Psalm 137: Exiles in a Foreign Land – An Early Immigration Crisis?
I’ve been fortunate. I don’t know what it is to go hungry. Nor do I know what it is like to live in exile from all you know and love. The writer of Psalm 137 knows what it is like to live in exile.
Statue of Liberty
One of the myths about our current immigration crisis is that it is somehow new. That in the past we welcomed immigrants with open arms, responding to the words of the Statue of Liberty.
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
But has it ever been that way? Perhaps for those first pilgrims, but once those European colonizers settled in, territoriality settled in as well and only immigrants from their country of origin found welcome. That was certainly the case for the hundreds of thousands of Irish immigrants fleeing from starvation during the potato famine of the 1840’s. They weren’t welcomed. Rather they were met with discrimination and signs reading, “Irish Need Not Apply.”
“Contrary to America’s renown for liberty and tolerance, the famine Irish were met widely with bigotry and hatred. Many Americans came to believe that an excess of foreigners and Catholics would destroy the fabric of a blossoming democracy. Anti-foreign and anti-Catholic mobs attacked convents and Catholic schools throughout the Northeast. Riots erupted in Philadelphia and New York. Irish Catholics were shunned by landlords and shop owners and denied work in the factories.” (From the Irish American Journey)
The Hebrews in exile in Babylon were not immigrants by choice. Soldiers had forced them from their homes and marched to a new country. Many of the immigrants crossing the border from Syria or other countries feel they have no real choice either in the matter. Just as those hordes of Irish immigrants felt their only choice was to starve in Ireland or take their chances in America, they are being faced with a choice between death in Syria or an uncertain future in exile.
Psalm 137 is a cursing psalm, the only such type in the Psalter; a plaintive lament by those experiencing extreme hardships. Strangers in a strange land, it wasn’t enough that they had been uprooted and their Temple destroyed, but they had to endure the taunts of those around them, asking them to sing the songs of their homeland for the entertainment of their captors. “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our lyres, for there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion.’” (1-3) Much like slave owners of the past, commenting on how “their darkies” sang.
After the opening lament, the tone changes to one of swearing. The writer calls a curse down upon himself should he ever forget Jerusalem. “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither! Let me tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy!” (5-6)
He then curses the Edomites, who had rejoiced over the destruction of Jerusalem, “Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem, how they said, ‘Rase it, rase it! Down to its foundations!’” (7) Followed by a curse against Babylon, “O daughter of Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall he be who requites you with what you have done to us!” (8)
Psalm 137 – Challenging Passages in Scripture
Modern readers squirm at the last line of this hymn, “Happy shall be he who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!” (9) They clean up the hymn by removing the offending line, along with other passages in Scripture that make us uncomfortable. But these are the honest feelings of a people sorely troubled, badly beaten. Their own children may have been ripped from them and so they respond in kind, asking God to do to their captors’ children what had been done to theirs.
Again I am reminded of the words, be angry, but sin not. The history of the curse changed over the course of the Old Testament from one where the curse itself magically effects the change demanded, to entrusting the curse to God as the source of power. The Israelites cry out in their anger and pain to their God, leaving vengeance in God’s hands.
Growing in Compassion and Understanding
Perhaps what we need is more compassion and understanding for those whose suffering is beyond our imagination; those who have lost children, parents, siblings, to war; those who are starving and clinging to life while we are well-fed and live in comfortable homes. Perhaps we need to embrace our heritage and accept the words of the Statue of Liberty.
These are hard words, difficult to accept. We fear the loss of our own good fortunes when confronted by masses of starving people. I’m not comfortable with these words for they challenge me and I don’t know that I’m up to the challenge. Living the Gospel isn’t easy.
How do you deal with difficult passages in Scripture? Are you willing to wrestle with them or do you dismiss them?
This post is part of a series of blog posts on the Psalms. Sign up to follow this blog and and receive a free copy of Still Dancing, the second book in my Dancing through Life Series. click here to sign up
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