Psalm 137 - If I do not remember you

1) 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?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither!
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.

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!’
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!
Psalm 137 (NRSV)
Not included in the Revised Common Lectionary.

The 137th psalm is one of the most important psalms, yet it is often treated like a bastard stepchild. Acknowledged, but not always welcome in the house and never invited to the formal occasions. It is never read in the most widely-used Christian schedule of readings for use in worship. Some hymnals and prayerbook omit this psalm while including most or all of the others. There are many musical settings of this psalm, yet almost all stop with verse 6.

Psalm 137 is not a nice psalm. It starts in sorrow, moves to trauma, and concludes by bringing child murder to the throne of God.

Israel had reason to hate the Edomites and the Babylonian empire. This psalmist sings of exile, how the music and the hymns and the joy and the glory are gone, because their home is in ruins, their wealth plundered, their Temple (and their God?) destroyed. And yes, their babies' heads smashed against the stones of Jerusalem. "If I forget you..." is directed not just to Jerusalem the city, but to the kith and kin slaughtered in its streets.

"Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us!" This is best understood literally. Back in Jerusalem there are stones stained with infants' blood.

We should find this revolting, but not shocking. I have never been in a situation where I could sincerely mean those words. My moments of murdrerous rage and hatred have had far less cause. Yet we know how real these words are. Just north of Jerusalem, children have been dying in Syria for the past seven years. Go east, the Iraq War has left tens of thousand of dead children. Go southeast: Yemen. Southwest: Sudan. Go west and you find refugees risking death to cross the Mediterranean. The Devastator is still at work.

It is much easier to talk about revenge in general terms. We know that we cannot walk away from our toxic waste, or long pretend it's not buried in our basement. Sooner or later it will come back to poison us and others.

There is only one way out of hell. And that is through the Holy One.

That is why this psalm belongs in the prayerbook. It just may be, that by offering murderous rage to the Lord, the victims of violence is doing the best they can, by remembering their potential victims before taking revenge.



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