The Evangelical Universalist Forum

A Psalm with a kick; interpretation.

“After all, in the Scriptures we are in our Father’s house where the children are permitted to play” --Raymond Brown.

I’m always on the lookout for a useful method of taking a preliminary ‘inventory’ of a verse or a set of scriptural verses, getting a read on the subject, the intent and so on; orienting myself for a closer look.

Something much like the rule that newspaper reporters are taught: to have “the 5 w’s” in their opening paragraph - Who what where when why - to get the story started; then the details can follow.

Here is one way to approach puzzling scriptures (and non-puzzling as well) that is useful to me and many others, so I’m posting it in hope someone else may find it useful as well. I’m not speaking for the administrators of this Forum!! These are ‘unauthorized’, personal reflections only, and are not “infallible” :wink:
Please leave comments and suggestions! There’s no ‘ego’ here in the content or halting writing style - I’m ALWAYS looking to improve both.

A. I would like to apply the method to a couple of the puzzles that seem to regularly arise on this and other forums. You have probably run across this before; in this post I just want to illustrate it in a simple manner.

from Miles Coverdale:

It will greatly help you to understand the Scriptures if :
-you are careful to be aware of not only what is spoken or written, but :
-of whom
-and to whom,
-with what words,
-at what time,
-to what intent,
-with what circumstances,
-considering what goes before and what follows after.

I’m going to use these ‘awarenesses’ and have a go at Psalm 137. It’s a simple but very moving Psalm, with a ‘kick’ at the end.
(Hint: this is a good Psalm to read out loud and try to sense a bit of what this exile is feeling )

By the rivers of Babylon
there we sat down, and also wept
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows in its midst
we hung up our harps,
because there our captors
asked us for words of songs,
and those who led us away
taunted us for a hymn,
“Sing us some of the songs of Zion!”

How could we sing the songs of the Lord
in a foreign land?
If I forget you, 0 Jerusalem,
may my right hand be forgotten!
May my tongue stick in my throat,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem at the beginning of my gladness.

Remember, 0 Lord, against the sons of Edom,
the day of Jerusalem,
how they said, “Clear out! Clear out!
As long as its foundation is in it!”
0 daughter Babylon, you wretch!
happy shall he be who will requite you
with the requital with which you requited us!
Happy shall he be who will grab your
and dash them against the rock!

This Psalm is not hard to understand. Using the principles that Coverdale laid down, we gather that the speaker is:
-a Jew,
-among a group of Jews in exile in Babylon after the captivity (circa 586-538 B.C.);
-speaking to himself, to other Jews, and to God;
-bemoaning the situation of captivity and loss,
-renewing the oath to their lost city,
-and asking for revenge by terrible means: do to the Babylonian captors what they did to us…

Simple but very very effective, and moving. And our ‘method’ has brought the overall meaning of the Psalm right up front. Also, considering what goes before and what goes after: on both sides of this Psalm there are two magnificent Psalms of praise and adoration and victory. This little jewel, between those two, is made even more vivid when Pss. 136 and 138 are also read.

I find this Psalm to be a very human, very poignant expression of loss and desire for revenge; reminds me also that there are millions of exiles today that no doubt feel the same way. It sounds “real”, and the feelings expressed are true and understandable. Reading it aloud is a part of the interpretation, I would suggest.

B. A few things we can draw out of this simple interpretation:
-God is not the speaker; there is nothing telling us that the thirst for revenge is something God warrants; even if we hold to some doctrine of ‘inspiration’, (there are a number of such doctrines), we cannot say that God ‘inspired’ the feelings that were being expressed - at most we might say that the Psalm was ‘meant’ to be a part of the whole, inspired scriptures.
-A very human expression - this Psalm - was by God’s providence included in Scripture.(Hmmm…incarnation and inspiration?)
-We would not be warranted to say “Baby-bashing is in the Bible” AS IF that meant the Bible condones it. That’s partly the point Johnny wanted to make in his post on this Psalm, I believe. He was making a serious point about unthoughtful inerrantism.

The above is, of course a simple but instructive use of Coverdale’s method. It is surprisingly useful in many parts of the Bible.
Edit: upon good advice, I am cutting the second half of this post and posting that half as a follow-up.

Part 2

C. There are in addition to that method what I like to call “meta-principles”; these have to do with our initial approach to the Bible. Not everyone agrees with these (surprise! :slight_smile:) but I think that in general they are acceptable to most of us. I use them like boundaries of a game that is being played – the action takes place inside these general lines. So if I read something in the scripture that really is at dissonance with these meta-principles, something outside their ‘boundary’, a red flag should go up, and the play should be reviewed!. I’ve gleaned these mainly from Wm. Ellery Channing. ( … ianity.htm - he was also a Unitarian, and the second part of that reading may not be as useful to you as the first section that deals with the interpretation of scripture)

  1. It helps me to read and understand the scriptures as successive revelations from God, eventuating in the final and greatest revelation in Jesus Christ. Thus the New Testament (NT) is the basis of our religion; the OT is mainly useful to illustrate and confirm NT teachings.
    As a corollary to that, a different ‘weight’ is give to various books of the bible, written at various stages in God’s progressive revelation. We are safest when we draw our teachings from what is most clearly taught, especially in the NT. This is not to downplay the OT at all - it is to say that the OT, especially the mosaic law, were adapted to the childhood of our race. I think that progress in revelation is apparent.

  2. Our Master is Jesus Christ; his life and words are the basis of our way of being. If then, for instance we read something in the OT that is at real dissonance with His life and character and teaching, (“the Bible teaches baby-bashing!!”) it is legitimate for us to ask - in the light of who our Master is, and what He taught, DOES the Bible really teach that? Or is the Bible a faithful record of what an exiled Jew, overcome with grief, was expressing?

  3. Channing: “Our leading principle in interpreting Scripture is this, that the Bible is a book written for men, in the language of men, and that its meaning is to be sought in the same manner as that of other books.” Even for those who hold to a doctrine of inspiration, our Bible is written to be understood, and its meaning grasped, by the use of our reason and an aware and studied method.

  4. “The Christian dispensation is a continuation of the Jewish, the completion of a vast scheme of providence, requiring great extent of view in the reader. Still more, the Bible treats of subjects on which we receive ideas from other sources besides itself; such subjects as the nature, passions, relations, and duties of man; and it expects us to restrain and modify its language by the known truths, which observation and experience furnish on these topics.”

  5. It is important to recognize the genre of the writing we are studying - is it a story, a myth, a prayer, a complaint, a lament, a prophecy - the form of the writing will help us to understand the content. For instance , in reading a Psalm, and seeing the particular literary style of the Jewish writers- the Psalms are a form of Jewish poetry! - we come to understand that the Psalm is not a spontaneous outpouring of emotion or thought, but a well-thought-out composition, with a point to make or an experience to share. That is the inspiration - not the spontaneous flow so much as God using the incarnated human being, writing what he was feeling and thinking, and that writing being directed by God to be a part of the inspired scriptures.

  6. God is our heavenly Teacher, who uses the scriptures to teach us - and who would be better equipped? If this is so, we can be thankful to Him for providing us a book that is NOT meant to confuse us; rather, it is meant to be a gift of Light.

  7. One last Channing quote.

"We profess not to know a book, which demands a more frequent exercise of reason than the Bible. In addition to its infinite internal connexions, we may observe:

-that its style nowhere affects the precision of science, or the accuracy of definition.

-Its language is singularly glowing, bold, and figurative, demanding more frequent departures from the literal sense, than that of our own age and country, and consequently demanding more continual exercise of judgment.

-We find, too, that the different portions of this book, instead of being confined to general truths, refer perpetually to the times when they were written, to states of society, to modes of thinking, to controversies in the church, to feelings and usages which have passed away, and without the knowledge of which we are constantly in danger of extending to all times, and places, what was of temporary and local application. -

-We find, too, that some of these books are strongly marked by the genius and character of their respective writers, that the Holy Spirit did not so guide the Apostles as to suspend the peculiarities of their minds, and that a knowledge of their feelings, and of the influences under which they were placed, is one of the preparations for understanding their writings.

-With these views of the Bible, we feel it our bounden duty to exercise our reason upon it perpetually, to compare, to infer, to look beyond the letter to the spirit, to seek in the nature of the subject, and the aim of the writer, his true meaning; and, in general, to make use of what is known, for explaining what is difficult, and for discovering new truths."

I will have an addendum following this in the next couple of days, having to do with the development of the Old Testament, something I’ve been fascinated by for quite some time.

Surely we will not all agree on the above – I have no ego involvement in it, and welcome comments; I encourage you to write your own approach for us to look at and profit from. We’re all in this together.

May God bless us, each and every one!!

(I had some input from a few other people and want to thank them. “The views expressed are my own and any mistakes are mine” :slight_smile:

Great post, Dave. Ps 137 is one of those psalms everyone seems to have trouble with. I’ve asked experienced preachers about this psalm and their answers were (I hate to say, but . . . ) clueless. “Maybe those babies are better off being killed in infancy if they were never going to hear the gospel” is the one answer I remember best. And from an infernalist perception, that makes a certain sort of horrifying sense. :open_mouth: :astonished:


That is not what the psalm is about at all! How is it that trained ministers of the gospel don’t seem to understand how to study the bible? CLEARLY, as you’ve said, the thrust of this psalm is the anguish of the Jews, under the sword of Babylon. It’s a poem expressing extreme and unbearable suffering and grief. I didn’t see that until several years after I was given the above (tentative and hesitantly offered) “answer.” The man who said that was a loving, humble, kind, generous, giving man who, by his manner of life, seemed to me to live the gospel. He’s since passed away. In his defense, in his own years of preaching it was probably less likely parishioners would have had the chutzpah to ask such an uncomfortable and “borderline blasphemous” question. It’s entirely possible he’d never seriously considered this particular psalm and thus wasn’t ready for my question.

It would have been so much easier for me to figure these things out if ANYONE had EVER taught me how to study the bible! I’m in my early 50’s and I’ve bought books on studying the bible and done the pre-printed bible studies and attended formal bible studies and none of these things seemed satisfying or very helpful at all to me. IMO, the inductive method (which your post partially describes) is the best method to make at least an accurate reading of the things presented to us on the page. Beyond that is study of the culture, word studies, and so on. You can certainly go a lot deeper, but an accurate reading (which your method facilitates) is the bare minimum. Most of the church has no idea how to even do that.

So, thanks for your gift! It is much appreciated.

Would you consider a topic on Colossians 1? That’s a great universalist passage and maybe some of the group would be interested in participating. If you’re into it, I’ll start the topic.

Love, Cindy

That would make a great thread I think. I’m in if some others are as well.

Well, see who you can find – if you have anyone in mind. I’ll invite a couple too. :slight_smile:


This is excellent, really excellent. In fact, I think it ought to be compulsory reading for anyone wishing to post here :smiley: . (Or anyone reading the Bible at all, in fact.)

You’re a brave man kicking it off by applying Coverdale’s method to Psalm 137. But actually that’s a really good ‘test case’, because it shows up the naivety of interpreting Scripture literally, while remaining true to the text itself.

And you’re right, I didn’t ‘attack’ this chapter because I thought it was purportedly the ‘voice of God’. No, what I was trying to do with my thread was rubbish the idea that everything in the Bible must be taken at direct, prescriptive face value. You see that. Coverdale saw that. Cindy sees that. Unfortunately there are folk - good Christian folk all, I’m sure - who don’t (like Cindy’s old pastor).

All the best


great post DaveB! Who is Channing? good comments from Cindy and Johnny too. Indeed tradition is often the home of the lazy which is why I feel we need to get away from Sunday sermons to the Berean approach searching the scriptures to see if our understanding is correct.

Thanks ChrisB.

Wiki: William Ellery Channing was the foremost Unitarian preacher in the United States in the early nineteenth century and along with Andrews Norton, one of Unitarianism’s leading theologians.

I love reading his sermons and his long tracts - whether writing against slavery, or of the character of Napoleon, or the interpretation of scripture - he had a mind as clear and refreshing as a cool mountain stream.

Thanks DaveB that was a great post. I shall store it away in my useful notes, if I may. Think it may be useful for a study I may be involved in this weekend. Cheers S

S - thanks for the input. Let me know if you have additions or improvements to the OP, for the good of the realm! :slight_smile:

Thanks Dave. I’ll look him up.

Hi Dave - this link will get you to a page, at the top of that page is a link to a lot of his work online. You can also find old hardback Collected Works of…" here and there for $10 or so. … ianity.htm

0 daughter Babylon, you wretch!
happy shall he be who will requite you
with the requital with which you requited us!
Happy shall he be who will grab your
and dash them against the rock!

I think God inspired the writers desire for justice but not the verbatim words. They were still under the Law of Moses which taught “an eye for an eye” and in fact this is what the Babylonians and other conquerors actually did. They often slaughtered the conquered so the writer envisioned an equal payment back to them. It also may be within the context of expressing outrage about the injustice and a cry for justice therefore it may be poetic to some extent , not meant to be understood literally.

I like the way you put that, Steve.

It is poetry - there’s quite a bit of literature on the ‘form’ that Jewish psalmists and poets used back in the day.

Here’s a real good one-page summary of the structure of Jewish ‘poetry’ - it is not rhyming poetry as we think of it, but more the rhyming of thoughts.
Very interesting. The psalms took a lot of thought and composition.

One important thing Coverdale does not mention is comparing scripture with other scripture.

As I was reading the Psalm above, I was remembering the times I have had to leave lands and neighbors that I loved, and had to learn to build and to plant and to seek the welfare of the place to which I was moved, as the Lord commanded through Jeremiah, which is not easy for the third and fourth time.

We are not called to where we want to go, even for the sake of religion - did Jesus not say in John 4, to the Samaritan woman, “woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. . . 23 but the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship him.
24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth."

When I first heard this Psalm, I got caught up in the poignant sentimentality of it but it seems that what sentimentality will get you is making foolish vows such as “let my right hand forget her cunning”, and “let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth”, and saying horrid vengeful things we will later come to regret about killing other people’s beloved children.

Good points.

Great thread.

Though i’ve read it many times in the past, and studied it throughout childhood as best i could, and have a hopefully reasonable grasp of the metanarrative, i find picking up the Bible somewhat intimidating. It’s partially because of all the thought that has to go into it…understanding who wrote what, with whom, to whom and for what reason and in what cultural context, in addition to what other scriptures tie into it…
that’s actually quite a huge task, but it’s necessary. Where do you start, though?

As for this Psalm, i think it’s quite beautiful that God would allow, if that’s the right word, an expression of human anguish such as this. I don’t know that we need to moralise it, except to say that God listens to our suffering and validates it. God will bring justice, as the rest of the Bible shows, and God is all about reconciliation, so while He listens to the call for vengeance from the oppressed…that doesn’t mean that He always acts in that way, necessarily.

I like the way you put that.

Great stuff Dave :smiley: I’m using Coverdale’s method along with Channing’s advice when looking at dem other Psalms (something else that you started up :smiley: )

I’m a bit awol - my brother and his wife have been staying with us and will be for another few days. It’s great having them here but it leaves little time to drop in on things.
But I have enjoyed what the rest of you have been doing, and I’ve learned a lot. :smiley: