Psalm 137: 1-2, 3, 4-5, 6
This week’s responsorial psalm comes from Psalm 137, a mournful lamentation written while the Israelites were captives in Babylon. 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. On the aspens of that land we hung up our harps.
The verb forms used in the first part of the passage suggest that the psalmist is describing a situation that took place in the past.
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. They asked for songs that celebrated God’s triumph and magnanimity and extolled the glories of Jerusalem and of the temple, when the people were bereft of comfort and the city and sanctuary they loved so much were in ruins.
How could we sing a song of the LORD in a foreign land?
There are several reasons why the exiled people cannot sing their religious songs in a foreign land. First, it would be incongruous to extol God’s mighty deeds while the nation sat in defeat. This would be especially true when their defeat was considered by some as evidence of God’s inability to save them.
Second, at this time in history people normally believed that the rule of a god was territorial, and it was appropriate to pay homage to the god within whose territory they resided.
Third, the Israelites considered Babylon an unclean land. Therefore, it was 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,
The verb forms change; the form of the self-imprecation indicates 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. 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.
Loyalty to Jerusalem, even as it lies ravage and desolate, must be placed above any personal consolation the psalmist may seek. This loyalty will take the form of silence and also remembering.
Jerusalem and the temple will continue to exist in the religious memories of this humiliated, disheartened, yet dedicated people.