Reflection on Psalm 137

Psalm 137

By the rivers of Babylon we sat mourning and weeping when we remembered Zion. On the poplars of that land we hung up our harps. There our captors asked us for the words of a song; Our tormentors, for a joyful song: “Sing for us a song of Zion!” But how could we sing a song of the LORD in a foreign land? If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand wither. May my tongue stick to my palate if I do not remember you, If I do not exalt Jerusalem beyond all my delights. Remember, LORD, against Edom that day at Jerusalem. They said: “Level it, level it down to its foundations!” Fair Babylon, you destroyer, happy those who pay you back the evil you have done us! Happy those who seize your children and smash them against a rock.

As I have learned more and more about the great Magisterium, or teaching office of the Catholic Church, I have come to find that many of the guidelines set forth in Scripture, the Catechism, Canon Law, the writings of important members of the Church, and other sacred texts exist not to hinder me or prevent me from living a full life, but exist, rather, to enable me to find true and absolute freedom. A cursory glance at the written word does not always provide us with the opportunity to truly understand what is being taught to us, and often limits our thoughts to serve only pragmatic purposes. That is not to say that all interpretation of written word should be understood in an allegorical or illusory sense, but there certainly is merit in delving more deeply and uncovering meaning that is beyond the surface level.

For this author, one such occurrence of this was with Psalm 137. When I was in high school, I had the opportunity to assist with the editing of a well-done musical arrangement of the song “On the Willows” for the school’s production of Godspell. As a musician, and a very “wise” teenage, I zealously related to the idea of being oppressed by those who I perceived as captors and had terrifying it was to imagine that I would be unable to practice my art. For me, the psalm was a rallying cry to stand up to being held down. I also perceived the willow to be the Cross on which Christ would be Crucified, and the life being spent to only being his. Fortunately for me, I later discovered that I was largely mistaken about my interpretation.

Psalm 137 is a song of lamentation for the destruction of Jerusalem and the Babylonian Exile, a heartfelt prayer for liberation and an expression of longing for the Holy City. When the Jews were exiled from Jerusalem in the sixth century, they were relocated to Babylon. They mourned not only because they had been deported, but also because everything they knew to be true was taken from them. Their lyres actually represented their lives, which they attempted to raise above the twisted and fouled waters that flowed at their feet, and fed the trees on the shore. Saint Augustine speaks of the waters of the river as watering barren trees which bring forth no fruit; just as there are men greedy, covetous, barren in good works, citizens of Babylon in such wise, that they are even trees of that region; they are fed there by these pleasures of transitory things, as though watered by the waters of Babylon. They seek fruit but it is nowhere to be found.

They were also unwilling and, in a sense, unable to sing. Saint Augustine also notes, we are tempted by the delights of earthly things, and we struggle daily with the suggestions of unlawful pleasures; scarce do we breathe freely even in prayer: we understand that we are captives. But who led us captive? What men? What race? What king? If we are redeemed, we once were captives. Who has redeemed us? Christ. From whom has He redeemed us? From the devil. The devil then and his angels led us captive: and they would not lead us, unless we consented.

In an address he gave in December of 2005, then Pope Benedict XVI said of this part of the psalm that:

“Involved in the psalmist’s words are the hand, tongue, palate, voice and tears. The hand is indispensable for the one who plays the lyre. But it has remained paralyzed by sorrow because, moreover, the lyres have been hung on the willows. The singer needs the tongue, but now it cleaves to his palate. The songs of Zion are the Lord’s canticles they are not folkloric songs or performances. Only in the liturgy and in the freedom of a people can they rise up to heaven.”

The grief among the captives was great, they were still hopeful that they would be rescued by their savior. And although they were mocked and persecuted, they would not give way to sinfulness. Before the introduction into the world of the redemption and salvation made possible by Jesus Christ, people assumed that salvation was a literal and experiential principal, understood only in physical terms. There was no sense that what was given by Jesus Christ would be eternal. The prayers and worship offered by the people was important, but did not did not carry the weight of significance that Jesus Christ would add through his death and resurrection.

The Psalm also refers to the person of Edom: a Jewish name for Esau. Just as Babylon and Jerusalem are portrayed as two cities that invite two presences in the world, so do Esau and his brother, Jacob. Babylon represents despair, sorrow, and the devil. Jerusalem is a promise that represents goodness, joy, and eternal salvation. In a similar way, Esau represents the carnal; Jacob represents the spiritual. This idea is found in Paul’s letter to the Romans, the literal rendering being “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.” This suggests an attitude of divine hostility that is not implied in Paul’s statement. In Semitic usage “hate” means to love less. Israel’s unbelief reflects the mystery of the divine election that is always operative within it. Mere natural descent from Abraham does not ensure the full possession of the divine gifts; it is God’s sovereign prerogative to bestow this fullness upon, or to withhold it from, whomsoever he wishes. The choice of Jacob over Esau is a case in point.

The final image in the Psalm is that of the destruction of children. There are historical events when this occurred, but the idea presented here is that the destruction of children represents the destruction of an entire generation. On the spiritual level, Saint Robert Bellarmine, in his commentary upon the psalms, sees an allegory here in which the children dashed against the rock are those who are brought to the Rock which is Christ and who are put to death to their former way of life, to be reborn into new life and salvation. Furthermore, with regards to the “innocence” of the infants who were killed, in the bigger picture it may have been an act of mercy; for if these infants have been rewarded eternal life and happiness in their innocence, far better that than to have grown up in a corrupt pagan environment which may have led to their eternal damnation at the time of their death. The justice and mercy of God extend beyond the grave and we must remember this when confronted with such circumstances of the ancient world—and the present.

Saint Augustine provides us with excellent words to live by. He says:

“Brethren, let not your instruments of music rest in your work: sing one to another songs of Sion. Readily have ye heard; the more readily do what you have heard, if you wish not to be willows of Babylon fed by its streams, and bringing no fruit. But sigh for the everlasting Jerusalem: whither your hope goes before, let your life follow; there we shall be with Christ. Christ now is our Head; now He rules us from above; in that city He will fold us to Himself; we shall be equal to the Angels of God. We should not dare to imagine this of ourselves, did not the Truth promise it. This then desire, brethren, this day and night think on. Howsoever the world shine happily on you, presume not, parley not willingly with your lusts. Is it a grown-up enemy? Let it be slain upon the Rock. Is it a little enemy? Let it be dashed against the Rock. Slay the grown-up ones on the Rock, and dash the little ones against the Rock. Let the Rock conquer. Be built upon the Rock, if you desire not to be swept away either by the stream, or the winds, or the rain. If you wish to be armed against temptations in this world, let longing for the everlasting Jerusalem grow and be strengthened in your hearts. Your captivity will pass away, your happiness will come; the last enemy shall be destroyed, and we shall triumph with our King, without death.”

Psalm 137 is not commonly found in the lectionary. It only appears once – during the fourth Sunday of Lent in Year B. When it is proclaimed, the final three lines are excluded because they portray the people of the Old Testament in a bad light. The Psalm is also found once in the 4-week cycle of the Psalm readings in the Liturgy of the Hours. Again, the final three lines are excluded. When it is found in the Liturgy of the Hours, it is always followed by Psalm 138, which is a Psalm that exults and praises God.

During this Advent season, the Church reads this Psalm, with its plea for liberation and its nostalgic yearning for the Holy City, as an expression of her own prayerful hope for the Lord’s coming. As St. Augustine tells us, we are called not only to sing this Psalm, but to live it, by lifting up our hearts with profound religious longing for the heavenly Jerusalem. There is no doubt that this is a Psalm of great sorrow and lamentation but, as will all things temporal, what it describes shall pass. The captors of the Jews in the Psalm can still be found today in people who oppress and persecute Catholics and what is true; in relativism; in complacency or apathy; by those who stand against the good that people try to do in the world. Despite the oppression we face, we must never forget to turn to God for someday we will all be together in the Heavenly Jerusalem.

***For those who have read some of my other works, you will know that I always cite my references extensively. That was not the case in this paper. The quotations I did use came from St. Augustine and St. Robert Bellarmine’s commentaries on Psalm 137 as well as an address given by Pope Benedict XVI.

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