Psalm 137 is a brutal psalm. To some, it may sound more like an SEC fight song gone wrong. How on earth are we to get “good news” out of a psalm that ends talking about the murder of children? Why on earth would anyone sing this psalm as part of worship? How could they?
Well, in my tradition, we do: Orthodox Christians sing Psalm 137 as part of our worship. Now it is read every Friday morning as part of a block in which we read through the entire book of Psalms every week, but it is chanted solemnly, on the three Sundays before Great Lent, at the All-Night Vigil in preparation for the Divine Liturgy. This service commemorates the resurrection of Christ, and in this period, before we begin 40 days of fasting, penance, and prayer, we give this rather harsh psalm a key position.
But why? Why sing a spiteful song about the fall of Jerusalem and the beginning of the Babylonian exile at a service highlighting the resurrection of Christ? No matter how much you spiritualize the text or highlight the hyperbole, it’s a rough psalm; and a hard one to sing, much less pray.
I’ll be the first to admit that it isn’t one of those that you stick to the mirror or refrigerator. It’s not a mantra or a promise of God that you’ll see touted in an Evangelical bestseller. It’s not on the Royal Ambassadors Scripture Memorization list. It’s not listed in your teen reference Bible as a place to go for comfort.
But it’s one of the most powerful expressions of love for one’s city, one’s homeland, and the feeling of despair that comes when you’re separated from it, perhaps forever. The Psalm concludes in a surprisingly visceral and dramatic way. It’s pretty harsh … not something you’d expect to be sung in church. It’s about the city, sure, but what does that have to do with the Gospel? What does it have to do with Christ?
Everything… This psalm has everything to do with the Gospel. This psalm was written in the context of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Exile to Babylon in 586 B.C., but this story has more to do with the Gospels than we might think.
The Psalm opens to a scene of Jerusalemites, inhabitants of what was Zion, that great city. They are no longer there, protected by the walls of their city, the womb of their mother, Zion. But they are instead sitting on the bank of a foreign water way, the Euphrates river valley, and they’re weeping, crying rivers of their own in remembrance of the siege that they feel cursed to have survived.
They hang up their lyres, their harps, their musical instruments on the trees, like prisoners on the gallows, for they’d rather have them be silent, dead, and without movement than be used for the amusement of their captors, those who crushed their city and slaughtered their families without remorse.
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” they laugh, but the captives cry out, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land…?” For the song of Zion is the song of the Lord for the psalmist, that holy city that couldn’t fall, for God was with it. Or so they thought…
The psalmist then makes a series of remembrances. He calls to mind his memory of Jerusalem, invoking a curse on himself if he forgets Jerusalem, if it doesn’t remain his highest joy and the pinnacle of his highest hope. But his calls for recollection take a darker turn; he calls out to God: “Remember O Lord, how the Edomites, the descendants of the supplanted Esau, on the day of Jerusalem said, ‘Raze it! Raze it down to its foundations!'” He concludes in a roar, lashing out at the great city of Babylon: “O daughter of Babylon, You devastator! You destroyer of our life; Happy shall he be who requites you with what you have done to us! Happy shall he be who takes your little ones; and dashes them against the rock!”
Whoa… There is of course a bit of a revenge fantasy here, but there’s more than just a desire for the attackers to be paid back in spades; it’s more than just the well-worn tit-for-tat of the Middle East. It’s hyperbole, but it’s hyperbole that is used to make a specific point and to make it abundantly clear. This is about the destruction of a city, the end of existence, at least for the psalmist. This exile and its scriptural component in Jeremiah and Ezekiel is unlike anything else in history. The story of God’s destruction of Jerusalem is unique. It’s not just any city. But then, what is a city? What is its purpose?
In the Ancient Near East, any government, nation, or tribal coalition had a city, the center of that people’s universe. People went out during the day, farming the land outside the city, grazing their animals, fishing and felling trees; but at night, they came back to the city and the gates were shut. The walls, the gates, were about protection. But even more powerful than the stone walls was the temple of stone that housed your god, the god that protected your city. He was the creator of your world.
That God brought you rain, kept your women and cattle fertile, and kept the storm and sickness at bay. Now that God is the Father of your City. And God placed a person in charge, a king, and the king became his son, for lack of a better term. He was his emissary. This king’s job is to uphold the God-given laws; he issues decrees and enforces them. At the palace you bow before the king, but everyone, the king leading the congregation, bows down to God. So this is your world: your city, your king, your God.
And in the story of Judah, the king and the people get lax. They pay lip service to the deity. When their prayer isn’t answered, they try something else. The king focuses not on the law given to him by God, but on the regional politics. And slowly, God is forgotten, a vestige of our cultural milieu. But when a neighboring king leads his army from another city to your city and sacks it, tears down your idols and your temple and places the idol of his own god, your world is turned upside down.
You rationalize: obviously their god was stronger than mine. But with Israel, it’s different. Scripture tells us that the destruction of Jerusalem is not a battle that God has lost to Marduk or any other Babylonian idol. No, the desecration of his temple wasn’t proof of God’s weakness to protect his people, but rather was a show of his strength.
God destroyed his city. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob sent the Babylonians to desecrate his temple and to devastate his people. God did that to his people, because they forgot God. They forgot that their God was The God, the God of heaven and earth, the Most High, the God over Jew and Gentile. Instead of living according to the Law, and being a light to the Gentiles, a glory to God and an example to the nations, they became just like the nations.
God says of them: “my people have forgotten me, they burn incense to false gods.” Jeremiah warns, “You have eyes and heart only for dishonest gain, for shedding blood and for practicing oppression and violence.” And in Lamentations: “The Lord has done what he purposed, has carried out his threat, as he ordained long ago.” Still, no one expected it or knew how to cope. And this story of God getting our attention with the unexpected, the unthinkable, continues.
Jesus, tells his disciples about the coming destruction of Jerusalem and after it happens, the writers of the New Testament reflect on it: the utter shock of Jerusalem being wiped away, the order that they knew, gone. This is not what they expected. Where was this Messiah that was to bring an end to Roman oppression? What of this Messiah that was to bring the Kingdom of God? Now what they thought was his throne is shattered: no more.
The people of Israel in Psalm 137 are blinded by rage and pain; they’re lost. They had an ideal, an expectation, in their head, one of unending peace and prosperity (despite their lack of love for God and their neighbor), and it’s shattered. Similarly, the disciples in Acts, who ask Christ at His ascension, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?,” had built up a city in their own minds with a throne and a king of their own making—a palace and a temple of their own design.
Scripture is at times like a mirror held up to our human condition. We see our fears, our doubts, our deepest and darkest thoughts. In Psalm 137, though we may look away at the ending, we are not so far from the exilic writer.
That desire to feel safe, to believe that God is somehow on our side, is in our corner, is there for us, is just as strong today in this great, pluralistic, democratic nation. We’re still worried, stressed, and scared about our future. And the reality of revenge, of anger, against those we see as Babylonians, our perceived enemies, can still drive us to hate those we are called to love.
Increasingly, I hear from other Christians, across denominational and geographical lines, about a perceived war against them, that they are victims of bigotry, prejudice, and intolerance, that there’s a war on Christianity and family values.
And these “evil” people, fighting against God’s chosen ones (us, of course), become the targets of our anger, of our vitriol, of our contempt, and we think we’re doing God a favor. We feel that we somehow have to defend God and His Church; that He needs us to save everyone else and get them to start acting right; that we’ll somehow save the day. We spend millions of dollars supporting this candidate, or that cause, or this ministry, but forget that Christ has overcome the world.
And too often we describe ourselves, our life in Christ, by using negatives instead of positives: we don’t do this, we don’t support this, and we’re “pro-this” (when the opposite is meant), we’re against this or that segment of the population. They just won’t fit in our city.
We too build up a city for ourselves, a city made up of us and ours, with walls and gates built not as a sanctuary for all who seek life, but as a bunker for those we think deserve to live. But when this shelter is threatened, when disaster strikes, when crisis comes into our live, and that illusion of a calm haven is shattered, we despair, or worse, we lash out and fight to protect what’s ours.
Just before the armies of Babylon arrived, Jerusalem, the walled city, was happy in their comfort zone, and they didn’t feel the need to uphold or share the Law they’d been given. They became insular, greedy, and distrusting of anyone who wasn’t them. And only when God smashed their very foundations were they forced, or perhaps given the opportunity, to live amongst those they had despised, those whom they’d hated—those whom they didn’t know.
We are so focused on our ministry or our cause, we’ve hijacked the Gospel as a vehicle, forgetting our first love.
We are so riled up about this or that issue in society that we have forgotten that, no matter what their sins or proclivities, their soapbox or political party, They, the people we don’t agree with, are made in the image of God, sinners just like us.
We’re just plain scared. We’ve been beaten and bruised, hurt by so many horrible events in our lives, that we just want to be safe, even if it means staying inside our fortress: our church, our circle, our home, our own mind.
But there’s so much more that God has in store for us. Remember what God spoke to those in exile through his prophet Jeremiah: “…build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. … Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” It is in seeking the welfare of our neighbors, of those who hate us, our enemies (whether real or imagined), that we find our peace, not in any elaborate make-believe Christian bubble that we create for ourselves, to protect us from “the world.”
St. Paul, the persecutor turned preacher, writes to new exiles, the Diaspora: “So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Therefore let us go forth to him outside the camp, and bear the abuse he endured. For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come.”
Our Lord suffered outside the gate; he was hung upon a cross and died. He was buried and was raised to life by his Father, so that we might become heirs to his Kingdom, his everlasting city; that we might be able to live forever with His Father, as our Father, co-heirs of this inheritance. However, it means suffering outside the gate of our city, today; it means bearing the abuse he endured in order to enter into that city which is to come. We can’t build it ourselves, but must rather heed the Shepherd’s voice and enter the door that He has opened: the door of the Cross.
Today, deconstruct the city that you’ve built with your own stones. Better yet, leave it behind and sit down by the waters of Babylon—The World, the seductive world, that we love and desire, yet hate and fear—and sob, cry, weep, and wail. They won’t know that you’re weeping over your lost castle of pride, of self-satisfaction, of religiosity. Indeed, they might not notice at all; there are a lot of tears out here in Babylon.
But once you catch your breath, get to know the people of Babylon, outside your city walls. And instead of dreaming of their destruction, fantasizing about their failure, or hoping for their harm, let go! Instead of boycotting and bullying this group or that, befriend them and be a blessing to them, not in order to trick or convince them, but because it is an opportunity for you. You can encounter Christ where you least expect it. Be around them; get to know them; learn to love them.
Because only by suffering with them, outside the gate of your city, will you find Jesus Christ.
Fr. James Parnell is a third year seminarian at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. You can read more about the experience of Orthodox preachers at the 2013 Festival of Young Preachers here.
 Psalm 137:3-4 (RSV).
 Psalm 137:5 (RSV).
 Psalm 137:8-9 (RSV).
 Jeremiah 18:15 (RSV).
 Jeremiah 22:17 (RSV).
 Lamentations 2:17 (RSV).
 Jeremiah 29:4-5, 7 (RSV).
 Hebrews 13:12-15 (RSV).