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Psalm 137

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, 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, Lord, what the Edomites did on the day Jerusalem fell. “Tear it down,” they cried, “tear it down to its foundations!”

Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is the one who repays you according to what you have done to us. Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.

I normally begin these devotionals with a story, usually a personal story, that connects to the theme of the psalm (or the theme of a couple verses in the psalm); I usually tie that story to the psalm with a transitional sentence or some sort of interrogative designed to draw you in as a reader, not to my story, but to the story of the psalm and the larger story of the whole Bible.

Today I can’t seem to do that… Psalm 137 ends in a way that still shocks me when I read it seriously. I have said repeatedly that one of the amazing things about the psalter is that it gives voice to the whole range of human emotion. And not just giving voice as in “expressing”, but giving voice as in “giving divine permission to speak in that voice.” The psalter is beautiful because God puts on our lips the truth of our joy and our heartbreak; the truth of our celebration and our mourning; the truth that life isn’t just an oscillating back and forth between opposing emotional realities, but that at the same time we experience hope and hopelessness, tears of joy and tears of sadness; feelings of victory and defeat; justice hoped for and justice missed; faithfulness remembered and truth forgotten.

Especially for those of you who really only know a “cultural” Christianity, or who think that being Christian means only “doing good to all people”, Psalm 137 ends in a way that we would rather ignore. In fact, in 1970 the Roman Catholic Church published a new Liturgy of Hours, a way for believers to recite the entire Psalter over a 4-week period, in which certain psalms and verses are removed because they “are somewhat harsh in tone… especially because of the difficulties that were foreseen from their use in vernacular celebration.”[1] Also, the Revised Common Lectionary – a devotional  and worship schedule following the Christian calendar on a four year cycle, usually giving a ‘first reading’ from the Old Testament, a Psalm reading, a ‘second reading’ from the New Testament, and a fourth Gospels reading; it is recognized and used by contemporary English-speaking Roman Catholics and many liturgical Protestants – and it only provides one reading of Psalm 137, and that as an alternate to the alternative first reading (Lam. 1:1-6 & Lam. 3:19-26). The 1962 Book of Common Prayer for the Anglican Church of Canada lists Psalm 137:7-9 as omitted for use in worship. The Worship Sourcebook, published by the Institute for Christian Worship of Calvin College and Faith Alive of the Christian Reformed Church and used for worship planning by providing liturgies, litanies, prayers, and readings to correspond to the movements of a worship service locating the worship seasons according to the Christian calendar, includes zero readings of Psalm 137. Similarly, a popular devotional book for presbyterian and continental reformed Christians, Seeking God’s Face: Praying with the Bible Through the Year, includes collected readings from various scriptures, as well as from the historic confessions and catechisms of the tradition, structured similar to the Revised Common Lectionary – and which my family is reading after our evening meals together right now – also does not include a reading of Psalm 137:7-9.

Point is, it’s easy to sweep this under the rug because understanding it properly may prove a difficult task. 

Sometimes even the best of us falls into this temptation. Rarely would I be so bold as to criticize the conclusions of Augustine (4th c.) and C.S. Lewis (d. 1963), but both allegorized Psalm 137:9. Augustine says that we shouldn’t imagine actual babies, but rather that they are metaphors for our unique temptations; saying we should dash the temptations in our souls to pieces while they are just little.[2] Similarly, Lewis says that such psalms have “second meanings” and suggests instead that they are “small indulgences and small resentments” that grow into selfishness-es and “settled hatred.” Concluding, “Against all such pretty infants (the dears have such winning ways) the advice of the Psalm is best. Knock the little bastards’ brains out. And ‘blessed’ is he who can, for it’s easier said than done.”[3] 

Lewis’ way with words not withstanding – and fully accepting that the wisdom offered may in fact be best for those circumstances and situations – I think this misses the full reality of the Psalm.

Read in its context we have a group of exiles (slaves) taken from their homes at a young age – many of whom were young and had shown promise and would have likely been prosperous and people of note had this not occurred to them (cf. Dan. 1:3-5; 6-7 and Is. 39:6-7); these boys are sitting at the rivers of Babylon (possibly the Tigris and the Euphrates) remembering the songs of the their youth and homeland, recalling the promises of their God and the worship that took place in the temple before it was destroyed by the armies of Nebuchadnezzar. Into this moment of reprieve a group of Babylonians come and mock them, mock their worship, and ridicule their faith. Asking for them to “sing us one of the songs of Zion!” is a mockery of calling for songs of victory and worship when it appears that God has, at best, lost the battle; at worst, abandoned Israel.

In my own imagination it is not unlike the African-American slaves being ridiculed for singing spirituals like “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “Wade in the Water” and “Roll Jordan Roll” In the face of the injustices perpetrated against a race of people as slaves, the fact of worship is incongruous – and yet, it just such worship that choruses down through the ages as a call for justice.

Eugene Peterson says that in a world that can be full of great, radical evil, hate is often the first sign that we care. He adds, “We commonly neither admit or pray our hate; we deny it and suppress it. But if it is not admitted it can quickly and easily metamorphose into the evil that provokes it.”[4] The exile is read against the backdrop of Israel’s slavery in Egypt, where Pharoah killed 1000’s of infants out of his fear; others have suggested that this drastic measure only matches what the Babylonians did to Israel. What’s more, we know that once again another leader – this time one who was supposed to be from within – would also call for the killing of a generation of babies out of his fear. And, as Christians, we know that God’s son, Jesus, came into the world as an infant precisely so that he could be “crushed for our iniquities” (Is. 53:5).

Kevin Adams says powerfully, Psalm 137 is “a scandal only to those of us who have never [truly] suffered.” [5] Which is why, in the end I think we have to agree with John Calvin (ahhh, all is right with the world again, at least I can agree with Calvin after disagreeing with Augustine and Lewis…) – he writes, the psalmist “only employs words which God had himself authorized, so that this is but a declaration of a just judgment, as when our Lord says, ‘With what measure you use, it shall be measured to you again.’ [Mt. 7:2].”[6]

Because Jesus received a punishment he did not deserve, because he was crushed for my sins, I can – with eyes and ears wide open – enter into the laments and injustices experienced by others; and I can provide a voice for those feelings because God promises a just judgment whether on the cross or at the end of all things. What I can’t do is sweep it under the rug or minimize the experience of hurt and hate –Psalm 137 means I don’t have to… more than that, Psalm 137 doesn’t let me.

Holy and Just God, open my eyes and ears – and my heart – to the unseemly and unsightly plights of so many in our world today. Help me to enter into, and give voice on behalf of, hate and hurt. As Jesus did – even as he suffered my punishment – my I offer forgiveness to my enemies, and may I trust in “him who judges justly.” (1 Pt. 2:23). In Jesus’ name, Amen!

[1] Pope Paul VI, Apostolic Constitution, quoted in Kevin Adams, 150: Finding Your Story in the Psalms, 188.
[2] Cf. Augustine, “Exposition of the Psalms” in Philip Schaff, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series 1 Vol. 8 Available online.
[3] C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms, 113-14.
[4] Eugene Peterson, Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Pray, 98.
[5] Kevin Adams, 150: Finding Your Story in the Psalms, 199
[6] Calvin, Commentary on the Psalms, CXXXVII.8 pg. 197