Word for the Week
Short reflections on Bible passages, with a frontline focus...
Remember, LORD, what the Edomites did
on the day Jerusalem fell.
‘Tear it down,’ they cried,
‘tear it down to its foundations!’
Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction,
happy is the one who repays you
according to what you have done to us.
Happy is the one who seizes your infants
and dashes them against the rocks.
I doubt this is anyone’s favourite psalm.
It’s a psalm we often sweep under the carpet or pretend doesn’t exist. It’s a Psalm of anger and pain, unflinching in its naming of human emotions in the face of deep trauma.
The people of Israel had been brutally attacked and taken into exile by the superpower of the time. They had lost everything – homes, land, loved ones, everything they thought made them who they were – and been forcibly displaced to a strange land where they lived as a minority conquered people. And now, in Babylon, their captors torment them by asking for songs from their lost homeland.
The trauma of war is etched all over the pages of Scripture, and the toll trauma takes is heavy with every word of Psalm 137. Deep trauma shatters a person, and a people. It takes away life as we know it, all the anchors that keep us safe, the things we believe about the world, ourselves, and God. Trauma is so painful that it escapes words and narrative, and comes through in fragments, shards, and outbursts. Very little is said in the Old Testament about life in exile. There is before, and after. But the exile itself is too traumatic to say much about it.
And yet, we know – from long human experience, as well as science – that the aftereffects of traumatic events do not go away unless the events and their impact are named. There is no silver bullet to solve mental health challenges, but one thing always helps: truth. Psalm 137 is a truth-telling psalm, naming the depth of pain and anger the people feel, and the depth of damage done to them – which, surely, warrants anger.
But this is still a psalm. Honestly expressed emotions are not free-floating, allowed to take just any shape. They’re expressed within a prayer, within the relationship of the people with the God who has promised to be with them always. True and honest feelings are voiced within a safe place, a place of being known and loved – and there they can begin to be transformed.
Psalm 137 challenges us to ask deep questions of ourselves and our communities: how do we nurture complete honesty with God in our worship and prayer, in ways that are both safe and unflinching? How can we say this psalm in solidarity with those for whom this kind of trauma is today’s reality?
Revd Prebendary Dr Isabelle Hamley
Secretary for Theology and Theological Adviser to the House of Bishops
How can you come alongside those who have or are suffering the unspeakable? Join the conversation in the comments below.
Watch and discuss our event Wisdom Lab: Strength in Weakness where Isabelle, along with Revd Dr John Swinton and Revd Dr Chris Cook, explores how as Christians God works in and through our limitations and struggles.