Monday, September 26, 2016

Psalm 137: We Hung Up Our Lyres

How can we sing the Lord's song in a strange land? That is the question the psalmist asks (or sings) in the lectionary psalm (Psalm 137) for Proper 22C/Ordinary 27C. The original setting was, of course, the exile in Babylon, which is mentioned in the psalm.

Israeli illustrator Ephraim Moshe Lilien (1874-1925) used this text several times in his career. One illustration, a print depicts a German Art Nouveau interpretation of a realistic setting by the rivers of Babylon. Figures sit dejectedly, their lyres lying silently in their hands or by their side. In the background are trees whose branches are "decorated" with hanging lyres.
Ephraim Moshe Lilien. On the Rivers of Babylon (Plate 43). Etching and aquatint. 1910. 
Lilien's second example also uses trees and lyres, though there are no visible figures. The psalm is the source for the book cover illustration of "Lieder des Ghetto" ("Songs of the Ghetto"), a collection of songs by Morris Rosenfeld, the so-called "Poet Laureate of Labor." Though the collection was originally published in 1898, Lilien's illustrations were part of the 1920 edition in which the Yiddish originals were translated into German.  

Ephraim Moshe Lilien. Cover illustration for "Lieder des Ghetto." 1920. Poems by Morris Rosenfeld; translated by Berthold Feiwel. Berlin: Marquardt u. Co.
On the cover of the book is the willow tree on which hangs a lyre. The lyre's strings are broken, rendering the instrument unplayable. The background has a light cityscape at the bottom of the cover and rounds of thorns or barbed wire at the bottom of the willow trunk.

Babylon is not the only "strange land" in which God's people have found themselves...and found themselves wondering how to sing the songs of Yahweh. Even today there are all too many situations when we wonder about singing God's song in the strange lands in which we find ourselves. Perhaps those are the times we most need to sing.

For thoughts on Lamentations 1:1-6, click here.

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