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Psalm 137

Babylon

In many ways, in many places, this has been a bleak month. War, and more war…, suicide, riots,…

How can we sing God’s song in this context…

And we find people taunting us. We find our inner voices taunting us…

So Psalm 137 articulates this reality. In its time, the incredible had happened: the Southern Kingdom sacked, Jerusalem attacked, and most unbelievable of all, God’s house, the temple, destroyed. All but the lowest classes were dragged off to exile in Babylon.

By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows 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?

The psalm says we refuse to sing. We even put away our instruments.

We have been doing something the irony of which may be lost on some. We have been singing Psalm 137 together. We have been singing that we cannot sing; we have been singing that we will not sing!

TV3 reporter, Mike McRoberts, reported from the Gaza crisis

When I first saw five-year-old Maha Sheik Khalil I thought she was dead. Her tiny frame seemed so still. Then I was told shrapnel in the back of her neck and severed her spinal cord and she was unable to move. The hospital doesn’t have the equipment to operate on her and so she had spent four days just lying on her back.

In the faintest of voices she told me that her home in Shajaiya had been bombed and her mother and two sisters killed. She had been stuck under rubble for six hours before neighbours rescued her.

Between sobbing, my interpreter translated her story. We learned her she had two brothers somewhere else in the hospital but she didn’t know where.

The image of her lying there by herself with no one to comfort her still brings me to tears. I’m picking it will for some time. I was determined to show as many faces in my 3News stories as I could. I am sick of hearing about death tolls and the number of wounded. One innocent life lost is enough.

How do we sing God’s song when all we see is violence and there appears no hope for the future? How do you sing God’s cheerful song when you are is such a dark place – that you wish for death, one’s own or that of others. That is what we’ve been seeing recently. And how sad as I watched Maha on TV, this little girl, to hear her hope that the Israelis would be killed.

Psalm 137 is not saccharine piety. It’s not happy-happy-jolly-jolly spirituality. This lament ends:

O daughter Babylon, you devastator!
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!

This psalm is bleak, a lament; and angry.

In this psalm and other laments we are given some gifts and some challenges.

We are given the realistic spirituality in which we can be honest and admit things are bad; that we are in a dark place; that we are enraged.

A challenge is – that some of us may cause hurt in the lives of other, because some of us may not be sitting by the river weeping and ranting, some of us may be the oppressors, the destroyers, those in power in Babylon. Some of us enjoy the privileges of empire – how might we undo that and bring justice and good and joy and fulfilment and flourishing to all?

And then this ironic gift, where we can join together, in singing this psalm we are encouraged to help each other, to be a community. If we are struggling, if we are in a dark place – join together as friends, as a community – we can work against what is wrong in our lives, what is wrong in the world. Together.

Postscript: I had been trying to find out whether Maha had been airlifted to a hospital which could provide surgery for her. Thanks to Tom Rayner from Sky News who let me know “Paralysed Maha Sheik Khalil has crossed out of Gaza – her relative is with her. She’ll soon be on a flight to Turkey.” More information here.

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12 Responses to Psalm 137

  1. Yes, Bosco, it has been a very trying and depressing month, with violence, injustice and sadness dominating the news cycle.
    How we need resurrection joy, along with the honest recognition of the world in its fallenness.
    Some people have also made it a discipline to post on social media five or more things they are grateful for that week in their lives. ‘Count your blessings’ may sound corny in some ears, but cultivating gratitude can be a useful antidote to dismay and to envy.
    Anyway, even though I don’t always agree with everything you write, I think you are unfailingly gracious in your manner, and that’s a quality always to emulate.
    Christ is risen!

  2. One of the aspects of this psalm that speaks loudly to me is the position of the Jews in exile. They became speechless, voiceless – unable to sing, which is such an integral part of worship. I think of all the ‘voiceless’ peoples around the world, and I know that I must help fill that huge gap, in whatever way is open to me.

  3. Kieran puts is so well – cultivate gratitude. And yes, I wish a few other sites would emulate the graciousness you promote in your blog – a quality sadly missing in vast areas of society, and the Church!

    • Thanks, Graham-Michoel. And, yes, it is clear that we can work together at a culture – be it in an online community, like this one, or in real life – and that culture can be positive or damaging. Blessings.

  4. ‘My heart dances for joy, and in my song will I praise my Creator. The Lord is my strength.’ From the time we are small children we learn to sing, from example and from a place of joy even when we may not have any. If we come to know the love of our Lord, then this knowledge of His love for us never leaves us and we begin to worship Him. When tragedy hits our lives like a pummeling of bricks we have no other choice or desire but to praise Him for what blessings we have left. This is when we know that all along we have been right to believe in Him and called to worship His presence in our life continually, no matter. For He has never really left us behind and is ever strengthening our faith in Him. The concept of getting only what we give out works with God as well as our fellow humans and is teaching us to usher in His presence with psalms even as we hurt inside. Only in this way will we always remember our only real source of light and come to depend on it forever.

  5. The final verses, while difficult for many, are the most human in the psalm. When we are hurt, there is an impulse to strike out and to take revenge. How we work that out with God is the key.

  6. Yes , there are indeed more vital things than the shuffling of liturgy.
    I have long thought that possibly the most important psalm in the Judaeo-christian belief systems is 88.
    one must contemplate it last line

    darkness has become my only companion

    • Yes, Brian. Excepting that regularly praying Psalm 137 and Psalm 88 as individuals and as a community IS the shuffling of liturgy (not forgetting the psalms are liturgy). Blessings.

  7. Thank you Bosco But i continue to think there is too much emphasis on style and form liturgy should, can take- that is shuffling of liturgy.
    Other things are more vital to what I glimpse Christianity to be. I say this being someone who prefers an ordered and “cultured’ style of worssip.
    But I have just now read these comments by a retired Episcopal Bishop in Louisiana written after Hurrican Katherina.
    I think they are essential. I regret to say that often what I read here is about a cult That may be harsh but it is what I feel, including in my own church. We are with the guru and his cat ot Maha Sheik Kalil, James Foley, ebola victims, the darkness that is my companion

    Before the storm, “I thought Christianity and priesthood were primarily about the cult,” Jenkins said. “And doing the actions correctly — holding my fingers correctly at Mass, not wearing brown shoes when celebrating the Mass. That it was getting all those right.

    “And I was missing the larger picture of the dignity of humanity and the world for whom Christ died.”

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About This Site Welcome to this ecumenical website of resources and reflections on liturgy, spirituality, and worship for individuals and communities. It is run by Rev. Bosco Peters.

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