bible blog 818

This blog provides a meditation on the Episcopal daily readings along with a headline from world news:

40 Tibetan suicides in the last year of Chinese rule

rage of the defeated

Psalm 137

Lament over the Destruction of Jerusalem

1 By the rivers of Babylon—    there we sat down and there we wept    when we remembered Zion.
2 On the willows* there    we hung up our harps.
3 For there our captors    asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,    ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’
4 How could we sing the Lord’s song    in a strange land?
5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem,    let my right hand wither!
6 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.
7 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!’
8 O daughter Babylon, you devastator!*    Happy shall they be who pay you back    what you have done to us!
9 Happy shall they be who take your little ones    and dash them against the rock!

the pain of exile

When Boney M made a famous reggae version of this psalm they missed out verses 7, 8 and 9, rightly reckoning that these would not meet with public approval.  The Rastafarian use of such psalms is part of a religious fiction which links Ethiopia with Israel and more generally, Afro-americans with their African homeland. The psalm reflects the situation of people forceably removed to a foreign land, in Israel’s case, to Babylon, where its elite was taken so that the nation could no longer trouble the “peace” of the area, that is, rebel against Baylonian imperialism. As far as we know, the Jewish exiles were not treated as slaves, but were allowed to carry on their own lives, so much so that when ultimately the emperor Cyrus freed the Jews, some opted to remain in Babylon.

The first part of the song reveals the bitterness of exile and a passionate longing for the native land. “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” expresses a feeling that we can imagine-to sing that song would bring to mind all the pain of exile-but perhaps not wholly identify with. I guess that I might especially want to sing a Scottish song in a place of exile. But it’s not just a “song of Zion” that is withheld, it’s the Lord’s song, because of course for the exile his God is identified with the land of Israel. Whereas I would be comforted in exile by the faith that God was just as much with me there as at home, that is not the faith of the Israeli psalmist. Knowing this, we can understand his peculiar pain: exile has deprived him of his God as well as his native land. The patronising Baylonian will not have understood this suffering.

The meaning of the psalm changed when Christian believers used “Babylon” as the code name for first of all, the Roman Empire, then for any oppressive political power and finally for the earthly city as opposed to the heavenly one. The psalm came to express the longing of people for freedom either from the oppression of a tyranical power, or from the trials of earthly existence. It is a powerful lament for all kinds of exile. 

Rage of the oppressed: Palestinian joy at 9/11

At least verses 1-6 are. But then the psalm explodes into an angry cry for vengeance. Those who rejoiced in the destruction of Jerusalem, let their cities be destroyed; and those who murdered innocent children in the tumult of war, let their children be smashed to bits with the same callousness! And now we know we’re not dealing with some kind of “acceptable” sense of exile but with the rage of someone who has watched the brutality of an enemy’s victory in war  and been humiliated by slave status (however blandly imposed) in the conqueror’s headquarters. This is the reality of military defeat, which can be easily overlooked by those who have never experienced it in their own land. It always involves human cruelty which sears the souls of survivors forever after.

The editors of the book of psalms left verses 7-9 as they are because they knew that the fury of the defeated exile had to be held up before God without apology. If God allows such things to happen, this will be the natural result. All victims, including Jewish victims, should read this psalm with care, so that they can look their own natural fury in the face; and all conquerors, including Jewish conquerors, should read it so that they can be reminded of the natural fury of their victims.

At a lesser degree of intensity it’s a salutary psalm for us all in our damaging and being damaged.

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