Friday, February 21, 2014

Introduction to Psalm 136


Chludov Psalter, mid c9th
We are onto the final stretch of the psalms of Wednesday Vespers now, with Psalm 136, the third of the hour (note that I've previously provided detailed notes on Psalm 137 so don't plan to revisit it).

Psalm 136, By the Rivers of Babylon, though, is the psalm that most, I think, encapsulates the challenges that Wednesday in the Benedictine Office poses to our minds formed in a modern culture, and in many ways provides a fitting lead in to Lent.

The challenge of the cursing psalms

On the one hand, it clearly represents great poetry, and has inspired many great composers down the ages (and I'll share a selection of their settings in this mini-series).  Indeed, it has even passed into popular culture as a song of protest against oppression (perceived or real!) in a reggae version as part of the soundtrack to a 1972 Jamaican crime movie and subsequent cover version by Bony M.  So it can't be ignored altogether.

On the other hand though, most modern Catholics find the last two versions difficult, since wishing for vengeance is thought to be inappropriate.  Accordingly, the Novus Ordo Liturgy of the Hours includes the psalm, but omits the final two verses.

Simply ignoring or excising bits of Scripture though, isn't though, a solution that fits particularly well with the adage that all Scripture is for our salvation.  The key I think is to consider the psalm on three levels.

Psalm 136 – Super flumina
Vulgate
Douay-Rheims
Psalmus David, Jeremiæ

1 Super flúmina Babylónis, illic sédimus et flévimus: * cum recordarémur Sion:
Upon the rivers of Babylon, there we sat and wept: when we remembered Sion:
2  In salícibus in médio ejus, * suspéndimus órgana nostra.
2 On the willows in the midst thereof we hung up our instruments.
3  Quia illic interrogavérunt nos, qui captívos duxérunt nos, * verba cantiónum.
3 For there they that led us into captivity required of us the words of songs.
4  Et qui abduxérunt nos: * Hymnum cantáte nobis de cánticis Sion.
And they that carried us away, said: Sing to us a hymn of the songs of Sion.
5  Quómodo cantábimus cánticum Dómini * in terra aliéna?
4 How shall we sing the song of the Lord in a strange land?
6  Si oblítus fúero tui, Jerúsalem, * oblivióni detur déxtera mea.
5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand be forgotten.
7  Adhæreat lingua mea fáucibus meis, * si non memínero tui.
6 Let my tongue cleave to my jaws, if I do not remember you:
8  Si non proposúero Jerúsalem, * in princípio lætítiæ meæ.
If I make not Jerusalem the beginning of my joy.

9  Memor esto, Dómine, filiórum Edom, * in die Jerúsalem.
7 Remember, O Lord, the children of Edom, in the day of Jerusalem:
10  Qui dicunt: Exinaníte, exinaníte * usque ad fundaméntum in ea.
Who say: Rase it, rase it, even to the foundation thereof.
11  Fília Babylónis mísera: * beátus, qui retríbuet tibi retributiónem tuam, quam retribuísti nobis.
8 O daughter of Babylon, miserable: blessed shall he be who shall repay you your payment which you have paid us.
12  Beátus qui tenébit, * et allídet párvulos tuos ad petram.
9 Blessed be he that shall take and dash your little ones against the rock.

The cries of the slaves

First, the psalm was obviously composed in a particular historical context, namely the situation of the Jewish Exiles, as Cassiodorus narrates:

"The people of the Hebrews, who through the fault of their obduracy were many generations later to suffer in captivity under king Nebuchadnezzar, are ushered in to speak, so that they may lament their future ills as if they were witnessed as having already passed. In the first section they recount their disasters, adding that whatever the hardships in this world they can never be in any sense forgetful of Jerusalem, though it was certain that it would be destroyed."

The bitterness of slaves suffering cruel oppression is entirely understandable, and recording those feelings represents a painful honesty that is perhaps helpful for us all: few of us escape some traumatic experience in our lives, and there are stages we go through when we do, of which the first is anger.  The hope is that we can then move on, towards forgiveness.

There is a practical reality that is alluded to here though: those who seek to tear down the Church can, like Judas, realise what they have done and yet not repent, and thus condemn themselves to utter destruction.

Revelation on the fall of Babylon

Moreover, the vengeful sentiments of this psalm are not really as out of line with the New Testament as some would claim, for Revelations 18 provides a take on the destruction of Babylon, here representing the city of man that stands in stark contrast to the city of God, which picks up many of the themes of the psalm:

"After this I saw another angel, entrusted with great power, come down from heaven; earth shone with the glory of his presence. 2 And he cried aloud, Babylon, great Babylon is fallen; she has become the abode of devils, the stronghold of all unclean spirits, the eyrie of all birds that are unclean and hateful to man. 3 The whole world has drunk the maddening wine of her fornication; the kings of the earth have lived in dalliance with her, and its merchants have grown rich through her reckless pleasures. 4 And now I heard another voice from heaven say, Come out of her, my people, that you may not be involved in her guilt, nor share the plagues that fall upon her. 5 Her guilt mounts up to heaven; the Lord has kept her sins in remembrance. 6 Deal with her as she has dealt with you; repay her twice over for all she has done amiss; brew double measure for her in the cup she has brewed for others; requite her with anguish and sorrow for all her pride and luxury... and all her plagues shall come upon her in one day, death and mourning and famine, and she will be burned to the ground; such power has the God who is her judge... 20 Triumph, heaven, over her fall, triumph, you saints in heaven, apostles and prophets; God has avenged you on her. 21 And now an angel, of sovereign strength, lifted up a stone like a great mill-stone and cast it into the sea, crying out, So, with one crash of ruin, will Babylon fall, the great city, and there will be no trace of her any more. 22 Never again will men listen there to the music of harper and of minstrel, of flute-player and trumpeter; never again will the craftsmen of all those crafts be found in thee, never again the grinding of a mill heard in thee; 23 never again the light of lamps shining, never again the voice of bridegroom and of bride. Once the great men of the earth were thy purveyors; once thy sorceries bewitched the world. 24 The blood of prophet and saint lay at her doors; the blood of all that were ever slain on the earth."

Babylon, in other words, stands for all that is evil, all that attempts to oppress the Church and those who stand within it, and there is nothing at all wrong with longing for the destruction of evil, and the triumph of true justice.  We must of course pray for the conversion of those involved in evil, must forgive them the harm they do us.  But there is an objective reality that most will not repent, and that even if they do, their sins still deserve punishment.

St Benedict's take

Finally though, we can also read it as speaking of our individual struggles against temptation.

We all, after all, have to make the choice between the city of men, Babylon, and the City of God, which is Jerusalem.

And St Benedict surely alludes to this when he instructs us to dash our temptations against the rock that is Christ (RB4).




Notes on the individual verses of the psalm start here.

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