Psalm 137; 1 Kings 21:17-22:28; John 19:38-20:9

Psalm 137: There is a beautiful song, “Rivers of Babylon” whose lyrics are drawn from this psalm (and Psalm 19 according to Wikipedia). The opening verses are among the saddest in all the Psalms, for they evoke what was–and what might have been: “By Babylon’s streams, / there we sat, oh we wept,/ when we recalled Zion. /On the poplars there / we hung up our lyres.”

This psalm was doubtless written shortly after the exile of the Judeans to Babylon. The wounds are fresh and some Babylonians–“our plunderers rejoicing”–ask “Sing us from Zion’s songs.” The psalmist’s reply, “How can we sing a song of the Lord/ on foreign soil?” only deepens the psalmist’s longing. But the request also leads to reminiscence and a vow, which are sung in Hebrew sung to the Babylonians who do not understand:

“Should I forget you, Jerusalem,/ may my right hand wither. / May my tongue cleave to my palate/ if I do not recall you,/ if I do not set Jerusalem /above my chief joy.”

The psalm concludes with the notorious last line, “Happy who seizes and smashes / your infants against the rock.” Which their listeners surely did not understand but allows us to see and comprehend the deep bitterness and outrage of what has happened to Israel in captivity–what Robert Alter notes is surely a bloodcurdling curse. This psalm is proof of how the Psalms cover the entire gamut of human emotion.

1 Kings 21:1-22:28: King Ahab wants Naboth’s vineyard so he can plant a vegetable garden, but Naboth will not sell to the king because it is ancestral land. Ahab whines about this to Jezebel, who arranges to have a false charge–‘You have cursed God and the king.’ (21:10)– brought against Naboth, who is denied a defense and promptly stoned. Ahab takes possession of the vineyard.

The “word of the Lord” comes to Elijah and he pronounces a curse on Ahab in God’s name:“Thus says the Lord: In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth, dogs will also lick up your blood.” (21:19) because Ahab has “sold yourself to do what is evil in the sight of the Lord,” (20). Elijah also pronounces a curse on Jezebel, and AHab repents, putting on sackcloth and “going about dejectedly.” Because of this repentance, Elijah reduces the sentence, “Because he has humbled himself before me, I will not bring the disaster in his days; but in his son’s days I will bring the disaster on his house.” (21:29)

The author editorializes about Ahab, “(Indeed, there was no one like Ahab, who sold himself to do what was evil in the sight of the Lord, urged on by his wife Jezebel. He acted most abominably in going after idols, as the Amorites had done, whom the Lord drove out before the Israelites.)” (21:25, 26). Ahab has sinned personally, but as king he has committed a greater sin against God, “because you have provoked me to anger and have caused Israel to sin.” (21:23) Once again, Israel’s downfall stems in great part from the failure of its leadership. People will follow the example of their leaders, which is why they have a greater responsibility. Unfortunately, Ahab is only one in a long line of failed leaders down through history.

John 19:38-20:9:  Jesus is removed from the cross and buried by his”secret disciples,” Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, his public disciples having fled the scene. Why these two men? And why does John name them? Practically, of course, Jesus’ public disciples have fled, so there was no one else to do the job. But I think there’s a deeper message here. John is saying that Jesus has influenced men of standing; he’s not just a rabble-rouser from the countryside. Although they have no idea of what is about to happen, these two Jews knew that Jesus was extraordinary. I think they represent those who know in their hearts that jesus is who he says he is, but for one reason or another are not prepared to admit it–perhaps even to themselves, much less to others. 

It is at the Resurrection that we get the most intimate glimpse of John himself. He is “the one Jesus loved” and he’s a faster runner than Peter. Even though John arrives first at the tomb, it is Peter, arriving later, doubtless out of breath, who goes into the tomb first. Only then does John enter the tomb, “and he saw and believed for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.” (20:8,9) No matter how many times Jesus had told them that he would rise in accordance with scripture, it was not until the evidence of the empty tomb that “they believed.”

I think John is speaking of head and heart here. They had heard Jesus again and again, but had never “gotten it.” It is only when they see the simple yet astounding fact of the empty tomb that they believe. So too, for us: We can read Scripture until we are blue in the face. But it is only when we confront in one way or the other the reality of the empty tomb that we can truly believe who Jesus is–and realize that faith is a matter of the heart, not just the head.

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