The psalms are the songs of the people of Israel; songs to God from the heart during good times and hard times. Songs give us the words that we often don’t have otherwise, the words our hearts want to say but our mouths and minds can’t find, so we turn to the psalms to express what’s on our hearts and souls.
When we read Psalm 137, it’s important to ask ourselves, “What’s happened here to cause them such pain, such a deep desire for vengeance?” The Babylonians conquered Jerusalem, destroyed the temple that King Solomon had built so many years beforehand. The Babylonians were violent and used violence to terrorize their victims. The Babylonian soldiers murdered, abused the women and children, looted Jerusalem and took the best educated and wealthiest Jews with them to Babylon to be slaves and use their skills to help the Babylonian empire become even more powerful.
These Jews are in Babylon and now being told to sing the songs of Zion: songs of praise to God. They’re being mocked, the Babylonians are telling them, “Sing your songs to your powerful God who couldn’t defend you from our gods who would love to hear your songs.” The Jews are in exile because they had turned their backs on God, had not cared for the orphans, the widows, the poor and oppressed in Israel; often oppressing their own people for their own profit. Now they find themselves in a place where they are being oppressed and the only one to turn to now is God, Yahweh; the God they had spent so much time ignoring or only doing the bare minimum faith duties they thought would keep God off their backs. They had miscalculated badly. It is important to remember that not all persecution is punishment, Jesus warned us that if we follow him, people will persecute us.
Question: is it unfair for God to punish us so harshly when we do something wrong?
But now the exiles turn back to God and pour out their grief, “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.” They’re unable to sit by the waters of the rivers of Israel, the mountain streams, the river Jordan. “There on the poplars we hung our harps,” unable to play the music of the Zion, “for there our captors asked up for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy,” however their tears and tight throats make it impossible for them to sing songs of joy. Yet even in their grief, the people of God know that God is always ready to welcome us back like the father in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son. God is ready to hear their prayers, the sobs of their hearts, reassuring them that he is always with them; even in a foreign land living among their enemies.
The prophet Ezekiel gives us a wonderful image of how God goes into exile with his people; Ezekiel 10:18–19, “Then the glory of the Lord departed from over the threshold of the temple and stopped above the cherubim. While I watched, the cherubim spread their wings and rose from the ground, and as they went, the wheels went with them. They stopped at the entrance of the east gate of the Lord’s house, and the glory of the God of Israel was above them”… 11:22–24 “Then the cherubim, with the wheels beside them, spread their wings, and the glory of the God of Israel was above them. The glory of the Lord went up from within the city and stopped above the mountain east of it. The Spirit lifted me up and brought me to the exiles in Babylonia in the vision given by the Spirit of God.”
These are themes and situations that we here in North America honestly find hard to relate to. We don’t really understand exile, the deep loss that comes from violence, at least for the most part, or the feelings of hopelessness and grief expressed in this psalm. In Montreal, we had members of the church there who had fled from Pakistan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the violence and persecution they experienced there. Most of them left family behind, experienced horrible violence against themselves and their families. They all carried soul and heart scars which are only made deeper and more painful every time they hear news from family who are unable to leave for many reasons, including a flawed Canadian Immigration system.
I heard stories I can’t share here because of how disturbing they are; just because they’re Christians. As a church, we supported a Congolese pastor’s sister in the Congo who was so badly abused that she required multiple surgeries to survive. She’s still there and committed to helping other women in the same situation. She told her brother that she’s grateful for Jesus and knows Jesus is the only answer to her country’s violence. We talked with our local MP and Immigration Canada. We connected with the Congolese community to offer support and encouragement and help them get their stories out into the wider community.
Those who live where there’s real persecution understand this psalms’ cry for justice. We hear these verses and many of us don’t quite understand the deep cry for vengeance, though I’ve walked with people who’ve been abused who do understand, especially since our justice system doesn’t always work the way it should. This is why we’re in the middle of a serious conversation about race and racism today. These are hard heart cries to God, “Remember Lord… don’t let them get away with what they’ve done against us,” Happy is the one who repays you (Babylon) according to what you have done to us,” and the comes the anger and pain out of the hearts, “happy is the one who dashed them against the rocks.” It’s easy for us to remind people that “Vengeance is mine says the Lord” but when you sit down with them and hear the horrific stories and experiences, they’ve lived through, you start to get an understanding of where this verse is coming from. God wants to hear our cries; he is a God of justice!
Question: does knowing God is a God of justice give you hope?
So how does this psalm fit today? It reminds us that we’re part of a world wide church where many of our brothers and sisters are experiencing violence and persecution. Karina Kreminski suggests that Psalm 137 calls us to respond by: 1. rejecting sentimentality: don’t simply feel bad for a few moments and then change the channel in your brain. Allow the uncomfortableness of this psalm sit in your heart; ask God how to pray and support our persecuted brothers and sisters. 2. Be a “wise one” on the edge of the outside: we need to look at our own culture and offer helpful critiques as well as learn from people and groups very different from ourselves about what injustice and violence may be happening right here. This makes us bigger and stronger, giving us a voice and presence against injustice.
3. We need to present the alternative vision of the new creation. What we see in this world is not the entire story. We need to speak the vision of the Bible into our world as an alternative to the violence, hate, bigotry, racism, greed, sexism, and narcissism we see all around us. We need to be able to confess our own sin and the sin around us, to tell of Jesus, who calls us back to God, and teaches us the way to walk in our world and be who Jesus calls us to be. Jesus, fully God and human, took our sin and brokenness to the cross in order to usher in a new world shaped by peace, righteousness, justice, forgiveness, grace and possibility. Jesus gives us his Spirit to equip us to live out his values and to call others to follow him with us.
Lastly, Karina calls us to be a voice for the marginalized and the weak, to be willing to take risks to speak up for the oppressed and those exposed to violence and persecution. This is prophet language, Jesus language of loving our neighbours as ourselves, of sitting by the rivers to weep with them, and listen to their stories. Through their stories and weeping we hear Jesus, Matthew 5:6, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled,” and verses 10–12, “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
We look ahead to when we can sit on the banks of the river of God, singing his songs with all our brothers and sisters in the faith. We do need to grow our imagination of who the church is and remember that we’re part of a much larger church than what we experience here in Lacombe. We have brothers and sisters who are living out Psalm 137 even today who can use our prayers and our voices to speak out for them.