Anchored in Love, Even as We Lament – October 9
A sermon based on Psalm 137
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on October 9, 2022
by Rev. Scott Elliott
I wrote this sermon a month ago. And if you think back, a month ago I was home with very sick with Covid. When Nancy saw me up and at the keyboard she asked what I was doing, I told her I was writing a sermon, but it seemed a bit different. Actually, I said “It’s kinda weird, I think I’m going to sing a little bit of it.” The advice Nancy gave as she patted my knee was, “Well, before you preach it, you’d better tell them it was written with Covid brain.” So, there you have it. You’ve been warned. Also, I need to point out that I wrote this before we knew we would be installing our wonderful new music director Theodore. So don’t blame him when I get to what I am calling singing.
Robin really did a great job of reading Psalm 137. It’s one of the most powerful psalms on many levels. It was written in lament over the capture and destruction of Judah by Babylon and the hauling away of many Judeans to an exile in a faraway foreign land. There’s a somewhat famous modern song from the Broadway musical Godspell based on the first part of Psalm 137, it’s sung as Jesus and the disciples have the Last Supper just before Jesus is captured and hauled away by the Roman conquers of their day. The song – On The Willows– is sad and mellow and speaks to anyone who’s been in a place in life where it seems there can never be joy, a place where there does not seem to be any hope at all. The song and the music from Godspell capture the melancholy of the first verses of Psalm 137.
With apologies to Stephen Schwartz and Theo, my abbreviated version goes like this:
On the willows, there/We hung up our lyres/For our captors there required, of us songs/And our tormentors, mirth/Saying sing us one/of the songs of Zion/Sing us one/ of the songs of Zion/But how can we sing?/Sing the Lord’s songs?/In a foreign land?/On the willows, there/We hung up our lyres.
There’s a haunting beauty to the words of Psalm 137 in verses 1-6 that we heard Robin read– and in the verses I just sang. Over the centuries there have been many songs based on those verses. It’s moving, touching stuff.
There was much to lament and be haunted over by the those taken into Exile. They’d seen their homeland conquered and razed to ground; their leaders and elite hauled off to a foreign land where they were tormented– with among other things the mocking mirth of the Babylonians ordering them to sing and settle in far, far from home. Their city and temple were pillaged and knocked to the ground. Their people were killed and force marched into captivity.
Among all that killing and loss and exile a theological crisis ensured. They were Yahweh’s people and Yahweh was their God. There was a prominent belief that they had prospered because they were judged worthy and rewarded and backed by the best of all gods. That was a strong strain of theology as Babylon began to conquer them. It was not just prosperity that the theology indicated they earned from God, but also punishment in the form of catastrophes.
Some Prophets even predicted that failure to fully follow Yahweh would cause divine punishment in the form of the conquest. So, it looked like they’d earned the misery inflicted on them by Babylon– the death, the conquest and the exile. They felt abandoned or wicked or both. It seemed God was punishing them all for decades with exile in Babylon the capital of a people of a rival and very wrong for them god.
But that sort of theology offers little or no hope in the long run; and it offers no logical form of love from God. No set of people deserve such terror and terrible happenings, certainly not the God-who-is-love’s people. God’s people as a whole did not cause the conquest and exile through misdeeds that Yahweh punished them for with violence and havoc. They were victims of constantly warring and conquering nations. The little Jewish nations on the edges and crossroads of empires were caught up in waves set off by much more powerful nations, waves that ebbed and flowed and often swamped like a tsunami over small countries in the region and people suffered greatly.
You may recall that for a while the Kingdom of Israel had been united in its glory days under Kings Saul, David and Solomon. Those days are referred to as the United Monarchy which lasted just a little while – only from the late eleventh to the early tenth century B.C. The United Monarchy ended when it divided in two shortly after Solomon died. The northern section, kept the name Israel, The southern section, called itself Judah. Eventually the kingdom of Assyria swallowed up Israel in 722 B.C. and the Jewish tribes said to have comprised that little northern nation were scattered about and became the lost tribes of Israel. Judah, in the south with the Temple and Jerusalem, remained intact for a while but became in essence a vassal state passed back and forth between Assyria and Babylon with Egypt playing one off the other.
Judah caught up in the middle rode the waves of those constantly warring nations like a very small boat in the ocean. Its leaders trying to choose the side best for survival to avoid sinking like its northern sister Israel had. In 597 B.C. Judah was under the thumb of Babylon which began warring with Egypt. Judah chose to side with Egypt and revolted against Babylon trying to escape from under that crushing thumb. Babylon responded by putting Judah under a siege, and then attacked and conquered it, and relocated many of the elite leaders and wealthy to Babylon. The Babylonians claimed Judah as their state and installed their own ruler. But within a few years Judah sided with the Egyptians again and revolted again and another siege ensued. The final siege ended in 587 when Babylon entered the city.
But Babylon decided a stern lesson was in order. So, it burned and knocked the entire city of Jerusalem to rubble and hauled off more of the rulers and elites, leaving behind farmers and the poor to tend to the state to eke out something from the land for Babylon. The Jewish captives from both 597 and 587 BC were kept in exile in Babylon until the next power shift in 538 when Assyria conquered Babylon under Cyrus the Great and finally let all the exiled Judeans who wanted to, to return home.
Psalm 137 was written with the Exile experience traumatically in mind, reflecting the sense of sadness and despair those in Exile experienced with the horrible war and losses and seemingly interminable exile. We can hear in it a painful yearning for Zion, which is Jerusalem, the capital of their homeland and Holy ground that held the Temple. There’s more than lament in Psalm 137, of course. The ending verses are very hard to hear. There’s hate for their enemies in Edom who cheered for Judah’s downfall and the razing Babylon inflicted. There’s hate too at the end of the psalm with the disturbingly graphic wish for violence to infants and a deep awful hate in God’s people for Babylonians. Psalm 137 not only roots for the destruction of Babylon, it lifts up happiness as a reward for the murder of Babylonian infants by invading soldiers, murders of the terrible kind Babylon inflicted upon Judean infants.
We have in this one short psalm, so much about war and its terrible emotional toil and damage– and its engendering desire and justification for retaliatory violence. The kernels of the cycle of continuation of war exist in Psalm 137. War’s itself is pithily wrapped up in the words. We empathetically sense hurt in and beyond words. We can feel, twenty-five-hundred years later the deep despair and the anger against the people who had war brought upon them, wanting war brought to others– “It was done to us and we want it done to you and those who supported you.”
There may be no psalm with better supporting evidence for the Biblical decree in Torah law of an eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth taken to its extremities upon an enemy and their innocent children. Psalm 137 is raw and its chilling and its painful and unloving. It’s not peaceful by any means. Exodus 21 (23-25) actually sets out the Torah law I mentioned like this, “If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” In Latin the legal term for this is lex talionis, it means the law of retaliation. It’s retributive justice, that is, it’s about punishment. It sees the justice that is due is punishment.
There seems to be something in humankind’s primitive nature that wants to lash out and do to others what they’ve done to us or our kin. That’s not the Golden Rule where we do to others what we want done to ourselves. It’s the opposite rule that I think of as Leaden Rule where we shoot those who shoot us or kill their kin as they killed ours– and we call it justice. The whole of Psalm 137 lets us understand the feelings that lead to the Leaden Rule. We were hurt and we hurt so we want to hurt others. Get back. Get even. Judge others and punish them exactly as they did to us . . . tit-for-tat.
Sadly, before the Babylonian Exile God was thought to judge and punish like men. Men made God in their image. He was a “he” and was believed to smite those he felt did wrong with punishing misery, war, disease, floods, fires and other bad things. Many still think that God is like that, we hear all the time about natural disasters being wrought by God for conduct this or that person or church does not like. In the times leading up to the Exile some prophets said similar things, like the bad things Judah’s leaders or people did would cause God to be punishing. So, get right or look out for God’s vengeance. We hear this even today, right? Some sort of “Do what we claim the Bible says God wants or get violently and ruthlessly punished by God now, or in later in hell. Violent and ruthless punishment is not loving- and it never has and never will come from God. GOD. IS. LOVE!
As horrible as the Exile was, it had a positive side-effect, it caused God to be re-imagined in Judaism. God is re- imagined as loving– as love. Like I started to say earlier, a theology of God causing the conquest and exile as punishment offers little or no hope in a life. The reality is life has lots of misery so even if we are good we cannot win because bad things happen to good people.
The book of Job that also came out of the Exile experience is about that. Job is righteous but is in misery. People tell Job its divine punishment. But it can’t be because Job is good. And sure enough, we learn the bad that Job encounters is not Divine punishment. Just like the bad the Psalmist encountered and just like the bad we encounter. This is addressed in the Bible in more than just the story of Job. The post-Exilic writers known by scholars as the Priestly writers address this reality; and they do so brilliantly. They redact and add to Torah a new understanding of God. They create a new creation story to show order coming from chaos, hope out of the unknown.
The new creation story now found at the start of Genesis demonstrates God’s power over chaos with Word alone, God as Cosmic Sovereign creates order out of chaos. God orders the days of the week and creation – and declares all of creation is good. We are good, not bad. The sixth day is the most important, beasts are created and then humans. And both men and women are made in God’s image to be God’s emissaries, caretakers and stewards of earth. Humans are given God’s blessing, and are divinely empowered. They are good and Godly made.
My Old Testament Professor John Bracke taught us that the Priests’ “Creation Story provides a powerful affirmation about God’s power to order chaos and about the decisive role of humankind in God’s creation – for exiles an alternative view of what it means to be human.” This new understanding is infused in other Bible stories, including the flood story where God makes a covenant with creation after the devastation of the flood – and the flood becomes a metaphor for the devastation of the Exile. In the post Exilic version of the flood story God makes a unilateral and unconditional covenant. It’s a Divine no-strings-attached promise. Obedience by humans is not required to benefit from God’s love. The promise alone sustains God’s relationship with humans regardless of location inside or outside the Holy Land. Regardless of human conduct there will be no more God made catastrophes like the floods or exile. Humans and the laws of nature may cause bad things to happen but not God.
This is transformative stuff for the exiled and scattered people of God. It puts God where they are, it names them and all of creation as good. It declares all humans to be images of God. It makes all humans God’s agents on earth. And out of this new understanding grows a sense that our neighbors and even our enemies and their babies are worthy of God’s love and by extension worthy of our love as equal images of God and as agents of God.
Six hundred years or so after the Exile a Jewish Rabbi in the Holy Land created a movement that centered on that sense and understanding anchored in love. He modeled rejecting unloving scripture like “an eye for an eye” and taught his followers to love everyone even their enemies and do to others what they’d want done to themselves. And he taught that love – the desire for the well-being of others– was to be the focus of their life. No other commandment was more important than to Love. So, love was to rule all they did, just as it ruled his life and his way. That Rabbi’s name, of course is Jesus. And today many of us follow his Way of love. A way that teaches we need to live so God can use us anywhere, anytime even in exile, even in lament and even for our enemies’ well-being.
Living Jesus’ Way does not lead to a life without troubles or to a life without exile and deep lament. But it does lead to the lessons of the Exile that God is good and we are too, all of us– and that as agents of God we are to strive for the well-being of the world. That is the good news we are to rejoice in and live by and share and believe. May it be so. AMEN.
- This sermon is inspired in part by Professor John Brake’s 2003 Old Testament class and notes at Eden Theological Seminary.Bracke, November 26, 2003, Course Outline, 2 and related lecture. That class and this sermon are relied in part on the work of Professor Walter Brueggemann. Brueggemann & Wolff, The Vitality of Old Testament Tradition, (Atlanta: John Knox Press (1975), 103-104.
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