The Pain of Exile

11 Mar

Psalm 137 is an amazing song, and not just because it made it into the musical Godspell. The once great nation of Israel, God’s people, has been ripped in two. The chosen people of God have been taken into exile in Babylon. As they sat by the river to cry over the pain of exile the Babylonians continue to humiliate them by saying, “Yea, sing us one of those song about how great and powerful and unbeatable your God is; how did that go?”

1-3 Alongside Babylon’s rivers
we sat on the banks; we cried and cried,
remembering the good old days in Zion.
Alongside the quaking aspens
we stacked our unplayed harps;
That’s where our captors demanded songs,
sarcastic and mocking:
“Sing us a happy Zion song!”

God’s people find it hopeless to sing the praises of God in the desert of exile. Yet, even if they cannot summon the courage to sing the song of Zion, they will never forget the greatness of their God. Jerusalem is the seat and symbol of God’s power and justice.

Oh, how could we ever sing God’s song
in this wasteland?
If I ever forget you, Jerusalem,
let my fingers wither and fall off like leaves.
Let my tongue swell and turn black
if I fail to remember you,
If I fail, O dear Jerusalem,
to honor you as my greatest.

The pain and humiliation of Israel lash out in these last verses of the psalm. They are asking God to reek revenge on Babylon. They want a reward given to whatever nation can defeat the nation that defeated their nation. The circle of pain, humiliation and revenge continue. The last line crystalizes the grief and anger of the psalmist, “Yes, a reward to the one who grabs your babies and smashes their heads on the rocks!”.

God, remember those Edomites,
and remember the ruin of Jerusalem,
That day they yelled out,
“Wreck it, smash it to bits!”
And you, Babylonians—ravagers!
A reward to whoever gets back at you
for all you’ve done to us;
Yes, a reward to the one who grabs your babies
and smashes their heads on the rocks!

I was in a study with a clergywomen one time and she was explain this psalm. She said the last line really didn’t mean what it said, it was just some literary hyperbole. Of course, I disagreed. Maybe it is my Sicilian blood but I completely understand this line. For me it says, if you want to understand the pain of exile, here’s how it feels. It feel like taking something that the enemy loves most and destroying it in a horrible, vicious way.

This psalm does not end on a happy note. I can’t think of a psalm that has not ended with a praise of God in someway; if only, “oh well, I trust God and I guess I can praise God”. Yet, this psalm ends with disturbing image, a raw wound hanging open.

I invite you to live in that space for a moment with the psalmist. To feel the despair of exile and the hatred that leads wanting to inflict pain twice as bad in return. This is the pain that Jesus wanted to heal. This is the despair that Jesus wanted to turn to hope. This is the revenge that Jesus wanted to turn to reconciliation.

I pray that as you journey with Jesus today you experience his power to transform your life.


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