By the Waters of Babylon: Hope in the Midst of Despair
Although rewarding once fully understood, the difficult passages of Sacred Scripture are a challenge to most modern readers. Take, for example, Psalm 137:9: “Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!”
Yet it’s the Biblical passages which create an ouch response that need to be explored the most.
From a historical perspective this psalm laments the exile of the Jewish people from their homeland. In 586 B.C. the Babylonians conquered the kingdom of Judah, destroyed Jerusalem and the sacred Temple, and deported the Jews to Babylon. Reminiscent of the deportation of the Jews from their homeland thousands of years later, during the grim Holocaust of World War II, Psalm 137 holds an enduring legacy for people of all generations. The opening lines are particularly evocative, setting the emotional scene for the entire poem:
By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there we hung up our lyres.
(Psalm 137:1-2, RSV)
Music is a crucial component of Jewish culture and worship, a way of communing with God by encompassing the entirety of human expression—mind and soul, yet also physically in the body. Yet in a foreign land, away from the sacred city of Jerusalem and under the domain of idols and enemies, the people of God were unable to perform songs of worshipful joy.
“He who sings songs to a heavy heart is like one who takes off a garment on a cold day, and like vinegar on a wound.”
The lyre in particular is a sacred instrument—so when it’s stilled, praise is silent. Job, in despair at his tragedies, laments, “My lyre is turned to mourning” (Job 30:31a). This is an emotional and spiritual trauma.
“Exile is not only a geographical place, but it is a religious state of mind … a social, moral, cultural, liturgical and spiritual issue; an understanding that one is in a hostile, alien situation.”
(Leonard P. Maré, Old Testament professor of North-West University)
The psalmist continues his lament, “For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’” (Psalm 137:3). This was a mocking request, a Babylonian attempt to show their power and cruel authority. The songs of Zion were sacred, to be sung not on pagan soil but only before God, and well did the Babylonians know this.
The Jewish captors of World War II also mocked their prisoners in similar fashion, forcing them to play music during the torturous concentration camp role calls, during death marches and executions, and on their way to the gas chambers. One can only imagine that a psalm such as 137 gave the Jewish people context and even hope during these darkest days of modern history.
A displacement from one’s homeland creates an emotional and physical trauma, but Psalm 137 can also be interpreted to refer to the spiritual disturbance that inevitably results from sin. Sin creates an exile from God, a place of natural despondency where divine joy, expressed in sacred music, is either muffled or silenced. “On the willows there we hung up our lyres” (Psalm 137:2). The spirit is weighted down, captive to its sin, no longer able to worship as it ought.
“We understand that we are captives,” states St. Augustine in his commentary to this psalm; yet there’s hope even in captivity. “If we are redeemed, we once were captives. Who has redeemed us? Christ. From whom has He redeemed us? From the devil.”
The Christological aspect of Psalm 137 was obviously not developed until after the life, death, resurrection and ascension of our Messiah, Jesus Christ. Even so, the Jewish people were well aware of God’s covenantal promises, His sworn oath of redemption and His promise of a salvific Redeemer. The psalmist swears to cling to the Lord despite the despondency of the exilic situation.
“If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither!” (137:5). If they should forget the true LORD, let their right hand—in other words, their working hand, the one that provides the means to support life and family—wither and die, because their soul would die without God. And what is life without our Redeemer?
This profound sense of faith in the one true God, and the consequent complete abandonment of pagan idolatry, came to fruition during the desperate days of the Babylonian Exile.
In the synoptic gospels (Matt 12:9-14; Mark 3:1-6; Luke 6:6-11), Christ heals a man with a withered hand. From an allegorical perspective, in the words of St. Bede, “the crippled man signifies mankind corrupt and fallen from grace … Christ now comes with forgiveness to restore man to spiritual health.” In verse five, the poet of Psalm 137 is attesting to his communal vow to remain true to God and His holy city, with acknowledgement for the consequences of straying from Divine Will. In exile, the people are led to clearly view their former sin of idolatry while coming to the realization that adherence to the one true God is the only source of authentic joy and praise.
This nugget of hope in the midst of despair helps sustain all those in exile—the ancient Jews in Babylon, the twentieth-century Jews in Nazi ghettoes and camps, and all peoples in physical and spiritual crisis. In this context Pope Benedict XVI, drawing upon the words of St. Augustine, reminds the faithful that Psalm 137 “warns us not to focus merely on the material things of the present but to persevere on the journey to God. It is also only with this greater hope that we will be able to transform this world in the right way.”
This hope for eventual redemption is not without difficulties, however. In verse seven the psalmist cries against the Edomites, descendants of Esau who were long-standing adversaries of the Israelites and who assisted Babylon in razing Jerusalem. However, it’s verses eight and nine that truly provide the shocking impact of the psalmist’s plea:
O daughter of Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall he be who repays you
with what you have done to us!
Happy shall he be who takes your little ones
and dashes them against the rock!
These verses hold multiple meanings from a historical-critical perspective. Old Testament expert and professor John Walton notes that in the harsh reality of ancient times, it was not only hardened male soldiers who were killed during the rampage of war—quite often women and children also fell victim to the slaughter (which isn’t very far from modern warfare, as WWII so well attests).
The modern eye may see this as an example of the brutality not only of the ancient world but of war in general, but in truth there was a distinct reason (which is separate from an excuse) for killing the opposition’s women and children—to eradicate future generations and eliminate any rebellions they may attempt in the years to come.
It's crucial to keep the historical and cultural aspects of this psalm—as well as other difficult passages of the Bible—in mind when interpreting such seemingly incomprehensible violence in Sacred Scripture. In this regard, intention is of key importance. During World War II, the Nazis often slaughtered Jewish children for vengeance and narcissistic motivations, as one eyewitness testified: “The prisoners, mostly ordinary soldiers, sailors and airmen as opposed to SS hardliners, are overheard bragging about shooting women and children for sport as well as raping and slaughtering innocent civilians.”
The Nazis performed these atrocious acts in hatred, wrath, and a determination to eradicate future generations of Jews based on the belief that they were Untermenschen, barely human, and therefore should not be allowed to taint proper German society. The Jews of the Babylonian Exile, on the other hand, cried out for justification against their violent oppressors and made their excruciating plea of Psalm 137:9 based on their own needs for survival and self-defense, not hatred or from feelings of superiority.
Even so, the actual killing of innocent is never excused—yet that isn’t what this poem refers to, even though it may seem so to modern readers.
“Infants” signify the future generation, so the psalmist is not rejoicing in the physical killing of innocent children as a random act of violence, but rather in the prophetic destruction of Israel’s long-standing enemy, a destruction that would impact not just the present moment, but would eradicate evil and protect the Israelite people for all generations to come (Isa. 13:16).
Still, these ancient historical explanations can be grating and difficult to read. Other layers of the text can be seen beneath the brutal description of death, layers that reveal a deeper meaning to be applied to all historical eras.
Ancient Christian theologian Origen of Alexandria commented that the “little ones” refers to vices that, if not nipped in the bud (or “dashed against the rock”) will grow into “adult” sins, whereas St. Augustine took a Christological approach, stating that the Rock is Christ. In Augustinian interpretation, verse nine means that the faithful should surrender all vices, all temptations, all human weaknesses to Christ, laying them at the foot of His Cross. “Let the Rock conquer. Be built upon the Rock …”
German priest and Old Testament expert Erich Zenger believes Psalm 137:9 should be interpreted as “an attempt, in the face of the most profound humiliation and helplessness, to suppress the primitive human lust for violence in one’s own heart, by surrendering everything to God.” Leonard Maré follows up on this thought by stating, “The psalm is not … the battle cry of a terrorist …[but] should rather be read as the outcry of the powerless, of those who are in exile, to Yahweh to execute his righteous judgment.”
Rabbi Neal Gold refers to 137:8-9 as “revenge fantasies” that were not actually acted out, but were based on anger at an intolerable situation:
Imagine the victim in a concentration camp … Is anger not a valid emotional response? Can these feelings help us empathize with other oppressed peoples, and understand that suffering and oppression easily translate into rage? The imaginary deeds we would never justify, but the seething hurt behind these sentiments make the passage extremely, and uncomfortably, powerful.
Centuries previous, St. Paul echoed this sentiment: “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay says the Lord’” (Rom 12:19). God, the Lord of justice and mercy, will be sure that His people—all people—will be treated in a just and rightful manner.
St. John Chrysostom, in his commentary on the Psalms, takes a similar approach.
[These words] are the expression of the captives’ feelings in demanding heavy retribution and some strange and surprising punishment. The inspired authors, after all, say many things not on their own but to describe the feelings of others.
Yet taking the historical-critical method as the only manner of biblical exegesis would not only be doing the text a disservice, but would be result in a lopsided, incomplete reading of the divine words. Dark passages are a part of the Bible for a reason, and it serves scholars and lay faithful alike to discover those meanings. Lessons of good versus evil, of spiritual exile in a historical context, and what relevance they have within context of our modern world can all be revealed by combining the historical-critical method of exegesis with the patristic-medieval method.
Psalm 137 is “a national hymn of sorrow, marked by a curt nostalgia for what has been lost,” in the words of Pope Benedict XVI. Even so, hope remains visible beneath a coating of sorrow: hope for the future, for the redemption of frail humanity, and for the fulfillment of God’s covenantal promises.
The lyrical message of Psalm 137 lies in the fact that it comes full circle, from its sorrowful beginning to its ending plea for God to exact justice on those who have evilly destroyed Jerusalem and exiled its inhabitants. At the beginning of the poem the psalmist makes it clear that he isn’t writing a song of joy, for no joy can be chanted while in exile. Rather, the psalm is a poem of lament, the only adequate response to losing everything one holds sacred in life, and a cry to God to ensure righteousness.
The psalmist himself takes no violent action, despite his harsh words; he leaves it all into the hands of God, in full faith that God’s will shall be done, on earth as in heaven (Matt 6:10).
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