the Lord to remember what their enemies have done to God’s people and punish them: ‘Let all their evildoing come before you; and deal with them as you have dealt with me because of all my transgressions; for my groans are many and my heart is faint,’ (Lamentations 1:22) begs the poet; while the psalmist pleads: ‘Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem’s fall, how they said, “Tear it down! Tear it down! Down to its foundations!”’ Having read the Book of Lamentations we can understand why this psalm of hatred was written, but why is it in our scriptures and our lectionary? How can it be read as ‘a lamp to our feet and light to our path’?
It has been C. S. Lewis who has made the most sense of the psalms of hate for me. Lewis writes of these psalms that we see in them:
the natural result of injuring a human being … just as the natural result of throwing a lighted match into a pile of shavings is to produce a fire – though damp or the intervention of some more sensible person may prevent it – so the natural result of cheating a man, or ‘keeping him down’ or neglecting him, is to arouse resentment; that is, to impose upon him the temptation of becoming what the Psalmists were when they wrote the vindictive passages. He may succeed in resisting the temptation or he may not. If he fails, if he dies spiritually because of his hatred for me, how do I, who provoked that hatred, stand? For in addition to the original injury I have done him a far worse one. I have introduced into his inner life, at best a new temptation, at worst a new besetting sin. If that sin utterly corrupts him, I have in a sense debauched or seduced him. I was the tempter…
In the case of today’s psalm, then, the hatred expressed by the psalmist is the ‘natural’ result of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Babylonian Exile, and so it is at least partly the responsibility of the conquerors. If you are a mighty empire that has invaded a smaller country, destroyed its cities, killed and exiled its people, then you are responsible at least in part when those same people not only spit and curse at you, but take up weapons against you and take upon themselves the guilt of killing other human beings.
This, I think, is one of the reasons that it is important for us to hear these psalms. After the first few centuries of its existence the church moved to the centre of society from the margins; rather than being marginalised and persecuted Christians became able to marginalise and persecute others. Too often throughout history the church has been on the side of the colonisers, not the colonised; the slave owners, not the slaves; the rich, not the poor; adults, not children; men, not women; straight people, not LGBTIQ+ people; paedophiles, not the victims of clerical sexual abuse; and so on and so forth. Christians in power, looking at the ‘natural’ anger and hatred of the powerless, have responded by telling them that their hatred is sinful and that they must forgive those who persecute them. The Psalms challenge that. In this psalm we hear the rage of the homeless and oppressed, and the bitterness of the colonized, as Scripture.
Another great gift of the Psalter to us is the permission it gives us to share everything with God, even those emotions of which we feel most ashamed. The psalms, like the Book of Lamentations, show us that there is nothing that human beings can think, feel, say, or do, that we need to hide from God. Walter Brueggemann describes the psalms as an antidote to the false piety that constructs God as ‘nice’ and censors human prayers; in the psalms ‘everything is said and God is known to be strong enough to hear’. It is best that God does hear our passion, rather than us keeping it locked up inside ourselves. If we feel this level of hatred, but refuse to allow it expression, there will come a time when all our sublimation stops working and we spew it out onto whoever is nearest. Telling God how we feel is much healthier than eventually expressing our anger via road rage.
But it is also important to note that here the psalmist is expressing their anger and hatred in words. There is no suggestion that having sung this lament they are going to go out looking for the nearest Babylonian baby to kill. It is probable that the psalmist, having spat out these words of hate, felt better. I certainly wouldn’t advise a worship leader to use the end of this psalm as a prayer of the church, but for people who are already feeling this level of anger and outrage, taking that pain and hatred to God, and leaving it in God’s hands, can only be helpful for everyone. Dietrich Bonhoeffer suggested to his seminary students that they read the psalms through the eyes of Jesus, and in that case we must remember that despite the psalms’ calls for vengeance:
God’s vengeance did not strike the sinners, but the one sinless man who stood in the sinners’ place, namely God’s own Son … God hates and redirects his enemies to the only righteous one, and this one asks forgiveness for them.
The world is a place of inordinate beauty, filled with the grace of God. The world is also a place of terror, in which wars kill the innocent, children starve, refugees become fugitives and wanderers. The Scriptures do not speak only of the gentle, loving, sunny side of life; they are honest about violence and pain. And the Scriptures remind us that when we experience that violence and pain, when life is at its hardest and it is impossible to praise God for God’s goodness, we can cry out to God, rage and complain, berate God for ignoring us or not taking care of us. There is nothing that we cannot take to God in prayer, not even our anger at God, and the example of faithful people down the centuries tells us that God will listen to us. Amen.
 C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms, London: Fontana Press, 1958, p. 26.
 Walter Brueggemann, ‘The Psalms as Prayer’ in P. D. Miller (ed) The Psalms and the Life of Faith, Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995, p. 58
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible, Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1970, pp. 56-60.