Psalm 137

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.

In Psalm 137, there is no “nevertheless.”
On the willows we hung our harps …

… for 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 executed 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.

More recent memories see blood running in the streets.

The remembering also includes betrayal.

The painful betrayal of their neighbor, Edom.

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!

Parents of Israel watched this happen to their own beloved children. So – for them – what would justice look like?

Very often justice looks like vengence.

It is difficult to read this troubling prayer but it is important to read these words with correct emphasis: happy will they be who take YOUR little ones and dash THEM against the rock.

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 high caliber bullets until they were nearly unrecognizable.

How does a parent live after such death?

I don’t know.

But I have followed these amazing families with awe for these years since and I continue to be inspired by their recovery.

The families’ initial reactions could very well have sounded like those parents who wept by the rivers of Babylon because this is where human grief must begin: with honest anger and cries for justice.

It is only through many (many!) painful days and nights that our grief might evolve beyond gut-wrenching anger into something more balanced.

Grief that transforms trauma into advocacy and efforts for justice. Grief that 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 judgment.
  • 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 we wait for the tiny graces that soften the grief; for the flickering light that shines in every darkness.

We watch and we wait as the memories finally begin to bring less agony and more comfort; as our need to make sense grows into a need to make a difference.

And we trust.

The bitter poet of Psalm 137 expresses his faith through his deeply honest lament.

He seeks God’s justice and he hopes that divine justice will satisfy his need for human vengeance.

But then – he leaves it 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.

Please take time to read more about the healing happening within the parents of Sandy Hook in this article from 2017.

Charlotte Vaughan Coyle

Author: Charlotte Vaughan Coyle

Charlotte lives and blogs in Paris TX. She is ordained within the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and developed Living in The Story while doing doctoral work at Brite Divinity School in Ft. Worth. Charlotte also blogs about intersections of faith, politics and culture at CharlotteVaughanCoyle.com.

One thought on “Psalm 137”

  1. ” … for 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?”

    This brings to mind the experience of enslaved Africans in the American cotton fields. Their captors–my white ancestors–did the same to them as the Babylonians did to the captured Jews. I understand this terrible, gut-wrenching psalm far better than I used to. At least, I understand it intellectually. I can’t possibly understand emotionally the sorrow of the captured Jews or the enslaved Africans.

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