By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
Psalm 137 breaks our hearts. It also is one of the only laments that breaks the pattern; the pain is so deep that it never finds its way back to praise.
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?
Jerusalem’s destruction is complete. The walls are toppled, the Temple is razed, the last of David’s kingly descendants are assassinated and God’s people are marched across the Fertile Crescent to Exile in Babylon.
All they have now are their memories.
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.
Some of the memories picture the shining Temple on the hill of Zion, sparkling in the light of the morning sun. But more recent memories see blood running in the streets. The remembering also includes the betrayal of their neighbors.
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!”
And then this gut wrenching cry for vengeance:
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!
It is important to read this troubling prayer with correct emphasis: happy will they be who take YOUR little ones and dash THEM against the rock. Parents of Israel watched this happen to their own beloved children. So – for them – what would justice look like?
I can’t imagine the loss the parents of Sandy Hook have endured. Just before Christmas in 2012, a young man walked into a classroom full of first graders and riddled their little bodies with bullets until they were unrecognizable.
How does a parent live after such death? I really don’t know.
But I have followed these amazing families with awe for these six years and I continue to be inspired by their recovery. (Please take time to read more about them in this article from 2017.)
Their initial reactions, however, could very well have sounded like those who wept by the rivers of Babylon. This is where human grief must begin: with honest anger and cries for justice. It is only through many painful days and nights that our grief can evolve into something more balanced; where the trauma takes on a new power to fuel efforts for justice; when the passion transforms hopelessness into hope.
Grieving with those who grieve is uncomfortable work. We must admit we can’t fix anything. We can’t make anything better. There are no magic words. And so we sit without judgement. We allow our own grief and anger to be real while we endure the discomfort and confusion inherent in tragedy. Especially “senseless” tragedy.
And we wait.
We watch and wait for the tiny graces that soften the grief; for the flicking light that shines in every darkness. We watch and wait as the memories begin to bring less agony and more comfort; as our need to make sense becomes finally a need to make a difference.
And we trust.
The bitter poet of Psalm 137 expresses his faith through his deeply honest lament. He is faithful to seek God’s justice – even as he hopes that justice will satisfy his need for vengeance. But still, he leaves everything in God’s hand.
Because that’s what prayer does. On one level, prayer may seek to change God’s mind and move God to action. But mostly prayer is letting go and letting God. Mostly prayer is for the pray-er.