Psalm for the 4th Sunday of Lent (B)

Psalm 137: 1-6

This week’s responsorial psalm comes from Psalm 137, a mournful remembrance of the plight of the Jews during the Babylonian exile. It is rich in religious sentiment and describes inconsolable despondency, fierce resentment, and heartfelt commitment.

By the streams of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. 

The psalmist recalls the nostalgia felt by the exiles in Babylon.

The “streams of Babylon” include the Tigris, the Euphrates, and the many waterways that linked them (see Ezekiel 3:15, where one of the latter is mentioned, the Chebar).

We can sense here the personal experience of an exile and the sort of feelings pious Jewish exiles held in their hearts. To sit down and weep is a sign of lamentation (see Job 2:8, 13; Lamentations 2:10).

On the aspens of that land we hung up our harps.

Their musical instruments are hung on trees; they are silent.

For there our captors asked of us the lyrics of our songs, and our despoilers urged us to be joyous: “Sing for us the songs of Zion!”

To compound the despair that engulfed them in their disastrous exile, they were cruelly taunted by their captors. They asked for mirth from those who had been dispossessed and taken captive, and who were now in despair.

How could we sing a song of the LORD in a foreign land?

The “songs of Zion” were songs that celebrated God’s triumph and magnanimity and extolled the glories of Jerusalem and of the temple. The request made by their captors, then, was wounding and sarcastic. It also implied an insult to the God of Israel, who had made Zion his dwelling place. The exile of the Israelites was considered by many as evidence of God’s inability to save them.

Further, the Israelites considered Babylon an unclean land. It would have been unseemly to pray to the holy God of Israel in such a profane place.

If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand be forgotten! May my tongue cleave to my palate if I remember you not,

After reflecting on life in exile without Jerusalem, the psalmist launches into a vow against himself should he ever forget the holy city. There is a dramatic change in the verb forms; they shift away from the past tense to an attitude that prevails in the present.

The psalmist cries out in both anguish and passion, calling down a curse: If the unthinkable happens and he forgets Jerusalem, let his right hand become useless (the Hebrew has “let my right hand wither”). If he forgets Jerusalem, let his tongue cleave the roof of his mouth and render him speechless.

if I place not Jerusalem ahead of my joy.

To forget Jerusalem would be the same thing as to forget the LORD.

Loyalty to Jerusalem, and the LORD, must be placed above any personal consolation the psalmist may seek. These words remind us of the need to have a lively desire to reach the happiness of heaven, for there we will find all the consolation we desire.

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