Fr. Thomas Hopko · March 4, 2008
Father Tom discusses Psalm 137, which is included in a special way during the Matins Service for the three Sundays leading up to Great Lent.
On the three Sundays before the beginning of Great Lent in the Orthodox Church, at the Matins service, a special psalm is added. It is sung only in the church on these three Sundays in this solemn manner. This psalm is chanted in the church with all the other psalms in the continuous chanting of the psalms during the services, but it is brought forward, it’s highlighted, it’s solemnly chanted on these three Sundays.
It’s done at Matins. Matins on Sunday is always a service celebrating the resurrection of Christ. Every Sunday morning, sometimes late Saturday evening in some churches at a vigil service, the Gospel of the resurrection of Christ from the dead is read. Actually, the resurrection accounts from the four gospels are divided into eleven readings which are read cyclically at the Sunday Matins. Each Sunday you have a different reading about the appearing of the risen Lord after he was crucified.
At this Matins service there are hymns about the resurrection of Christ, there’s a canon about the resurrection of Christ. There’s a great song about the many mercies in the Old Covenant. “For his mercy endures forever” is often sung. There are special verses connected to Psalm 118 about the fact that those who keep the commandments of God cannot die. “Blessed are you, O Lord, teach me your statutes; teach me your commandments, for in them is life.” Christ himself is the only one who kept all the commandments, and therefore could not stay dead, was vindicated by God and raised from the dead.
So you have this marvelous celebration of the resurrection of Christ every Sunday. This is done even during the Great Lenten period. Although Orthodox Christians fast ascetically on Sundays, they still celebrate the Holy Eucharist and celebrate the resurrection of Christ on the Sundays of Great Lent.
Now, on the three Sundays before Lent begins, this special psalm, 137, is chanted in the most solemn manner. This psalm, 137, is known by its first line: “By the waters of Babylon,” or sometimes translated, “On the waters of Babylon.” That’s how it’s mostly translated in Greek and in Latin. For example, St. John of the Cross, a great Spanish mystic, has a beautiful poem about this psalm, called “Super Flumina—Upon the Waters of Babylon.”
The psalm goes like this:
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 tormenters mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion.”
This shows the people of God in exile. They’re not in Judea any more, not in Zion, not in Jerusalem; they’re in Babylon. Babylon in the Bible stands for exile. It’s the Babylonian exile. In the New Testament, this world will be identified with Babylon. Rome, the city of Rome, the pagan Rome, in the book of Revelation, will be identified with Babylon. Babylon is the antithesis of Jerusalem. Babylon is this world as opposed to God’s kingdom. Babylon is the condition of sin and rebellion against God as opposed to the city of peace where God is adored and worshiped and obeyed. You have the tower of Babel in the Bible, the presumption on the part of people that they will build their own city, over and against the city of God.
So Babylon, it can even be identified with the pig pen in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, the far country, Jerusalem being the house of the father, or Bethlehem, the house of God; Babylon being that far country, the pig pen, the place of swine, the place of corruption and prodigality, carnality, this age. Sometimes even we speak in America about “the good life,” having “the good life.” Well, in biblical terms, that would be Babylon: simply carnal pleasures, hedonism, opposition to God, self-centeredness. That’s Babylon.
During the weeks before Great Lent begins, the people of God meditate that we are in Babylon. In this world as it is in its fallen, corrupted state is Babylon, opposed to God, opposed to his reign, opposed to his kingdom, opposed to his city. There we are, sitting in Babylon, weeping. We are weeping when we remember Zion. It would be like the prodigal son weeping in the pig pen when he remembered the house of the father. We’re far away from God, and we’re thinking about God, thinking about his city, about his house. We’re remembering it, and therefore we are weeping.
Weeping is an essential element in the Christian life. Jesus said, “Blessed are they, how happy are they who mourn, for they will be comforted.” St. Paul speaks in the letter to the Corinthians about godly grief and ungodly grief. There’s a grief according to God where we weep over our sin, over our exile, over our prodigality. But then there’s an ungodly weeping where we’re simply angry and sad and morose because we’re not getting what we want on our own terms. But there is this godly grief, and the holy Fathers say—even the Liturgy of this time of year in the Church, we have hymns that say, “Those who cannot weep cannot be saved.” There is no salvation without tears.
St. Gregory the Theologian, one great Orthodox saint of [the] fourth century, said there are many things that many different people cannot do. One person, for example, may not be able to help the poor, because he has no money and is poor himself. Another person may not be able to worship God in the Christian community in the Church, because he’s far from a Christian gathering or is ill at home. Another person, he said, may want to offer God a life of purity, but it’s too late; he’s already been corrupted and defiled.
But St. Gregory—and this was said by others: St. Seraphim of Sarov repeated it in the 19th century in Russia—he said there are certain things that everyone can do, no matter what, and two of them are these: Everyone, no matter what, can pray, can remember God. You don’t have to be learned. You don’t have to be healthy. You don’t have to be in a church. You don’t have to have anything, except to be conscious. In fact, some saints say you don’t even have to be conscious, because if you are asleep or comatose, your heart can be awake, remembering God. So one of the things that everyone is called to do is to remember God, never to forget Zion, never to forget Jerusalem.
The other thing is we all can weep. Again, you don’t need to be learned. You don’t need to be rich. You don’t need to be in a church. You don’t need to be healthy. All you need is to be alive, and weeping is possible. St. Gregory said, “Ē dakria pantes,” in Greek: “Tears are for everybody.” St. John Climacus, in The Ladder of Divine Ascent, the book that he wrote—and St. John will be particularly celebrated in Lent; on the fourth Sunday he will be remembered specifically—he said in his book: when the Lord comes in glory to judge us, and we stand before him, or when our life departs from our flesh when we die, we will stand before God, and the Lord will not ask us why we were not theologians. He will not ask us why we were not miracle-workers. He will not ask us why we were not prophets and teachers. He will not ask us why we were not mystics. But he will ask us why we have not ceaselessly wept, why we have not mourned over our sin and the sin of the world, why we have not lamented our exile.
So here we have this psalm, and that’s to remind us of all of this. On the waters of Babylon, there we sat down, and we wept when we remembered God, when we remembered Zion, and on the willows there we hung up our lyres, our harps, for our captors, our enslavers in exile, wanted us to sing. They wanted us to sing mirthful, joyful Babylonian hymns. They wanted us to sing bawdy songs and the kind of stuff you see on television every day. They wanted us to sing, and then they taunted us and said, “Sing us a song of Zion,” in a kind of ridicule.
But then the psalm continues:
How shall we sing the Lord’s song in exile, in an alien country, in a foreign land? How can we sing the songs of Zion in this land of exile?
Then the psalmist cries out:
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.
So the exile is singing that Jerusalem has to be above his highest joy, and he cannot ever forget it, and woe to him if he forgets it. Then he even brings a kind of curse upon himself: If I forget it, if I forget you, O God, you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither; let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you. Let me not be able to say a word. By the way, in the Scripture, when a person is struck by sin, they are dumb; they cannot open their mouth. They cannot say anything; they cannot use the greatest gift of God, which is the gift of speech. And the right hand is a sign of power, of cleverness, of [ability] to work. So he says if I forget you, let me be able to say nothing, let me be able to do nothing.
Then the psalmist continues:
Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites, the day of Jerusalem, how they said, “Raze it; raze it! Down to its foundation!”
And God did allow those Babylonians to raze Jerusalem to its foundation. The prophet Jeremiah called Nebuchadnezzar the most wicked king who ever lived; he called him “my servant”; “my anointed,” even. “My servant” because, as the prophet Amos said, “ ‘Can God destroy the city, and it is not I who have not done it?’ says the Lord.” The most unbelievable thing in holy Scripture is that the Lord God Almighty razes Jerusalem himself. He razes it to the ground through the Babylonians, whom providentially he sends against it, for the chastisement and the purification and the repentance of his people.
So the exiled person says to God:
Daughter of Babylon, you devastator, you destructive one, blessed, happy shall he be who requites you for what you have done to us.
So the exile says to those who have destroyed his city, the city of God: Blessed is he who will requite you for what you have done. Then the psalm ends with these terrifying words:
Happy shall he be, blessed shall he be, who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock, against the stone.
Now that strophe, that line of the psalm has really scandalized a lot of people. It scandalized a lot of believers, even. In fact, I can tell you, I know some churches where they don’t sing that line. They won’t sing it; they’ll say, “Ah, that’s Old Testamental. We can’t sing that: ‘Blessed is he who smashes your little ones against the rock. Alleluia.’ ” because with the psalm in church, an Alleluia is sung; an Alleluia, a “Praise the Lord” is sung.
But what can that mean? The holy Fathers tell us very clearly. They say this psalm, like all of the psalms, has to be sung and heard in the light of Christ. It is Christ who will destroy all the enemies of God. It is Christ who will himself be crucified out of Jerusalem itself, and in the book of Revelation, the very earthly city of Jerusalem is called Sodom in Egypt, where the Lord was crucified. Tragically, Jerusalem itself, geographically, has become Babylon, according to the Scriptures, because God has been rejected there, and Babylon is the symbol of the rejection of God.
So there is a New Jerusalem, and in the Orthodox Church on the Holy Pascha, on the celebration of the Resurrection of Christ, one of the main hymns will be “Shine, shine, O New Jerusalem,” quoting Isaiah the Prophet. There is a New Jerusalem, a Jerusalem from on high. St. Paul said that Jerusalem is our Mother. It’s the only time “mother” is used in Scripture for anything as a name. The metaphor is there plenty of times, but it says the New Jerusalem from above is our Mother. The kingdom of God is the New Jerusalem, the real Zion.
In order to be with God, to be in the Jerusalem on high, to be in God’s city, in God’s kingdom, Babylon has to be destroyed. God has to be victorious. The very word “gospel, evangelion,” it means the good news of a victory in battle. The word “gospel” doesn’t mean good news in general; it means the good news that our king has destroyed his enemies and ours, and we are now safe and secure. We are now belonging in the protection and the glory of his kingdom.
So Babylon must be destroyed. The enemies must be destroyed. What this psalm tells us, and we find it all through the holy Scripture, [is] that every one of those enemies have to be destroyed. It’s interesting that Moses himself was not allowed to cross into the promised land, across Jordan, because he did not obey God when God said, “Kill all the women and the children. Kill them all, because if you don’t kill them, they will rise up, and they will kill you. This is the allegorical, spiritual interpretation of Scripture. This is what the Scripture is all about. It’s all about God destroying the idols, God destroying the enemies of God, God destroying the destructive ones. It’s all about God being victorious over everything that is not God, that is not divine, that is symbolized in that one word: Babylon.
The holy Fathers say to us that in our spiritual warfare, if we don’t defeat our sins and our passions when they’re small, when they’re infants, when they’re babies, when they’re children, they will grow up and destroy us. You have to kill the sin when it’s little. You have to be faithful in little, and let not the littlest evil live, because if it does, it will grow big and strong, and it will kill you.
So when the psalmist cries out, “How happy is he who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock,” it means that the enemies of God must be killed when they’re little. Every sin, every evil passion, every crime, every ungodliness, every impiety has to be smashed when it is little.
Then the psalm says it has to be smashed and dashed against the rock. And here the Bible reader, the one who knows the holy Scripture, knows what that rock is. It’s the rock of Christ. It’s the rock that God himself is. How many times in the psalms themselves is God called “my rock”? When the people were saved out of Egypt and needed water from that rock, the Apostle Paul says that rock was Christ.
In his rule for monks, St. Benedict of Nursia, the greatest of monastic fathers in the Western Church, who learned from Cassian and from the Desert Fathers and brought monasticism into Western Europe, he wrote this beautiful rule for monks, and he began the rule with a meditation on Psalm 15, not Psalm 137, but it’s interesting that in that rule he refers to this psalm, Psalm 137, “On the waters of Babylon,” because he said that we are in this Babylonian world, and the monastery should be the New Jerusalem. It should be the city of God. It should be the place where God is adored and glorified. Then he told all of his novices and postulants: When you come into this monastery, when you come to be a servant of Christ and of God, what you must do is smash every enemy against God on the rock. Then he says in his introduction to his rule: the rock is Christ.
The rock is Christ. He is the stone that the builders rejected. He is the cornerstone of the temple of the new city. He is the rock. He is the truth. It’s interesting that in [the] Hebrew language, truth is not an abstract, theoretical agreement of our intellect with reality. The word “truth” comes from the same word as the word “rock.” Truth is what you can depend on, what is real, what doesn’t betray you, which is always faithfully there. God is our rock. Christ is our rock. So blessed are they who smash every Babylonian evil against the rock of Christ.
So the psalm has to be sung in its entirety. It can’t leave out that most perfect ending of the psalm. Generally in the Bible, all the enemies that are mentioned in the Bible are the enemies of God. It’s allegorical. It’s spiritual. The king is always Christ. The lord is always Christ God, and God the Father, but the poor, the needy, the lowly, the exiled, the imprisoned are also Christ, when he becomes man and enters into this. And Christ entered our Babylonian exile, in order to take us back to the Father’s house of Jerusalem.
In the Orthodox Church, in this Lenten season and pre-Lenten season, the words of Psalm 137 are put into our mouth. As St. Benedict himself said, “When we go to church, we don’t put our mind where our mouth is. We put our mouth where our mind is.” As St. Anthony, the teacher of Benedict, said, “We glorify God with the words that he has given to us, and only then may we go to our own words, once his word is firmly established in our heart.”
So when we come to church in this penitential season in preparation for penitence, we sing Psalm 137, “By the waters of Babylon.” These words are put into our mouth so that our mind would be in harmony with our mouth. And when we sing this song in the church, what do we know? We know that we are on the waters of Babylon; we are in exile. We are far from Jerusalem and far from God. We are sitting and weeping. Babylon is ridiculing us, wanting us to sing its Babylonian songs. We cannot sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land, but we’ll never forget Jerusalem. Never, above our highest joy. And then we pray that God would destroy the destroyers, that God would be victorious. He would be victorious in Christ, the Victor, the King, the Rock, and that every enemy of God would be dashed against this Rock, and this Rock is Christ.