We really do not comprehend
just how serious sin is.
One of the purposes of Lent is to help us see how our idolatry
grieves a holy God,
so that we might truly repent,
remove the false lover and experience His filling.
This week, as a preface to the second part of Isaiah,
we are going to look at just how severely God judged His people
for idolatry, sending them to be captives in Babylon for 70 years.
Jerusalem was destroyed, their babies dashed upon the rocks, and they
were taken captive by the cruel and hedonistic Babylonians.
Psalm 137 is a lament, a song of their pain, and also an imprecatory psalm,
so a most interesting psalm to ponder.
I do not know the artist who captured Psalm 137 below,
but I want you to see and hear the pain of our departed brothers and sisters
through the talent of Jason Silver,
who used this piece of art and put the lament of Psalm 137 to music.
1. What stands out to you from the above, and why?
Monday: Psalm 137 – Part I.
The pain God’s people express in Psalm 137 increases with every strophe. Let’s examine this psalm, including its shocking ending. As a background to their pain, we know that 200 years after Isaiah prophesied Judah’s captivity, Judah was taken captive. King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon laid siege to Jerusalem for over a year, killing many people and destroying the Jewish temple, taking captive many thousands of Jews, and leaving Jerusalem in ruins. Both Scripture and history records that part of the Babylonian atrocities involved dashing their little ones into pieces upon the rocks. Can man be so terrible? Yes. The same thing was done to babies in the Jewish death camps. You cannot help but see Satan behind these atrocities. Yet God allowed it, yea, with Judah, “ordained it.” How are we to get our heads around this? We’ll look at that later, but let us first see the suffering of God’s people due to the judgment of God, and how they responded.
2. Read Psalm 137 in its entirety. You will be shocked, but read it all and then describe some of the pain God’s people were feeling.
To set up the beginning of this psalm, this is a scene from 12 Years As A Slave. In this movie you see the tormentors singing taunting songs to them, and you also see the slaves themselves singing gospel songs to sustain themselves. History shows that the slaves were often forced to dance and sing on slave ships, or to sing their songs of God as a form of mockery. Watch this clip to get a sense of the pain:
3. Read Psalm 137:1-3 and describe the scene and what their tormentors asked them to do. Does the above clip give you any empathy into their emotions?
4. How do you glimpse their resolve to resist in verse 2?
5. What question do they ask in verse 4? Why is what they are being asked to do feel impossible to them?
Tuesday: Psalm 137 – Part II.
6. The judgment of God that they are experiencing is doing a work in their hearts. How do you see this in verses 5-6?
7. Paul tells us we reap what we sow. While the judgment for our sin fell upon Christ, we will bear the fruit of sin in this life. What are some ways that your idols have put you in chains, have hurt your relationships, and have stolen your joy?
8. Looking again at Psalm 137:5-6, remember that God’s people had made idols their highest joy. So now, explain this resolve to “set Jerusalem above my highest joy!” How could you apply this?
9. In Psalm 137:7, what are God’s people remembering?
10. In Psalm 137:8-9, what do they ask God to do?
Wednesday: Pondering and Application! Part I.
Psalm 137 is shocking, but there is much we can learn from this psalm. Remember, it is the Word of God, and it is also interesting that God answered these prayers, for the Babylonians were judged severely, and what they had done to God’s people was done to them. It is also helpful to know that Babylon in Scripture represents Satan’s evil world system, beginning with the tower of Babel in Genesis. God used Babylon to discipline God’s people but then promised to “punish the king of Babylon and his nation” (Jeremiah 25:12) “for all the wrong they have done in Zion” (Jeremiah 51:24). Isaiah 14 says the same. Ultimately, all evil will be judged, as symbolized by Babylon’s demise in Revelation 18:21: “The great city of Babylon will be thrown down, never to be found again.” But indeed, how are we to apply these imprecatory psalms? You will find opinions vary, but I’d like to ponder these comments from theologians I respect, articulate what they said, and then come up with your own thoughts. I’ll warn you, they have quite different ways of looking at them, but they will stretch you and cause you to seek God. My notes are in red.
C. S. Lewis applies the imprecatory or “cursing” psalms to praying against our own evil sin and also Satan. “From this point of view I can use even the horrible passage in psalm 137 about dashing the Babylonian babies against the rocks. I know things in the inner world which are like babies; the infantile beginnings of small indulgences, small resentments which one day may become dipsomania (uncontrollable craving for alcohol) or settled hatred but which woo and wheedle us with special pleadings, so helpless that in resisting them we feel we are being cruel to animals.” (p. 36 of Reflections on the Psalms) Whether this is what the psalm teaches us to do or not, I do not know. But I do know that the principle of praying against our sins when they are small (the little foxes that spoil the vineyards) is wise.
11. What do you think of Lewis’ application? Is this helpful to you in praying against the siren call of your idol? If so, do it!
Derek Kidner tells us to do 3 things with an imprecatory psalm:
First, distill the essence of it, as God Himself did with Jeremiah and Job. (Indeed, God tells us to be honest with Him, to lament, so we need so see the pain.)
Secondly, to receive the impact of it. The raw wound, thrust before us, forbids us to give smooth answers to the fact of cruelty. To cut this witness out of the Old Testament would be to impair its value as revelation, both of what is in man and what the cross was required for our salvation.
Thirdly, our response is to recognize that our calling is to pray down reconciliation, not judgment. (p. 461 of Psalms 73-150)
12. What do you think of Kidner’s application? (Comment on any ot the points.) Whether or not you agree with the third, we do know Jesus tells us to pray for our enemies. How might you pray for your “enemies?”
Thursday: Pondering and Application! Part II.
Miroslav Volf, a Croatian who teaches at Harvard, has been quoted by Tim Keller, and has been very helpful to me in understanding the lack of empathy in our protected western world for what one feels when experiencing atrocities against you and your loved ones. He says the Western World is uncomfortable with judgment, but his world is uncomfortable with a lack of judgment. There are those who say it is wrong to pray for God to be violent to our enemies. Here is quote from Miroslav Volf:
My Thesis that the practice of nonviolence requires a belief in divine vengeance will be unpopular with many Christians, especially theologians in the West. To the person inclined to dismiss it, I suggest imagining that you are delivering a lecture in a war zone … Among your listeners are people whose cities and villages have been first plundered, then burned and leveled to the ground, whose daughters and sisters have been raped, whose fathers and brothers have had their throats slit. The topic of the lecture: a Christian attitude toward violence. …it takes the quiet of a suburban home for the birth of the thesis that human nonviolence corresponds to God’s refusal to judge. In a scorched land, soaked in the blood of the innocent, it will invariably die.
I am not sure if Volf is saying we should take vengeance, but I think, rather, that we can ask God to do so. Certainly Volf is trying to build empathy for the red-hot prayer of Psalm 137:8-9.
13. What comments do you have on Miroslav Volf’s thoughts? How do you feel about praying that God will take vengeance on evil?
There have been times in my life when I have prayed that God would either change the heart of someone who is bringing evil to those I love, or to “take them out.” That doesn’t necessarily mean death, but that He will remove him and keep him from inflicting so much harm. I don’t think this prayer is incompatible with asking God to help us forgive. It seems that what has usually happened, is that God has removed them from our lives or our community. When counseling women in prison, we often pray that God will give them the strength to not go back to abusive families, but to make the family of God their family. And I know that women in prison pray that God will deal with their abusers and to remove them from their children. And we have seen Him do it! We have also seen Him change hearts.
Friday: The Judgment of God in Isaiah
We are going to look at this more next week with the help of Albert Motyer, but I was sobered to hear Greg Scharf (head preaching professor at Trinity Seminary) say that every judgment in the Scriptures is a foreshadowing of a much more terrible judgment: The Final Judgment. And surely we see this in Isaiah, as the prophet moves from the mountain peak of the current time to the final judgment of God — sometimes back and forth so quickly that your head is swirling, and sometimes it seems the two judgments are pictured as one. That makes some sense when we see that Babylon is representative of evil, of Satan who will day be cast into the pit of hell forever and ever.
14. Consider Isaiah 13 which is “The oracle concerning Babylon.” Isaiah prophesies Babylon’s coming judgement, but at the same time describes “the day of Yaweh,” or that terrible final judgment. Read Isaiah 13:1-16 and find a prophesy that:
A. Seems to fit just Babylon
B. Seems to fit just the Final Judgment
C. Seems to fit both
15. How has this study caused you to reflect on the holiness of God and your own sin?
16. What is your take-a-way and why?