Reading Psalm 137 in Church

The Psalms have been central to Jewish and then Christian worship over the last 2500 years. In the Anglican tradition, the Psalms are at the core of the daily offices of Morning and Evening Prayer. Over the course of a month, all 150 psalms are said. They are not read as a “Bible reading,” but interactively. And each psalm is concluded with the Gloria Patri. This is the pattern in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, and for the most part it holds in prayer books around the Anglican world.

But really read all of the psalms? Out loud in church? Even the imprecatory [“cursing” -Ed.] ones?

These questions have of course been considered for as far back as we have commentaries on the Psalms, and there are certain standard responses: these cries for justice remind us of the evil in the world; these are not expressions of our own vengeance but are pleas for God to set things right and vindicate the oppressed; our enemies, as St. Paul says, are not “flesh and blood”; and so on. There is much truth in these points (and for more, see Gordon Wenham, Psalms as Torah: Reading Biblical Song Ethically; and on the psalm discussed here, Psalm 137, see Walter Brueggemann and William H. Bellinger, Jr., Psalms). But there is one important point often overlooked: the importance of canonical order, particularly in liturgical usage.

The editors who assembled the Psalter were astute, and one way this can be seen is in the juxtapositions and trajectories implicit in the placement of the imprecatory psalms. Consider, for example, Psalm 137, which is appointed to be said on the evening of the 28th day. Here, perched between Psalm 119 and the lyrical psalms of ascent, on the one hand; and on the other, the hymns of praise that end the book, such as Psalm 148, is a psalm with one of the most blood-curdling lines in all of holy writ: Psalm 137’s final verse.

How can such a verse be read, especially read interactively, when such a mode of reading requires one to assume these words as one’s own? Many points could be explored, from the depth of the despair of the captive Israelites in Babylon to the coincidence that this psalm is read every year on Innocents’ Day. But one line of inquiry, suggested above, should not be left out: canonical placement.

Psalm 137 is never read alone in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. It is always read as the middle of three psalms: 136, 137, and 138.

Psalm 136 recounts the divine deliverance from one of the two great foes of Israel in the Old Testament, namely Egypt. The story of the Exodus is told—including the plagues—including the final plague of all, the death of the firstborn sons.

Now we come to Psalm 137. Here the situation could not be more different: the people who were freed in Psalm 136, are now captives in Psalm 137. And the villains have shifted: not Egypt, with Canaanite kings in the supporting roles; but the other great kingdom of the Ancient Near East, Babylon, with Edom as the supporting actor.

What is the captives’ cry for justice? For Babylon to be dealt death like Egypt; for the oppressor’s grip to be released; for the people to be set free. That final verse of Psalm 137, when placed in its canonical context, is a desperate plea for Babylon to receive what might be called “the Egypt treatment.” As Walter Brueggemann and William Bellinger note, “Part of the hope at the end of the psalm is that the oppressive injustice of that empire will not see a future but an end” (Psalms, p. 576).

But that is not where the arc of these three psalms will conclude. Next is Psalm 138. And how does it begin? “I will give thanks unto thee, O Lord, with my whole heart; * even before the gods will I sing praise unto thee.” How can this be? Well, after Psalm 137, surely the answer must be that vultures are circling over the carcasses of the Babylonians. Verses 2 and 3 do not dispel that impression, especially since verse 3 points to answered prayer: “When I called upon thee, thou heardest me, * and enduedst my soul with much strength.” But what prayer was answered? Was it the prayer for the destruction of the Edomites and Babylonians?

The very next verse points in a different direction: “All the kings of the earth shall praise thee, O LORD, * for they have heard the words of thy mouth.” All the kings? Even of . . . Egypt and Babylon? If you aren’t sure you heard that right, the next verse emphasizes that the kings are not intoning a dirge, but they are jubilant: “Yea, they shall sing in the ways of the LORD * that great is the glory of the LORD.” And all three references to God in these verses (vv. 4-5) employ the divine Name: the Egyptian and Babylonian kings are praising the God who revealed his name to Israel and keeps his covenant with Israel.

And so we have gone from a remembrance of judgment on Egypt (Psalm 136), to a plea for similar judgment on Babylon (Psalm 137), to a hope of salvation for the oppressor, even “all the kings of the earth” (Psalm 138). The concluding verses of Psalm 138 strike notes that will reappear in the Magnificat (v. 6) and the collect said every day in Lent (v. 8), with an emphasis on salvation for the humble, protection in trouble, and the loving-kindness and mercy of God to all his works.

If you have never given the 30-day psalter a chance, you should. Its emotional depths and heights, its savage despair and jubilant elation, its visions of life and death, and its promises of a coming king—these are powerful. There is something for every need, a cure for whatever it is that ails you. But, and this is an important but, you don’t want the expurgated edition. Read the psalms. Read all the psalms.

Finally, this is also a reminder of how much has been lost with the great Anglican forgetting of Sunday Mattins. In places where the Sunday service is now simply a Communion service, there will be a reading from the Psalms, which is good. But it tends to be a short psalm or psalm snippet, usually upbeat—and protestations about the full psalter being available in the daily offices are beside the point, because if this is the entire Sunday morning service, it is all the typical person in the pew will get of the Psalms. There are no Edomites; no one gets dashed against the stones. It tends to be cheery. But has this cheeriness really been earned? Is the experience of reading Psalm 138 by itself even remotely like the experience of reading it as the culmination, the last Beethovenesque resolution of a tension that has been building dramatically through Psalms 136 and 137? These questions answer themselves. Read the psalms. Read all the psalms.

Samuel Bray is the John N. Matthews Professor of Law at the University of Notre Dame.

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