The movement of Psalm 137 reads like the movement of anger: from remembrance to resolve to retribution. In the first movement, an experience of violence, suffering, and loss is recalled. ‘By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion’ (v.1). In the second movement, the pain that this experience has caused turns into a resolve to resist. ‘How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?’ (v.4). They cannot; they will not. In the third movement, the desire for retribution becomes concrete. A God of vengeance is entreated, a revenge fantasy takes shape, and a monstrous word is uttered: ‘Happy shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!’ (v.9).
While the first two sections of Psalm 137 have generated vast numbers of artistic settings, the third section has been largely excised from liturgical repertoires throughout church history. Both Augustine and Benedict allegorize the psalm, while Isaac Watts excludes it from his 1719 hymnal, because he felt it to be ‘opposite to the Spirit of the Gospel’ (Stowe 2016: 140). But such psalms, argues the Croatian-born theologian Miroslav Volf, ‘may point to a way out of slavery to revenge and into the freedom of forgiveness’ (1996: 124). What our three images do for us, more particularly, is invite us to see what we might all-too readily wish to suppress or ignore.
In the St Albans Psalter, corresponding to the first section of Psalm 137 (vv.1–3), a group of figures most obviously appear to us as mourners. Less obviously, these figures converse with or sing to one another.
These depictions of Jews in exile may invite those who view them—including the Benedictine monks who first used this Psalter within the liturgical context of their abbey—to identify with them in certain respects. The figures could be singing, though not the song their captors requested (‘one of the songs of Zion’) but an angry rebel song. Viewing this image, the monks might be reminded of the liberating power that comes from singing one’s laments and that their own Christian journey was one that intensified their longing for a heavenly home which meant, in spiritual terms, they still had far to travel.
The Psalter as a whole ends with a diptych representing St Alban’s martyrdom and David the cheerful musician, suggesting to the reader the common end of the saint and of the Psalter, namely joy. But as with Psalm 137, violence and worship are placed side by side, perhaps as a reminder to the reader that faithful worship does not exclude the harsh realities of life.
In Marc Chagall’s mosaic, which I link here to section two of Psalm 137 (vv.4–6), a juxtaposition of war and peace, power and powerlessness occurs. While the liturgical setting of St Albans contextualizes the Psalter’s illuminated initial, in the case of Chagall’s work it is a geographic setting that supplies a possible context for interpretation. Created a year before the start of the violent Six-Day War, the mosaic envisions a day of peace. Designed for a building in which powerful individuals gather, the mosaic shows only a powerless people, a people who at the time of Chagall’s work were barred from the area of the Western Wall. Symbolizing Israel’s longing for home, the mosaic’s location in the Knesset represents the fulfilment of the longing of exiles. Chagall’s mosaic exists therefore in a conjunction of tensions and conflictive meanings, and thus plunges the viewer more deeply into the awful tensions of Psalm 137.
Fernando Botero’s paintings, which seem to echo the third section of Psalm 137 (vv.7–9), help the existential setting of this imprecatory psalm take centre stage for us. The images, some visually recalling an Ecce Homo, shows us what it looks like to suffer ignominiously but to retain a measure of dignity. But Botero’s paintings may also confront us with our own tendencies to violence, whether aggressive or passive. Rather than leave us in the safe place of the ‘good guy’ or the ‘innocent one’, the painting could be placing us in the position of the tormentor, revealing what we are capable of when our angers turn bloodthirsty and barbaric. Everyone, the image insists, is potentially a victim, potentially a perpetrator.
Could I be this cruel? Yes, these images suggest, in the right circumstances, I could. Will I be undone by my experiences of suffering? By God’s grace, no. Is there a safe place for my anger? Yes, in the face of God who both loves and does justice, and only there.
Stowe, David W. 2016. Song of Exile: The Enduring Mystery of Psalm 137 (Oxford: Oxford University Press)
Volf, Miroslav. 1996. Exclusion and Embrace (Nashville: Abingdon Press)