Stowe, David. “Song of Exile: The Enduring Mystery of Psalm 137”, Oxford University Press, 2016.
“Yea We Wept”
“By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion” is perhaps one of the most famous verses of the psalms. It has also become something of “a cultural touchstone for music and Christianity across the Atlantic world”. It has become a popular song and a top single (Don McLean’s folk ballad and Boney M’s West Indian disco mix). David Stowe uses a wide-ranging, interdisciplinary approach that brings together personal interviews, historical overview, and textual analysis to show the psalm’s enduring place in popular culture.
Traditionally the first line (the first sentence here) is one of the most lyrical verses in the Hebrew Bible and it has been used to express grief, sadness and mourning. We might say that it is used as a protest of exile, of the displaced and of the marginalized. What it is interesting is that even with its popularity, not much has been written about it in the twenty-five hundred years or so since the Babylonian exile of the Jewish people.
Stowe locates its use in the American Revolution and the Civil Rights movement, and internationally by anti-colonial Jamaican Rastafari and immigrants from Ireland, Korea, and Cuba. He has studied musical references ranging from the Melodians’ “Rivers of Babylon” to the score in Kazakh film “Tulpan”. Stowe also explores the where the psalm fits in modern culture especially as regards the final words: “Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.” Both liturgy and Biblical scholars usually ignore them yet Stowe finds these words being echoed in modern occurrences of genocide and ethnic cleansing, and more generally in the culture of vengeance that has been present in North America from the earliest conflicts with Native Americans.
The work is based on numerous interviews with musicians, theologians, and writers and now Stowe reconstructs the rich and varied reception history of this mysterious, text. This is known as reception history. There is a great deal of information here and we see that this psalm is used for expressing anguish—- we certainly feel its pathos, resolve and desire for vengeance. We follow it is it traverses centuries and places and is present culturally, religiously and musically in both America and Europe providing a powerful testament to curiosity and learning and having a bit to say about vengeance. Stowe presents us with an inquiry about exile and challenges us to think about history, memory, vengeance, forgiveness, and forgetting. This is what this psalm is all about and there are many surprises in Stowe’s commentary on 137.
Stowe maintains that this is a psalm with a biography of its own—- after all, it is people that make history and not literature. Psalm 137 is actually about the fifty year period after the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchhadnezzar who took many into captivity. We might think that the Hebrew bible does not have much to say about the psalm but Stowe discovered through his research that exile is essential to understanding several important texts— Lamentations, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel. It is not enough to stress the importance of these books. Additionally, Psalm 137 is America’s longest-running protest song used to show alienation and marginalization.
Stowe has divided his book into three parts—history, memory and forgetting. Each part ingeniously looks at several verses that appear to present the whole. We are to understand that each section is important and dependent on the other two. Believe me when I say that this is a fascinating read that is the result of good research and Stowe’s knowing the direction of where he needs to go.