Saint Augustine on Psalm 136

There are passages in scripture that are certainly recorded by inspiration that are nevertheless not words of God. For example, “Curse God and die!” “What will you pay me if I betray Him to you?” or “Command these stones to become bread.” That last, for instance, is explicitly called the word of Satan, and not of God.

In the weeks leading up to Lent, the Orthodox Church begins singing Psalm 136 LXX (137 KJV) during Matins. Jeremiah’s psalm expresses the loss felt by exiles, and rage against those who took them captive, including some surprisingly violent language at the end of the psalm. 

The Fathers, searching the scriptures for types and shadows of Christ and of the Christian life, were able to make this Psalm serve for Christian discipleship by reading it in light of the New Testament. In the Orthodox Church, this Psalm is sung during Lent to remind us to keep fresh the knowledge of what we have fallen from, how alien we are to the place we now live, and what we hope to regain.

Augustine’s sermon on Psalm 136 LXX (KJV Ps 137)

1. …But today we have sung, By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept, when we remembered Sion (verse 1).

2. Observe the waters of Babylon. The waters of Babylon are all things which here are loved, and pass away. One man, for example, loves to practice husbandry, to grow rich by it, to employ his mind in it, thence to gain pleasure from it. Let him observe the issue, and see that what he has loved is not a foundation of Jerusalem, but a stream of Babylon. Another says it is a grand thing to be a soldier: all husbandmen fear those who are soldiers….

3. But then other citizens of the holy Jerusalem, understanding their captivity, mark how the natural wishes and the various lusts of men hurry and drag them here and there, and drive them into the sea. They see this, and they do not throw themselves into the waters of Babylon, but sit down and weep: either for those who are being carried away by them, or for themselves whose deserts have placed them in Babylon. But they do it sitting, that is, humbling themselves.

O holy Sion, where all stands firm and nothing flows! Who has thrown us headlong into this stream? Why have we left your Founder and your society? Behold, placed where all things are flowing and gliding away, scarcely even one, if he can grasp the tree, will be snatched from the stream and escape.

So then, humbling ourselves in our captivity, let us sit by the waters of Babylon. Let us not dare to plunge ourselves into those streams, nor be proud and lifted up in the evil and sadness of our captivity, but let us sit, and so weep. Let us sit by the waters, not under the waters, of Babylon; may our humility be such that it cannot overwhelm us. Sit by the waters, not in the waters, not under the waters; but yet sit, in humble fashion. Do not speak as you would in Jerusalem….

4. For many weep with the weeping of Babylon, because they rejoice also with the joy of Babylon. When men rejoice at gains and weep at losses, both are of Babylon. You ought to weep, but in the remembrance of Sion. If you mourn in the remembrance of Sion, you ought to mourn even when it is well with you in Babylon….

5. On the willows in the midst thereof we hung up our instruments of music (verse 2). The citizens of Jerusalem have their instruments of music: God’s scriptures, God’s commands, God’s promises, meditation on the life to come. But while they are dwelling in Babylon, they hang up their instruments.

Willows are unfruitful trees, and they are placed here in such a way that no good at all can be understood of them. Elsewhere perhaps there may. But here, understand barren trees, growing by the waters of Babylon. These trees are watered by the waters of Babylon, but bring forth no fruit – just as there are men who are greedy, covetous, barren of good works; citizens of Babylon in such a way that they are even trees of that region. They are fed there by these pleasures of transitory things, as though watered by the waters of Babylon. You seek fruit from them, and find it nowhere…. Therefore by deferring to apply the Scriptures to them, we hang up our instruments of music on the willows. For we consider them not worthy to carry our instruments. We do not insert our instruments into them and bind them to them, but defer to use them, and so hang them up. For the willows are the unfruitful trees of Babylon, fed by temporal pleasures, as by the waters of Babylon.

6. For there they that led us captive demanded of us words of songs, and they that led us away demanded a hymn (verse 3). The ones who led us captive demanded of us words of songs and a hymn…. We are tempted by the delights of earthly things, and we struggle daily with the suggestions of unlawful pleasures. Scarcely do we breathe freely even in prayer: we understand that we are captives. But who led us captive? What men? What race? What king? If we are redeemed, we once were captives.

Who has redeemed us? Christ. From whom has He redeemed us? From the devil. The devil and his angels led us captive: and they could not have led us, unless we consented to it….

7. Those then who have led us captive, the devil and his angels, when have they demanded, “Sing us one of the songs of Sion?” What answer do we give? We say: “Babylon bears you, Babylon contains you, Babylon nourishes you, Babylon speaks by your mouth. You do not know know to take in anything but what glitters for the present.; you do not know how to meditate on things of eternity; you do not receive what you ask.”

How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? (verse 4). Truly, brethren, so it is. Begin to wish to preach the truth in such measure as you know it, and see how needful it is for you to endure such mockers, persecutors of the truth, full of falsehood. Reply to them, when they ask of you what they cannot take in, and say in full confidence of your holy song, “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land!”

8. But take heed how you dwell among them, O people of God, O body of Christ, O high-born band of wanderers, for your home is not here, but elsewhere. Otherwise, when you love them, strive for their friendship, and fear to displease such men, Babylon will begin to delight you and you will forget Jerusalem. In fear then of this, see what the Psalmist adds, see what follows. If I forget you, O Jerusalem (verse 5), amid the speeches of those who hold me captive, amid the speeches of treacherous men, amid the speeches of men who ask with ill intent, asking, yet unwilling to learn….What then? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget me.

9. Let my tongue cleave to my jaws, if I remember not you (verse 6). That is, let me be dumb, he says, if I remember not you. For what word, what sound does he utter, who utters not songs of Sion? That is our tongue, the song of Jerusalem. The song of the love of this world is a strange tongue, a barbarous tongue, which we have learned in our captivity. Dumb then will he be to God, who forgets Jerusalem. And it is not enough to remember: for her enemies too remember her, desiring to overthrow her. What is that city? say they; who are the Christians? What sort of men are the Christians? Would they were not Christians. Now the captive band has conquered its capturers; still they murmur, and rage, and desire to slay the holy city that dwells as a stranger among them. Not enough then is it to remember: take heed how you remember. For some things we remember in hate, some in love. And so, when he had said, If I forget you, O Jerusalem, etc., he added at once, if I prefer not Jerusalem in the height of my joy. For there is the height of joy where we enjoy God, where we are safe of united brotherhood, and the union of citizenship. There no tempter shall assail us, no one be able so much as to urge us on to any allurement: there nought will delight us but good: there all want will die, there perfect bliss will dawn on us.

10. Then he turns to God in prayer against the enemies of that city. Remember, O Lord, the children of Edom (verse 7). Edom is the same who is also called Esau: for you heard just now the words of the Apostle read, Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated (Romans 9:13). …Esau then signifies all the carnal, Jacob all the spiritual….All carnal persons are enemies to spiritual persons, for all such, desiring present things, persecute those whom they see to long for things eternal. Against these the Psalmist, looking back to Jerusalem, and beseeching God that he may be delivered from captivity, says — what? Remember, O Lord, the children of Edom. Deliver us from carnal men, from those who imitate Esau, who are elder brethren, yet enemies. They were first-born, but the last-born have won the pre-eminence, for the lust of the flesh has cast down the former, the contempt of lust has lifted up the latter. The other live, and envy, and persecute. In the day of Jerusalem. The day of Jerusalem, wherein it was tried, wherein it was held captive, or the day of Jerusalem’s happiness, wherein it is freed, wherein it reaches its goal, wherein it is made partaker of eternity? Remember, says he, O Lord, forget not those who said, tear it down, tear it down, even to its foundation. Remember then, it means, that day in which they willed to overthrow Jerusalem. For what great persecutions has the Church suffered! How did the children of Edom, that is, carnal men, servants of the devil and his angels, who worshipped wood and stones, and followed the lusts of the flesh, how did they say, Uproot the Christians, destroy the Christians, let not one remain, overthrow them even to the foundation! Have not these things been said? And when they were said, the persecutors were rejected, and the martyrs were crowned….

11. Then he turns himself to her: O daughter of Babylon, unhappy; unhappy in your very exulting, your presumption, your enmity; unhappy daughter of Babylon! (verse 8). The city is called both Babylon, and daughter of Babylon: just as they speak of Jerusalem and the daughter of Jerusalem, Sion and the daughter of Sion, the Church and the daughter of the Church. As it succeeds the other, it is called daughter; as it is preferred before the other, it is called mother. There was a former Babylon; did the people remain in it? Because it succeeds to Babylon, it is called daughter of Babylon. O daughter of Babylon, you who are unhappy!…

12. Happy shall he be who repays you, as you have done to us. What repayment means he? With this the Psalm closes: Happy shall he be, who takes and dashes your little ones against the rock (Psalm 136:9). Her he calls unhappy, but him happy who pays her as she has done to us. Do we ask, what reward? This is the repayment. For what has that Babylon done to us? We have already sung in another Psalm, The words of the wicked have prevailed against us (Psalm 65:3) For when we were born, the confusion of this world found us, and choked us while yet infants with the empty notions of various errors. The infant that is born destined to be a citizen of Jerusalem, and in God’s predestination already a citizen, but meanwhile a prisoner for a time, when does he learn to love anythingt, save what his parents have whispered into his ears? They teach him and train him in greed, robbery, daily lying, the worship of various idols and devils, the unlawful remedies of enchantments and amulets. What shall one yet an infant do, a tender soul, observing what its elders do, save follow that which it sees them doing.

Babylon then has persecuted us when little, but as we have grown up God has given us knowledge of ourselves, that we should not follow the errors of our parents…. How shall they repay her? As she has done to us. Let her little ones be choked in turn: yea let her little ones in turn be dashed, and die. “Blessed is the man who endures temptation; for when he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him. Let no one say when he is tempted, ‘I am tempted by God’; for God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He Himself tempt anyone. But each one is tempted when he is drawn away by his own desires and enticed” (James 1:12-14).

What are the little ones of Babylon? Evil desires at their birth. For there are those who have to fight with inveterate lusts. When lust is born, before evil habit gives it strength against you, when lust is little, by no means let it gain the strength of evil habit; when it is little, dash it. But you fear, lest though dashed it die not; Dash it against the Rock; and that Rock is Christ (1 Corinthians 10:4).

13. Brethren, let not your instruments of music rest in your work: sing one to another songs of Sion. Readily have ye heard; the more readily do what you have heard, if you wish not to be willows of Babylon fed by its streams, and bringing no fruit. But sigh for the everlasting Jerusalem: whither your hope goes before, let your life follow; there we shall be with Christ. Christ now is our Head; now He rules us from above. In that city He will fold us to Himself; we shall be equal to the angels of God. We should not dare to imagine this of ourselves, did not the Truth promise it. This desire, then, brethren,  day and night think on this. Howsoever the world shine happily on you, do not presume, make no treaty willingly with your temptations. Is it a grown-up enemy? Let it be slain upon the Rock. Is it a little enemy? Let it be dashed against the Rock. Slay the grown-up ones on the Rock, and dash the little ones against the Rock. Let the Rock conquer. Be built upon the Rock, if you desire not to be swept away either by the stream, or the winds, or the rain. If you wish to be armed against temptations in this world, let longing for the everlasting Jerusalem grow and be strengthened in your hearts. Your captivity will pass away, your happiness will come; the last enemy shall be destroyed, and we shall triumph with our King, without death.

Based on J.E. Tweed’s translation, in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers

Related article: The Superiority of Pre-Critical Exegesis

Fr Silouan Thompson

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