Matthew 5Among many other reasons, it's noteworthy for it's celebration and esteem of those behaviors that are not typically rewarded or successful in this life. This is exactly Jesus' point. These are behaviors and attitudes that pay dividends into the future, into the life. It's certainly idyllic and utopic, exactly what heaven should be, and Jesus wants his heavenly kingdom to start on earth. It's not like these postures of the heart are repulsive, but they are not keys to success in our dog eat dog world.
1 Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, 2 and he began to teach them.
3 Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5 Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
7 Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
8 Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9 Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Beatitudes are not new with Jesus. They sprinkled in the poetry and prophetic books of the Old Testament and in some of the inter-testamental books. In the Sermon on the Mount they are concentrated by Jesus. In contrast to these hopeful aspirational blessings, one of the Psalms has this,
Psalm 137:8 Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is the one who repays you according to what you have done to us.But John, cheer up, you don't have to defend verses like this. You don't have to claim David wrote this under a prophetic inspiration from God, predicting the destruction of Jerusalem and the ensuing lament, as some do online. You don't have to soften this as righteous longings for justice written hyperbolically. You can appreciate the deeper searching of the early church theologian Origen, who sought the allegorical meaning in this passage, a hatred of his own sin. Origen saw a similarity between this bombastic beatitude and Jesus' own prescription for dealing with sin, in the same Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus says
9 Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.
29 If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.Jesus is provocative and Origen follows Jesus' lead here and applies it to Psalm 137 and focuses inward. If only all members of the church would look inward instead of outward and find justification for all sorts of wickedness literally acted out in the world. Recently, a popular American Christian magazine published an article online, in response to the threats of fundamentalist Muslim terror groups, proposing 3 options for Muslims in American, deportation, sterilization, or genocide. Conversion was not considered an option as the Bible literally reads, in that author's opinion, that the Arabs are under a curse and incapable of conversion. It's horrifying that Jesus' opinion does not rate with that author. I'll talk more about this later on in this series.
The simplest response to this Psalmist's so-called blessing is to say it's not Christian. It contradicts the direct teaching of Jesus. In fact it contradicts Proverbs 24:17. It's biblical, but it's not Christian. Contradiction is a harsh word for fundagelicals like yourself. In softer, non-threatening terms it is part of a conversation within the Bible, between its human authors, with their God. It's only in the full revelation of Jesus do we know for certain, what we suspected all along, this is not approved by Jesus. Unlike the easily recognized snake in the garden of Eden, this one slipped in at the end of a song of lament. It's part of the story, but it's not from Jesus.
Next time I will look at one or two places where Jesus explicitly disapproves parts of the Old Testament.
For further research about this Psalm please consider these links.
- Another blogger gives much up front consideration of fundagelical apologetics for this verse and still says, "this is worse than catharsis and in contradiction with other parts of the Bible" referencing C.S. Lewis own struggles with the imprecatory Psalms.
- Reverend Jeremiah Wright of Chicago, former pastor of Barack Obama spoke from this Psalm shortly after the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks. He says it as the shocking cycle of violence that needs to be stepped out of and away from, by trusting Jesus and the extremely high risk, but even higher reward Jesus promises.
- Old Testament theologian, Julia M. O'Brien writes: "Historically, interpreters disturbed by passages like this have tried to 'fix' them. The church father Origen, for example, read the psalm allegorically: when Psalm 137 says happy are those who bash the enemy’s infants against the rocks, he claimed that it meant to dash your sins against the rocks of reason." Her blog on violence in the Bible is wonderful.