Psalm 137 – Real Music

Psalm 137 Bible with Theo Orange Dark Chocolate on snowman plate

Today’s ChocolateTheo Orange 70% Dark Chocolate

Today’s PassagePsalm 137

From 2002 to 2004, I attended St. John’s College in Annapolis. Every student, among other things, had to take freshman chorus: we all had to learn to sing. One of the songs we sung was an arrangement of the first verse of Psalm 137: “By the waters of Babylon, we sat down and wept, when we remembered thee, O Zion.” This version, performed by Ensemble Sottovoce and written by Philip Hayes (1737-1797), is the arrangement I’m familiar with, but my Youtube-combing turned up several other versions, including one by Don “American Pie” Mclean, one from Saint Tikhon’s Orthodox Theological Seminary Choir that uses a traditional Eastern Orthodox melody, and this performance by Trinity Church of England High School, which is absolutely haunting and would not be out of place in a Metroid game. As we’ve seen, the texts of the psalms are ripe for musical adaptation, and Psalm 137 is no exception.

A lament of the Jewish captives in Babylon, the psalm sits firmly in Brueggemann’s “disorientation” category. In  586 BC, King Nebuchadnezzar razed Jerusalem and conquered its people, deporting them to Babylon; you can read more about his conquest in the book of Daniel. Some traditions hold that the prophet Jeremiah wrote Psalm 137. A witness to the destruction of Jerusalem, Jeremiah authored the book of Lamentations and was known as the “Weeping prophet.” I can’t speak to his authorship of Psalm 137 one way or another, but as one well-acquainted with the Babylonian captivity, he would be eminently qualified to compose a song about it.

But if I spend too much time discussing its background, I risk blunting its impact. It’s a raw psalm, sung from the gut, mourning the Jews’ loss of their homeland and freedom. The psalmist tells us: “For there our captors demanded of us songs, and our tormentors mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion.’ [But] how can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” (137:3-4). The Babylonians try to coerce their captives into entertaining them, piling insult on injury. The psalmist refuses to perform a false act of joy, though; he won’t sing songs of orientation when his world is sorrow and oppression. He remembers Jerusalem in his songs–and he remembers Jerusalem’s destruction.

Psalm 137 is a reminder of how real we can be before God and before the world in our songs. It contains one of the harshest lines in the Psalms, if not the entire Bible: “How blessed will be the one who seizes and dashes your little ones against the rock” (137:9). Think about that: right here in scripture, we’ve got a declaration that the good guy is the one who smashes Babylonian babies against rocks. It’s unsettlingly honest, but for some reason God has seen fit to get it included in the canon.

I can’t end this post without plugging one of my favorite emotionally honest musical artists, the rapper NF. The attitude of the Babylonians toward the psalmist reminds me of these lines from NF’s song “Therapy Session:” “‘Why don’t you write us some happy raps? That would be awesome! All of your music is moody and dark, Nate—’ Don’t get me started!” He refuses to sugar-coat his music; he speaks what’s on his mind and heart, to God, to his listeners, to fans and detractors alike. God isn’t afraid of our honesty. NF and the psalmist both know that life gets dark sometimes: not only in our worlds, but in our souls. And we can’t come to terms with our own darkness until we’re willing to bring it out into the light.


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