In this post, I affix four theses to the Wittenberg door of cyberspace concerning Psalm 137. It is my view that this psalm – all of it, including its last verses – is a snapshot of the pulsating heart of faith under fire – and that anyone who thinks they possess a faith that has no need to embrace this psalm - all of it - has either had a life empty of Job-like suffering or has yet to apply the Socratic dictum “Know thyself!” to themselves.
(1) The last two verses of Psalm 137 are often regarded as an erratic mass in the larger structure of the canon of scripture. Those who desire to surgically remove these verses from the canon do not seem to realize that their scalpel will need to cut wide and deep elsewhere in scripture to remove the thorn of Ps 137:8-9 from their comfortable flesh. A short list of other texts whose cry for justice is just as vehement, or more so, than that of Ps 137:8-9: Isa 13-14; 47; Jer 50-51; Habakkuk (regarding Babylon); Isa 63:1-6; Lam 4:21-22; Ezek 25:12-14; Jer 49:7-22; Obad; Mal 1:2-5 (regarding Edom); Pss 74 and 79 (regarding Babylon and its allies); Isa 10:5-34; 14:24-27; Nahum (regarding Assyria); 1 Macc 2:68 (regarding the regime of Antiochus Epiphanes); Revelation 17:1-19:10 (regarding Babylon in the archetypal sense, and, specifically, the Roman Empire). Ah, you say, but my gentle Jesus, meek and mild, knew nothing of such vehemence. Fools! Have you not read Luke 6:24-25: “Woe to you who are rich; you have had your time of consolation! Woe to you who are well-fed; you will be hungry! Woe to you who laugh now: you will mourn and weep!”
(2) The last two verses of Psalm 137 cry out for proportional retribution. Small potatoes. Psalm 79 cries out for sevenfold retribution. Revelation 18:4-7a ups the ante in two ways. First of all, it does not leave the retribution to God. In that text, God leaves it to his people to execute twofold retribution on Babylon the Great: “My people, come out of her, lest you participate in her sins, and lest you share her suffering. For her sins have reached to heaven, and God has remembered her crimes. Render to her as she has rendered, and repay her double for what she has done. In the cup from which she poured, pour a double portion. As she glorified herself and lived luxuriously, give her a like measure of torment and grief.” The horrifying conclusion of Psalm 137 is not as vehement as these texts. Yet all are to be embraced as legitimate children of faith under fire. Perhaps, in a moment of calm, one will do well to sing a lullaby to these children and lay them down to sleep. Perhaps, in other moments, it is the believer’s duty to understand what it means to pay back Babylon twofold for the evil she has done, to give the devil incarnate of worldly power torment and grief for all he has done to the least of these my brethren.
(3) Psalm 137, all of it, is the bloody squealing child of a people that found itself cut off from everything it loved. Why is this so hard to grasp? In the immortal words of Salvatore Quasimodo:
E come potevamo noi cantare
con il piede straniero sopra il cuore,
tra i morti abbandonati nelle piazze,
sull’erba dura di ghiaccio,
al lamento d’agnello dei fanciulli,
all’urlo nero della madre
che andava incontro al figlio
crocifisso sul palo del telegrafo?
Alle fronde dei salici, per voto,
anche le nostre cetre appese:
oscillavano lievi al triste vento.
(4) As Gianfranco Ravasi put it: Psalm 137 “unites pain and ferocity; melancholic tenderness and passion; intense love for Zion and liturgical imprecation against enemies; a melodic ode of hope and an implacable, violent, savage, march to war. Two heterogeneous registers harmonically fused by Old Testament poetry and faith.” Whence this harmonic fusion? The tormented soul of the children of Sarah and Abraham who inhabited the gulag archipelago of the Babylonians following the destruction of Jerusalem. If you are unable to look into the mirror of that soul and see a reflection of your own, the whole Bible, not just Psalm 137, is a closed book for you.
It was not easy for me to write up these theses. The juice from which they come has been stewing in my gut for decades. Ever since I walked down State Street in Madison as a young lad after peace demonstrators trashed it. Ever since I watched the Vietnam War on television night after night, the blood spattering the screen, and then my youthful dreams. Ever since I was a militant in the peace movement of the early 1980s, and blocked the construction of the cruise missile base in Comiso, Sicily, along with hundreds of other demonstrators from across Europe, and led Bible studies on Revelation 18 in Italian and English in the cool evenings between the daytime blockades (what a spiritually hungry congregation I had: Italian anarchists from Lazio and Naples, German and Italian Protestants, and Catholic youth from Veneto brought down by their pro-Soviet priests): we longed for the Babylons of this world to fall – since then, one has fallen, but seeks to raise its ugly head again; smaller Babylons, too, have bit the dust, but as for the other, in whose gut I live, we continue to act and pray for its demise according to the clear teaching of the last book of the Christian canon. And, finally, ever since I wrote my thesis for the Waldensian Theological Seminary in Rome on imperialism as a locus theologicus in the book of Isaiah. In that thesis, however, I did not find the courage to say the things I said above. I thought I might horrify people. I suppose I have.
 My translation adapts that of David Aune, whose comment on Rev 17:1-19:10 is essential reading for those who wish to understand: Revelation 17-22 (WBC 52C; Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998) 905-1040.
 And how could we sing / with the foot of the stranger on our heart / among the abandoned dead in the public squares, / on the hard grass of ice, / to the lamb’s lament of children, / to the black wail of the mother / who went to find her son / crucified on a telegraph pole? / In the fronds of weeping willows, by oath, / our harps also appended: / they oscillated gently in the sad breeze. (My translation.) Quasimodo evokes events of the occupation of Italy by German fascists.
 Gianfranco Ravasi, Il libro dei Salmi: commento e attualizzazione (3 vols.; Lettura pastorale della Bibbia; Bologna: Edizioni Dehoniane, 1981, 1983, 1984) 3: 745-770; 754 (my translation).