July 13

Healthy, Wealthy, and Wise: Living Ethically in the Light of the Bible

Reading schedule

Luke 8:1-15; 1 Thessalonians 1; Psalm 137; 2 Chronicles 11-12

Psalm 137 powerfully expresses the emotions of a defeated people. It was probably written shortly after 586 BC by those deported to Babylon. The people sit and weep as they long for Zion. Their Babylonian captors taunt them to sing their songs to their Lord. Reliefs from the palace of Sennacherib in Nineveh show Assyrian soldiers forcing prisoners to play their lyres. As much as the Jewish prisoners want to remember Jerusalem, they refuse to give their captors any satisfaction, yet at the same time deny themselves the conciliation of their music.

Their sadness quickly turns to anger (v. 7). As Babylon destroyed Jerusalem, the Edomites, related by descent from Esau, stood by and refused to help. They cheered along the destruction of Jerusalem, cut down those who escaped, and turned survivors over to the Babylonians (Obadiah 1:10-14). This helps make the anger of the survivors more understandable. God promises that the evil of the Edomites will fall on their own heads (Obadiah 1:15), much as the psalmist calls for the Babylonians to be repaid for their actions (Psalm 137:8).

As understandable as their anger and outrage may be, the bloodcurdling conclusion to the psalm is revolting. How could anyone be happy over someone dashing babies on rocks?  Many have struggled with the Bible because of verses like this. Bishop John Spong said he could no longer hold to the literal truth of the Bible because of how this suggested that God condoned such actions. But nowhere does the psalm say this is what God wants or approves of. These words come from the human heart and express deep emotions. The psalms allow people to express their anger and frustration. Similarly, Psalm 74 opens with ‘Why have you rejected us forever, O God?’ Yet Scripture makes it clear that God has not rejected Israel forever. Partly through expressing his feelings the psalmist remembers that God remains his king and does not reject him (Psalm 74:12).

The psalms allow people to get things off their chests. In interpreting them, we must remember that they use imagery (often very powerful and charged imagery) to allow people to express their emotions and go to God in prayer. They are neither commanding nor endorsing what the images convey. Yet at the same time they are reminding people of truths that are articulated more explicitly elsewhere. One of those of relevance here is that of God’s justice.

The idea that people would be punished for their wrong-doing is inherent in our sense of justice. The Old Testament affirms that “The Lord is just” (2 Chronicles 12:6). The king and leaders of Judah state this immediately after the prophet Shemaiah tells them that God will use an Egyptian army to punish them for their unfaithfulness. While they set their hearts on seeking the Lord and walking in his ways, God blessed them (2 Chronicles 11:15-17; 12:14). As their blessings increased, they turned away from God and abandoned his ways (12:1). Just as God blessed them, he now punishes them. But with the Egyptian army on the horizon, they humble themselves and return to God. His justice demands punishment; his mercy lessens its destructiveness. Rather than being destroyed, they will become subject to the Egyptians. Yet even in their punishment, God’s goal is that they would learn. In being forced to serve foreign kings, God wants them to learn how much better it is to serve Him.

When people have been terrorised by others, when a loved one has been abused, when we have been wronged, our emotions boil. Psalm 137 allows us to express our rage and desire for revenge. God is okay with that, but does not thereby endorse our taking vengeance. We are to leave vengeance in the hands of God and the authorities (Romans 13:1-5). We are not to repay evil with evil, lest we are overcome by evil (Romans 12:17-21). Instead, we are to love our enemies and overcome evil with good. That reminds us of how impossibly high God’s standards are, and how far short all of us fall. All of us are guilty and deserve God’s punishment (Romans 3:23-24). All of us need God’s forgiveness and should then be willing to forgive others. God provides psalms like 137 so we can express our struggles to do so.

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