February 6, 2019

A Future with Hope

By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.
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?
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.
Ps. 137:1-6 

How can a single psalm be one of the loveliest while also being the ugliest one in the entire psalter? Somehow Psalm 137 manages just that.

The first six verses have gone down in history as the most beautiful words of longing ever expressed by exiles for their homeland. They have been used by refugees and slaves and the oppressed for thousands of years to describe their own desire to return or to break their shackles. The brief phrase used in verse 3, Songs of Zion, which sounds innocuous enough, carries so much weight that just referring to it conjures deep sadness and the image of a people who cannot find joy because they cannot go home.

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!”
O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us!
 Ps. 137:7-8 
The bittersweet remembrance in the first six verses is suddenly transformed in verse 7 into a different kind of remembrance. No longer are the Hebrews remembering their homeland, but they're remembering what was done to it... and its people. This remembrance is quickly turned to a desire for vengeance. And though such desires are expressed elsewhere in the psalms, nowhere is it uglier than in the final verse of this otherwise magnificent expression of grief.

Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!
 Ps. 137:9 

There is no grace in these words. They are the prayer of a people who have no doubt experienced the very thing in their own lives that they are praying will happen to others. I want to condemn them, but I also know, if I had witnessed the same thing happening to my own people, that I might have similar thoughts. What the psalms teach me is that these thoughts only grow worse if I don't take them to God in prayer. Only in expressing them out loud can God transform them into something else. And I need to remember also that there is no instance anywhere in the psalms where the person or people praying for vengeance takes matters into their own hands. They share their ugly thoughts with God and (in the psalms at least) leave them there. The psalms seem to take very seriously the words of Deuteronomy 32:35: Vengeance is mine.

If, therefore, I interpret Psalm 137:9 as a prayer, dare I look for an answer to that prayer? And the answer is yes. Psalm 137 was written during the same period as Jeremiah 29, and Jeremiah also speaks of the Exile and the longing to go home. Many of us remember the words of Jeremiah 29:11 when we are discouraged:
For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.
And as wonderfully meaningful as those words are, they were originally spoken in a particular context. Israel wants the Exile to end, and Jeremiah tells them it won't end for seventy years, and that God's plan for them has not been defeated in battle. But before these words of promise, there is an admonition. And it's this admonition that I interpret as the answer to the prayer found at the end of Psalm 137.  Yes, the Bible tells us that Israel prayed for vengeance. But the Bible records God's answer (Jer. 29:4-7), and that answer was not just No, don't hurt the children of Babylon, it was No, you are to help them:
Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.
God heard Israel's cry and blessed their sorrow. But God told them not to wallow in it. The time would soon come to leave off grieving, and to go on with life. And part of their life over the coming years would be not only to seek their own good, but to realize that their welfare was bound up in the welfare of the place they were living: their lives could not be complete if their neighbors' lives were unhappy.

I live in a land of exiles. In many ways we exiles from Europe have worked together for the welfare of the nation that was created in North America. But that same good has forever been tainted by the fact that the welfare of the original inhabitants was seldom prayed for and almost never sought. Nor do we seek the welfare of non-Europeans who come here—those originally brought over in shackles, and those who arrive as refugees from violence and destitution and oppression. Just as God called Israel to stop wallowing in their grief, so, I believe, God is calling us to stop wallowing in our ignorance. We may with integrity pray the 137th Psalm, but only in the context of the answer to this prayer found in Jeremiah 29. If we want to claim the promise of a future with hope, then we must seek the welfare of the place where we live—a place of many nations, many customs, many faith expressions, and many convictions.

Holy One, I pray for all exiles this morning. Keep them safe, protect their children from violence,  and bless their longing. Until the time of their return, may they find welcome in the places they go, and may they and those who receive them work for each other's welfare. And help me to realize that, no matter how insecure or comfortable my circumstances, I too am an exile from my true commonwealth, which is your Kingdom, for which I pray as your Son taught me...
don mclean • by the waters of babylon 

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