Psalms For Life
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Psalm 137

If I forget you, Jerusalem

Recalling abuse or injustice can be excruciating. But it’s vital for us to process our grief and anger. Doing so here, the psalmist resolves to cling to her hope of Jerusalem’s restoration, no matter what.

By the rivers of Babylon
we sat down and wept
as we remembered Zion.
2 There on the willow trees
we hung up our lyres
3 because our captors asked for songs
and our tormentors wanted a laugh:
“Sing us one of your good ol’ Zion songs!”
4 But how could we sing any of YHWH’s songs
there in a foreign land?

5 If I forget you, Jerusalem
may my right hand forget everything it’s learned.
6 May my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth
if I don’t remember you
if I don’t count Jerusalem my highest joy!

7 Don’t forget the Edomites, YHWH
on the day of Jerusalem—
how they said, “Raze it!
Raze it down to its foundations!”
8 Beautiful brain-bashing Babylon
doomed to destruction:
Blessed is the one who pays you back in kind
for what you did to us.
9 Blessed is the one who grabs your little ones
and bashes them against the rock.


Beside the same rivers that nourished Eden’s beautiful trees, the psalmist’s tormentors demanded songs celebrating Zion’s unrivalled place in the world. Having destroyed Jerusalem, they now wanted to turn its destruction into fodder for their mockery. The psalmist* and her fellow captives refuse, hanging their lyres on the willows in anguish, the trees now representing not abundance, but rather devastation and loss.

Zion was where God lived to manifest his just rule on earth, offering grace and peace to all who sought shelter in him. Far from just being an ethnic dream, Zion signified God’s redemption of humankind and the entire world. The psalmist refuses to give that dream up, though she can’t reconcile it with her exile to Babylon either. With everything else of value stripped away, she refuses to abandon her vision of Zion, no matter how impossible it now seems. In fact, she’s prepared to cling to that hope even if it costs her health, her life.

Now her images of Zion ring with harsh Edomite cries and blind her with visions of Babylonians smashing Israelite babies’ heads against the rock. She ends her psalm with what seems an all-too-human outburst of vitriol but is in fact a declaration that she’s trusting that God will see that justice is done. According to Isaiah’s prophecy, God would ensure that the Babylonians’ evils are done to them in turn (Isa. 13:16). And the psalmist shockingly blesses those who will carry out that sentence. She thus gives her pain and anger to God, accepts his judgment, and turns vengeance over to him.

Lord, I hate seeing brokenness or pain. But you’d also have me resist evil and weep with those who weep, not pretend all is well in Babylon. Help me accept that compassion demands justice, which must always be on your terms, and that seeking first your kingdom involves this too. Amen.

In your free moments today, pray these words:

If I forget you, Jerusalem
may my right hand forget everything it’s learned.
May my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth
if I don’t remember you
if I don’t count Jerusalem my highest joy!

 

* I imagine the psalmist here as a woman of faith, like Miriam, Deborah, Hanna, or the Virgin Mary (see further, my answer to the question: Who wrote the psalms?).

Why YHWH?

Every translator of the Psalms must decide how to handle God’s personal name, YHWH or YHVH, which occurs repeatedly in its Hebrew text. Translators of the King James Version usually translated it “LORD” (all caps) and sometimes transliterated it (badly) as “Jehovah.” Likewise, all modern translations either translate or transliterate it. Some other options for translating it are “the Eternal,” “the Almighty,” or “the Sovereign Lord.”

While translating it aims to make it more accessible to readers, transliterating it seems to me more faithful to the text since it’s not a word at all, but rather God’s uniquely personal name. This roots it more firmly in the biblical story as the name God revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai. Meaning “the self-existent One who answers to no one,” the name YHWH set Israel’s God apart from all the gods of Israel’s neighbors.

Personal names are, well, very personal. Even the sound of a name can evoke strong emotion. I’ve chosen to transliterate only YHWH’s consonants since the earliest Hebrew manuscripts contain only consonants, the vowels being added much later. My aim in doing so is to honor God’s name and set it apart, as unique.

One problem with YHWH is that we aren’t sure how it was pronounced since Jews long ago stopped saying it out of reverence. (They read Adonai instead whenever they come to YHWH in the text.) I take the advice of my esteemed Hebrew professor, Raymond Dillard, who advocated pronouncing it as Yahveh (Yah·vay). He favored that over the standard Yahweh since the modern Hebrew pronunciation of its third consonant makes the name sound more robustly Jewish. It also makes it sound more robust, period.

Finding strength in the ancient psalms

May these psalms be a light to you in dark times. You can read more of Mark Anderson's writings on Christianity, culture, and inter-faith dialogue at Understanding Christianity Today.