Growing up in the 1970s, it was the buoyant disco-reggae of Boney M (covering the Melodians’ Rastafari-influenced version) that I remember as my earliest encounter with Psalm 137. But our setting today is a somewhat older one. Popularised in 1971 by Don McLean as the final track of his seminal American Pie album, its musical origins are traced back to the 18th century English church musician Philip Hayes.
And its textual origins: in the 6th century BCE, a group of forcibly-displaced Judeans (perhaps a guild of musicians from Jerusalem’s by-then-destroyed Temple?) find themselves tormented by their Babylonian captors’ demands to be entertained with a song of their homeland. Though their immediate response is to set aside their instruments in sorrow, what emerges is a kind of song – this Psalm. Yet it is a joyless song; indeed the Biblical text incorporates (in a verse not included in today’s setting) a bitter exhortation to utmost violence.
Centuries pass but – like the overlapping lines of a round – human society continues to witness ever-repeating cycles of brutality and retribution. Meanwhile even if the inner verses provided here by Carl Daw anchor today’s text more firmly to its Biblical source, the stark simplicity of the “traditional” version hauntingly conveys a restless yearning for something that’s felt to be lost, but still remembered.
Perhaps it invites singers and hearers alike to ask: Who or what is our “Babylon”?
Perhaps too it confronts us with an uncomfortable but necessary choice. Will we be captive to our own yearning for a remembered “Zion” of former days? Or, like the community-in-exile to which the prophet Jeremiah wrote (Jeremiah 29:4-7), will we learn to find and follow God’s purpose even where we feel disconnected and displaced?
And as Jesus took up the prophet Isaiah’s manifesto of liberty to those once held captive (Luke 4:18-19, Isaiah 61:1-4), will we take courage to proclaim a coming freedom not just for ourselves, but for all who are in thrall?
Lord Jesus, you have shared our humanity and endured our inhumanity. Yet not even the power of death could hold you in exile from heaven’s throne. Strengthen us, we pray; dry our tears; cleanse us from our bitterness; that we may know your presence with us now, and may look with joy to our final homecoming. Amen.
The Rev’d Dominic Grant, Minister, Barnet URC & St Andrew’s Chesterfield Road URC