Ps 137 Commentary by Dr Noel Donnelly
Graphic (c) Netta Ewing
Psalm 137 Commentary.
Psalm 137 is a gentle hymn of praise and thanksgiving. Both of these acts overlap one another: praise involves thanks and thanks includes praise. Some commentators say they are translations of the one Hebrew word. Right at the start, the poet sings this double-meaning word “with all my heart” as verse 1 puts it.
Why should he or she make a prayer of thankful praise? The writer has an orderly mind and makes an argument with neat logical progression through the song. Firstly, praise and thanks because God listens. “You have heard the words of my mouth”. (verse 1). Then for who this God really is: a God of faithfulness and love, “greater than I ever knew” says verse 2). Thirdly, thanks and praise for God’s actual answering: ”on the day I called, You answered me!” (Verse 3). Fourthly, because “You have strengthened my soul” (verse 3). Fifthly, “I thank You for Your faithfulness and love which excel all we ever knew of You!” And, sixthly, because God wonderfully “stretches out his hand and SAVES” (verse 8). So: God listens, acts faithfully, answers, strengthens, loves and for a grand climax to the argument, SAVES!
As a result, the poet ends by singing confidently about God’s saving protection for the future, “even though I may walk in the darkness of affliction” as verses 7 and 8 put it, since God’s love is “eternal” says verse 9.
In our liturgy, how does our responsorial psalm make the usual bridge between the readings? Unworthiness may be the link: Isaiah and Paul express their unworthiness in the first two readings, as does Peter in the Gospel. Even our psalmist’s unworthiness seems to have been challenged. Despite all of those examples of people with feelings of low self-esteem, our psalmist praises and thanks God for the loving-kindness and eternal love which is freely available for everyone.
When singing this gentle psalm of thanksgiving, we may of course reflect with gratitude on the blessings of our experience. One of the amazing blessings for lay Readers and Cantors is that we have moved dramatically from the days of the Council of Toulouse, which in 1229 would not allow lay men (not to mention women!) even to read the scriptures! If you could read at all, then you were allowed to have a book of the psalms. You weren’t allowed the Gospels and you had to use the Psalms for your basic education. So, let’s thankfully count our blessings today within the church as well as elsewhere!
Ps 137: words and music (c) Noel Donnelly.
Ps 137: words (c) The Grail, England; music (c) Gerry Fitzpatrick. Recorded by Grace Buckley.