Scripture: Psalm 137

Title: Lament


  • Introduction
  • Lament seeks company
  • Lament remembers identity
  • Lament protests honestly
  • Lament vents anger
  • Conclusion


On the wall here we have a list of songs…

–         Small Bump by Ed Sheeran

–         I don’t want to talk about it by Crazy Horse

–         Candle in the wind by Elton John

–         I don’t like Mondays by Boomtown Rats

–         Pride (In the name of love) by U2

–         And Psalm 137 by an unknown artist

Can anyone tell me what these songs have in common? [Let people respond]

–         That’s right, they are all songs of lament

Small bump is a song about a miscarriage

–         I don’t want to talk about it was inspired by a relationship break up

–         Candle in the wind is a lament for Marilyn Munroe

–         I don’t like Mondays is about the 1979 elementary (primary) school shootings in San Diego

–         Pride (In the name of love) remembers the assassination of the Rev Martin Luther King Junior on the 4th April 1968

–         And Psalm 137 was sung by survivors of the Babylonian exile after the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BC

–         All these songs of lament are tied to an event in history – they remember something that actually happened


Today we continue our series on well-being and care of the soul, using the acronym: HEALING.

–         Each letter represents a word which, when properly applied, is life giving to the human soul…

–         Hope Energy Appreciation Lament Inter-dependence Nurture & Giving

–         Today our message focuses on lament

Lament is a way of expressing the sad, bitter, angry & painful truth of what we are feeling inside – it is an articulation of grief

–         At its best lament takes a stink, yucky feeling, and does something creative with it

Last Sunday I said appreciation is about acknowledging value

–         Lament is also about acknowledging what is valuable to us

–         Lament is very close to appreciation – it’s the flip side of the same coin

–         The main difference is the circumstances

–         Appreciation has its roots in enjoyment while lament has its roots in loss

–         We wouldn’t have cause for lament if we didn’t value what we had lost


The Old Testament is peppered with laments – people grieving with raw honesty, pouring out their rage and sadness before God

–         Apparently God is big enough to handle it

Psalm 137 is one example of lament in the Bible. From verse 1 we read…

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. There on the poplars we hung our harps, for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion.” How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?

If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill. 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.

Remember, O Lord, what the Edomites did on the day Jerusalem fell. “Tear it down,” they cried, “tear it down to its foundations.” O daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us – he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks. 

May the Spirit of Jesus give us grace to face our pain and find our truth

This morning we will touch on four aspects of lament…

–         Lament seeks company

–         Lament remembers identity

–         Lament protests honestly, and

–         Lament vents anger


Lament seeks company:

First let’s consider how lament seeks company

–         I’d like to play you part of a song that was originally written in 1971 by the band Crazy Horse and later made famous by Rod Stewart…

“I can tell by your eyes that you’ve probably been cryin’ for ever,

And the stars in the sky don’t mean nothing to you, they’re a mirror.

I don’t want to talk about it, how you broke my heart

But if I stay here just a little bit longer, if I stay here, won’t you listen to my heart, whoa my heart.”

In this song the singer is lamenting the death of a relationship

–         He’s been dumped by his girlfriend and it hurts bad

–         He doesn’t want to talk about it because there are no words to do justice to his pain

–         But he doesn’t want to be alone either – he wants someone to sit with him and listen to his heart – he wants a witness to his suffering

–         Lament seeks company


Grief is the price we pay for love

–         The more we love the greater our grief when we lose the one we love

–         When we grieve alone or without being understood it is harder somehow

–         Having someone listen to our heart (to our pain) acknowledges that what we are feeling is real and it matters – it gives meaning to the loss and it affirms our inherent value as human beings

There is a certain feeling of powerlessness when we sit with those who have suffered loss

–         We want to fix things, we want to have the right words to say to make everything better – but words fail us

–         Often what the other person needs is our presence and our listening

–         Simply being there says this matters and you are important


In psalm 137 the singer is lamenting the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians

in 586 B.C. and the resulting exile

–         Many people were killed and most of those who survived were forcibly marched to a foreign land and detained there

–         It was a humanitarian disaster

Worse than this though the survivors probably felt like God had dumped them, rejected them, abandoned them

–         The temple, the centre of worship, the symbol of God’s presence, the very hub that held the wheel of their society together, had been destroyed

–         The people were heart broken

–         The relative shortness of the psalm, and the details they leave out, suggest they didn’t want to talk about it – there were no words to do justice to their pain

–         But they did want a witness to their suffering – what they had lost was too important to be ignored

–         Lament seeks company and lament remembers identity


Lament remembers identity:

Have you noticed how many people have tattoos these days – skin art has become quite popular

–         People get tattoos for a number of reasons I suppose, often as a statement of identity but also sometimes to show their commitment to the memory of someone they’ve lost

–         A tattoo is like an outward visible scar, symbolising the inner scar on the heart that no one can see

A few years ago now some friends of ours lost a child at birth and shortly after the father of the child had the face of his baby tattooed on his shoulder – like a constant reminder

–         You sometimes see people with the names and birth dates of their loved ones tattooed on their arms

–         Getting a tattoo is a pretty big commitment – tattoos are for life, unless you go through the very painful process of getting them removed

–         Now I’m not recommending getting a tattoo as a form of lament

–         But nor do I wish to make any judgement about it – I can understand why someone who has suffered significant loss might do it

–         To remember and to show their commitment to one they have lost


The writer of Psalm 137 says…

–         If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill. 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.

This is actually an oath of commitment to remember Jerusalem

–         As a musician, losing skill in your right hand and having your tongue cling to the roof of your mouth, would mean not being able to play the harp or sing ever again – so this is a serious commitment to remember

But it’s not just the city the psalmist is remembering, it’s what the city represents – their home and their unique identity as God’s special people

–         This commitment by the exiles to remember where they have come from is a way of preserving their Jewish identity and saving themselves from cultural assimilation in a strange land

You see, when we suffer significant loss our identity is threatened

–         People who go through a divorce, for example, often have to rediscover who they are without their husband or wife, or without their mum or dad

–         Parents who lose a child may feel like they have lost a part of themselves – am I still a father or a mother if my child is dead?

–         Refugees, forced to flee their homeland and start life in a new country where the language and the customs and everything is different, often seek to preserve what they can of their culture to stop themselves from losing any more of who they are


Lament is like a tattoo on our heart – it involves a strong commitment to our identity, to remembering who we are, after our loss


Lament seeks company

–         Lament remembers identity, and

–         Lament protests honestly


Lament protests honestly:

The opposite of lament is denial – pretending everything is okay when it isn’t

–         Lament is a statement that things are not right with the world

–         Let’s listen to another lament now – this one is by the band U2…

“I can’t believe the news today, I can’t close my eyes and make it go away.

How long, how long must we sing this song? How long, how long?

Cause tonight, we can be as one tonight.

Broken bottles under children’s feet. Bodies strewn across the dead end street.

But I won’t heed the battle call, it puts my back up, puts my back up against the wall. Sunday bloody Sunday. Sunday bloody Sunday. Sunday bloody Sunday.

And the battles just begun, there’s many lost but tell me who has won?

The trench is dug within our hearts.

And mothers, children, brothers, sisters torn apart.

Sunday bloody Sunday, Sunday bloody Sunday.”

On the 30th January 1972, in Derry Northern Ireland, British soldiers opened fire on a crowd of unarmed civilians (men, women & children) during a peaceful protest march against internment

–         28 people were shot and 14 died

–         Many of the victims were shot while fleeing from the soldiers and some were shot while trying to help the wounded

–         The event became known as Bloody Sunday and the Bogside massacre

–         Bloody Sunday increased hostility towards the British Army and exacerbated the conflict.

–         Support for the Irish Republican Army (IRA) rose and there was a surge of recruitment into the organisation

U2 released the song, Sunday bloody Sunday in 1983, 11 years after the massacre

–         It’s a song which remembers the violence of that day and the days that followed

–         But more than just remembering, U2’s lament is a double edged protest against violence & revenge

–         “There’s many lost but tell me who has won?”

–         It is not okay that British troops opened fire on unarmed civilians

–         But it’s also not okay to respond in violence

–         Bono sings, “I won’t heed the battle call”, meaning I’m not going to sign up to the IRA. I reject a violent & destructive response

Often we think of lament as a sad song – but Sunday bloody Sunday breaks that mould with the feel of defiance

Psalm 137 is oozing defiance and protest

–         In the opening verses the psalmist describes being tormented by their Babylonian captors who are demanding they sing the happy songs of Zion (Zion is another name for Jerusalem)

–         But the Jewish exiles refused to sing, hanging their harps up on the poplar trees in protest

–         To capitulate to the Babylonians’ request would be a betrayal and a lie

–         The exiles can’t entertain their enemies with happy songs without losing integrity. A lament, like psalm 137, enables them to be honest


It is difficult to sing happy songs of praise in church when we just aren’t feeling the love

–         Sometimes songs of praise can help to enlarge our perspective and lift our spirits

–         Other times though we need words & music that align with the pain and distress and anger we are experiencing

–         Jesus is spacious – he is both a man of sorrows and a risen Saviour

–         With Jesus there is room for suffering and comfort, tears and joy, anger and peace, lament and appreciation, a cross and an empty tomb

–         We shouldn’t have to pretend in church and yet that’s often what we do

–         Unfortunately there don’t seem to be that many contemporary Christian laments – or at least I don’t know where to find them

–         Maybe we need to be writing and singing our own songs more


Lament seeks company – refusing to grieve alone

–         Lament remembers identity – refusing to forget who we are

–         Lament protests honestly – refusing to pretend it’s ok when it’s not

–         And, lament vents anger


Lament vents anger:

A fire place, whether it’s a coal range or a wood burner or a gas heater, needs a chimney or a flu – some device for letting the smoke & gas out

–         Without a chimney the smoke or gas would fill the room and create a toxic environment for the people inside

–         Anger is a bit like a fire – if it is allowed to get out of control it has a destructive effect

–         And if it is not vented properly it poisons everyone in the room

–         Lament is anger’s chimney – it provides a vent for our rage and allows us to breathe a little easier


In verse 7 the psalmist asks the Lord to remember the Edomites’ disloyalty

–         The Edomites were the descendants of Jacob’s twin brother Esau – so they were like cousins to the Israelites

–         In the book of Obadiah [1] we read how the Edomites stood aside while the Babylonians attacked Jerusalem

–         Worse than that they gloated over Judah’s misfortune and took advantage by looting the city

–         Asking the Lord to remember what the Edomites did is a polite way of asking God to punish the Edomites

But what comes next isn’t so polite – in fact it is one of the most disturbing verses in the whole Bible…

–         O daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us – he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks. 

Imagine singing those words in church – I think the room would fall silent

–         Some people might say, ‘Well that was the Old Testament, we live in light of the gospel of Christ’ – as if forgiveness wasn’t in the Old Testament and feelings of revenge don’t exist now

–         Others might say this is just a metaphor for something else, but the facts of history don’t really support that kind of reading

–         The Babylonians were cruel & ruthless – they didn’t show mercy for women and children or the elderly

–         The psalmist is asking God to find someone who will do to the Babylonians what the Babylonians have done to them

–         He’s not asking God to forgive them but he is leaving revenge in God’s hands

Clearly the Jewish exiles are angry with the Edomites and the Babylonians and for good reason

–         Anger is a natural and legitimate response to hurt & injustice

–         If I am cut, I bleed. If I suffer injustice, I feel angry


Some people deal with the fire of their anger by holding it in – it’s like the chimney of their heart is blocked

–         If you do that it will poison you and make you deeply depressed

–         There are many causes of depression and repressed anger is one of them

–         In New Zealand culture we tend to be not that good at outrage – we are more inclined to in-rage


Other people deal with their anger by taking it out on those around them

–         If they can’t take revenge on the person who has caused the injustice then they might kick the cat or yell at their kids or worse

–         If you do that your anger lights the fuse of other people’s anger and before you know it the whole world is on fire


So what are we supposed to do with our anger?

–         It’s not healthy to hold it in or to touch others with it

–         Well, the only other option I know of is venting our anger to God

–         Releasing the smoke & heat of our rage up the chimney of lament

–         This is essentially what the writer is doing in the closing verses of the psalm

Venting anger through lament is not the same as forgiveness – but it may be a necessary step in the process toward forgiveness

–         If we try to forgive big things too quickly or too cheaply we find the forgiveness doesn’t stick and resentment lingers

–         In his commentary on this verse Walter Brueggemann asks:

–         “Could it be that genuine forgiveness is possible only when there has been a genuine articulation of hatred?” [2]

–         I’m not sure – I do know there can be no real forgiveness without first facing the truth about ourselves

–         We have to give ourselves time and grace to vent our anger and take the log out of our own eye before we can truly forgive

Lament provides a vent for those nasty feelings that would otherwise choke us



Earlier in the sermon I said that lament is close to appreciation

–         This is literally true of psalm 137

–         When we look at psalm 136 and psalm 138 we notice they are both psalms of thanksgiving

–         Psalm 137, a lament, is sandwiched between two psalms of thanksgiving

The message is clear, when it comes to lament we need to keep our perspective

–         Yes, sad, bad & ugly things happen in life, and we need to seek company in our pain so we don’t grieve alone

–         We need to remember who we are in spite of our loss

–         We need to be able to honestly protest the wrongness of it all

–         And we need to be allowed to express how we feel – to vent our anger

–         But we also need to remember that happy, good & beautiful things happen with greater frequency

–         We need to spend at least twice as much time enjoying & appreciating the good things than we do grieving & lamenting the bad


Many of us have had plenty of reason to lament this year, but we’ve also had a lot to be thankful for

–         Give your grief to God – tell him honestly & respectfully how you feel

–         Ask him to do something creative with your pain, but don’t wallow in sadness for too long

–         Look up, the good news is all around you.


Questions for discussion or reflection:

1.)    What stands out for you in reading this Scripture and/or in listening to the sermon?

2.)    Do you have a favourite song of lament?

–         What is it and why? What does it put you in touch with?

3.)    In what sense are appreciation & lament similar?

–         How are they different?

4.)    Why does lament seek company?

–         What are the benefits of not grieving alone?

–         How might we sit with and listen to those who have suffered loss and are in pain?

5.)    Why is the writer of psalm 137 so committed to remembering Jerusalem?

–         How might we remember who we are after a significant loss?

6.)    In what ways is psalm 137 oozing defiance and protest?

–         What aspect of Jesus’ experience do you identify with most – Jesus the man of sorrows or Jesus the risen and conquering King?

7.)    What three options for dealing with anger are touched on in the sermon?

–         What is your default option for dealing with anger?

–         What can we do to vent our anger in a healthy way?


[1] Obadiah 10-14

[2] Walter Brueggemann, ‘The Message of the Psalms’, page 77.