From Confusion to Peace
We are now at the Fourth Week of the Lenten journey and today we will pause at Psalm 137. This Fourth Sunday of Lent is called, Rejoice Sunday with the focus on Isaiah 66:10: “Rejoice with Jerusalem and be glad for her, all you who love her; rejoice with her, all you who mourn over her.” We rejoice that we are on the home stretch to Easter Sunday since passing the halfway point last week. This Sunday is also celebrated in some parts of Europe as Mothering Sunday. It began when children and young people who were household servants had the day off to visit with families or to return to their “mother” church.
Introduction to Psalm 137
So far the Psalms that we have looked at were from the perspective of an individual. Now this Psalm features a nation in exile, living in the diaspora (means “spread around”) of Babylonian empire.
There are some questions that we need to ask before we begin exploring this Psalm. It opens with a group of people sitting by the rivers of Babylon. Who are these people and how did they arrive here in Babylon? I hope not to bore you with this background information, but I think it will be helpful in understanding the Psalm at hand as well as the history of the Jews. After the death of King Solomon, King David’s son, the 12 tribes were divided into two kingdoms. The ten northern tribes were called Israel under their kings and the two remaining southern tribes, Judah and Benjamin remained loyal to King David’s House which was centred in Jerusalem, and they became known as Judea with their own kings.
Within 160 years the northern kingdom, even with a strong army, was defeated by the invading Assyrians and was sent into exile never to return home. The southern kingdom was ruled by a number of kings some who listened to the warnings of the prophets sent to remind them to be faithful to God, but sadly within another 160 years, the Babylonians conquered them and drove them into exile as well.
Psalm 137:1-2: The captives cannot enjoy themselves
So here we are with these Jews from the southern kingdom of Judea, sitting on the banks of the rivers of Babylon. It is their disobedience to God that has driven them out of the homeland. When the kingdom was divided, the ten northern tribes controlled 75% of the land and the southern kingdom owned a few square miles of hilly, infertile land. Their greatest asset was that they had possession of the City of Jerusalem. They are now far from Jerusalem, known as the City of Peace. These people are tormented on the inside because there is no peace within themselves. Here they sit in agony because of all that has happened to them, weeping aloud. It is indeed a pitiful sight watching them remember life in Jerusalem against this stark background of emptiness and bitterness here in Babylon.
Psalm 137:3-4: The captives cannot honour their oppressors
I hope that I am not wrong, but I see some of the captors trying to cheer them up by asking them to take down their instruments and sing some cheery songs. But that does not work for these people and it will not work if we offer someone in such deep sorrow a solution like that. On the contrary, it will ignite the fire of anger and hate within and may result in the use of weapons of war. These captives can only fight back with the weapons of words.
Psalm 137:5-6: The captives cannot forget Jerusalem
Over and over these people will share about what was lost when they left Jerusalem. They long to turn the clock back and we hear them making threats and oaths to harm themselves if they ever forget Jerusalem in their memory. Let us take a look at what the word Babylon means in the bible. Babylon is a place of emptiness. When we feel empty, we fill the space with bitter feelings, we find it difficult to keep things together and before long, we live in a place of confusion. Yes, Babylon means confusion. Here they are living in Confusion, but their minds are longing for the City of Peace.
Psalm 137:7-9: Remember Yahweh
Is it possible to find peace in the midst of confusion? I think that the invitation of Rejoice Sunday can take us down that pathway during this Fourth Week of Lent and Psalm 137 can point us in the right direction. The captives have no way of leaving Babylon and returning to Jerusalem, but here in these verses someone in the crowd of weepers will turn his back on the noise, and will turn his eyes towards remembering Yahweh, not just remembering Jerusalem. The text does not say who the writer of this Psalm is, but we know that when these people were being taken into captivity, the Prophet Jeremiah spoke words of instructions from Yahweh to them and he also sent letters to the elders, the priests, the prophets, and to all the people.
“Build houses, and dwell in them; and plant gardens, and eat the fruit of them. Take wives, and father sons and daughters; and take wives for your sons, and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters; and multiply there, and don't be diminished. Seek the peace of the city where I have caused you to be carried away captive, and pray to Yahweh for it; for in its peace you shall have peace.” (Jeremiah 29:5-7)
This is an invitation to stop weeping and get on with living life to the fullest. So in the footsteps of King David the Psalmist, and with the language of the Prophet Jeremiah, this person will compose a song, without instruments, and will voice his concerns to Yahweh and Yahweh alone. What is causing him the most pain is the betrayal of the Edomites who are “cousins,” family. That torment seemed to be worse than being captives of the Babylonians. Then his voice will turn to the destruction of Babylon hoping that the daughters of Babylon will not be able to carry babies full-term or if they do, that the children would not live, thereby diminishing the strength of the Babylonian army.
From peace to confusion and back to peace
Here is a paradox. Living in Jerusalem meant that they were always in the presence of God and the Temple was accessible, reminding them of the visible presence of God. In reality, their hearts were often dwelling in Babylon, sometimes serving the gods of their neighbours. Now that they are living in Babylon they longed for the physical City of Jerusalem. We can spend all our time weeping for the past blessings or we can choose to follow the Psalmist’s example here in Psalm 137.
Sometimes it is the family near us that betrays us, but all is not lost. Yahweh has already gone ahead of us and established the way to live in Babylon while rejoicing with Jerusalem. Express your words of pain to Yahweh and do not spend your time sitting around the river of Babylon weeping. Do not be afraid to tell Yahweh how much pain you feel from those who hurt you. Use the musical instrument of your voice and Yahweh will bend the ear to hear you. Please do not threaten yourself with oaths that might be difficult to carry out. Stop playing the victim or you may find yourself seeking uncontrollable revenge.
Yahweh has promised to never leave you nor forsake you. Yahweh is just a call away. “Yahweh is loving and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness” (Psalm 103:8). Yahweh is good to all including the captors!
Yahweh had a better plan for his people. He promised to bring them back into the land after 70 years in exile, and this he fulfilled through another pagan ruler. And Yahweh made the greatest promise to Himself. He sent His One and only Son, Jesus, as a baby born of a woman to grow into a man who taught us to use the weapon of words to cry out to Yahweh whenever we are in trouble, knowing that Yahweh will hear our voice and come to our aid.
In this Fourth Week of the Lenten journey, when you find yourself exiled from Jerusalem, the City of Peace by some circumstance, and you find yourself floundering in Babylon, the City of Confusion, may I suggest that you follow the Psalmist’s example. Turn away from seeking revenge and instead express your feelings to Yahweh and Yahweh alone. And may you, “Rejoice in the Lord always! Again I will say, Rejoice! Let your gentleness be known to all people. The Lord is at hand. In nothing be anxious, but in everything, by prayer and petition with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your thoughts in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:4-7).
At the end of this week, why not compose your own Psalm using the outline of Psalm 137?
St. Ephrem’s Prayer
O Lord and Master of my life
remove from me the spirit of sadness, despair,
thirst for power and vain talk.
Instead, grant me, Your servant,
the spirit of prudence, humility, patience and love.
Indeed, O Lord and King,
grant that I see my own sins and not judge my sister and brother,
for You are blessed unto ages of ages. Amen.