Music and Lyrics: Thoughts on Psalm 137

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The past is silent.

Someone said that on the radio this morning and it’s true. Sure, archeoacoustics is a developing field, and we know how ancient hymns and music were used in ritual, but we can’t hear them for real. We don’t know if Jesus was a baritone, or if Peter’s temper was him overcompensating for a squeaky voice. We don’t know what Paul sounded like when he preached, so I always hear him as Alan Rickman. I’m not sure why exactly, it’s just a weird symptom of the silence of history.

This is a big deal when it comes to the Psalms. There they sit in black and white, enshrined in the scriptures, immortalised as holy writ, preserved in biblical amber. And maybe it’s because I grew up in the church, or because I’ve always responded to lyrics before music, but I’ve got a tendency to read the Psalms as scriptures that became songs, not songs that became scriptures. It’s an important distinction.

Case in point: Psalm 137. It’s ‘By The Rivers Of Babylon’, it’s a party song, it’s Boney M. Everyone knows it.

And then we get to the last stanza: Happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us – he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.” Wow, thanks for the spiritual whiplash there, you’ve gone from Boney M to Slayer in just a couple of verses.

Of course, I read that as scripture, as part of the Holy Bible, and I react against it because it’s abhorrent and grotesque. Smashing babies against rocks? No, sorry, it’s vile and horrific and I don’t like it. It shouldn’t be in the Bible.

But why shouldn’t it?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m never going to like the sentiments expressed in that small stanza. If I ever find myself cheerfully singing it in the shower, I promise to check myself into a special clinic somewhere. But maybe I need to teach myself not to see the Psalms as words written in black and white, but hear them as songs of celebration and lamentation and protest, and as messy expressions of emotion.

Listen to songs that express uncomfortable, raw experiences. Listen to ‘Strange Fruit‘ by Billie Holiday or ‘Hurt‘ by Johnny Cash. They achieve in a few minutes what whole history books and autobiographies might fail to do, but they’re not pretty, nor should they be. They’re confronting some ugly truths and therein lies their value.

How we read the Bible is important. Read “Happy are they who dash your infants against the rocks” in the same way that you read, say, John 3:16 and you’re in trouble. The latter is an expression of God’s love and sacrifice for humanity, a teaching of Jesus. The former…

The former is a metal song composed by a songwriter who’s seen his country invaded, its capital destroyed and its survivors dragged away into captivity. And now those same invaders want him to sing one of the old songs, a song of joy and triumph, in a colossal act of selling out. The psalmist would rather cut out his tongue than prostitute his heart like that, would rather die than become a puppet mindlessly parroting his songs. Cut off from the means of expression that’s driven him for years, he pours his heart into a song of rage and sorrow. It’s raw and furious and dark.

And he takes it to God. He turns all his heart’s madness and vengeance into a song and sings it towards his Lord. That’s why we need to hear the music, because the psalmist isn’t writing theology, he’s praying a protest song. The melody creates a ‘safe’ space in which the singer and God can confront the ugly brutality of life and of the singer’s own feelings.

I heard a preacher once say that every worship band needs a break-up song. There’s wisdom in that; the songs we sing should be honest and true, and if that means acknowledging that we’re angry and bitter and broken then so be it. No-one ever preaches on Lamentations, but maybe they should; alongside that maybe we need to sing more sad songs in church, because worship sung in a minor key through gritted teeth is still worship.

Owning the pain and the rage and the despair and giving it to God is a path to being liberated from them, but sometimes it’s hard to know how to give them away. Maybe singing them out is more effective than wrestling with theology and religion; maybe the psalmist achieved a level of unguarded honesty with God in his singing than he ever did in conversing with his priest. Whatever the case, the Psalms give us permission to sing things we could never say, to express things out loud that we’d rather let fester in silence.

And through that, God hears our heart.

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One thought on “Music and Lyrics: Thoughts on Psalm 137

  1. Pingback: Bible Translation in a World of Apps | The Left Hand of Ehud: Matt's Bible Blog

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