One of the most poignantly sad verses I know is Psalm 137:
By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept when we remembered Zion. We hung our harps upon the willows in the midst of it. For there those who carried us away captive asked of us a song, and those plundered us requested mirth, saying, "Sing us one of the songs of Zion!" How shall we sing the Lord's song in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill! If I do not remember you, let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth-- if I do not exalt Jerusalem above my chief joy. Remember, O Lord, against the sons of Edom the day of Jerusalem, who said, "Raze it, raze it, to its very foundation!" O daughter of Babylon, who are to be destroyed, happy the one who repays you as you have served us! Happy the one who takes and dashes your little ones against the rock!
A certain simplicity in the theme-- the sorrow of refugees, captured and taken into exile, longing bitterly for home-- is offset by the unexpected turns the words take. It starts with a bitter irony: their captors ask them to sing one of their native songs. The rhetorical question that follows-- "How shall we sing the Lord's song in a foreign land?"-- carries with it the subtle and profound thought of how joys are connected with one another: the song and the place are tied together. And yet the Jews learned, in their long years of exile, to "sing the Lord's song in a foreign land."
Then comes the startling conditional curse upon himself: "If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill!" The power of this oath is easier to feel than to explain. What is the point of willing something (that his right hand loses its skill) that his oath surely has no power to cause to happen? What power is he notionally invoking to carry out the curse he utters? Supposing that the curse were somehow efficacious, why worsen one's options? That is, if if the singer previously had two options, a) remember Jerusalem, and b) forget Jerusalem and make the best of his life in the new country, his curse worsens option (b) to: forget Jerusalem and lose the skill of his right hand. This is a pedantic way of saying that the singer does not trust himself; he is afraid he might forget Jerusalem, and wishes to bind himself.
Even before the scorching hatred of the last line, a modern therapist might find the whole mood of the psalm decidedly unhealthy, like a broken-hearted teenager vowing that if he ever loved another girl he should drop dead. Oughtn't one to reconcile oneself to fait accompli, to "accept the things one cannot change?" And yet there is a defiance, a shaking of the fist against tyranny and injustice, in Psalm 137, which seems noble compared to this mealy-mouthed, utilitarian advice. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, no doubt, the modern therapist is right: the thing that seems all-important in the moment of passion doesn't matter so much, really, and you should "let it go." But there might be some things that one ought to refuse to accept, even to the extent that willing curses on one's probably-wayward future selves would not be disproportionate, though a greater Being than we may mercifully overrule them.
The singer, no doubt, meant "Jerusalem" literally, but it must ultimately be a symbol, and not just because no reader today has a poignant personal memory of ancient Jerusalem. For was Jerusalem the singer's "chief joy" when he lived in it? Perhaps. But in my experience, the golden ages, the glory days of our lives, those on which we look back with longing, shine with a light that we do not understand while we are in them, and which in retrospect we attribute to the identifiable circumstances of those times by mistake. That is, we might think we were happy then because we were young, or in college, or drinking and partying, or learning, or in love with and loved by a particular person. But these are only conjectures, usually untestable. When they are testable, they often turn out to be false. For example, lovers separated by chance or choice might look back on their former happiness and credit it to the other person; or a person who was happy in Rome or Paris or his hometown might credit it to the place. But likely as not, should he reunite with his former lover or his former abode, he would not find the joy renewed. So the psalmist of Psalm 137 might not, if he should return to Jerusalem and somehow rebuild it, find again his lost joys.
The Christian Church refuses to be content in the Babylon of this world. From the paradox of earthly joys-- they seem as if they ought to endure forever, yet they are transient-- it deduces that earthly joys are like mirrors or moons, shining with the reflected light of a distant Sun of joy. The "good news" is that our exile is temporary, and that there is a hope, even in a way an assurance although an unappeasable conditionality is attached to it which opens the door to an endless rhythm of repentance which fills the whole life of a Christian. In the meantime, "If I forget thee, O Jerusalem...": we must be thankful for God's gifts, remembering that at every moment existence is dependent on the will of God, hanging by a thread of the mercy of God as it were; yet we must also refuse to make our peace with this world, we must retain undimmed, as best we can, the visions of a joy that surpasses all understanding, with which all of us are sometimes visited, we must exalt that above all our joys in the world. This may sound like living for the sake of a dream, but the reverse comparison is more apt: the Beatific Vision is to us now like memories of times awake are to a sleeper when they filter into his dreams, for it is more real, not less, than what we take for reality-- as the Babylonian captivity was a mere episode, where the Jewish nation went on for 3,000 years.
The last line-- the blessing on the man who bashes the baby's brains out-- is perhaps the most violent verbal image I have ever encountered. Christians usually read this to mean that we should nip sin in the bud, destroy sinful habits when they are just beginning to develop. Non-Christians might find this to be an ingenious but implausible sanitization of an embarrassing passage, and be glad that they need not engage in such exegetical gymnastics in order to exonerate indefensible ancient texts whose holiness they are precommitted to uphold. Certainly it seems that this psalmist did not meet Augustine's standard of hating the sin but loving the sinner. Yet if it is a sin to hate men, it is a virtue to hate injustice with as scorching a hate as the psalmist expresses.
Psalm 107 (Download Psalm 107.mp3) is full of vivid stories of people in trouble who called on God. My favorite one is the merchants on the deep:
Others went out to the sea in ships; they were merchants on the mighty waters. They saw the works of the Lord, his wonderful deeds in the deep. For he spoke and stirred up a tempest that lifted high the waves. They mounted up to the heavens and went down to the depths; in their peril their courage melted away. They reeled and staggered like drunken men; they were at their wits' end. Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble, and he brought them out of their distress. He still the storm to a whisper; the waves of the sea were hushed. They were glad when it grew calm, and he guided them to their desired haven.
I've always been an admirer of the seafaring peoples. The Greeks. The Venetians and the Genoese. The English. The Hawaiians. Travel generally broadens the mind, but there's something about sea travel especially. The solidarity of sailors who sink or sail together. The sailor requires courage in the face of the storms of the deep, but courage in this case is detached from the bloodshed which is too often the context for exercising that virtue. And sailing peoples can't usually dominate the landed peoples they encounter, so trade rather than conquest tends to be their usual mode of relating to each other.
UPDATE: A cynical take on this psalm: it is a case study in (a) religion as social control, and (b) the "God in the gaps" argument. The psalmist goes on to exhort the merchants: "Let them exalt him [the Lord] in the assembly of the people and praise him in the council of the elders." This exhortation is not given after the other vignettes. The merchants, having made their voyages successfully and enriched themselves, now have access to the council of the elders. Let them not use their influence for greedy ends, but to exalt the Lord, which may imply charity towards the poor, since the Old Testament is endlessly repeating that the Lord is "the protector of the fatherless," "he shall adopt for his own the orphan and widow," etc. By reminding the merchants of their former peril, and attributing their good fortune to divine intervention, the psalmist wants to convince them to contribute to the Social Democrats' campaign chest (speaking figuratively, of course).
Second, the psalmist calls storms "the Lord['s]... wondrous deeds in the deep." It is the modern custom to attribute storms to the workings of natural laws, with the corollary that the former attribution of these to God or to gods was simply a failure of the ancients and medievals to understand the causes of storms. Since we now know why storms are really caused, we don't need to attribute them to divinity. The funny thing about this argument is that those who make it wouldn't usually claim to know how storms are caused, themselves, in any thoroughgoing way: rather, they attribute this knowledge to "science." Yet the attempt to predict and control weather using science has been a long-standing chimera: we can occasionally seed snowclouds, but the weather forecast is notoriously unpredictable to this day, even when it is looking only a day ahead. Indeed, if you combine the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle with "chaos theory," nature may well be not only non-deterministic but radically contingent. There are plenty of gaps for God to be in, after all.
Another objection to the "God in the gaps" argument is theological: it seems inconsistent with divine justice. Indeed, in the passage above, why should the merchants "give thanks to the Lord for his unfailing love and his wonderful deeds to men?" God calmed the sea for their benefit, but he was the one who called up the storm in the first place. The best you can say for him is that the seas are his, and he has a right to stir up "wonderful deeds" in them whenever he likes, so it was kind of him to take a break so that the merchants could get to their "desired haven" and make money. But that doesn't quite seem like "unfailing love." Even God's courtesy seems a bit inconsistent.
Understandings of God have certainly changed since then, since the advent of Christianity. To me though, there's still a grandeur in the older conception of God in the psalms-- something fiercer, and at the same time more whimsical. It is a credit to the Jews that they persisted in loving this God when they perceived so imperfectly the benevolence of his ultimate design. "The cut worm forgives the plow."
I hope someone is listening to these, other than myself. I've listened to all of them many times myself on my iPod, as a sort of technologically-enabled praying-while-doing-other-things, but I'd love it if they helped the prayer lives of others as well. People to whom I send the link usually like them, but I don't know how many people, if anyone, is downloading them. This psalm conveys the beautiful feeling of worship, perhaps, as well as anything ever written. "One thing I ask of the Lord, this is what I seek, that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life." Written hundreds of years before the beginnings of Christian monasticism.
The full text of the psalm is below the fold. I was haunted by the phrase "He lies in wait near the villages, from ambush he murders the innocent, watching in secret for his victims," which reminded me of the descriptions of the Sierra Leonean civil war in the book A Long Way Gone. And "His ways are always prosperous... His mouth is full of curses and lies and threats" reminds me of the warlords in the movie Blood Diamond.
At the time that Psalm 10 was written, and for many centuries afterwards, slavery and the slave trade were a fact of life.
1 O LORD my God, in thee do I put my trust: save me from all them that persecute me, and deliver me: 2 Lest he tear my soul like a lion, rending it in pieces, while there is none to deliver. 3 O LORD my God, if I have done this; if there be iniquity in my hands; 4 If I have rewarded evil unto him that was at peace with me; (yea, I have delivered him that without cause is mine enemy:) 5 Let the enemy persecute my soul, and take it; yea, let him tread down my life upon the earth, and lay mine honour in the dust. Selah. 6 Arise, O LORD, in thine anger, lift up thyself because of the rage of mine enemies: and awake for me to the judgment that thou hast commanded. 7 So shall the congregation of the people compass thee about: for their sakes therefore return thou on high. 8 The LORD shall judge the people: judge me, O LORD, according to my righteousness, and according to mine integrity that is in me. 9 Oh let the wickedness of the wicked come to an end; but establish the just: for the righteous God trieth the hearts and reins. 10 My defence is of God, which saveth the upright in heart. 11 God judgeth the righteous, and God is angry with the wicked every day. 12 If he turn not, he will whet his sword; he hath bent his bow, and made it ready. 13 He hath also prepared for him the instruments of death; he ordaineth his arrows against the persecutors. 14 Behold, he travaileth with iniquity, and hath conceived mischief, and brought forth falsehood. 15 He made a pit, and digged it, and is fallen into the ditch which he made. 16 His mischief shall return upon his own head, and his violent dealing shall come down upon his own pate. 17 I will praise the LORD according to his righteousness: and will sing praise to the name of the LORD most high.
This one is certainly not a Christian psalm. The psalmist is confident that he has done no wrong and challenges God to let his enemy kill him if he has. No Christian would dare to make a challenge like that. But I find the psalm's evocation of the righteousness of God stirring.
As the deer pants for streams of water so my soul pants for you O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God where can I go and meet with God.
My tears have been my food day and night, while men say to me all day long, "Where is your God?"
These things I remember as I pour out my soul, How I used to go with the multitude, leading the procession to the house of God, With shouts of joy and thanksgiving among the festive throng.
Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your faith in God, for I will yet praise Him, my Savior and my God.
My soul is downcast within me, therefore I will remember you From the lands of the Jordan, from the heights of Hermon, from Mount Mizar. Deep calls to deep in the roar of your waterfalls, All your waves and breakers have swept over me.
By day the Lord directs His love, by night his song is with me, A prayer to the God of my life.
I will say to God my Rock, "Why have you forgotten me? Why must I go about morning, oppressed by the enemy, My bones suffer mortal agony, as my foes taunt me, Saying to me all day long, 'Where is your God?'"
Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your faith in God, for I will yet praise Him, my Savior and my God.
I like the images of water at the beginning and after "deep calls to deep," and I tried to imitate rippling water in a few of my melodies. What is interesting is that the psalmist doesn't seem very faithful, for he complains and even accuses God of forgetting him. Or does he? The psalm seems to have the form of a dialog of the psalmist with his own soul. The imperative, "Put your faith in God" is spoken to himself. The psalmist's faith repeatedly falters, but he steadies it.