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Psalm 137

If I forget Jerusalem

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

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—
those who plundered us wanted a laugh:
“Sing us one of your Zion songs!”
4 But how could we sing any of Yahveh’s songs
there in a foreign land?

5 If I forget you, Jerusalem
may my right hand wither.
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, Yahveh
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 fodder for their mockery. The psalmist and her fellow captives refused, hanging their lyres on the willows in anguish, the trees now representing loss, not abundance.

Zion was where God lived to manifest his just rule on earth, offering grace and peace to all. The psalmist refuses to give that dream up, though she can’t reconcile it with her exile to Babylon either. But with everything else of value stripped away, she refuses to abandon her vision of Zion, no matter how impossible it 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 of faith in God’s justice. She shockingly affirms what Isaiah prophesied: that God would ensure that the Babylonians’ evils are done in turn to them (Isa. 13:16). She thus gives her 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 things are fine in Babylon. Help me see that compassion can’t exist without justice, to take justice on your terms, and to seek first the kingdom you’re building on earth. Amen.

During your free moments today, say these words:

If I forget you, Jerusalem
may my right hand wither.
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!

Why Yahveh?

Every translator of the Psalms must decide how to handle God’s personal name, YHWH, which occurs repeatedly in its Hebrew text. Translators of the King James Version usually translated it “LORD” (all caps) and occasionally transliterated it (badly) as “Jehovah.” Modern translations, likewise, either translate or transliterate it. While translating it aims to make it more accessible to readers, transliterating it is more faithful to the text since it’s not a word at all, but rather God’s uniquely personal name. I’ve chosen to transliterate it to root it more firmly in the biblical story as the name—meaning the “self-existent One”—that God revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai. This name 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. One problem with YHWH is that we aren’t sure how it was pronounced since Jews long ago stopped saying it in order better to hallow it. In transliterating it, I follow the advice of my esteemed Hebrew professor, Raymond Dillard. He advocated transliterating it as Yahveh—pronounced yah·vay—arguing that following the modern Hebrew pronunciation of its third consonant makes the name sound more robustly Jewish than Yahweh.
May these psalms be a light to you in dark times. You can read more of Mark Robert Anderson's writings on Christianity, culture, and inter-faith dialogue at Understanding Christianity Today.