Psalm 137; 1 Kings 20:22–21:16; John 19:25–37

Psalm 137: This saddest psalms was doubtless written shortly after the Babylonian conquest of Judea in 586 BCE and the exiled captivity of much of its population. The wounds are fresh as these singers, who once danced and sung with joy, are in a strange and foreign land:
“By Babylon’s streams,
there we sat, oh we wept,
when we recalled Zion.
On the poplars there
we hung up our lyres.” (1, 2)

The Babylonians, in a festive mood and knowing these captives are musicians, want to hear some of this foreign music:
For there our captors had asked of us
words of song,
and our plunderers—rejoicing:
‘Sing us from Zion’s songs.’” (3)

But for the Jewish musicians, these “songs of Zion” are sacred liturgy and intended to be sung in the temple, not here beside some foreign river. They ask rhetorically, “How can we sing a song of the Lord/ on foreign soil?” (4)

Rather than singing, they yearn only the sweet memories of Jerusalem, their true home:
Should I forget you, Jerusalem,
may my right hand wither.
May my tongue cleave to my palate
if I do not recall you.” (5,6)

Memory transforms itself to intense bitterness at what their captors have done, which quickly morphs into a desire for revenge: “Daughter of Babylon the despoiler,/ happy who pays back in kind/ for what you did to us.” (8) The psalm ends not only in despair but in unfathomable outrage expressed in a bloodcurdling curse—not only on those who have asked them to sing, but on all of Babylon. If we ever needed the verbal expression of a despair so deep that it results in words so evil, it is right here: “Happy who seizes and smashes/ your infants against the rock.” (9)

As we have observed before, one finds every human feeling in the Psalms, and there is no more intense feeling of hatred mixed with despair than right here.

1 Kings 20:22–21:16: While the Israelites may have won the battle, the war with the Arameans is far from over. The advisors to the king of Aram suggest that the king replace his drunken allies with experienced military men, and that they will have the advantage by fighting on the plain rather than in the hills.

Israel gathers its troops, but in comparing them to the vastness of the Aramean army, our authors employ a striking simile: “the people of Israel encamped opposite them like two little flocks of goats, while the Arameans filled the country.” (20:27) However, a prophet shows up and informs Ahab that since the Arameans believe God is not present on the plains, “I will give all this great multitude into your hand, and you shall know that I am the Lord.” (28)

After a week of tense standoff, the Israel army strikes and kills 100,000 Aramean foot soldiers in a single day. Defeated, Ben-hadad dons sackcloth and appears before victorious Ahab, begging for mercy, which he receives from the weak-minded king.

The authors shift to the weird story of a prophet who has been told by God to have other prophets strike and wound him. One prophet who understandably refuses, is eaten by a lion for his disobedience. The second prophet, seeing what happened to the first, strikes and wounds the prophet as instructed. The wounded prophet disguises himself as a wounded soldier and encounters Ahab. He rips off his disguise; Ahab recognizes him as a prophet, who informs the king that having failed to kill Ben-hadad, “your life shall be for his life, and your people for his people.’” (20:42) The king returns to Samaria, “resentful and sullen.” (43)

Back home, Ahab demands that his neighbor Naboth sell his vineyard that’s adjacent to the palace so he can plant a vegetable garden. Nahoth refuses, telling the king that its his ancestral inheritance. Ahab, mature adult that he is, is once again “resentful and sullen.” (21:4)

Jezebel asks Ahab why he’s depressed and the king tells her about Naboth’s refusal. She tells him to cheer up and that she’ll take care of the Naboth problem for him. Jezebel drafts the other nobles to invite Naboth to dinner. Two “scoundrels brought a charge against Naboth, in the presence of the people, saying, “Naboth cursed God and the king.” (21:13) So they take the hapless Naboth out and stone him to death. Jezebel sweetly informs Ahab that Naboth’s land is now available because “Naboth is not alive, but dead.” (21:15)

One can only shake one’s head at the ebormous cupidity and evil this vile couple is capable of doing. Ahab is obviously putty in Jezebel’s hands. One also wonders why the authors are spilling so much scribal ink over these two. I have a feeling a lesson is in store for Ahab, Jezebel, and we who are reading this ugly story.

John 19:25–37: Our gospel writer shifts his attention away from the dying Jesus to the women standing nearby. Jesus sees his mother and “the disciple whom he loved“—clearly a reference to John himself—and “said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’” (26) And likewise “to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” (27) This is an example of the brilliance of this gospel: that Jesus’ concern for others is greater than even his dying agony. Has there ever been a scene in all literature that so beautifully juxtaposes the most hideous of deaths with such sweetness in so few words?

Jesus gasps, “I am thirsty,” and is given bitter wine. Which, this being the gospel of many layers, is for me a symbolic reversal of the wine Jesus poured for his disciples at the Last Supper. Just as the miracle of the wine at Cana opened Jesus’ earthly ministry; the bitter wine thrust at him closes it as he utters his last words, “It is finished.” (30)

The Jews ask that the legs of the condemned be broken to insure they are dead and can be taken down and buried before the sun sets. But the soldiers “came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs.” (33) Instead, a soldier famously pierces his side and “at once blood and water came out.” (34) I don’t think it’s a stretch to see this emanation as the symbols of the two great sacraments of the church: the blood of the Eucharist and the water of baptism.

John concludes his account of the crucifixion by telling his readers, “These things occurred so that the scripture might be fulfilled.” (36) He ties the facts that Jesus legs were not broken and that his side was pierced back to Hebrew scripture. Writing from a distance of almost 100 years, John can illuminate the symbolic importance of this last act. But for those standing around the cross, including his mother, it is only tragedy piled on tragedy. At this point in the story, all hope is lost and the despair was certainly as great as that of the musicians weeping alongside the river of Babylon.

 

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