If anyone had told me that this song had great meaning for Jamaicans; that for some it was a reflection on their Hebrew history and on slavery, I would have been very puzzled. To an extent I still am. Because I don't carry a familial memory of slavery,and therefore my first point of contact with this Psalm was from a different perspective - that of anger and revenge. But let's look, firstly at the words of the Psalm itself.
Psalm 137 (NRSV)Here is the Jamaican version:
1By the rivers of Babylon— there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.
2On the willows there we hung up our harps.
3For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
4How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?
5If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither!
6Let 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.
7Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem’s fall, how they said, “Tear it down! Tear it down! Down to its foundations!”
8O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us!
9Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!
I think it's quite interesting that the songwriters have taken the first part of the Psalm, then added the prayer "may the words of our mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight here tonight". Were they asking God to accept their lament? Or were they sanitising this Psalm to miss out the nasty bits at the end?
This Psalm tells us how it feels to be defeated; how it feels to have fought and lost; to have seen killing and unspeakable cruelty, to thirst for revenge of the same kind. It tells us what it is like to be that bird in a gilded cage, and to be asked to sing for the amusement of others - to deny or hide one's own feelings for expediency; to be ridiculed and tormented, and expected to forget your own culture and assimilate with something that seems barbarous to you. Babylon was a modern city in the desert with running water, lush with trees and rivers, and apparently impregnable. It was luxurious, but there was no temple in Babylon - the temple was in Jerusalem, and the inhabitants of Babylon worshipped other gods.
This isn't simply the story of people in the 6th century BCE; it is the story of all displaced peoples today, of those in slavery, of those who cannot live in the place they call home, of those who feel required to perform against their nature for others in business - for everyone who finds themselves in a 'foreign land', physically or emotionally.
We hear the lament of a dispossessed people; suffering the shock and trauma of discovering that the covenant that they thought would protect them as God's chosen people forever, did not stop the enemy from entering the holy of holies and carrying off the treasure from the temple, or themselves to slavery in a foreign land. The lament is deep and poignant. Their despair echoes through the centuries and sounds chords in us.
Let's look at the two key topics of the Psalm.
Firstly, the idea that God can't be worshipped from the ‘foreign land’, from where we are.
God's glory and majesty was believed to be centred in the holy of holies, in the temple in Jerusalem. That was where people joined together to worship, as God's chosen, special, covenanted people. Yet, when they were dispersed, did God remain in the temple, away from them? We know they thought they were being punished for not upholding their side of the covenant... and we know they found hope again - hope that was fulfilled.
14Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! 15The Lord has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies. The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more. 16On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: Do not fear, O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak. 17The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing 18as on a day of festival. I will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach for it. 19I will deal with all your oppressors at that time. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. 20At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes, says the Lord. Zepahaniah 3:14-20 NRSV
This wasn't the only time that the people were separated from the centre of worship in the temple at Jerusalem - the Jewish people still are. We don't know the details of the whole process; how they moved through disbelief and grief to acceptance and new patterns of behaviour, but we know that the Hebrew people retained their history, their faith in God even when they thought God had turned away from them, and their covenant identity, while dreaming of worshipping again at Jersualem.
How did they discover that God hadn't turned his face against them, or remained in the temple alone and unworshipped, but was with them in exile, walking with them through the pain and darkness? Did they find other truths about suffering and recovery to sing as they journeyed? What did that experience of growing in understanding of God do for their faith?
Do we sometimes think of God as distant? How does is change our prayers when we think about Jesus suffering and walking with us? Can we think of times when we have found God in unexpected places? That's a whole set of ideas to explore, and the experience of 'misplacing' our connection with God is one that many of us have been through. For a lot of us that isn't a permanent state, but the experience of coming through it can be liberating and faith deepening.
The second main theme here is the wish for revenge. It seems to be programmed into us as a default; even when I banged my head this week, my initial response was shock and anger that lasted for a few seconds while I worked out how badly hurt I was (not very!)
The last words of this Psalm speak of the fury of the helpless, of those who have witnessed horror, and who want to turn that shocked energy back in hatred.
We know that rage is a normal response as a part of the process of dealing with shock and grief. It is totally understandable, and many of us can identify with the feelings expressed, even though we might shy away from them. I think we should read these, recognise their raw honesty, and notice that these are words used in worship.
Lament is worship – it is about bringing our whole selves before God, just as we are, recognising the truth of our condition. When we have moved on, as our faith has, through Jesus and his teaching of love and forgiveness, then we can look back and say, ‘Yes, we have moved on, our relationships are different now, God has been faithful and has worked with us’. That’s a valuable lesson for all of us next time we are in pain.
We know that revenge is part of a cycle of destruction that rejects forgiveness, seeks retribution - to 'get even' - as if anyone can ever restore their loss by hurting someone else as they have been hurt. Pain can be exponential - Mahatma Ghandi said, "An eye for an eye and soon the whole world is blind"
Yet, there is another way; trauma can be healed - even in places like Rwanda today there is reconciliation. It’s a message that the peacemakers of the world are taking to troubled nations, and it’s one we need to apply in our own lives. Jesus commanded us to love one another, to love our enemy, he said, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers.’
That's one of the reasons why this is one of my favourite Psalms today. It speaks truth through centuries, about being human. And it marks a milestone in a journey of God’s people; a place that tells us where we are and how much further we have to go. It may be a point of rest, but it is a temporary rest. We must not mistake the milestone for the destination.
The words of this Psalm have a level of honesty that is necessary in our relationship with God, for when we fully acknowledge where we are, and who we are, then we can let God deal with us and change us and heal us.
And when God heals us of our own sense of being victims, and of our need for revenge, it enables us to use those experiences, to empathise with others, to redirect our anger to seek justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God.