You can chalk this blog post up to a writer’s overactive imagination, but here’s how I imagine the moment of creative impulse that formed the seed of this psalm. A Hebrew refugee is asked to sing by Babylonian captors. It’s not a request one can refuse and hope to live, but God is there with both support and inspiration. On the spot, for both listening Babylonians and Hebrews alike, the singer sings for the first time what begins as a woeful, downcast song. How can you ask us to sing? Look how pathetic we are, a beaten, dispersed people without a home, without Jerusalem, without our temple. How can we sing?
In my writer’s mind I set this scene at night, during the forced march into exile. There’s a fire, warmth against the pale, cold stars overhead, and the guards enjoying both the song and the torment of the singer. A good, humbled captive, or so they think. After all, verses one through seven reinforce their victory, the shame and devastation they’ve wrought.
But without warning we slide so easily into verses eight and nine. I’m a mother who’s arms remember the weight of her infant son, so I imagine the person who first sang this psalm wasn’t David but rather a woman, a refugee, powerless in every way except in her creativity. She would have had a beautiful voice, would have been frequently asked to sing, but when inspiration struck this night, God was truly with her. How can we sing in a foreign land, she mournfully asks, and three verses later, she answers.
“Happy is the one who repays you according to what you have done to us. Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.”
In this psalm I see a person driven nearly mad by grief and helplessness and rage. I see a woman who nurtured an infant in her body for nine months, bore it, nursed it, and then saw its skull split open by a member of an opposing army. If not a woman then her husband or her mother or her father.
After all she’s seen, all she’s survived, this woman was commanded to sing. Would we not all go mad?
What does she do with that rage and grief and madness? She calls to God, sings to God, for the destruction of her enemy’s babies, and yes, God was truly there in the middle of it all. The God that we find so pleasant and loving and tidy, the God we make so tame as to ensure victory at football games, is also this woman’s God, and while God may not have slayed her captors or saved the Hebrews, God surely gave her voice and power, a power that’s lasted for centuries.
Perhaps her song cost her her life. If her captors had any sense at all they slew her on the spot, but they never forgot her song and neither did those who heard it. Someone heard and remembered and wrote it down. The Lord works in mysterious ways. The Lord gives voice to those who are powerless, that their suffering and terror and hatred might live on as a caution to those who turn too easily to violence for answers…if they have ears to hear.
Chalk it up to a writer’s overactive imagination, but to me, this psalm is a glimpse into creativity and madness. And God is there. Beware, oh be very, very aware. God is indeed everywhere, not just on the side of the righteous victors who shame the defeated…and if that doesn’t scare you, it should.