Ever have one of those moments where you read a passage and cannot believe it's actually in Scripture? Keep reading and you're sure to find one—whether it's Jesus teaching about hating our brother or sister, Elisha and the bears, or God commanding the slaughter of a nation, there are some deeply unsettling parts in the Bible.
But we trust that this is God's Word, conveyed through God's people. So what do we do? We wrestle with it. We contend with it. We struggle for it.
The Bible actually invites our wrestling, but if we're going to wrestle, we need to fight fair! We start by checking our own heart. We can't come to an infinite God demanding that everything make sense for us immediately. Proverbs tells us the beginning of wisdom is the fear of God. G.K. Chesterton reminds us that the wise person is willing to put him or herself in question before putting God in question. Interpretation can be difficult and sometimes subjective, but it's worth our best efforts and can lead us into a deeper understanding of God.
We are not the first people to find hard passages in the Bible. Over the centuries, God's people have found several tools that help us address these questions. Here are a few starters:
- Pray through the passage. Taking time to slowly consider the passage, even asking God "Why?" is important. As you meditate on a passage, what other passages come to mind that seem contradictory? Could this contrast help interpret the difficult passage?
- See what others, past and present, have to say about that passage—your church tradition, scholars, preachers, even your favorite blogger. How do their ideas line up with the whole narrative of Scripture and the history of God's redemptive work?
- Try to put yourself into the story. What cultural assumptions are you bringing? Try to understand the passage within its own culture and time period. Think about gender roles, agricultural norms, the way governments operate, or what is going on historically.
Now let's look at Psalm 137, one of the hardest passages for many people I know (including me), and apply these tools.
By the rivers of Babylon we sat down;
there we wept when we remembered Zion.
2 On the willows near by
we hung up our harps.
3 Those who captured us told us to sing;
they told us to entertain them:
"Sing us a song about Zion."
4 How can we sing a song to the Lord
in a foreign land?
5 May I never be able to play the harp again
if I forget you, Jerusalem!
6 May I never be able to sing again
if I do not remember you,
if I do not think of you as my greatest joy!
7 Remember, Lord, what the Edomites did
the day Jerusalem was captured.
Remember how they kept saying,
"Tear it down to the ground!"
8 Babylon, you will be destroyed.
Happy are those who pay you back
for what you have done to us—
9 who take your babies
and smash them against a rock.
Where to begin, right? Let's start with the second tool: what do others have to say about this passage. I had the privilege of taking classes this year from two phenomenal professors. They offered insight and encouragement in reading difficult passages—this one included. Try drawing on the resources right around you: classes, church, books or a reputable podcast.
For starters, listening to others' insight helped me understand what kind of Psalm this is. It is a community lament (for perspective, remember that individual and community laments comprise 45 percent of the Psalms) and we need to read it from this perspective. What is significant about a lament? It is a cry to God of complaint or remorse, an honest expression of the heart. So understanding the genre here goes a long way. God permits God's people to be radically honest about their anger, fear and frustration. But God doesn't necessarily condone these thoughts or requests.
Now turn to number three—putting ourselves into the story. A decent commentary will help us realize this psalm was written while God's people were in exile, specifically in Babylon. History reveals that when Babylon captured Judah it was pretty ugly; the Jews were forced out of their country and into exile in Babylon. When you're forced to march long distances, who are the two groups of people who don't make it? The young and old. Add to the misery the scorn of your captors and you begin to get a picture of how hard this experience was. Entering into the pain, misery and confusion of these Jewish people will bring greater clarity and empathy when we read these words—and also helps us understand the feelings of the millions of refugees today, many of whom are Christians and Muslims from Iraq, the modern location of Babylon.
Finally, we should pray through this passage. I know it may seem strange but slow, thoughtful prayer has the potential to bring clarity to our mind—even through contradiction. Knowing what we know, look at the passage again. As you meditate on the words you may be reminded of other things that God says about Babylon, specifically in Jeremiah 29. Here Jeremiah records God's words to the exiled people, held captive by these oppressive, scornful Babylonians who ruthlessly killed their friends and family. And what does God say? In a nutshell God says, "Care for your oppressors and seek the peace and wholeness of Babylon. Bless them and be blessed as a result."
Hopefully some lightbulbs are flashing now. Judah's exiled people understandably weep at their suffering and loss; in their anger they cry out "Destroy! Persecute!" God permits their lament—invites it, even, but God's answer is much different than they would have expected. God invites mercy, grace, love and peace—even toward those holding them captive. And if you're a Christian you realize that God can invite his people to respond in kindness, love and mercy to their oppressors because Jesus has done the same for us.
The Bible gives us multiple accounts of people expressing anger during difficult situations. This is something we can all relate to—we all get angry, especially when pressed to our limits.
What else does the Bible have to say about anger?
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