This material comes from a video sermon that I made for Axis Student Ministry’s YouTube channel which aired on April 1st 2020. For a bit of context, the video that this sermon was in was released during the Spring Break in which everyone was on lock-down quarantine because of COVID-19.
Have you ever experienced something in your life that was just really disappointing?
Maybe you were excited for that one movie to come out in the theaters, but it ended up being pretty lame. Maybe you were looking forward to a nice meal, only for the food to turn out kind of bland. Maybe you purchased a new video game and were so eager to play it, only to find it boring and unimaginative. Maybe you bit down into what you thought was a delicious chocolate chip cookie only to find out that it was a disgusting oatmeal raisin.
Or, on a bit more serious note, maybe you were really excited for Spring Break only to find yourself stuck at home due to this Coronavirus quarantine.
Maybe you were looking forward to this year’s track season, robotics tournaments, band concerts, spring dances, and everything that’s now being either cancelled or postponed because of this virus. I know I was really looking forward to go Easter Caroling next week with all of you at Axis. But here we all are now, safe, but stuck inside our homes.
Ever been disappointed in something? I imagine that a lot of us can now answer that question with a resounding “yes!”
Well, I just want to say right off the bat that it’s ok to feel these feelings. It can be healing to name these names these emotions. And the God we serve wants us to bring them before Him because He’s both big enough to hear them and is powerful enough to do something about them.
The Book of Psalms
Did you know that there’s a book in the Bible dedicated to big feelings?
It’s called the book of Psalms.
And Psalms are poetry. They’re songs and heartfelt prayers. They’re deep expressions flowing from a place of intense feeling. We need to understand that before we can really understand what we are reading within the book of Psalms.
Poetry is a special type of language. It’s a way of writing that says more and says it more intensely than ordinary language does. This is not to say that other parts of scripture aren’t as intense or heart-felt, but this type of expression is really the hallmark of poetry and the Psalms. They’re powerful.
And just like music does today, the Psalms have a bunch of different genres and styles to them. We’ve got rock music, but the Psalms have songs of ascent and royal poems. We’ve got pop music, and the Psalms have poems of thanksgiving and praise. We’ve got the blues, and the Psalms have songs of lament.
There’s even a type of psalm called “imprecatory,” which are kind of judgement and anger psalms. This is what Psalm 137 is, a poem that we are going to visit in just a moment. But if we were trying to make comparisons still, imprecatory psalms might be like modern punk music or something like that. They’re angry. They’re disappointed and fiery about it. They’re not afraid to express big feelings.
But, and before we get into the specifics of Psalm 137, I should probably caution you that while these texts are powerful and dynamic, they don’t do everything.
Psalms aren’t commands. They aren’t “thus saithe the Lord’s,” if you’re familiar with that expression. While the Psalms are very much scripture, they don’t have the same canonical function as books like Genesis, Deuteronomy, or Romans do. The various authors who penned these poems and prayers were writing just that: poems and prayers. They were expressing their emotions and not necessarily trying to teach the people of Israel heavy theological concepts or utter divine decrees.
However, that doesn’t mean the Psalms can’t teach us anything.
They can and do teach us important things about the God of Heaven. And they can help us express our emotions in healthy ways, especially in those times where we might be feeling something really strong like the disappointment and grief of being stuck in quarantine during Spring Break.
Let’s check out Psalm 137.
The first verse reads: “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.” In other words, these Israelites wept when they remembered their homeland. What once was. It continues on: “Our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, ‘sing us one of the songs of Zion.’ But how shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”
Do you feel the pain that’s just bleeding out from the author’s pen here? Do you feel the anguish they’re expressing as they long for better days? Psalm 137 starts off with a poem of homesickness and heartbreak. Something terrible has happened to the author and he’s having a really hard time trying to cope.
Let me give you a little background as to what’s going on in Israel’s history at the time of this Psalm’s writing.
Israel, or more specifically the southern kingdom of Judah, had been living relatively peacefully for about one hundred years. Because of sin, the northern kingdom had just fallen to the warlord nation of Assyria in 721 B.C., but the Lord had spared Judah from the Assyrian armies. And there was even a period within that one hundred years where Israel had at least seemed to be getting themselves back together again. Under king Josiah, the nation had started to make major reforms. The Torah was found again, and the nation had begun to follow parts of God’s law once more. And, for a while, they were even blessed with a bit of economic growth.
But, the prophets of God were still warning Israel to go and get their act together.
Injustice, bloodshed, and half-hearted faith were still the major themes of the day. Israel had gotten a little better in some ways, but they had gotten worse in others. So, eventually, the Lord did something about it. He empowered the nation of Babylon for their judgement. And in 597 B.C, the Lord sent this foreign nation to overthrow and conquer the southern kingdom of Israel.
And Babylon was absolutely brutal.
They were the biggest, most powerful nation in the world at that time. No one could stop them or get in their way. Anyone Babylon went up against was utterly wiped out, and Israel was no exception to this. In fact, when Jewish historians talk about this period in Israel’s history, they put it right up there with the holocaust. It was that bad.
Have you ever played the board game Risk?
If so, you might know that one really quick way to lose is to have all of your troops spread too thin all over the board. If you don’t have a big enough army positioned in one specific area, another player can just come around and wipe you out pretty quickly.
Well, Babylon understood this too.
When Babylon conquered a nation, they would take different groups of people as captives and disperse them throughout the other territories that they had conquered. A father could be taken from his family and be placed a hundred miles away. A mother could be taken from her children and forced into slavery in a different country altogether. Brothers and sisters could be separated. And they did this did this to intentionally distill a sense of hopelessness upon those they conquered. If the nation’s citizens were all split up and exiled, they couldn’t organize themselves together for rebellion. They couldn’t create an army.
And, by the way, if you didn’t comply, it was a pretty common practice for a Babylonian judge to just pluck your eyes right out of your skull so you couldn’t see where they sent you. Or, they might just cut your lips off of your face and your tongue out of your mouth so you couldn’t talk back toward what they were doing. It was brutal.
Just imagine never seeing the house you and your family have been living in for generations ever again. Those little tick marks against your door frame that measured how tall you were at the beginning of last school year were gone. All those happy places where you made special memories were destroyed. Likely burned up in a fire.
“By the rivers of Babylon, they sat and wept.” These people remembered what once was, and knew that it probably would never be again. And how dare their captors wish them to sing their Jewish songs of praise for their entertainment, as talked about in verses 3-6 of this Psalm.
They were in a foreign land. They were exiled. It wasn’t a time for praise, it was a time of homesickness, hopelessness, disappointment, and grief.
But that’s not where this Psalm stops. The author had a little bit more anger to voice.
The nation of Israel had a neighbor to the southwest called Edom. And the Edomites and Israel didn’t really have the best of relationship. They tolerated each other in the best of times, and absolutely hated each other’s guts at the worst. And Psalm 137 expresses one of those gut-hating moments.
When Babylon was marching their war-machines towards Judah, the nation of Edom cheered them on. They were happy to see Israel go. And, more than that, the Edomites had made a political alliance with the nation of Babylon and struck a deal with them of sorts. After Babylon conquered Israel, the Edomites were allowed to come in and settle along the southern borders of Israel. They were allowed to farm their land and live in the once occupied Hebrew houses. The people of Israel were not only homesick, they were stewing in their boots knowing that many from the people of Edom, the people who cheered Babylon on when they set fire to Jerusalem, were now living in their family’s former homes.
With that in mind, it’s makes sense when the psalmist writes in verse 8: “O daughter of Babylon doom to be destroyed, blessed shall be he who repays you with what you’ve done to us!” And even the last verse of this Psalm, verse 9, while almost embarrassingly and shockingly harsh, is understandable within this painful context: “Blessed shall be he who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!”
By the way, this is probably a good time to remind you again that Psalms aren’t commands. They aren’t law text. That last verse isn’t giving us a charge to go out, find the descendants of Edom, and rough them up a bit. This verse also isn’t saying that the Lord Himself feels this way about Edom either.
Spoiler alert if you’ve never read the book before, but the end of John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men,” where George shoots his mentally handicapped best friend in the back of the head, it wasn’t a statement that John Steinbeck the author hated all mentally handicapped people. It was simply an explanation of an action that had to be taken because of the dire situation at hand.
And it’s similar with verse 9 in Psalm 137.
Babylon and Edom have ravaged Israel and caused a great deal of hopelessness, heartache, and homesickness within them. And the author needed to express the big emotions that he was feeling. He needed to name them.
But again, he knew that one of the best ways to do so was to direct these feelings toward a God who can handle hearing them, and is powerful enough to do something about them.
Expressing our Disappointment
But back to us.
What might Psalm 137 teach us now about our quarantine situation? How can its words and expressions help us cope with similar feelings?
Well, first of all, we obviously don’t have a one-to-one comparison between our quarantine because of this virus and Israel’s exile because of Babylon. They had it way worse. They experienced pain on a much larger scale and for a much longer period that we are now.
But that’s not to say that the disappointment we’re all going through now isn’t real. Or isn’t painful. And just like the author of this Psalm, a lot of us probably have a lot of big emotions about all of this. Is graduation going to be cancelled? Will we be able to make up our track meets and band concerts in the summer? The complete unknown about all of this is frustrating. It causes anxiety. It stresses us out. It’s real.
And I think that Psalm 137 shows us something really important in relation to all of this.
It is completely ok to express hard emotions. It’s alright to vent to the Lord our frustrations and anger. We don’t have to hide behind a fake facade, or pretend to be alright, because the God we serve already knows our situation. In fact, it’s pretty unhealthy to keep strong emotions pent up inside of us. It’s better to express these types of things to God than to act on them in an actually violent, harmful, or destructive way. I mean, the act of even praying to the Lord and confessing these types of feelings can bring comfort even in itself. But the God we serve hears us, and He is powerful enough to do something about our pain.
We all will face trials and disappointing times in our lives. God doesn’t expect us to just pretend all of that stuff isn’t real.
Instead, He is there for us, listens our prayers, and through the cross, is working to make all things right once and for all.
 This is Laurence Perrine’s definition of poetry in: Laurence Perrine, Sound and Sense: An Introduction to Poetry, (Ft. Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992).
 See 2 Kings 25:1-7