Unacceptable words

Lviv, Ukraine by Yanny Mishchuk on Unsplash

Three weeks ago, the lives of millions of Ukrainians were as normal as mine. Even though uneasiness was descending on the country, people carried on as usual – going to work, meeting with friends at cafes, cleaning the house, jogging in their local park, getting the car fixed … worshipping, loving, arguing, chatting, laughing. A mum doing the school run, planning a birthday party, taking photos of her daughter at ballet class.

In less than a day, people’s lives were completely overturned. Now over a million Ukrainians have become refugees, fleeing their own country, in the space of a fortnight. In just a fortnight, the tectonic plates of history have shifted, and Europeans are staring into a ‘black mirror’ of a traumatic past, as Vladimir Putin follows the totalitarian playbook to the letter.

In this dark and perilous time, how do we write and how do we pray?

I’ve been thinking about this psalm a lot.

Psalm 137

1 By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.
2 There on the poplars we hung our harps,
3 for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’
4 How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land?
5 If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill.
6 May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you,
if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy.
7 Remember, LORD, what the Edomites did on the day Jerusalem fell.
‘Tear it down,’ they cried, ‘tear it down to its foundations!’
8 Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is the one who repays you according to what you have done to us.
9 Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.
New International Version - UK (NIVUK)

The final two verses have bothered Christians for centuries. In the light of the new covenant, and Jesus’ command to love our enemies and pray for them, how could any believer, however traumatised, express such appalling sentiments?

We need to remember there is a lot in the Old Testament that is descriptive, not prescriptive. The ancient writer of this haunting, bittersweet psalm was expressing, on behalf of the Jewish people, their trauma and pain to God. He doesn’t hold anything back, including this ugly desire for revenge. Whatever gut-wrenching loss and injustice you have suffered, nothing would justify such an act. Murdering your oppressor’s innocent children brings you down to the level of your oppressor and locks the human race into an endless cycle of hatred and violence. I am sure the psalmist knew perfectly well that revenge is not a godly solution. Yet he still went ahead and wrote those terrible words down and there they sit in Scripture, raw and primal, exposing the darkest urges of our hearts.

I am glad the Bible is so honest. It presents – always with restraint – the worst atrocities we are capable of.

I am thankful for writers who present the human condition bravely and honestly, who craft the right kind of words for the times we are living through.

I hope to be that kind of writer myself.

May God use our words at this time to bless, to encourage, to fight for justice and against tyranny, and to help shine his light in the darkness, including the dark places in our hearts.


So may it be.

I am the administrator for the education and learning office of the United Reformed Church and an Anglican lay minister. I wrote a devotional for the anthology ‘Light for the Writer’s Soul’, published by Media Associates International, and my short story ‘Magnificat’ appears in the ACW Christmas Anthology ‘Merry Christmas Everyone’.

Post a Comment