Rivers of Babylon (Artful Devotion)

Lilien, Ephraim Moses_By the Rivers of Babylon
Ephraim Moshe Lilien (Austrian, 1874–1925), On the Rivers of Babylon, 1910. Etching and aquatint, 28 × 55 cm.

By the waters of Babylon,
there we sat down and wept,
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our lyres.
For there our captors
required of us songs,
and our tormentors, mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How shall we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand forget its skill!
Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy!

Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites
the day of Jerusalem,
how they said, “Lay it bare, lay it bare,
down to its foundations!”
O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed,
blessed shall he be who repays you
with what you have done to us!
Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones
and dashes them against the rock!

—Psalm 137

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SONG: “Rivers of Babylon” | Words and music by Brent Dowe and Trevor McNaughton of The Melodians, 1970 | Covered by Linda Ronstadt, on Hasten Down the Wind (1976)

In Psalm 137, a communal lament, Israel remembers with sadness the Babylonian captivity and, in the infamous final line (v. 9), wishes violence against her captors’ children. The Kingston, Jamaica–based reggae group The Melodians set Psalm 137:1–4, along with Psalm 19:14, to music in 1970 as “Rivers of Babylon.” (Unsurprisingly, the controversial imprecation is excluded.) The song became a sort of anthem for Rastafarianism, an Afrocentric religious movement that laments the exile of Africans to the West Indies and the Americas—“Babylon”—through slavery and expresses longing for the homeland, Africa, “Zion.” Boney M.’s 1978 disco cover popularized the song in Europe. I’m not a fan of this famous rendition, because the bright, bouncy style doesn’t fit the tone of the lyrics. In fact, I even prefer Linda Ronstadt’s cover to the original Melodians recording. She gives it more of a bluegrass gospel vibe and, appropriately, sings a cappella:

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The etching above is by Ephraim Moshe (Moses) Lilien, an Austro-Hungarian art nouveau illustrator and a member of the Zionist movement. He helped found the Bezalel Art School in Jerusalem. Click here to see other religious-themed prints by the artist.

I first encountered this image in a challenging blog post by theologian W. David O. Taylor, who, addressing the oft-expunged vindictive sentiments of Psalm 137’s third stanza and citing Miroslav Volf, claims that our rage belongs before God liturgically. Taylor has contributed a very fine trio of visual commentaries on Psalm 137 to the Visual Commentary on Scripture project, where he discusses an English Romanesque manuscript illumination, a mosaic by Marc Chagall, and an Abu Ghraib prison series triptych by Fernando Botero in light of the psalm.

Psalm 137 VCS

An assistant professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary, Taylor has done much work on the Psalms, especially for popular audiences, including interviewing Eugene Peterson and Bono on the topic, compiling an excellent list of Psalm resources for the church, and writing Open and Unafraid: The Psalms as a Guide to Life, due out from Thomas Nelson next March.


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for Proper 22, cycle C, click here.

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