Monday, August 30, 2010

Does the vindictiveness of the last verse ruin Psalm 137?

Eduard Bendemann "The
Sorrowful Jews in Exile," 1832
I always look forward to the Sundays when we have a Scripture reading about the Babylonian exile. Such lessons allow me to drag from my music files one of my favorite opera choruses, Va, pensiero, sull’ali dorate from Verdi’s Nabucco. I know my choir loves to sing that song. (Listen here.)

On Sundays when I don’t have the choir forces for Va, pensiero, I plan to fall back on William Billings’s round/canon on the first verses of Psalm 137 (sung hauntingly here by Don McLean of “American Pie” fame).

On October 3, the appointed Psalm is of my favorite laments in Scripture, Psalm 137:

By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept, *
when we remembered you, O Zion.
As for our harps, we hung them up *
on the trees in the midst of that land. …
How shall we sing the LORD'S song *
upon an alien soil?

Last night I was reading the Wikipedia article on Psalm 137. It notes that most classical music settings of the Psalm omit the final verse.

Happy shall he be who takes your little ones, *
and dashes them against the rock!

The Wikipedia article then quotes hymnwriter John L. Bell, explaining that he had omitted that final verse from his metrical version “because its seemingly outrageous curse is better dealt with in preaching or group conversation.” However, notes Bell, the verse “should not be forgotten, especially by those who have never known exile, dispossession or the rape of people and land.”

So what do you think about the use of Psalm 137 in worship? Should we truncate it, reading or chanting only verses 1-8 (or perhaps omitting verses 6 and 7 as well, since they serve as an on-ramp to the “outrageous curse”? Or should we be faithful to the Spirit that inspired the sacred poet and use the whole damn thing? (D-word used advisedly.) And if we omit the final verse because it is better to handle the curse in a sermon, would that instead just let the preacher off the hook?

Your thoughts?


Anonymous said...

I don't think it ruins the Psalm, but we do have to ask ourselves the ever important question "What constitutes God's Word?" when we read it. It's a heavy quotation, and probably is best mentioned - then explained - in a sermon or small group setting.

The Gladdings in Lexington said...

I'm for reading the entire psalm. For several reasons, perhaps the most important for myself being the validation that comes from hearing thoughts/feelings I've had (of which I may not be proud) come from the lips of someone reading scripture in corporate worship. It's good to know that I'm not the only one who has had such thoughts...

rgas7541 said...

IS VERY GOOD..............................

Tom said...

Anomalies, stumbling stones, and the curses in Psalms! Such things interrupt the patterns of our acquisitions and movement about the world. We may bristle but we're taking notice and asking questions. God knows just how to pique our native curiosity. However, the answers we'd like to have with objectivity most often require submission to the mystery. Confound it! He's got me right where he wants me!

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Anonymous said...

Now I know that I am not alone, having felt the urge to dash the little one's heads against the rock. It is like a rapper who sings of a gangsta' life. Better we sing of it than actually do it. And these are human emotions.

It is the humanity of the Psalm writers that make them so beautiful to me. So flawed, so human, so real.

When texts get all righteous, I tune out, but when there is an occasional vindictive streak, I tune in, and yes, I identify. Thanks for sparking these thoughts!

jcdurbant said...

What about ...

Break their teeth, O God, in their mouth: break out the great teeth of the young lions, O Lord. Let them melt away as waters which run continually: when he bendeth his bow to shoot his arrows, let them be as cut in pieces. As a snail which melteth, let every one of them pass away:like the untimely birth of a woman, that they may not see the sun.
Before your pots can feel the thorns, he shall take them away as with a whirlwind, both living, and in his wrath. The righteous shall rejoice when he seeth the vengeance:
he shall wash his feet in the blood of the wicked. So that a man shall say, Verily there is a reward for the righteous: verily he is a God that judgeth in the earth.

Psalms 58: 6-11

jcdurbant said...

See also:

In some of the Psalms the spirit of hatred which strikes us in the face is like the heat from a furnace mouth. In others the same spirit ceases to be frightful only by becoming (to a modern mind) almost comic in its naïveté ... If we are to excuse the poets of the Psalms on the grounds that they were not Christians, we ought to be able to point to the same sort of thing, and worse, in pagan authors. . . . I can find in them lasciviousness, much brutal insensibility, cold cruelties taken for granted, but not this fury or luxury of hatred. . . . One’s first impression is that the Jews were much more vindictive and vitriolic than the pagans.

CS Lewis

jcdurbant said...

See also:

Once we realize that we must be dealing with the same social phenomenon in the Bible and in mythology, namely the hysterical mob that will not calm down until it has lynched a victim, we cannot fail to become aware of the fact of a great biblical singularity, even a uniqueness. In mythology, the collective violence is always represented from the standpoint of the victimizers and therefore the victims themselves are never heard. We never hear them bemoaning their sad fate and cursing their persecutors as they do in the psalms. Everything is recounted from the standpoint of the persecutors. No wonder the Greek myths, the Greek epics and the Greek tragedies are all serene, harmonious, and undisturbed. In pagan cultures, the persecutors are in charge. We never hear the victims. We only hear the persecutors who always have the last word, and who are unaware of their own arbitrary violence. The psalms, in my view, tell the same basic story as many myths but turned inside out, so to speak. The psalms of execration or malediction are the first texts in history that enable victims, forever silenced in mythology, to have a voice of their own. These spontaneous scapegoats understandably feel horribly betrayed by their friends, their neighbors, even their relatives. And no wonder. They are victimized by everybody without exception inside their own community. These victims feel exactly the way Job does. The Book of Job must be defined, I believe, as an enormously enlarged psalm of malediction. If Job were a myth, we would only have the viewpoint of the friends. The current critique of violence in the Bible does not suspect that the violence represented in the Bible might also be there in the events behind mythology, although invisible because it is unrepresented. The Bible is the first text to represent victimization from the standpoint of the victim and it is this representation which is responsible, ultimately, for our own superior sensibility to violence. It is not our superior intelligence or sensitivity. The fact that today we can sit in judgment over these texts for their violence is a mystery. No one else has ever done that in the past. It is for biblical reasons, paradoxically, that we criticize the Bible.

Rene Girard (Violence in Biblical Narrative, Philosophy, Vol. 22, No. 2, October 1999)