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Stop the Music? (Psalm 137:6)

Let my music honor God

Keys on a piano.

Music is a great gift from God that can touch our hearts and resonate in our souls.  But would I be better off mute than singing what dishonors God?


Let My Tongue Cling to the Roof of My Mouth


Psalm 137:6 says, “Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth, / if I do not remember you” (NRSV).


The setting is Babylon.  The Jewish exiles languish there, pining for their home in the land of Judah.  Their captors ask them to sing joyful songs from their homeland.  “How could we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land?” they ask (Psalm 137:4, NRSV).  (Catholics hear this psalm on the Fourth Sunday of Advent in Year B of the three-year cycle.  Denominations that follow the Revised Common Lectionary hear it in Year C in the week known as Proper 22, which comes in the Fall season.)


How, they wonder, can we sing our songs of worship for foreigners who don’t believe in our God, and want us to sing only so that they can mock us?  Our songs about our mighty God enthroned in Zion ring hollow after their armies have destroyed our Temple and sacked the holy city of Jerusalem.


And yet, how can we not sing?  Returning to the land of our God is always on our minds.  We must never forget that.


But then the psalmist goes into overdrive, saying, “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, / let my right hand wither!  / Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth, / if I do not remember you, / if I do not set Jerusalem / above my highest joy” (Psalm 137: 5-6, NRSV).


The psalmist seems to be incanting a conditional curse upon himself: If I forget where I came from, may terrible things happen to me.


This language has always troubled me.  I don’t believe in using my mouth to curse anyone, let alone myself.


The New American Bible’s phrasing – “May my tongue stick to my palate / if I do not remember you” (Psalm 137:6, NABRE) – is no more palatable.


It’s a Metaphor


You can’t sing or talk about anything if your tongue is stuck to the roof of your mouth.  Was the psalmist asking to be struck mute if he forgot Jerusalem?  Perhaps, but perhaps not literally.


The psalmist is writing poetry.


The New Oxford Annotated Bible: New Revised Standard Edition tells us in its footnotes for Psalm 137 that in Hebrew, the words “wither” and “forget” are homonyms – different words with the exact same spelling, like “right” (correct) and “right” (opposite of left), or “tear” (fabric) and “tear” (crying).  He is playing with words, not literally uttering an imprecation against himself.


As for the choice of the hand to wither and the tongue to cleave, The New Oxford Annotated Bible points out that the hand and the tongue are what the musician uses to make music.


He is saying: May the music stop if I forget where I come from.


Furthermore, his pining for Jerusalem is not just a yearning for a place.  He is yearning to return to the land God chose, to the home of the Temple, to the place where God’s people have always worshipped God.  His desire to remember Jerusalem is a desire to maintain his connection with God.


It is God he does not want to forget.


May My Music Always Honor God


So, the psalmist is saying: If I don’t use my musical talents to honor God, may I not play at all!  Let my music always be used to glorify God.


That I can understand.  I play the piano.  I play at church every Sunday.  I play at home.  When I am not at church, I play secular songs as well as faith-based songs.  I enjoy music about God, about relationships, about life.


But regardless of what music I am playing, I hope I never forget God.  I hope I will not play music that is an insult to God.  I hope that I will always use the musical abilities God has given me, to glorify him.


In that sense, I can say, figuratively but no less earnestly, “Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth if I try to sing or play music that would be incompatible with my faith in Jesus.”


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