The city of Jerusalem, the place where the Lord had promised to rest his feet, was under siege by the mighty Babylonians. Anybody who was anybody was already out of the city. Some had fled, no doubt some had reached some safety in small surrounding towns. Apparently there was some real estate available up north in a place called Amathoth, in Benjamin’s land. But most all the prominent members of society had been forced into captivity and were stuck in Babylon.
Of course, this Babylonian captivity would leave its mark, as the children learned the captors’ way of life. They were assimilated into Babylonian culture. And this would prove to be a long captivity. Even after nearly a century, when the Israelites were allowed to return home and rebuild their city, their security, and their lives, the scars of slavery would never fully heal.
As this people wept by the waters of Babylon, as their poets put it, struggling to sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land, the word of the Lord spoke to them through the prophet Jeremiah, by the hand of Elasah. Elasah had the unpleasant task of being the go-between for Zedekiah (Judah’s king) and Nebuchadnezzar (Babylon’s king). In short, he was not accustomed to carrying good news.
In that case, he was just the man for the job.
The word of the Lord to the Israelites in captivity was…ambiguous, shall we say? The instructions were simple enough. If they were into bullet points back in those days, there would have been a list that looked something like this:
1. Build houses & live in them.
2. Plant gardens.
3. Eat produce.
4. Get married.
5. Have kids.
6. Have grandkids.
7. Seek the peace of whatever city you find yourself in.
The first six instructions are simple enough. In fact, throughout the course of human history, its been literally impossible for a group of people to collectively fail in anything involving reproduction and surviving. Sure, the whole “planting gardens” and “eating produce” part has seemed to escape us for a couple of generations, but you get the point. Those are relatively easy words to hear, even for a people in captivity.
The seventh point, however, is not so easy.
If you happen upon Psalm 137, which was written by the waters of Babylon, you will read the most disturbing language in the entire bible. Guaranteed. And there is quite a bit in the bible that is disturbing. But this is the only place where a prayer is prayed to Yahweh expressing the fervent–and religious–desire for the children of the Babylonians to be dashed against the rock.
And we might understand the psychology (or would it be better understood as pathology?) of this people, who are desperate for revenge after their world has been irrevocably turned upside down. They have seen more death and desolation than we might possibly imagine. Unspeakable tragedy. Unimaginable trauma.
Hate is the natural response to people who would cause so much death.
And here is God’s prophet, speaking into this situation and pleading with his people to do the unexpected. There may still be place for vengeance, and perhaps poetry would speak to that desire better than any other medium. But the word of the Lord is saying, in as simple terms as possible, you belong wherever I have you.
This is unexpected.
This is hard.
And this is playful.