Reading Psalm 137 as a Microcosm of Discipleship

Psalm 137 is one of those wonderful and paradoxical passages of scripture that contains within itself a universe. Written from the Babylonian captivity, it starts with one of the more beautiful and haunting laments in holy writ:

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down,
yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.
We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.

For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song;
and they that wasted us required of us mirth,
saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.
How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?

If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.
If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth;
if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.

The sense of longing in the verses for a lost Jerusalem, the sense of being in the midst of a mocking and apparently all-powerful world does much more than evoke the feelings of ancient political captives. The emotional tone that the language sets captures at some viceral level part of what it means to be a disciple in a world that does not value discipleship. Its question — “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” — is the quandary of all believers living as strangers in a strange land. I find the reference to song particularly evocative. It could have asked something like, “How do I keep the laws of God in a strange land?” or “How do I explain the things of God in a strange land?”, but instead it couches the issue of religious identity in terms of song rather than practice or theology. In reacing for song we reach for something beyond law or doctrine to the deep and heartfelt joy of the Gospel. How does one capture this in a profane world? Even the KJV’s mis-translation — “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning” should probably be “let my right hand wither” — heightens the anxiety — Will I forget the City of God? Please don’t let it be so! — of being a sojourner, while paradoxically identifying the transcendent value of Zion with the most basic form of getting along in the world, the ability to use one’s hand.

The second half of the Psalm, however, whipsaws me from the eternal to the ugly:

Remember, O Lord, the children of Edom in the day of Jerusalem;
who said, Rase it, rase it, even to the foundation thereof.

O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed;
happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us.
Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.

This is harsh and vindictive stuff. Calling God’s judgment upon those who called for the end of Jerusalem. Even harsher, is the beatitude upon those who bash out the brains of Babylonian children.

What is interesting to me is to trace my own reaction and experience in reading this psalm. I savor the first half of it, pausing over the language and sinking myself and my spirituality into the emotional space that it creates. When I get to the second half of the psalm, however, my mind immediately begins racing with explanations and apologia. “This is just your typical, stark ancient vengeance rhetoric,” I think. Or “To read the Old Testament you have to understand it relative to an ancient baseline rather than a modern baseline — the important thing is to see how it varies from that baseline rather than the absolute position that it takes.” Or “Maybe…” And so on. Of course, I am not the only person to do this. Christians have been struggling with the second half of Psalm 137 for centuries, and it was one of the texts that the early Church Fathers used to develop the idea of allegorical reading of scripture.

I don’t really use the same exegetical moves when I read the first half of the psalm that I use when I read the second half of the psalm. I don’t think that this is evidence of some sort of debilitating inconsistency, but it does illustrate the point made by the pragmatists and other philosophers, namely that theory is something one does when there is a problem with one’s understanding. Most of the time, however, we seem to manage quite well without it. Indeed, there is a real sense in which my apparently atheoretical reading in the first half of the psalm is a richer and more meaningful experience. I only start building elaborate exegetical theories when I read the second half of the psalm. In this sense reading Psalm 137 is a microcosm of what it means to be religious. At times you soar effortlessly on the beauty of the gospel, and at times you struggle mightily to make sense of what seems ugly or harsh. And often, one is violently whipped from one to the other. That, I suppose, is part of what it means to be by the waters of Babylon.

If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.

12 comments for “Reading Psalm 137 as a Microcosm of Discipleship

  1. July 11, 2008 at 6:10 pm

    This is a beautiful post.

    As I read the Psalm I personally was reminded of a visit I once had with an older church member who, when we arrived at his home, sang to us a beautiful a cappella version of “I’m trying to be like Jesus” and then in the course of the lesson pronounced that God had permitted the creation of nuclear weapons to “kill all the muslim.” This was in the days or weeks after the 9/11 attacks and we were sitting in an apartment just accross the Hudson river from the still-smoldering carnage of the twin towers.

    Sometimes anger at the “other” causes blindness and good people cease to see others as human beings. I suppose if you were kidnapped and taken from your home you might wish genocide on the poeple who plundered and enslaved you.

    And even God’s chosen can have hatred in their hearts when tried to their limits by the injustice of others.

    This psalms invites me to see and question where such contradiction might reside within myself. Where does the ugliness in my sould butt up against my goodness, and how is it “ruining” my own song for Zion.

  2. July 11, 2008 at 6:13 pm

    How true. I’ve often struggled with the same dichotomy in this psalm, but your commentary on the split we make between theory and atheory helps. Life has such a grittiness to it that I often find myself confounded by that divide, but I guess the trick is to remember at the waters of Babylon even while dashing little ones into the stones, so to speak.

  3. Adam Greenwood
    July 11, 2008 at 7:10 pm

    Its actually quite easy to read the whole thing with appreciation. Its to the credit of Christianity and our modern wealth and technology that we have qualms.

  4. July 11, 2008 at 8:07 pm

    Thank you for sharing that.

  5. quin
    July 11, 2008 at 8:57 pm

    In cases like this, I often find when I resort back to the original Greek or Hebrew that other options open up to consider. The word used for happy in verses 8 and 9 is better translated as blessed as in “Blessed be His name” and they are praising God and comparing His righteous (and lawful and peaceful) ways to those who had enslaved them. I actually think the psalmist is saying that when Babylon is destroyed, it will be an act of justice and righteousness at the hands of God, rather than an act of evil at the hands of men in the manner that Jerusalem was destroyed. To me, it seems rather humble and deferential of them.

    Also, the word translated as stones is often used as a metaphor regarding God being the “rock” of salvation and security, and could refer to the idea that when Israel is restored to her promised land, the future generations (little ones) of their enemies would be scattered and smitten by God against the rock of His righteousness.

    Hebrew poetry has some observable characteristics, one of them is how they contrast ideas against each other. The first verses highlight the sorrow of God’s (temporarily) captive people and the last highlight a God whom their enemies can never conquer or oppress or make “sad” as has been done to them.

    I love the symbolism of the right hand and the tongue. If the psalmist truly is David, he seems to be saying that he would rather lose his treasured gift for singing and playing his harp than forget Jerusalem and the Lord (his greatest joy was singing praises through his music). It as if he is saying, nothing in this strange land should ever bring me as much joy as where we came from did. It is a deep teaching in today’s world.

  6. Cicero
    July 12, 2008 at 1:03 am

    No mention of the LDS application of this Psalm to the sacking and destruction of Nauvoo?

  7. Ronan
    July 12, 2008 at 6:17 am

    I’ve read a few economic texts from ancient Babylon either written by Judahites or which feature Judahites. Many (most?) of them did well for themselves in Babylon. Perhaps something else to consider wrt Psalm 137 is that it reflects what a zealous religious elite wanted its people to feel for Babylon and Jerusalem, not what they actually felt!

  8. Eric Boysen
    July 12, 2008 at 12:31 pm

    I’d like to think the rock that the little ones heads were to be dashed against was metaphorical, but I don’t think so.

    I think this psalm contains a truth, even in its ugly half. It lashes out in pain and the anguish of the soul. Modern understanding of grief expects anger as a requisite step before acceptance. I will not recoil from this very human feeling, even as I hope to transcend it if confronted with my own exile.

  9. July 13, 2008 at 2:22 am

    I can’t help but read this psalm and have the Melodians come to mind. What a beautiful song!

  10. Richard O.
    July 13, 2008 at 6:06 am

    Thank you Nate. Your prose and your insights move me.

  11. Mathew
    July 14, 2008 at 1:29 pm

    You capture very nicely the struggle to reconcile the things that make a person a believer with the things that discourage (in the emotional sense) belief. I admire the attempt to find some understanding of the the thing you find discouraging rather than simply discarding it. It seems to me that to do so is to take faith seriously. But I can hardly blame Babylon for not being particularly interested in what to the believer himself seem convoluted and strained attempts at reconciliation of the two. Which isn’t to say I think the believer should lament his or Babylon’s lack of understanding any less–but the result is that I understand Babylon better than Babylon understands me. And that inclines me to be more sympathetic than I expect in return.

  12. July 14, 2008 at 2:35 pm

    “the result is that I understand Babylon better than Babylon understands me. And that inclines me to be more sympathetic than I expect in return.”

    This strikes me as a deeply true statement. When I hang out with my colleagues at work, I feel like I have a much better sense of what it is like to be a secular, liberal academic in America than they have of what it is like to be a religious, Mormon academic in America. I am not sure that I am so good at turning the corner toward virtuous sympathy that you suggest, but I would like to think that I stumble in that direction from time to time.

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