By the Waters of Babylon

By the Waters of Babylon sung by St. Symeon’s Orthodox choir

Each year before Great Lent, we sing the hymn “By the Waters of Babylon”. The text is from Psalms 136 (137). For years, I found the text to be confusing. It is a cry of lament, but at the end says “Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!”. Each time we sang the hymn, it made me wonder why we were singing that phrase. Are we really saying that whoever dashes infants on the rocks are blessed?

This scripture passage has layers of spiritual meaning that are particularly relevant as we prepare for Lent.

Historical Background

Historically, it describes the exile of thousands of Israelites to Babylon in about 600 BC. They lost not only their independence, but also the Temple of God, the place of God’s residence. During this time, the Israelites remembered Zion, the hill in Jerusalem where they erected the Temple of Jerusalem. Despite the separation from their homeland, they remembered to sing their praises to the Lord.

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. Upon the willows in the midst thereof did we hang our harps. For there, they that had taken us captive asked us for words of song.  And they that had led us away asked us for a hymn, saying: Sing us one of the songs of Zion. How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand be forgotten. Let my tongue cleave to my throat, if I remember thee not. If I set not Jerusalem above all other, as the head of my joy. Remember O Lord, the sons of Edom, in the day of Jerusalem, who said: lay waste to her, lay waste to her, even to the foundations thereof.

O daughter of Babylon, thou wretched one, blessed shall he be who shall reward thee wherewith thou hast rewarded us.  Blessed shall he be who hall seize and dash thine infants against the rock.

Psalm 136 (137): 2-7

Our Call to Repentance

This Psalm calls us sinners to repentance. Our sins separate us from God and our homeland, just as the sons of Israel found themselves separated from their homeland and from the Temple of God. Our sins are a barrier between us and God. They cause us to be sad, despondent and to often feel like we are not as near to God as we were when we were baptized and first came to know and experience faith in God.

We need to appraise our lives and look for reasons why we may have lost our purity, light and joy. Just as the Psalmist blesses those who dash their little ones on the rock, we should oppose the temptations warring against us and “dash them against the rocks”. As we reject these sins, God welcomes us back into His arms. We are brought back to the love of Christ. Likewise, while on earth, we are sojourners waiting for our reunion – the end of our exile, and the return to our heavenly homeland.

A Commentary from St. John Chrysostom

Even if the words bespeak intense anger and heavy punishment and retribution, nevertheless these are the expression of the captives’ feelings in demanding heavy retribution and some strange and surprising punishment. The inspired authors, after all, say many things not on their own account but to describe the feelings of others and bring them to the fore. I mean, if you are looking for his [the Psalmist’s] attitude, listen to him saying, “If I have meted out evil for evil,” where he goes beyond the response [of retribution] allowed by the [L]aw. But when he tells of the sufferings of others, he depicts their anger, their pain, which is what he did in this case, bringing to the fore the desire of the Jews, who let their rage extend even to such a young age.

The teaching of the NT is not like that, however: we are bidden to give food and drink to our enemies, to pray for those who abuse us. Now we do this on account of the law that has been determined [by Christ]. What is that? “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees,” Scripture says, remember, “you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” Accordingly, let us give evidence of great zeal and generously observe the law in its entirety, in our position as dwellers on earth as if already in heaven and ranked with the angels.”

St. John Chrysostom – Commentary on the Psalms II (tr., R. C. Hill: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 1999) 244-245

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