(Based on Psalm 137 & Lamentations 3:19-26)
Throughout the Bible rivers are depicted as overwhelmingly positive and hopeful, a metaphor for the unending blessings which flow from God to all mankind. In Exodus, for example, we see how the infant Moses finds salvation in a basket set afloat on the Nile. In Psalm 46 we read about a river flowing through the city of Most High. In the Gospels, Jesus is revealed as God’s beloved child just as he emerges from baptism in the Jordan. Finally, in Revelation, we read about our new heavenly home, fed by the river of life with its crystal waters eternally flowing from the thrones of God and Jesus, bringing joy, sustenance, health, and life.
The imagery of rivers within our faith and within Scripture is beautiful, powerful, and hopeful. That is why the first words of Psalm 137 always seem to trick me. Each time I read those opening words, “By the rivers of Babylon…,” I’m momentarily deceived into believing that the words to follow will be ones of hope and encouragement. I momentarily forget the hatred and bitterness waiting at the poem’s end.
What could be the cause for a poem with such an idyllic beginning to end in words of hatred, and what could we possibly learn from a passage that prays for the violent destruction of innocent children?
We don’t know who wrote Psalm 137, but we know a lot about the author’s circumstances. Our author, a poet, is being held captive by the Babylonians in whose capital he resides. His anger toward them is entirely justified. In the decades surrounding 600 BC, Babylonian forces, under the leadership of King Nebuchadnezzar II, laid siege to Jerusalem on more than one occasion. Following the success of each siege, thousands of Judeans were taken captive and in multiple waves were deported the nearly nine hundred miles from Jerusalem to Babylon. The final siege began in 589 BC and lasted for more than two years. In the end, Nebuchadnezzar broke through Jerusalem’s walls. The great Judean capital was razed, and Solomon’s Temple, the very dwelling place of the Holy One of Israel was reduced to rubble. Most of Jerusalem’s remaining residents were taken captive and deported to be with their fellow Jews in Babylon.
One can only imagine the struggle of such a life in captivity, so far from the only home one has ever known.
But one can imagine….
One can imagine that our poet is well-known for his gift with words — for his ability to transform words into art — and for his gift to pluck a melody from thin air and play it on his harp, thereby transforming mundane words and simple pitch into angelic song. One might imagine that as a child growing up in Jerusalem, his precious mother and even his hard-to-please father had called him “little David,” not because he was destined to be king, but because his inspired music brought comfort and peace. Of course, the poet knows his talent is a gift from God, and, like King David, he has always composed and sung songs of praise and thanksgiving.
Even during the worst days of the final siege, even when first his father and then his mother died, God always gave our poet a song. During that awful time, he prayed diligently -- day after day, month after month -- for Jehovah to defeat Nebuchadnezzar and restore Jerusalem to her place as God’s great city. He wrote songs of celebration in anticipation of the coming victory. The poet never shared these songs. They were to be saved for the great day of God’s triumph, but he fashioned them after the songs he had heard in the Temple as a child: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble…. There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High.” These Psalms of praise and hope were his inspiration. Even during the siege, our poet knew the power of hope as he longed for the river of God’s mercy to once again bring joy to the holy city.
Now, years later, as a captive in Babylon, the city of Jerusalem and the concept of hope seem so very, very far away. Because of his great talent with words and music, our poet has been tasked with entertaining his Babylonian oppressors, writing poems and singing songs written just for them. He’s grown to accept it as his lot in life. There’s no joy in his work, but most days the struggle is bearable and his work tolerable. Of course, it’s not like he has any choice.
Today is different. Today they asked our poet to sing the songs from his home — the songs of Jerusalem — for their entertainment. How? How could he possibly sing for the Babylonians about the home which they had so completely and utterly destroyed and which he feared he would never see again?
As he arrives home, late at night, our poet is hot and tired after a full day in his captors’ service, and he is angry at their request for him to play the songs of Jerusalem, the joyful songs of his faith. Passing through his small dwelling, quietly so as not to wake and worry his wife, he picks up his harp and ventures a short distance just outside the city.
He had met his wife, another Jewish captive, in Babylon; they had found love in each other and comfort in their common faith. Now, many years later, he wonders where his faith has gone. He stands outside the city, facing west, toward home. He hopes to find solace in his art and, perhaps, rekindle his faith.
Try as he might, he cannot find the music within his soul; there is no melody on the breeze for him tonight. He sets his harp aside and tries instead to focus on the words -- to record his sorrow in a poem, in a prayer. The words begin to come, but it’s a struggle. The more he tries to focus on God and home and hope, the more angry and bitter he becomes at his enormous loss and that of his fellow Jews. Our poet is so consumed by his emotions that he actually believes he can see the rubble of Solomon’s Temple mocking him through the darkness and over the vast miles of dessert. Slowly but surely and ever-more passionately the poet records the words of what will become Psalm 137, his hated, bitterness, anger, and resentment building to a crescendo of violence. As he records the words to the final verse, he simultaneously and purposely pronounces each syllable, spittle flying from the corners of his angry lips.
He collapses in physical and emotional exhaustion, and he wonders why his gift has left him.
He feels like God has left him.
Time passes, and without knowing how long he has laid there as a captive to the ruins of his former life, he realizes that the sun is rising--the dawn of another hot day in captivity. Like the mud bricks formed by his enslaved ancestors so many generations before in Egypt, the early morning rays of the dessert sun begin to further harden the poet’s bitterness and hatred.
Then, he hears a voice, quiet and beautiful, singing a new song -- the tune for which he had searched in vain. And the words – they’re new, too. He’s hearing a familiar voice sing a new and powerful song – a song of praise and thanksgiving – a song of hope! He must go to her!
He crawls, walks, then runs toward the mellifluous voice. Within a matter of seconds, he sees her, his beautiful wife. She’s there, at the river’s edge, on her knees, hands raised in praise to God. Facing the golden beams of the rising sun as tears stream down her cheeks, she sings: “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness, Eternal One, great is your faithfulness!”
Or so, one might imagine.
Of course, there is nothing in Scripture or scholarship to suggest that the authors of Psalm 137 and the third chapter of Lamentations were some husband and wife ministry team from Ancient Babylon. However, there are enough similarities in the two poems that we can benefit from a side by side comparison and, hopefully, maybe, from an imaginative narration.
Both poems are written in the voice of and from the perspective of Jews fallen victim to the Babylonian captivity. Both poignantly define the soul-sickening sorrow brought on by the destruction of their beloved home and the dwelling place of the Eternal God. Perhaps most importantly, both reflect the very honest emotions of their authors. And this is a lesson for everyone who prays to God. Honest communication and communion with our Creator are not optional elements of our faith life.
The only way in which we can reflect the trust we have in God as our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer is to approach every Divine encounter stripped bare of mortal pretension and religious pretext. After all, the one who made us already knows our heart and understands every single one of our thoughts, be they positive or negative.
How is it, then, that the author of Lamentations is able to rise from sorrow into soaring hope while the Psalmist remains captive to the rubble and ruin of life? How did one author find hope while the other descended into thoughts of violence?
The answer is simple. The Psalmist lost sight of God, the only true source of hope.
Both authors convey the very real and justifiable anger at their plight and that of their nation. Both authors mourn the loss of their home and the dwelling place of God. Both authors long for justice. The author of the third chapter of Lamentations, however, once he or she has expressed the soul-sickness brought on by captivity in Babylon, turns to face God and declares, “But this I call to mind and therefore I have hope.”
But hope. But God!
Anger, fear, depression – God wants us to share these emotions as we experience them. The challenge is to maintain open and honest communion with God without letting our emotions turn us into angry, bitter, judgmental souls, focused on God’s vengeance and our neighbors’ transgressions.
The truth is God not only sympathizes with our suffering, God empathizes with us because Jesus, who is both fully God and fully human, felt these same emotions. Furthermore, because of the salvific acts of Jesus by which our sins are separated as far as the east is from the west, we can lay down these emotional burdens, we can lay down all our burdens, knowing that Jesus takes them up as his own. And that, my friends, is where we find peace, hope, and rest.
I’m gonna’ lay down my burdens,
Down by the riverside, Down by the riverside, Down by the riverside.
I’m gonna’ lay down my burdens,
Down by the riverside. Down by the riverside!
That, my friends, is where we find peace, hope, and rest.
And the power of the Good News is that we are compelled to share what we’ve found with others. So, spend some time with God today, down by the riverside. Oh, and bring a friend!
Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ our Redeemer, our Friend. Amen.