Psalm 137

My favorite Psalm has always been Psalm 137. Far from an uplifting psalm, like the often-quoted “The Lord is my shepherd” (though of course all of the psalms are good), Psalm 137 is actually self-titled as a “Lament over the Destruction of Jerusalem”. In this psalm more than any other you can feel the pain and emotion coming through:

By the rivers of Babylon—
    there we sat down and there we wept
    when we remembered Zion.
On the willows[a] there
    we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
    asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
    “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How could we sing the Lord’s song
    in a foreign land?

Imagine this for a moment: Your Holy City has been sacked and virtually destroyed. You and your people have been kidnapped and enslaved, then spread out to what at the time must have seemed to be the four corners of the world. All you can do is weep. And now your captors want you to sing for their amusement! Can you imagine anything you would feel like doing less?

But worse, they’re asking you to sing one of the Holy songs of your people! This is not only horrifically humiliating, it is blasphemous. You can just imagine the pain of the poor man being forced to sing the songs of his people to his captors and tormentors. It is the most complete and total form of humiliation imaginable to us…excepting the Cross, of course.

And you must admire the courage of the psalmist and the people with him. They did not sing. They hung up their harps. They may have been slaves, but the songs of God were not to be sung for the amusement of their captors and their tormentors. Think of the incredible bravery it must have taken for these men to look their captors in the eye and refuse to sing.

There is more to the psalm. The rest of it:

If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
    let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
    if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
    above my highest joy.

Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites
    the day of Jerusalem’s fall,
how they said, “Tear it down! Tear it down!
    Down to its foundations!”
O daughter Babylon, you devastator![b]
    Happy shall they be who pay you back
    what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones
    and dash them against the rock!

The psalmist prays to God that he remember Jerusalem. In a way, he is asking for God to let him keep his strength and his humanity – his loyalty to Jerusalem, his memory of his people and his culture and his city, is the reason he was able to have that little bit of strength that enabled him to look his captor in the eye and tell him “No”.

Is it any wonder that he holds a grudge against Babylon? Can you really blame him? In the era of eye for an eye, the killing of the children of their captors would have been perfectly just, after all.

But in the end, it really just goes back to the heart of the psalm. This psalm is not a theological treatsie on God’s relationship to mankind or Jerusalem. It is not meant to comfort people. It is not meant for celebration. And it is not a time for strictly proper moral theology. Psalm 137 is a desperate plea to a God who must have seemed so, so far away. It is the pouring out of pure, honest emotion onto the page. Through the psalm the psalmist expresses his despair, his humiliation, his anger…and, despite all of that, his courage, and the courage of his people. In its own way it’s an uplifting psalm after all.

I will close this reflection by showing you all a beautiful musical rendition of verses 1-4, roughly translated. The song is from the musical “Godspell”, a play that gets an unfairly bad rap in the more conservative Christian circles (an attentive viewer will note that “Godspell” is never shy about the Bible’s descriptions of Hell and who can get there). Whatever your thoughts on the show the song is beautiful, and in context I will tell you that it’s incredibly emotional as well. Perhaps if we look at it again in the original context the emotion will bleed through regardless:

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3 Responses to Psalm 137

  1. Itinérante says:

    Did you know the Boney M had a interpretation of it?
    It is a bit funny how I discovered that, one time this psalm (that i really love)was so much on my mind but I lost the number and I asked my mum, “Mum do you know the psalm that starts with By the river of Babylon” and she paused a bit and said, “a psalm? I thought that was a song for the Bony M!”. I never knew who the Boney M were before her reference!

    This psalm makes me dream of the New Jerusalem!

  2. Ilíon says:

    Goodness! I haven’t seen any mention of Boney M for decades.

  3. Ilíon says:

    Here is Lamb’s rendition: Rivers of Babylon

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