Back when I was a summer camp counselor, we tried not to speak a certain word around the campers. We wanted to avoid the suggestive power of saying it out loud, so we’d just use the letter H, just the initial for “homesick.”
These children were away from home, maybe for the first time overnight. Some of them were just a little homesick and could work through the challenge with help from the caring camp staff. A rare few struggled more and had to leave camp, hopefully to try again another year.
For children who have a healthy family life and who are ready to attend summer camp, a little homesickness is developmentally normal. They are trying something new and gaining independence, so the homesickness is like a growing pain.
The homesickness of Psalm 137 is not the homesickness of someone moving towards desired independence. It’s homesickness for a home that never should have been left. The longing for Zion, for Jerusalem with its temple, is poignant in this Psalm. “By the rivers of Babylon – there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.” (verse 1)
It’s the homesickness of the refugee, driven from their land by war and violence. It’s the homesickness of the exile, unable to return home because home has been destroyed. It’s the homesickness of many Jews in the centuries since this psalm was first sung, lamenting the sufferings of their people and longing for a homeland of safety.
The first verse already captures the people’s longing. They remember Zion, but they are sitting by the rivers of Babylon. What could they do but weep? A traditional three-part canon musical setting of this verse makes it all the more poignant for listeners today, and in my mind I hear Don McLean singing the melody when I read this verse.
They cannot sing, the people say, because to sing would be to mock the songs of home, the songs of Zion that their captors ask them to sing.
The pain of captivity is so great that they call on the Lord to destroy their captors. The last verse of the Psalm is harsh in its language toward Babylon:
“Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!” (verse 9) It’s so harsh that commentators struggle to find ways to excuse it or explain it (or ignore it). Whatever else we say about such vitriol, we acknowledge that it comes from a place of helpless rage.
The middle verses of the Psalm reveal that the reason for both the longing and the vitriol is to teach the next generation to remember Jerusalem. In exile for many years, they could start to get a little too comfortable. They could lose their sense of homesickness and start to believe that exile was the way things were supposed to be.
Psalm 137 allows the people to be homesick for something good. It allows them to long for the place that God had promised them. It urges them to remember this place with longing. “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither!” (verse 5) It allows them to long for God’s presence. It allows them to remember the good that God has in store for them.
Since we are God’s creatures, saved by an incarnate God, this world is our home. But we’re homesick for this world to be restored. We’re homesick for the new creation. We don’t like this homesickness; it would be more comfortable for a camp counselor to come and distract us with a game or a new friend.
The Psalm instead reminds us that we were made for more than this. We were made for our true home in the presence of God. Our homesickness is born of hope, hope that our true home is real and that someday, our world will truly be home.