By the rivers of Babylon: inconsolable home-sickness

14 March 2023

Psalm 136.

By Jeremiah to David, on captivity

1 By the rivers of Babylon there we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion.

2 We hung our instruments on the willows,

3 for there our captors asked us for songs, and our abductors asked for mirth, saying,

‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion’.

4 How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?

5 If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand wither.

6 May my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you; if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy.

This psalm deals with the Israelites who were captives in Babylon about the year 587 B.C. The Israelites were no strangers to captivity, having been taken prisoners at times by the Egyptians , the Assyrians or the Babylonians, and always as a result of their disobedience to God and estrangement from him. In these instances, the captive population suffered harsh conditions of slavery and cruel behavior on the part of their captors. We’re familiar with the hardships at the time of Moses who, at God’s command, liberated them and saved them from their misery. Now, in Babylon, the issue wasn’t harsh torture, but the bitterness and home-sickness felt by the Jews for their own land. Apart from the freedom and material goods they’d enjoyed there, they’d also had the one and only Temple, where they worshipped the one God.

Now they no longer had these opportunities but were also deprived of even the most elementary expressions of joy- song and dance. They’d also had instruments back in their own country. They played them and praised God ‘with tambourine and dance; with strings and pipe and clashing cymbals’. There was now no question of this, for the simple reason that they had no appetite for it. They were dispirited, despairing, embittered and longing for their homeland.

The psalm describes a most beautiful scene in the open air, under willow trees, where they’d hung their instruments, choosing not to touch them. The reason for their reluctance to do so was that they remembered Zion, i.e. their homeland of Jerusalem, with all its advantages. Not only were they not playing their instruments, but, seated on the ground, were bemoaning their wretched fate at being in a foreign land, captives and slaves to the Babylonian oppressors.

And as if this weren’t enough, their captors mocked them, saying: ‘What’s the matter? Why aren’t you singing those songs about your homeland in Zion?’. The answer was full of bitterness and grievance: ‘How can we sing in a foreign land?’. And in order to confirm that they’d never forget, they promised, they took an oath and said: ‘If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my hand wither so that I can’t play an instrument and may my tongue stick in my throat so that I become mute and can’t sing. All this, if I don’t put the memory of you, Jerusalem, above any joy I have’. Plain speaking and a somber oath, demonstrating, on the one hand, their utter despair and, on the other, their longing for home. It’s as if they wanted to say: ‘I’ll never forget, come what may’.

These verses call to mind Adam’s lament and longing, after his disobedience, as described vividly in this hymn: ‘Adam sat before paradise and, lamenting his nakedness he wept: ‘Woe is me, for by evil deceit I was persuaded and led astray. I am an exile from glory. Woe is me for in my simplicity I was naked and now I am in want. Oh, paradise, no more shall I take pleasure in your joy, no more shall I look upon the Lord, my God and Maker, for I shall return to the earth from which I was taken. Merciful and compassionate Lord, I cry aloud to you: I have fallen, take pity on me’. [Doxastiko, Vespers, Saturday evening before Forgiveness Sunday].

The expulsion of Adam and Eve from paradise is a departure and exile similar to that of the prodigal son, far from his father’s house. Since then, we’re all wayfarers and exiles with no inclination to be close to God and sing to him as the holy angels do. On the contrary, we do have an appetite for singing about our pain, our sorrow, our separation, abandonment and despair, all of which are forms of expressing the fact that we remain in this place of exile and sing of our unhappiness, somehow in the belief that we’re enjoying ourselves. All of these unpleasant feelings are described in any amount of ‘dirges’ with lyrics such as ‘There’s only one reality; there’s no immortality’; and ‘Paradise is here and so is hell’. Even in the best case scenario, such as ‘love me, love me today’, we’re asking that other people should love us, whereas the actual essence of happiness is that we should love others.

There are many descriptions of pain and unhappiness in literature, ancient and modern. We might mention the prisoners in the cave described by Plato in his Republic. Bound by the fetters of the passions, they’re unable to move at all or undertake any initiative whatsoever. They’re unable to leave the darkness and see things as they really are outside, with the sun of righteousness, that is, God.

Another scene takes place in the underworld and is described in many folk songs. There’s a girl, like Persephone, who serves at the table of Hades, of Death. She’s not satisfied with anything, even though her life is a copy of what it had been in the world above, which is where she wants to live, in her own house, in her homeland with her near and dear. Didn’t Achilles say much the same: that he’d rather be a slave  in the upper  world than king in the nether regions? All of us long for our real and true homeland.

Everything we do underlines our longing for heaven, for eternity, even if we’re not aware of it. The Greek poet Constantine Cavafis writes that even the horses of Achilles longed for eternity. Achilles himself was baptized into immortality by his mother, the goddess Thetis, though he remained vulnerable through his heel. The prevalent fear of death among people indicates a thirst for immortality which is to be found only in heaven, not here. Greed, ambition, avarice and all of the human passions show our desire to affix ourselves to something which will bring us glory and a lasting legacy. But it’s all ‘vanity of vanities, everything is vanity’.

Are we, then, condemned to live in this world of death and decay? Fortunately not, because there’s someone who loves us. He loves us so much that he gave his life to bring us back from Adam’s exile and into the promised land again, into the new Jerusalem, into God’s kingdom, a realm of joy and immortality. It was necessary for him to undergo the miseries of Adam’s exile- the pain, the gall, and death- but he defeated death on our behalf and provided us with the antidote to it, which is holy communion and the sacraments of the Church.

We celebrate this in hymns of the resurrection:

  1. ‘You descended into the lowest parts of the earth, Christ, and shattered the eternal bolts holding those in fetters. And on the third day you rose from the grave, as did Jonah from the whale’.
  2. ‘We celebrate death’s demise, the abolition of Hades, the start of a new, eternal life and joyfully praise him who is the cause, the only one God of our fathers, blessed and greatly-glorified’.
  3. ‘Giver of life and Lord, when we had sinned, you broke the curse of death. Without sin, you suffered in the body and gave life to mortals, who cry to you: “Remember us, also, in your kingdom’”.
  4. ‘When you entered the gates of Hades and shattered them, the captive cried aloud: “Who is this who is not condemned to the lowest parts of the earth but has dismantled the prison of death like a tent. I received him as mortal and host him as God”. Almighty Savior have mercy upon us’.

As a summary, we would quote what the hymnographer of the Akathistos emphasizes: ‘Having seen a strange birth, let us become foreigners to the world, transferring our mind to the heavens’.

The strange birth is that of Jesus Christ, whom our most holy Lady bore, in a stable in a cave, where he was unable to enjoy the most elementary hospitality due to a stranger.  And he remained a stranger to the sin of the world, and free of any material ties. He had no need of bread (‘Man does not live by bread alone’), because he is himself the Bread of life. The author of the ‘Sublime Stranger’, sung on Great Friday, describes Christ in vivid detail:

‘Come, let us bless Joseph of everlasting memory who came to Pilate by night and begged for the Life of all: “Give me this stranger, who as an infant was exiled in the world; give me this stranger whom his compatriots hated and killed; give me this stranger whose strange death is so strange to me; give me this stranger who received the poor and the strangers; give me this stranger whom the Jews estranged from the world through envy; give me this stranger that I may hide in the tomb him who, as a stranger, has no place to rest his head; give me this stranger whose mother cried aloud when she beheld him dead’.

We, too, are strangers in this life; we’re temporary residents who manage material goods. We’re tellers in the Bank of Christ, God’s good gifts, and we’re charged with the management of the goods of this world, upon which management depends our enjoyment of eternal goods. So we’re called upon to become strangers to the sin of this world and to raise our eyes to heaven and make our way forward sub specie aeternitatis, that is, ‘viewed from the perspective of eternity’.  Along the way, we should seek God’s illumination and say: ‘In your light we shall see light’; and also ‘teach me to do your will, for you are my God’.

As Saint Paul tells Christians: ‘For we have no abiding city here, but we seek that of the future’ (Heb. 13, 15). We’re citizens of heaven. We live this life but seek the other, the heavenly. May we come to realize this and pursue it.