Happy shall they be who… WHAT?

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office

Psalm 137:1-6(7-9), 144 (Morning)
Psalm 104 (Evening)
Jer. 35:1-19
1 Cor. 12:27-13:3
Matt. 9:35-10:4


Happy shall they be who… WHAT?

I can’t read Psalm 137 without hearing Don McLean singing, “By… the waters… the waters… of Babylon… we lay down and wept… and wept… for thee, Zion.” Is it stuck in your head now, too?

Psalm 137 is surely one of the most familiar to us, having many settings in both liturgical and popular music. Verses 1-6 are a poignant, stirring lament of those in exile for a beloved homeland. But what of verses 7-9? Why don’t they make it into the songs? Why are they marked as optional in our reading today?

You might know where I’m going with this. I feel like making my reflection about the dirty little secret of Psalm 137 borders on cliché, but despite observations about the Psalms reflecting the whole spectrum of human emotions, and discussions of historical context, and so on, I’m still not over it! I still feel a visceral recoil when I find at the end, “Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!”

That’s not longing. That’s not lament. That’s rage. That’s the boiling anger of someone who has been so dehumanized (as when their captors and persecutors demand to be entertained with the “songs of Zion”) that the only way they know to respond is to dehumanize those who oppress them. We know this, right? Analytically, we know what’s happening. But it’s hard to relate to someone who’s talking about murdering babies.

I decided to write this, even though it’s hardly a new idea, because the parentheses are still there, not just in the psalm but in life. We (by which I mean mostly white, mostly middle class, reasonably comfortable members of Western society) treat paying attention to people who are angry as optional; we can choose to avoid them. I’m challenging myself, and you, not to do that.

Hymnwriter John Bell says about the last verse of Psalm 137, “It should not be forgotten, especially by those who have never known exile, dispossession or the rape of people and land.” If we haven’t had those experiences, lucky us. Let’s not recoil from those who have, even if their anger makes us uncomfortable. Let’s take the insight of the psalm and use it to hold them in love.

Written by Noah Meeks

Noah has been peripheral to St. Paul’s since 1998. It has influenced his life greatly, especially his decision to join the Episcopal Church in 2010. He spent a semester with missionaries from St. Paul’s in the Dominican Republic in 2002 and participated in the Ark Fellows program in 2013-2014. He completed EfM in 2017, serves as a lector, and is joining the Healing Touch ministry.

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