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The Book of Psalms is the prayer book of the Bible. Eugene says that it provides us with the language for prayer: our responding to the God who speaks to us. “Prayer is not just what good people do and say when they’re doing their best. It’s the language by which we become honest, true, and personal in our response to God. It is the means by which we get everything in our lives out in the open before God.”
Psalm 137 is a brutally honest prayer, unique in the Bible. It’s the only psalm to be set in a particular time and place. It relates to the Babylonian Exile—the period between 587-586 B.C. in Israel’s history, when Jews were taken captive in Babylon and the Jerusalem temple was destroyed. It paints a scene of captives mourning and mocked by their captors. It expresses a vow to remember Jerusalem even in exile, and closes with fantasies of vengeance against the oppressors.
The Babylonian exile served as a crucible, forcing the Israelites to rethink their relationship to Yahweh, reassess their standing as a chosen people and rewrite their history.
The exile story, which echoes through the Bible, is central to the major prophets, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Lamentations, and Isaiah. And the aftermath of exile, when Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon and allowed the Judeans to return to Israel, is narrated in books of Ezra and Nehemiah. This story of exile, which covers roughly 2/3rds of the Hebrew Bible tackles the questions of how the catastrophe of exile was possible and what Israel can learn from it.
The psalm is a regular part of Jewish & Christian Liturgies, but for many years dominant church traditions (including our own) removed the last three verses of the psalm from liturgical books because of their cruelty perceived to be incompatible with the gospel message.
Conversely, minority groups have long see the Psalm in a opposite way. On the anniversary of America’s independence, the abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass made the opening line of the psalm, a centerpiece of his most famous speech, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?”
Not only did it inspire the famous abolitionist, this 2,500-year-old Hebrew psalm has long served as an uplifting historical analogy for a variety of oppressed and subjugated groups, including African Americans.
Questions for the practice of Examen & Contemplation