One of the great challenges for me personally is praying Psalm 137, which Orthodoxy uses especially for the Great Fast. The sentiment of the Psalm is exile which is brought to our attention at the beginning of Great Lent. We are not at home in this world, but have been exiled from Paradise. Lent is supposed to help create in us a desire to return home, like the Prodigal Child of Jesus’ parable.
The sense of exile, separation and alienation from God is a spiritual experience. The Psalm speaks about ancient Israel’s captivity in Babylon after having been conquered and carried away from their homeland as Babylonian slaves. That experience is used in the Psalm by the Church not to get us to think about these historical events, but rather that we embrace the sentiment of the Psalm – pain and shame in exile and defeat. We pray the Psalm because of our own spiritual condition – we live in the Fallen world, exiled from Paradise. The Psalm helps nurture in us this sense of loss. It’s not being used to teach us history, it’s reminding us of our spiritual reality today.
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!” How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither! Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy! Remember, O LORD, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem, how they said, “Rase it, rase it! Down to its foundations!” O daughter of Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall he be who requites you with what you have done to us! Happy shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock! (Psalm 137)
It is really in the final few verses of the Psalm, that I struggle. For the Psalm does not express Christ’s own command to forgive nor His command to love one’s enemies. Rather it literally rejoices in smashing the heads of babies against the rock. For pro-life people we should be troubled with this imagery of splattering the brains of babies on a rock.
But then, we are not praying the Psalm as the ancient Israelites might have. Nor is our prayer life guided by the intentions of the Psalmist. And we are not in exile from the earthly city of Jerusalem. Our exile is from Paradise, from the heavenly Jerusalem, from our God. We don’t pray the Psalm to remember the historical struggles of the Jews. Rather, we have adapted the Psalm spiritually to fit our exile. Our Babylon is this world of the Fall, here we live a life in which we experience separation and alienation from God and long to find our way back to God. The Holy Land is not our homeland, rather Paradise is the home from which we have been exiled by our own sins. We are not separated from the earthly Jerusalem (which after all is part of this fallen world) – we have total access to the earthly city. We understand references in the Psalm to Jerusalem to mean the heavenly one, Paradise, Heaven.
What separates us from our heavenly homeland, is not the Babylonians or Edomites of the ancient world or any worldly power. What separates us from God and our homeland are our own sins, and any demonic powers who tempt us. These are the little ones who we need to defeat.
And note in the Psalm, that the little ones are to be dashed against the rock (singular) not the rocks as some mistakenly sing. And the Rock was Christ (1 Corinthians 10:4). Now the spiritual meaning of the text is more clear. To break our enslavement to sin and temptation, we have to smash those sins and temptations on that Rock who is Christ. We need Christ to free us from slavery, sin and death. The Psalm doesn’t lead us back into ancient history, but forward to the Kingdom of Heaven.