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!
Hang Up Your Harp
The writer of Psalm 137 begins by remembering his people being taken away from their home. Jerusalem had been attacked and conquered-the temple destroyed. Babylon, the victor, needed to dismantle the power base in Israel so that the people could not rebuild- so they rounded up all of their leaders, power brokers, or anyone with any kind of organizational prowess, and took them to Babylon. This is what's known as the exile.
Defeated, with the knowledge that their country had been ravaged, their homes ransacked and looted, many of their family members and friends had died during the struggle- they were being “carried"- "taken against their will” to what was, to them, a completely godless place. The psalmist writes how they had stopped on the journey, probably to rest by one of the canals of Babylon.
And as they sit down, the Israelites begin to cry; they are weeping for all they had lost, for their homeland, and also for their loss of God… God lived in the temple- the temple was destroyed... and the temple was in Jerusalem.
As they rested, maybe to pass the time, maybe to show their power, or maybe just for sport, the Babylonian captors begin to poke fun at their prisoners- to taunt them at the core of their pain… Mockingly they ask: “Sing us one of those songs of Zion”- meaning, one of the songs they used to sing in Jerusalem, most likely in the temple, in worship- a song about and for God.
(For movie buffs, it reminds me of the opening scene of Mel Brook's Blazing Saddles, without the comedy of course, where the black prisoners working on the railroad are taunted by the officers of the law who demand- "sing us one-a-them "n" songs...")
Seems horrible doesn’t it? How could people be so cruel?
Except this is not new to us… we have heard of seen this kind of humiliation technique before... In fact it's very similar to the way that African people came to this country- in chains, against their will, being taunted and broken... We shudder that it happened in our own nation, and we console ourselves by saying that it is only a dark, distant part of our history; except any thinking person knows that isn't true. Not only does it still happen, it’s all over the present day news… Humiliation practices have been used by people for centuries to gain additional power over the ones we have conquered/oppressed.
Somehow it isn’t enough to overpower a country, people group, or even an individual. There is something in a conqueror that won’t rest until the spirit of the victim is broken. It’s definitely the darker side of human nature… but it happens on all levels of society, in all cultures…. We've seen it in wars, yes, but also in business, in politics, in sports… something in us wants to see our opponent not just beaten, but crushed… punished…
And it is so much a part of us, we begin to witness it at a young age- the kid that is picked on or teased in the playground- the teenager who is bullied for being different; in fact, in recent years we have seen some very painful examples of teens who have who committed suicide from suffering this kind of humiliation. It's so prevalent that we now have incorporated anti-bullying into our public school curriculums... And one thing we know- there is nothing new under the sun...
So it's no surprise that the Babylonians would use this kind of tactic on those they captured. Except in this case, the Israelites refused to go down easy.
So here’s what happens, the Israelites sit down, they are crying, the Babylonian captors start taunting- "Sing for us… sing us one of your songs... you know... those Zion songs we heard at the temple... come on…"
But instead of singing, the people “hung up their harps.” In other words, they refused to cooperate- they refused to sing, or allow their captors to humiliate them or their God in that way- and they placed their harps in the trees or hid them in the foliage. So right there by the river of Babylon, they held a little protest demonstration.
We don't get to find out what happened to them. We don't know if they were eventually forced, or beaten, or broken that afternoon. All we have is a record of the protest. The writer of Psalm 137 reminds his people of that day, but then the Psalmist asks those in his present day, those living with him in exile in Babylon decades later... “How can we sing a song of Zion in a strange land?”
It is a question that the Israelites asked over and over during the exile. They were in a process of learning that God’s presence was everywhere- not just in Jerusalem in the temple, but even in Babylon- They were learning to be a “people of God” even without a homeland- even while being scattered, even without the temple…
And we can see part of that process in the next few lines…”If I forget you Jerusalem, may my right hand wither… may my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth…” You can almost see them- tears streaming down their cheeks, holding up their right hand taking an oath of solidarity.
We like the Israelites don’t we? …Many in this very room can identify with them... they are the victim- they are the oppressed- we cheer for the underdog, especially in this church and to hear that they fought back warms our hearts, inspires us to keep up the fight against racism, keep up the fight for LGBT rights, keep up the anti-bullying campaigns- to call our legislators and get out and vote for the good guys! AS IT SHOULD! Because frankly, had that little band of captors not “remembered "or taken this oath, and had just gone on their way, assimilating into Babylonian culture, our faith and our worship may look very different.
But we need to finish the Psalm… because I get a little freaked out when I hear these last verses… where my nice, non-violent non-compliant Israelite victims are now screaming for revenge…
"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! "(verses 7-9)
WHAT??? Smashing babies against rocks? Is that not taking things a bit too far? Babies didn’t do anything wrong… they are innocent… and we don’t like innocents to suffer, not even in our own wars- Yet the depth of the pain was so deep that this was their cry- 'I want them to suffer like we had too; I want them to feel the pain that I am feeling… I want them to pay for what they did; God, give them worse than what they did to us…'
Does it make anyone else uncomfortable?
But like it or not, this is exactly the kind of thing that makes the Psalms so relevant to our lives. There is a sense of letting it out- a sense of no holds barred… the psalmist is expressing maybe a side of ourselves that we don’t like to look at, but one that is real for those of us who are brave enough to admit it.
The interesting thing, as other scholars have noted, is that this Psalm was written and rewritten and edited numerous times over the centuries. Isn't it amazing that no one ever edited this out? That no one, over time wanted to make the ancients into Pollyanna believers… that they didn't have them say something more 'Christian-cliché-ish' like, "Well, we are out of our homes, our families have been raped and killed and we are being taken against our will to a horrible place… but Praise God all things work together for good… forgive them their trespasses Lord…"
No! These people were suffering and hurt and pissed! And their thirst for violence is recorded for us, and truly, I thank God it is. Not for the reasons that you think. Not because it allows me to feel those things, or normalizes for me the times I do feel those things. These are horrid thoughts, and there is shame that comes with having them at all…
I am saying 'Praise God they have been left in' because in the world we live in, those words haven’t yet disappeared… violence is still all around us- whether we recognize it, or choose to ignore it, violence is a part of the world in which we live. And, although we prefer to see ourselves as the victim and many of us are... you can take your pick as to what you may be a victim of this week, year… decade… everything from what we've already mentioned- bullying, racism, inequality- to government shut down to the economy to personal hurts from bruised relationships... doesn't have to be a global or national offense for someone to feel victimized.
So as much as we know what it feels like to be the victim, like it or not, we are also many times the oppressors… notably- our nation is a lot like Babylon in the eyes of some around the world. Even if our intention is well meaning... even in the name of the greater good, even if our mission is to “correct” the wrongs of others…make no mistake, these words have undoubtedly been said against us… And it doesn't have to be national- even on a personal level, we may have hurt someone to where they utter these words about you and I...
I’m glad this has been left in… because whether we see ourselves on any given day as either the oppressor or the oppressed, we are out of sync with what God has called us to be in the world… that as long as violence remains and oppression remains, and injustice remains and conquering remains… we, as a people of God, always have to ask the question… “How can we sing the Lords song in a foreign land?” How, when there is so much pain in the world, do we determine how to act as agents of peace?
Well, for one thing we can look back to the psalm for help… They didn’t even know it, and perhaps the psalmist didn’t even know it… but that little band of captives in the beginning, the ones who threw their harps into the trees in protest... they were actually singing God’s song…
They band together on the bank of the river and said, “No more.” They wept at the injustice around them, and then they said “No more.” They were taunted to participate, and they knew that by refusing it would cost them, but they said, “No more!”
It’s time for the people of God in our day and age to band together and say, “No more!:” "No more" to injustice, “no more” to oppression, “no more” to bullying or hatred, or violence, “no more” to the systems that promote violence… “No more” to the things we let slip by because we are too busy or too stressed or too small to do anything about on our own, because God didn’t put us here on our own!
And church, it’s time to say, ‘No more,’ to thinking of ourselves and our church as some kind of an island paradise, where we can go once a week to meet God… where we can hide from the things of the world and pretend just for an hour that they don’t exist. Our church instead, can be… is... the bank of the river of Babylon… it’s the place we go every week and sit together... and we can weep for Zion… and we can pray for the poor and the marginalized and the hopeless… but it’s also a place where we can decide together how we can and will stand up and say, ‘no more.’ How we can hang up our harps- and sing the Lord's song in a foreign land…